Sunday, July 31, 2016

Farewell to Fazil’ Iskander

I was very sad to see the news that Fazil’ Iskander died last night; he was 87.

Though I only began reading Iskander in 2011, when I read some of his stories about an Abkhazian boy named Chik, I listed Iskander in my 2011 year-end post as my “favorite discovery.” I noted that the little I’d read “[was] enough to give me a new favorite writer whose stories I want to ration and read over time.” I have done just that, reading several more of his stories, some about Chik, some not, in the past five years. Iskander’s combination of humor and a keen sense of humanity—which feels particularly strong to me in his characterization of what it means to be a child—won me over very quickly. For more on the Chik stories: I featured Iskander in my “Favorite Russian Writers A to Я” series.

In 2011, Iskander won a special Big Book award as well as the “Contemporary Classic” prize from the Yasnaya Polyana Awards. Iskander’s books have been translated into numerous languages: according to, a number of his books have been translated into English, including Chik and His Friends, translated by J.S. Butler for Raduga in 1985.

 Up next: Alexander Snegirev’s Vera and Maria Galina’s ever-mysterious Autochthons, both of which force me to look at my own reading habits and book preferences from new angles, and Ludmila Ulitskaya’s Jacob’s Ladder, a family saga that reads along easily.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Big Book Two: Vodolazkin’s Soaring Aviator

Eugene Vodolazkin’s Авиатор (The Aviator) is the first of this year’s Big Book finalists that I read: though I’d sworn I’d wait to read The Aviator when I could get it in print, I happily accepted the final text of the book from Vodolazkin and read a short passage on my reader each evening. It made for particularly nice spring reading. Though I always prefer print reading over electronic, I have to admit that limiting myself to short sections (to avoid the eye and attention strain I seem to get when reading electronically) was a good way to both extend my enjoyment of the novel and to consider, over time, the ways Vodolazkin develops his story and main character, Innokentii Platonov. I’m sure I would have loved a good binge-read, too, but it wouldn’t have done justice to this meditative (I think that’s the word I’m looking for) novel.

I’m afraid this post won’t do the novel much justice, either. That’s not just because I loved The Aviator so much in ways that I can’t explain, other than by saying that some books just seem to go right to the head and/or the heart, a phenomenon I think most of you understand. Nor do I want to gush. Beyond all that, I’m going very light on details in this post because one of the reasons I enjoyed The Aviator so much is that Vodolazkin didn’t tell me much at all about the novel: I began reading with only one bit of background (which spoiled nothing whatsoever but that I won’t mention because I don’t have context) and I had no expectations whatsoever about plot, character, or anything else. If I’d known more, I wouldn’t have gasped, audibly, when I found out what caused Platonov’s rather unique condition.

On an analytical, big-picture level, I was pleased to see how nicely The Aviator dovetails with Vodolazkin’s Laurus (previous post) and Solovyov and Larionov (brief summary on a previous post), both of which I’ve already translated. What I’d previously called a diptych now feels like a solid triptych. Each book examines—from very different angles—history, events, and time, which has a tendency to spiral in Vodolazkin’s novels. Since I’m translating The Aviator now, it’s easy to remember what details come very early in the book so I don’t spoil anything. Or at least very much. And so, a few things…

The Aviator is written in journal form, beginning with an undated entry by a man who’s quickly identified as Innokentii Petrovich Platonov. He appears to be a hospital patient with amnesia. His doctor, a man named Geiger (whose nose hairs Platonov sees on the third page), suggests the journal as a method for resurrecting his memory. As the days pass, Platonov begins remembering bits of his past and his personal story: he’s fairly quick to remember he’s the same age as his century, which can quickly be identified as the twentieth. And his location quickly sets the book in St. Petersburg, something that feels wholly organic. That’s not just because of mentions of landmarks or of street names that evoke the past, but because there’s a whiff of that old Gogolian feeling (since Gogol’s not mentioned in the novel, perhaps this is ingrained in my thinking? or even somehow idiopathic?) that unusual things can and most likely will happen there. The novel also incorporates Petersburg poet Alexander Blok’s “The Aviator” (here in Russian and here in English).

Vodolazkin works in elements from many genres, including love story and murder mystery, touches of science fiction and history, as well as coming of age, plus the bonus of references to Robinson Crusoe, which I realized I’ve somehow never read (!). There’s a little bit of everything, but all that everything flows together (everything matters here) very, very smoothly, gathering speed as time, history, events, and people, too, in their way, spiral. Of course there’s humor (I can’t imagine Vodolazkin writing without humor) and an almost improbably suspenseful ending. Most of all, though, from the perspective of a translator spiraling through a first draft of The Aviator—each draft and (re)reading of a book and its translation has the feel of spiraling history for me, too—I’m enjoying the book as a portrait of how a person grows and develops, more than once.

