Sunday, March 31, 2013

Fear of Flying: Savelyev’s Tereshkova Flies to Mars

Igor Savelyev’s short novel Терешкова летит на Марс (Mission to Mars in Amanda Love Darragh’s upcoming translation from Glas) takes a dim view of the generation that was in its early twenties during the final moments of December 31, 2006, when Mission to Mars opens. The first sentence in the book is “Путин замолчал.”—“Putin fell silent.” Now that Putin has finished his New Year’s Eve address, there are shots of the Kremlin, then the Russian anthem plays and “2007” flashes on the TV screen.

Mission to Mars focuses on Pasha, an unfocused, unmotivated guy whose very focused, very motivated girlfriend, Natasha, has just moved from provincial Russia to Pittsburgh. Pasha’s the guy who chose the vaguely named “social-humanitarian” department of the pedagogical institute for his higher education: the department is best known for a deficit of males and low admission standards. Pasha’s two best friends are a guy from another city who moved away from some juvenile crime problems and an aspiring writer.

Pasha manages to find himself a job at the airline ARTavia, where Max, a distant relative, works. The airline focuses on вип-клиенты, VIP clients, flying them to Moscow (and only Moscow!) on planes that are all business class. The best part of ARTavia, however, is that it promises no crashes: Max says their liners just can’t, won’t, wouldn’t crash. Ever. ARTavia even holds regular meetings with clients to pound that into their heads like a mantra. Almost literally: it’s interesting to see how Savelyev portrays corporate promises and loyal clients almost like a cult. Pasha, however, learns certain truths about ARTavia and, with a little help from his afore-mentioned friends—and Olga, a young woman whose wealthy parents signed her up for ARTavia—reveals it to the public.

Their handiwork is, as might be expected, not very handy. And things end up badly, very, very badly, between Pasha and Olga, whose company Pasha had been enjoying in Natasha’s absence. It’s not enough to call Pasha’s behavior loutish and disappointing: his absolute lack of feeling and mercy made his rating dive from relatively harmless directionlessness and dumbheadery to real, multileveled cruelty. (I don’t want to say too much, particularly because the book is coming out in translation.)

File:RIAN archive 612748 Valentina Tereshkova.jpg
Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova
Savelyev consistently portrays Pasha as someone who respects people who are goal-oriented—e.g. Natasha, who’s primarily a distant presence—but Pasha just is what he is, writes Savelyev, complete with failures, ups, and downs. It doesn’t make for a very hopeful picture. It’s telling that the figure in the book with the biggest goals isn’t a fictional character: she’s cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova who, despite being 70 years old, says she’d like to fly to Mars. Tereshkova, by the way, really did say that in an interview with a reporter, even answering a question about UFOs by saying she hasn’t seen any but might if she were to fly to Mars.

Mission to Mars reads fairly easily and Savelyev does a nice job placing his characters within a social, personal, and mental stagnation that feels constructed specially for an aimless, hopeless character like Pasha. And his friends. Details like an escalator lady in Moscow and a reference to Twin Peaks add another layer to Pasha’s reality and unreality. The novel is funny at times but it’s also very bleak, so I felt myself wincing more than once at quietly sad details of lives and life… and the feeling of being trapped, something Savelyev describes with substantial success.

Up Next: Evgenii Vodolazkin’s Laurus, which I’m still enjoying.

Disclaimers: I’ve met, briefly, Igor Savelyev several times at book fairs and events and am working on translations for publisher Glas.

Photo of Valentina Tereshkova in 1969, from RIA Novosti, Creative Commons.


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