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.


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