Sunday, January 31, 2016

NOS(E) Winners for 2015/2016

The NOS(E) Award announced winners last week: the jury prize went to Danila Zaitsev’s Повесть и житие Данилы Терентьевича Зайцева (The Life and Tale of Danila Terentyevich Zaitsev), which I described like this in previous posts: “In which a Russian Old Believer born in China and living in Argentina tells his story. A Yasnaya Polyana Award finalist and Booker longlister.” The text of the first two (of seven) handwritten notebooks that make up the book—it’s 712 pages (long) in the printed version—is available on Журнальный зал: part 1 and part 2. Based on what I’ve heard and read about the book, the language may be the most interesting part: the manuscript was prepared for publication by Olga Rovnova, a linguist who researches the language of Old Believers in South America.

This year’s readers’ choice award went to Ekaterina Margolis for Следы на воде (perhaps Ripples in the Water? or maybe the wake behind a boat or, say, a gondola?). In an earlier post, I called it “an autobiographical book with Venice. And Moscow. And the ‘river of human lives,’ as the book’s description says. (excerpt).” Perhaps most interesting about this win is that Margolis’s book was on the NOS(E) longlist but didn’t make the shortlist. Hmm.

Up Next: Alisa Ganieva’s Bride and Groom.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Abracadabra, Anyone?: Nosov’s Curly Brackets

I guess the best brief summary of my feelings about Sergei Nosov’s Фигурные скобки (Curly Brackets) would be something like “an enjoyable disappointment.” Enjoyable because I enjoy Nosov’s humor and am a sucker for some good existential, metaphysical comedy set at a conference in wintry St. Petersburg. But a disappointment because Curly Brackets felt a little flawed, structurally speaking. I don’t begrudge Nosov the National Bestseller prize he received last year: as I mentioned back when the NatsBest was awarded, he’s been a finalist for several prizes over the years, so the NatsBest feels more like an award for a successful decade than recognition for just one book.

And so. Curly Brackets concerns a mathematician, Kapitonov, who travels to St. Petersburg for a magician conference. These aren’t just any magicians, though, they’re micromagicians, people who do close-up magic (there’s a bit in English on Wikipedia) rather than events on large stages. Beyond that, our Kapitonov is mentalist, someone who figures out (literally) what two-digit numeral a person is thinking of. The conference attracts quite a group of characters, including The Architect of Events, The Devourer of Time, and Mister Necromancer. Nosov certainly did this reader a favor by making sure Kapitonov was as clueless about his colleagues as I: that gave Nosov a nice chance to explain micromagic in ways that feel organic to the book’s plot.

And then there’s the conference swag, which includes a little suitcase with a magic wand—the wand’s even labeled, probably because it’s just a run-of-the-mill chopstick, which makes it doubly magical, I suppose—and a copy of a book that surely must be Тайная жизнь петербургских памятников (The Secret Lives of Petersburg Monuments). None other than Sergei Nosov wrote a book with that title; Nosov loves slipping something meta into his novels. Beyond that, there are conference details, formal meetings and sessions, awkward conversations among people who don’t know each other, and Vodoemov, the somewhat mysterious and nefarious organizer who invited Kapitonov and tries to push him into a leadership position. What makes this conference unlike most others—beyond micromagicians showing off—is that there’s also a death that involves mentalism. Can comments from a necromancer be far behind?!

What didn’t work for me in Curly Brackets (and, yes, I’m oversimplifying here) is the chunk of the book from which the title is taken: while in Petersburg, Kapitonov visits with a friend, who gives him her deceased husband’s journal to read. He claims to have been taken over by an outside force and made into someone other than himself. He’s found a peculiar loophole, though: whatever he writes in triple curly brackets remains secret from that force. The journal has some moderately interesting moments—and feels like it had potential to become its own book—but, within the context of Curly Brackets, the novel, I found it utterly and immediately forgettable. I wanted to get back to the conference, its quirky little details, and its characters, all of which felt far more intriguing and more entertaining, thanks to Nosov’s ability to create a form of absurdity that’s simultaneously believable and fantastical, funny and tragic, and, somehow, very Petersburg, too. I suppose those contradictions that aren’t contradictions make my “enjoyable disappointment” feel all the more fitting.

