Monday, September 2, 2013

Rotten Romance & Russian Roulette: Ilichevsky’s The Orphics

Every now and again I like to wait before I write about a book because I want to see if the book holds its power and keeps eating at me. In the case of Alexander Ilichevsky’s Орфики, (The Orphics), which I finished two months ago—I vividly remember reading tense Russian roulette scenes toward the end of the novel, as half my town was shooting off fireworks on the night of July 3—the answer is Yes. Sure, some of the details have faded but the jarring effects of the second half of the book feel almost as strong now as they did when the literal and literary fireworks were going off in mid-summer.

The Orphics begins with a dacha romance narrated by a hopeful young man, Petr, about to go to the United States to study in 1991… the romance, though, is doomed from the start. (In the back of my book, I scribbled “dacha romance turned rotten by the ‘90s and the ghost of Dostoevsky.”) I’ll admit the beginning of the book was a bit of a slog for me until I had a better feel for what Ilichevsky was doing. The romance felt groundless, unlikely—young Petr falls for a general’s daughter, Vera (Faith), who’s married to an officer—and there’s a lot of talk about politics and whither Russia. And I don’t often have much patience for seemingly ungrounded romances or fiction with long swathes of talk about politics.

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The back of Pashkov House
What makes all this work is that Ilichevsky sets The Orphics in a way-off-kilter world that plays on the way-off-kilter world of the real, true carnivalesque Moscow I knew in the early nineties. I think the element of extreme carnival is what I found so satisfyingly (dis)orienting about the book: I wouldn’t be too surprised, for example, if someone told me there really were Russian roulette sessions, with betting, going on in Pashkov House during the time I lived in Moscow. About the only other detail I should add to complete a basic plot summary is that our narrator plays Russian roulette to raise money for his beloved, so she can help her father after he’s accused of financial improprieties. The Orphics is, as you’ve probably already figured out, heavy on fate: there’s even a gun early on in the book, fitting since it drops strong hints about shooting and foregone conclusions.

What makes it even more absolutely clear the book shouldn’t be taken as straightforward realism is that it contains a strong mystical element—critic Nikolai Aleksandrov handily divides the book into three ingredients: ideological, mystical, and love story—that’s linked to a form of self-sacrifice that carries absurdly huge stakes. I don’t want to reveal more specifics about this piece of things because I think the mystical, occult aspect of The Orphics is the element of the book that’s most fun for the reader to tease out of Ilichevsky’s amalgam of melodrama and psychological thriller… all of which is augmented by a sleazy, noirish feeling that life is cheap. The combination worked beautifully for me—I also noted “not for the faint of heart” in the back of my book—though I have to admit the fireworks probably heightened the tension of the final Russian roulette scenes. I never knew when something would blow.

Part of what I’ve come to appreciate about Ilichevsky is his use of allusions, which saturate The Orphics, from the title to the stanzas from a poem by Alexander Blok that appear on the last page, with lots of Pashkov House (a meeting pace for Voland in Master and Margarita), plus references to Dostoevsky, Camus, bees of ancient myth, rebirth, Red Moscow perfume (again!), and lots more. Aleksandrov seems to feel put off that The Orphics feels artificial but I can’t imagine the book feeling otherwise: I can’t imagine much of anyone would or could believe what holds the world together in The Orphics if it were described in straight-up realistic fiction. (Not that I think it actually could be...) Besides, Ilichevsky’s able to place a wonderfully diabolical overlay onto the usual sociopolitical tragedies, comedies, and triumphs that came with the breakup of the Soviet Union. Another besides: what I love about fiction is that it can be easy to believe it without believing a thing.

Up Next: Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina, which I’m about to finish. (And about to translate some brief excerpts!)

Photo: Pashkov House, photo by Alvesgaspar, via Wikipedia/Creative Commons.


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