Though I have dozens and dozens of electronic notations on my PDF that mark time stamps, telling dreams, bits of history, and curious details about Platonov’s neighbors, not to mention incidences of flying, I’m keeping those to myself, with the hope that you’ll read the book, too, either now in Russian or later, when translations begin coming out. That said, if you’d like more details about The Aviator, visit the Banke, Goumen & Smirnova Literary Agency’s page about the novel here; the book’s cover art, by Mikhail Shemyakin, also offers insight into what happens in the book.

Up next: Alexander Snegirev’s Vera and Maria Galina’s ever-mysterious Autochthons, both of which force me to look at my own reading habits and book preferences from new angles, and Ludmila Ulitskaya’s Jacob’s Ladder, a family saga that reads along easily.

Disclaimers: The usual. I am translating The Aviator for Oneworld Publications.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The 2016 Russian Booker Longlist

The Russian Booker Prize announced its 2016 longlist last Wednesday: the list contains 24 books chosen from 71 eligible nominations. Finalists will be announced on October 5 and winners—one laureate plus one English-language publication grant—will be announced on December 1.

Here are a few of the books on the list. Six titles are familiar from the Big Book shortlist and I’ve read books by other writers on the list, but I’m also very happy to see quite a few author names I’d never heard before.

First off, the books that are already on the Big Book shortlist (because it’s just so easy to cut and paste on a hot, stuffy summer night):

  • Pyotr Aleshkovsky’s Крепость (The Citadel), which I bought after reading the beginning of the PDF that Aleshkovsky’s literary agency sent me: archaeology and medieval constructions caught me.
  • Evgeny (Eugene) Vodolazkin’s Авиатор (The Aviator), which I read earlier this year and loved for its blend of genres, epochs, and themes, some familiar from Laurus and Solovyov and Larionov. I’m translating this book and enjoying it all over again as I see, up-close, how the book works.
  • Sergei Soloukh’s Рассказы о животных (Stories About Animals) is, contrary to the title, a novel about human beings, concerning a former academic who’s now working in a business. (brief interview + excerpt)
  • Ludmila Ulitskaya’s Лестница Якова (Jacob’s Ladder) is a family saga set during 1911-2011. I’m in the middle of Jacob’s Ladder and finding it pleasant reading, particularly the story thread that begins in the more distant past.
  • Sasha Filipenko’s Травля (Persecution, perhaps?) sounds fairly indescribable: I find mentions of youth, irony, cynicism, and this time we live in.
  • Leonid Yuzefovich’s Зимняя дорога, (The Winter Road) is described as a “documentary novel”: the cover sums up the details with “General A.N. Pepeliaev and anarchist I.Ia. Strod in Yakutia. 1922-1923.” I’ve been reading small chunks of The Winter Road each night and thoroughly enjoying Yuzefovich’s absorbing, masterful characterizations of people and a time. He works wonders with archival material.

A few others, some by authors I’m not at all familiar with, so was curious about:
  • Anatolii Korolev’s Дом близнецов (The House of Twins would be the literal version, hmm) sounds like it’s an intellectual thriller/detective novel about positivism (as a Gemini, I’d been hoping for zodiac madness, but alas!); Korolev has referred to it as a treatise (тракат).
  • Anna Berdichevskaya’s Крук (Kruk, which looks to be a shortened version of Круглосуточный клуб, or round-the-clock club; the title also sounds like the word круг, which means circle, among other things, and is part of the “round-the-clock” word) is described as a historical novel about a very recent time; six people (five young, one elderly) meet.
  • Oleg Nesterov’s Небесный Стокгольм (excerpt) (excerpt) (Heavenly Stockholm, perhaps) is set in the early 1960s and, how ‘bout that, written by the leader of Megapolis, a fairly well-known (rock) band. (The Megapolis YouTube channel… “Эхо” sure hit my mood on a summer night… maybe for the Hawaii sound with the piano and water…)
  • Sergei Kuznetsov’s Калейдоскоп (excerpt) (Kaleidoscope) involves dozens of characters and their stories, set in the twentieth century; one of my Goodreads friends noted sex and vampires. This one still sounds interesting.
  • Sukhbat Aflatuni’s Поклонение волхвов (Adoration of the Magi) sounds like it captures a lot, from the familiar biblical story in the title to a family story that begins in the middle of the nineteenth century and concludes in the present, with plot lines that involve a secret society, exile, and a romance with the tsar. Aflatuni’s name keeps popping up on award lists.

Disclaimers. The usual.

Up next. Eugene Vodolazkin’s The Aviator, which, yes, I’m still mulling over, trying to figure out how to write about the book without giving away the whole story; Alexander Snegirev’s Vera, which I am now officially calling Faith; Maria Galina’s ever-mysterious Autochthons; and Ludmila Ulitskaya’s Jacob’s Ladder, a family saga that reads along easily. The Vodolazkin, Galina, and Ulitskaya books are Big Book finalists.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Big Book One: Stormy Weather in Ivanov’s Nenast’e

The most difficult thing to explain about Aleksei Ivanov’s 630-page Ненастье (Nenast’e) may very well be the book’s title: Nenast’e is the name of a small town as well as a word for nasty weather, and Ivanov carries metaphorical nasty weather into his characters’ inner workings, too. I realize I’m obsessed with winter, but—whether we’re talking about weather or human interactions—Nenast’e left a distinct impression of something cold and slushy, despite some key summer scenes.