Up Next: NOS(E) Award winners. Alisa Ganieva’s Bride and Groom, which is already making me hungry to search up recipes for traditional Dagestani foods…

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Reading Sails on with Buida’s Ceylon

I might not call Yuri Buida’s Цейлон (Ceylon) the author’s headiest or most metaphysical novel—I definitely prefer both his Blue Blood and Zero Train—but Ceylon, like Poison and Honey, his previous book, is thoroughly readable and enjoyable. Lots of Ceylon felt familiar after reading several other Buida novels: part of my enjoyment, I suspect, came from just that because I love observing how authors reuse structures and tropes in various books. That familiarity may also help explain why I think Ceylon feels more accessible and mainstream (these aren’t bad words!) to me than, say, his Blue Blood or Zero Train, though I suspect—it’s been too long since I read those books to feel safe saying “I think”—Ceylon is less densely packed than those books, making it easier to read.

As with Blue Blood and Poison and Honey, a family home feels like a key character in Ceylon: in this case, as in Poison, there’s a house on a hill. The area it’s in is known as “Ceylon,” which reminds of how a building in Blue Blood is known as “Africa.” Both those names are introduced early in their respective novels, leading to questions about the origins of the building names. In the case of Ceylon, named thusly by a traveler in the eighteenth century enamored of the island, there were early attempts to dress up dogs as tigers, boys as monkeys, and wooden structures as palm trees. Not quite a tropical paradise but an attempt at paradise nevertheless and (long story short, since of course there’s much more to things) the place, though not the original house, which burned, is now home to the Cherepin family, five generations of which are described in varying levels of detail in the book by Andrei Ilyich Cherepin, a first-person narrator who’s genial and, though heavily involved in events, feels surprisingly reliable.

As one might guess, the words “magical realism” are often used in conjunction with the name “Yuri Buida” and elements like the odd family house and a character named Stoletov (hmm, sto=hundred and let=years) flashed little “subtext?!” lights even for me, one of those rare literary losers who couldn’t quite bring herself to finish One Hundred Years of Solitude. (Aside: I don’t know why. All I can say is that I approached it with dread. But will try again. Some year.) Ceylon, though, feels almost more like some form of “absurd realism” or at least “quirky realism” to me, what with brothers on opposite sides at revolution time—this, by the way, feels like another case of attempts at paradise, of which there are many in Ceylon and Ceylon, including through marriage—and a taxidermied bear and unlikely loves and a woman dancing the lambada at the grave of her son, who died in Chechnya. There’s lots of everyday oddity. And I nearly forgot the big elm tree growing through the house. A sort of family tree.

There’s a lot of history, too: Andrei’s first job is at a dig, where he charms all the young women, he goes on to be a teacher, work at the local museum, and write his dissertation about local history that includes his family. Digs and cultural layers come up a lot in contemporary Russian fiction and Buida piles together Russian history, local history, and family history for the reader to dig through, working in the two brothers’ conflicts about the revolution—I mention this again because I thought it’s one of the strongest and best-integrated subplots in the book, with its combination of “big” history and family history—the military-industrial complex, whose secrets another family member keeps; the crime-ridden banditry of the nineties; the wars in Chechnya; and even the conflict in Ukraine. Some of these chunks of history are more successful than others, I think: as often happens in fiction, particularly family sagas that draw on and reflect a country’s history, more distant events usually feel better contextualized and grounded than those more recent.

In the end, though, the town cemetery, known as Red Mountain, felt almost more significant to me than Ceylon, both because Andrei speaks, early on, of his youthful hope for immortality and because his grandfather has taken on a gigantic cemetery renovation project (financed in a way that doesn’t sound perfectly legal) that dovetails nicely with Andrei’s thoughts about the afterlife at the end of the book, when he’s the father of three (almost four) children and has described rather dramatic losses of family members. There’s a lot of mortality in Ceylon but also lots of birth.

I’d have to make a long, Buidaesque list to cover all the other important elements of the book that I haven’t mentioned here: I’d certainly include characters, romances, and family rivalries. I’ll skip the list, though, and say that Ceylon may be a little lumpy in its treatment of various generations, and their characters and situations don’t feel as evenly developed as they might, but, to repeat, I enjoyed the book, and I think one reason is because I thoroughly appreciate Buida’s ability to incorporate discussion of history into dialogue without getting bogged down. There are conversations about how Russians carry on when the world’s falling apart, about justifying Stalinism, about crazy “what ifs” when people have wild ideas, and plenty more. And damn if it doesn’t feel pretty balanced and disciplined—by which I mean contextualized, natural (!), and brief—without giving short shrift to the big questions at hand, many of which are already pretty familiar even to me, a non-Russian reader.

Up next: I still have Sergei Nosov’s Curly Brackets waiting to be written about. And then there will be whatever I start tonight… most likely Alisa Ganieva’s Bride and Groom, though the groom comes first in the Russian title.

Disclaimers and disclosures: The usual. I received an electronic copy of Ceylon from Elkost, Buida’s literary agency, for which I say thank you. But I bought a printed copy to read after reading the very beginning of the electronic file.