Sunday, October 13, 2013

About a Boy: Zaionchkovskii’s Petrovich

Oleg Zaionchkovskii’s Петрович (Petrovich) is one of those rare contemporary novels that feels almost too close to perfect, a book—like Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina, which I swear I’ll be writing about next very soon—that, to build on how a friend described Masha Regina, reads well, reads well, reads well, feels like it might fade (i.e. get boring), then catches itself, and starts reading well again. I’m not sure why that feels so nearly perfect to me, though I suspect what I enjoy so much is the writers’ ability to convey ordinariness in a way that feels ordinary but yet somehow, magically, ends up feeling absolutely unordinary, beautiful, and (very often) heartbreaking. Both Petrovich and Masha Regina look far simpler than they are and both use stylistics and structures that fit beautifully with stories about people who come of age during the Soviet breakup: both books also focus on title characters’ lives in ways that reflect social and family difficulties rather than obsessing on the Big Picture, though both authors also present their characters as individuals emblematic of their times and contexts.

The title character in Petrovich starts out as a kindergartener—a stubborn and unhappy kindergartener—who feels, to paraphrase a bit, like a loner in a herd of cheerful idiots (“чужим в стаде этих жизнерадостных идоитов). The day described in the first chapter-story of Petrovich is not a good one for Petrovich: he ends up having a childish accident and needing to have his mother, whom he calls by her first name, Katya, help him wash off in the Volga on his way home. Petrovich has trouble playing with others all through the book. He gets into a fight after a boys’ room conflict because another boy speaks disrespectfully about a neighbor girl Petrovich has had a crush on for years; there are more difficulties when he’s a young adult living in Moscow.

Zaionchkosvkii structures Petrovich as what I’ve come to think of as an episodic novel and he increases the length of the chapters-episodes-stories as Petrovich gets older. Time sometimes advances quickly: it seems like Petrovich takes up smoking and spitting pretty suddenly. Then again, the use of a patronymic on its own as direct address is unusual for a child, and Petrovich is known as just Petrovich. (That said, I know a baby whose family has been referring to him as Petrovich since he was in utero…) The name feels especially fitting in the book because Zaionchkovskii’s Petrovich is both a very concrete character and a very symbolic character, named for someone (his father, of course) from the generation that came before him (of course!), starting his life in the novel with a mention of the Soviet anthem playing on the built-in radio in the morning… and ending with the same anthem, albeit in a different era and with a much different sleeping arrangement. The name Petrovich also feels fitting because it’s come to feel (and here I’ll probably get myself into big trouble) like a name for a certain down-to-earth Russian everyman.

Zaionchkovsky’s Petrovich is, in many ways, a Soviet everyboy growing into a Soviet-born everyman. Despite having a family that loves him and lets him wander quite a bit, there are themes of abandonment, orphandom (through his grandfather), and of course, broken families because Petya, the source of Petrovich’s patronymic, disappears. Times change and Petrovich enters adulthood, at least physically, but the anthem remains the same and Petrovich remains a touchy guy, particularly in group situations, where he still seems to feel like that loner in a herd of cheerful idiots.

КрАЗ-256БPetrovich’s happiest times seem to come in one-on-one situations: when his grandfather shows him old photos, when a friend of the family takes him on an overnight fishing trip that includes a scary storm, and when he rides around in a dump truck. Petrovich and I both particularly enjoyed the day in the dump truck. The truck driver sees Petrovich hanging around a construction site, offers him a ride, and even treats him to a cafeteria lunch of borsch, kotlety, and macaroni with sauce. Here’s a (purposely literal) translation of how Petrovich feels with a warm breeze in his hair:

Он испытывал в эти минуты необыкновенный подъем чувств, а попросту говоря, был счастлив, насколько может быть счастлив человек.

In those moments he experienced an uncommon burst of feelings and, put bluntly, was happy, as happy as a person could be.

I’m happy, too. Happy so many people recommended Zaionchkovskii to me over the years, happy I finally found Petrovich in book form in Moscow last year, and happy Zaionchkovskii assembled such a nice balance of characters and observation.

Up Next: Levental’s Masha Regina and a translator conference trip report…

Image credit: Andrew Butko, via Creative Commons, Wikipedia


  1. Your enthusiasm is exciting. I really loved his Happiness is Possible, and I hope that someone will hurry up and publish Petrovich in English translation!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Ani! I hope so, too: I liked Happiness Is Possible but I think Petrovich is better. I'm not quite sure how to describe "better" other than to say I think it's better structured and more insightful. Then again, that may be partly because this is my second Zaionchkovskii book!

  2. This book sounds great, but I can't find it on any website to order (in print). Do you know of an online bookseller where I can get it? Thanks!

    1. The only online bookseller I know of that has Petrovich is, which does now offer international delivery. I haven't tested that out, though! Good luck!