Sunday, November 30, 2014

Free(ing) Will in the Russian Far East: Remizov’s Ashes and Dust

In discussing Viktor Remizov’s Воля вольная—a novel that’s known by a completely different title, Ashes and Dust, in English—it’s probably best to start with the book’s tricky Russian title. The words, which transliterate as Volya vol’naya, refer, essentially, to the setting free of someone’s will to do something. The Russian title sums up the novel perfectly: Remizov writes about people and their will for freedom in the Russian Far East. In telling their stories, Remizov looks at problems that arise in an engrained system where poachers, everyday people, pay off officials for the dubious right to do illegal things.

Remizov writes about hunters, fishermen, cops, and Omonovtsy, officers in the Russian special forces, though I came away with an even better picture of the taiga’s snow, trees, and animals than its people. That’s not to say Remizov does a bad job describing his people—he handles a pretty large cast surprisingly well—it’s to say he does a beautiful job describing nature and the ways people inhabit it. It’s very difficult to believe Ashes and Dust is a debut novel; I’m glad the Big Book and Russia Booker award juries both named it a finalist. A bit more on that below.

Remizov’s novel is, of course, far, far more elegant than my description and part of my admiration for the book lies in the fact that Remizov has resurrected a genre that makes the book feel rather retro: the social novel. Remizov glides between intersecting subplots and creates a cast of characters that makes Ashes and Dust remind me, structurally, at any rate, more of Richard Price’s Clockers than of, say, Roman Senchin’s The Yeltyshevs, a book set far closer to the Russian Far East than Price’s New Jersey. Though Ashes and Dust, like The Yeltyshevs, is a work of realism that looks at difficult living situations, both physical (lack of indoor facilities) and psychological (lack of individual freedoms), Remizov casts a broader net (pun intended: there is fishing in the book) than Senchin by concentrating on a universal social problem—freedom, on many levels—and offering individuals from several parts of society rather than detailing the facts of the fate of one person or one family, as Senchin’s novel (and most naturalistic chernukha literature) does so successfully.

I had never thought much about the Russian sable...
There’s something almost relaxing about reading Ashes and Dust, despite some difficult vocabulary and the tensions of a community torn apart by bribery, hunters like Genka Milyutin following his forefathers’ instincts out in the taiga, personal issues for a not-so-bad cop and his girlfriend, or wealthy Muscovite Ilya’s one-on-one with a bear. I won’t say who wins. And then there are the special forces, who come in to restore order when emotions start to boil in the community because of the issue of paying tribute. Remizov includes lots of other details that give the book texture, like холодец (that jellied meat some of us dread so much), good cop/bad cop, class differences, the guitarist Balaban, vodka, playing Mozart in the wilderness, the obligatory Rambo reference, a feeling of love among friends, and lots of discussion of what’s wrong with Russia.

Almost nothing in Ashes and Dust is especially innovative but Remizov puts all his pieces together in a way that makes them feel oddly, even paradoxically, fresh. I’d love to say the freshness (or illusion of freshness?) comes from the distant setting and witnessing how characters handle the wilderness, something Remizov obviously knows well—I was probably predisposed to enjoy Ashes and Dust for the simple reason that I love snow and cold weather—but, again, I think it’s the social novel genre’s jumpiness that keeps the novel on pace despite all sorts of elements that can really slow down a book and put me on the brink of boredom: nature descriptions and discussion of the afore-mentioned Big Questions About Freedoms. Instead of boredom, I found myself slowing down toward the end of the book because I didn’t want it to end.

As for the awards, well, it makes me happy that the Big Book and Booker juries—and the thick journal Novyi mir, which published the novel before it was reprinted in book form, first by Grand Express in Khabarovsk, this fall by Elena Shubina’s imprint at AST—recognized Ashes and Dust. To be honest, I think I’m so used to postmodern novels these days that Ashes and Dust was a bit of a shock to the system. It’s hard to find good social novels (at least in my world) and, again, the word “retro” seems to apply: the book feels wonderfully and welcomingly old-fashioned despite lots of markers from contemporary life, like references to the Chechen War and the Moscow business world. In the end, as I type, I remember a thought that came when I began reading Ashes and Dust: Remizov is a very good storyteller, a quality that feels a little under-rated these days. Storytelling is, for me, the most important aspect of a good book, whether the writer tells a story using old-school or postmodern methods. Whatever they might be.

Disclaimers: The usual. Publisher Elena Shubina introduced me to Viktor Remizov at the Moscow International Book Fair; I was given a copy of his novel. For these and numerous other reasons, if I hadn’t liked this book, I probably would have feigned losing it or said our cat Ireland shredded it, something that, alas, really, truly could happen. Ireland especially loves the binding of Arkadii Dragomoshchenko’s Endarkment, a bilingual collection of poetry edited by Eugene Ostashevsky that Wesleyan University Press sent to me ages ago... and from which I’ve read and enjoyed bits and pieces... this seems to be the way I read poetry collections.

Up Next: Some other book? Perhaps Marina Stepnova’s Безбожный переулок (Italian Lessons)? Or Evgeny Vodolazkin’s Solovyov and Larionov? Or maybe even a trip report about the 1.5 days I’m about to spend in New York, thanks to Read Russia’s first-annual Russian Literature Week, a celebration of Russian literature and translation? I’m sure I’ll see some of you at events on Monday and Tuesday!

Image from Sewell Newhouse’s 1867 The Trapper’s Guide, via Wikipedia.

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