The basic plot of Nenast’e is pretty easy to outline: Soviet-Afghan War veteran German Nevolin, who’s driving an armored car, steals sacks of cash, hides the loot at his girlfriend’s father’s (former) dacha in Nenast’e, and hides himself, too. Ivanov alternates this plot layer, which begins on November 14, 2008, with flashbacks to Nevolin’s military service in Afghanistan, where he becomes buddies with one Sergei Likholetov; and to Afghan War veterans’ rather spurious activity, initially under Likholetov’s rather spurious leadership, in the city of Batuev. By beginning Nenast’e with Nevolin’s heist, Ivanov sets up the book as a whyhedunnit psychological novel, depicting Nevolin as a “still waters run deep” (sorry for the mashed-up metaphors here!) sort of guy: a quiet follower of orders who commits his transgression out of love. Nenast’e feels like the post-Soviet social novel to end all post-Soviet social novels but it’s also an action novel (these guys never really come out of military mode) and, at its very core, a low-key love story.

Ivanov’s depiction of Russia in the 1990s is clear and almost too obvious for fiction, but his approach works well in Nenast’e because he piles his characters’ actions and motivations on the framework of dozens of signs of the time, like the GKChP of August 1991, the October Events of 1993, mentions of vouchers and new supermarkets, as well as references to popular songs, like this classic, Natalia Vetlitskaya’s “Посмотри в глаза,” “Look Me in the Eye,” which I remember from the early nineties. Ivanov’s characters are motivated by several things: money is key but a Golden Rule sort of ethos, that Afghan War veterans must help one another, is even more important, particularly since it’s paired with a strong sense of entitlement, resulting in “Afghantsy,” as veterans are known, feeling they should and can take what’s owed to them because they’ve been wronged.

Nenast’e’s characters are generally unsympathetic and unpleasant, and they serve up an interesting combination of passiveness—German’s surname, Nevolin, even indicates a lack of will, which is fitting because he’s much more an observer than a warrior and it seems nobody expected him to steal the cash—and aggressiveness that create serious violent clashes in Batuev, where they battle things out with anyone they see as competition for turf, whether that turf is living space or commercial opportunity. These characters’ intellectual growth is stunted so there’s a lot of crudeness and corruption on all levels in Nenast’e, from individual mindsets warped by war and a country adrift, to cronyism in local officialdom. It makes for very sad reading. The female characters’ lives are at least as sad as the males’: Nevolin’s girlfriend, Tanya, was Likholetov’s girlfriend at a very tender young age and she’s bullied by her beauty shop co-workers; and Nevolin’s (ex-)wife, Marina, is brassy and mean. Tanya, by the way, was conceived in the first place so her parents would have better living space.

I found in Nenast’e a strange suspense that reminded me most of Roman Senchin’s The Yeltyshevs, (previous post) which I loved so much back in 2010. Ivanov’s realism feels at least as dark and hopeless to me as Senchin’s because (oversimplifying here so I can fit the blog medium!) a toxic combination of social changes and the lack of the will and/or ability to think and reason have degraded most of both authors’ characters—even when they’ve become successful biznesmeny in Nenast’e—to either raw, coarse impulses that seem to exist only to gain power even if they have to kill for it, or to huddling shadows of human beings. There’s not much hope for the future in either book.

Some sections of Nenast’e, particularly battle descriptions, ran a little long for me and I did miss the sense of humor that made Ivanov’s Geographer (previous post) easier to warm up to as a piece of fiction. Despite those factors and the obviousness I mentioned earlier, Nenast’e held my attention for more than 600 pages (with no skimming) because of the train wreck that Ivanov creates: watching Nevolin, Likholetov, and their comrades battle it out in Afghanistan and Batuev sure doesn’t make for comfy reading and there’s not much literary beauty here, either, but Ivanov’s huge cast of characters and intricate story, which I’ve barely touched on, for the sake of relative brevity, made for a compelling, absorbing, and painful account of something that went horribly wrong. It suspect it felt particularly vivid to me because I lived in Russia during the 1990s and remember the era’s violence all too well.

Disclaimers: None, really, other than that this book is a finalist for the Big Book Award, for which I serve on the jury, the Literary Academy.

Up Next: Eugene Vodolazkin’s The Aviator, which I’m still mulling over, trying to figure out how to write about the book without giving away the whole story; Alexander Snegirev’s Vera, which I am now officially calling Faith; Maria Galina’s ever-mysterious Autochthons; and Ludmila Ulitskaya’s Jacob’s Ladder, a family saga that’s about to go the beach with me for some late-afternoon reading. The Vodolzakin, Galina, and Ulitskaya books are also Big Book finalists.