Friday, August 9, 2013

Buida’s Thief, Spy, and Murderer

Iurii Buida’s Вор, шпион и убийца (Thief, Spy, and Murderer) feels like multiple books, in multiple ways. The description the literary journal Znamya gave the book—автобиографическая фантазия, an autobiographical fantasy—sums up a lot: over all, Thief, Spy, and Murderer sure feels like an autobiography but some passages sure feel embellished. Thief, Spy, and Murderer read so much like a fiction-nonfiction hybrid to me that I can’t quite bring myself to refer to it as a novel, as Eksmo, its publisher, does. At least neither the journal nor the book publisher labelled it a “documentary novel,” a term I’ve always found annoyingly opaque.

At least the basics are fairly easy to list. Thief, Spy, and Murder is a first-person narrative told by a male who is identified (all of once) as Buida: he’s a boy when the book begins, an adult writer when it ends. I don’t seem to remember Buida having a first name, and a search of the online version (I read the book on paper) turned up no “юр” for Юрий, Iurii, though I admit I’m extraordinarily adept at forgetting character names. Details may vary significantly but much of what happens to meta-Buida (as I’ll call the Buida in the book) echoes circumstances and events in the life of the writer named Iurii Buida, including being from the Kaliningrad area, practicing journalism, and becoming a writer.
I’m not much interested in which bits of Thief, Spy, and Murderer are autobiographical and which are invented, though: as usual, I’m just looking for a book that has a functional internal logic, is written with some semblance of style, and offers enough “new information” (to borrow a term from a bass player I once knew) to keep me interested. No, I’m not sure what most of that means, in empirical and definable terms. In practical terms, though, I can say that Thief, Spy, and Murderer was a mixed reading experience, probably because of what I perceive as its mixed genre: the first half, which read more like fiction, made for easy, fairly interesting reading during a lazy, hot, and extra-long Fourth of July weekend, though the second half, which read more like autobiography, was less interesting, reading rather like a rushed summary of meta-Buida’s adult life and career. I’ll focus on the first half, which I thought was far stronger.

Thief, Spy, and Murderer begins with meta-Buida’s family getting up in the morning and preparing to go out for a Revolution Day demonstration. The narrator first describes the order in which the family uses the slop pail, then shows us his mother in curlers and his father shaving and putting on his medals. We’re in the post-War years. As neighbors begin to appear, so do stories, like the woman whose daughters came “from the elder bushes” that grow in the ruins of buildings. And then banners and a smell (Red Moscow perfume makes yet another literary appearance) and toasts... There’s an earthiness, a bit of an edge, and a real sense of seaminess.

There are lots of other promising bits in the beginning of the book: railroad tracks that raised my expectations for a Don Domino-esque book, some sordid and lonely crime, and the narrator’s father preventing a group of men from hurting a gypsy child. I think my favorite passage involved a trip to the paper mill where meta-Buida’s father works: they look inside a train car loaded with books by Stalin, all waiting to be pulped. There are sixteen tons of Stalin in each car; hundreds of cars are lined up, if only in the distance. The father gives permission to begin work on the books, allowing them to be unloaded, pitchforked into the pulper, and then piped to a cardboard-making machine. Yikes. Vodka is consumed. Then a bit later: “Когда зачистили четвертый вагон, отец взял меня за руку, и мы пошли домой.” (“After they’d cleared out the fourth car, my father took me by the hand and we went home.”)

On the next page, meta-Buida says his first experience with the writings of Solzhenitsyn is through One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which fails to make much of an impression because “Когда я его читал, мне все-все казалось знакомым—не в деталях, конечно, а сама атмосфера, воздух.” (“Everything, everything, felt familiar to me when I read it: not the details, of course, but the very atmosphere, the air.”) It’s the life and the worst aspects of everydayness that feel familiar to him—and scarier than the statistics of the Gulag—and it is all steeped in Stalin.

That mention of Solzhenitsyn is key to the book, I think because, for my taste, anyway, Buida is at his best in Thief, Spy, and Murderer when he addresses those everyday horrors: the book feels most elemental and smartest then, too, particularly because many of these scenes have the surreal or mythical touches I enjoyed so much in Don Domino and Blue Blood. As for the second half. I didn’t consider abandoning the book but, with its descriptions of early writing, marriage, a journalism career, and then becoming a Communist Party worker, this chunk of the book felt more like it could be, well, safe, straightforward autobiography. Of course this stage of life is different but I missed the energy and vivid imagination that Buida drew on in the first half of the book. (Again, I don’t know what’s “true” and what’s not.) In summary: Despite enjoying much of Thief, Spy, and Murderer, I was disappointed that the book doesn’t feel quite as seamless as it might have.

I should mention that Thief, Spy, and Murderer is a finalist for the 2013 Big Book Award. And that all the finalists for the Big Book are online, free for the reading on BookMate, here. The current reader leaders for Facebook “likes” are, as of August 9: Maya Kucherskaya’s Auntie Motya/Minna, Sergei Belyakov’s Gumilev, Son of Gumilev, and Maxim Kantor’s Red Light/World (it may all be red but I haven’t yet decided). I’m reading Kantor’s book now—and though I’m enjoying it, often very much, it’s big enough and bumpy enough that I may be reading it until the award is made in November—and intend to give Belyakov’s book a try soon, too. Alas, I couldn’t quite get into Kucherskaya’s.

Disclaimers: The usual.

Up Next: Alexander Ilichevsky’s The Orphics, which still gives me shivers more than a month later and not just because of the Red Moscow perfume... and, one of these days, Kantor.


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