Sunday, August 7, 2016

Big Book Three: “The Usual?” and the Unusual in Maria Galina’s Mysterious Autochthons

I have a feeling this may be one of my least informative, least conclusive, and most rambling blog posts ever: I haven’t been kidding when I’ve used the word “mysterious” to describe Maria Galina’s Автохтоны (part one/part two)(Autochthons), a book that was shortlisted for this year’s National Bestseller Award and Big Book Award. Pronouncing the English-language title—which looks mysterious, at least to me—turns out to be easy enough, and I’ve now come to think of the word as meaning “the locals,” in the sense of extraordinarily peculiar long-term, indigenous locals. I have no earthly idea how I can possibly describe the novel after presenting something of a plot summary below. At least I’m not alone: Elena Vasileva, for example, writing on, says the characters’ many unreliable accounts of events can cause schizophrenia (or suspicions of such) among readers.

And so, a bare plot summary. Galina sets Autochthons in an unnamed city on the brink of Europe (reader consensus seems to be that it sounds a lot like Lviv), where an unnamed out-of-town visitor claiming to be a freelancer for the theater journal Teatr settles in at a hostel and gets to work, for an unnamed reason that is revealed later, on research into some local—and very obscure—theater history from the 1920s by interviewing a slew of local experts (ha). Among the juicy and dry details, there’s talk of death on the stage, of philosophy, of one of anonymous man’s interlocutors resembling Yuri Lotman, and even of the use Spanish fly. Or maybe not.

Though I wasn’t quite self-diagnosing schizophrenia, all the details and stories that anonymous man uncovers did make me wonder what was happening to my head: Was my memory failing? Was I just confused? Was I reading too much at a time? Too little? Or was I so caught up in the quirky and oddly, charmingly eerie atmosphere and characters of Autochthons that I was zipping through the more serious and, really, more technical material? I suspect the latter but don’t regret, at all, having reading that way. Even little details like the breakfast spot where the waitress always asks “the usual?” («Как всегда?»)—because that establishes both a past and a future—feel at least as important as anonymous man’s formal research. There are clearly patterns here and the city’s legends (urban legends?) are said to include a little sex, fear, violence, and morality, plus a sad ending. Of course everything ends up blending anyway.

Meanwhile, Galina plays with a pile of cultural references, Russian and otherwise. Every person is said to hide the maniac within and when our unnamed hero confronts someone who’s following him in a wax museum, he steps out from behind a Dracula figure. Jack the Ripper’s there, too, and no, of course, this is not the only mention of vampires. Other variations on the human, hmm, condition and form appear, too, perhaps most notably in someone who purports to be a sylph… he asks unnamed man if he’s ever seen Angel Heart, which shows the hazards of pursuing oneself. I haven’t even mentioned world history, meaning the non-theater part, (then again, all the world’s a stage, right?), which also comes up plenty, perhaps most memorably when one character is accused of having been a Nazi collaborator. In any case, Galina twists and blends detective and fantasy genres with local myth plus a figure who comes to a new place as a seemingly clean slate but turns out to be nothing of the sort.

I mentioned in my “up next” sections of previous posts that Autochthons made me think a lot about my own reading habits. For one thing, this is yet another novel complex and puzzling enough that I’d need to reread to understand because I focused so much on one layer in my first reading. I’m not alone here, either: in her review, critic Galina Yuzefovich also mentions the need for a second, slower reading. I always find it difficult to get to know lots of characters at once, particularly when they’re offering up so much unreliable information; Autochthons is certainly appealing enough to read again.

My second “thing” is odder: I most enjoyed reading Autochthons in the dark, with a new book light. (Side note: it’s the Mighty Bright Recharge, which I love and which is worth the extra money for its dimmer, discrete light, very flexible neck, and easy (re)charging.) It didn’t even feel right to read Autochthons using regular lamp light. Somehow, sitting in the dark with a small pool of light from the Recharge illuminating only two pages of the book felt just right for a novel as slyly occult and metaphysical—not to mention slyly humorous—as Autochthons.

August is Women in Translation Month so I also want to note that Maria Galina’s novel Гиви и Шендерович was translated by Amanda Love Darragh, as Iramifications. Amanda won the 2009 Rossica Prize for the translation.

Up Next: Ludmila Ulitskaya’s family saga Jacob’s Ladder, which I’ve almost finished and will move up since Ulitskaya is another woman who’s been translated. Then Alexander Snegirev’s Vera, which has been waiting so patiently…

Disclaimers: The usual. I’ve translated excerpts from some of Maria Galina’s novels, including her Mole Crickets, which I enjoyed very much four years ago.


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