Sunday, October 2, 2016

Big Book Five: Sasha Filipenko’s Hounding

Sasha Filipenko’s Травля, which I think I’ll call Hounding in English, is one of the shortest Big Book finalists for 2016, but this fast-moving, densely packed novel makes a fairly big impression. Filipenko, who has also written for Russian TV, manages to pack a lot into around 190 pages with a story that involves, among other things, strong themes of socio-economic resentment and politically motivated hounding.

I’ll start by jumping a bit into the book, at the point where one Lev Smyslov (surname rooted in sense/meaning) goes to see his much-younger brother Mark, a cellist who’s in Switzerland for a concert that he’s scheduled to perform in several hours. Lev has told Mark he has to make the visit at that particular time because he’ll be gone the next day. (Of course this raises worries of suicide…) Lev tells first of his shame at their father’s fall from financial grace because of the 1998 default, which forced the family to move to a part of St. Petersburg that Lev doesn’t like: it’s noisy, there’s bullying in the new school, he steals nice clothes from old friends when he goes to visit, and neighbors deal drugs in their kitchen. I’ll fast-forward a few years, to when the ties Lev made in that building bring him back in contact with his neighbor Kalo, who’s from the family that dealt drugs. They work on a project for another former neighbor, Vladimir Slavin (surname rooted in glory/fame), who’s now involved in politics, very rich, and very unhappy with articles by journalist Anton Pyatyi (surname meaning “fifth,” which reminds of “the fifth column”) that have forced Slavin to recall his family from Europe (oh, the shame!). And so Slavin hires Kalo and Lev to hound Pyatyi.

Though Filipenko includes scenes of Slavin’s family members—his son Sasha, who’s a soccer player who happens to be gay, is most memorable—and Pyatyi’s family life, the bulk of the novel covers the hounding itself. I’m not sure if page count would back that up but, for this reader at any rate, most of the novel’s suspense and emotion certainly lie there, as Kalo and Lev gradually ratchet up the pressure on Pyatyi, his wife, and their baby daughter. Sleep deprivation and noise are key early on but Pyatyi doesn’t give, so things inevitably move along to illicit sex.

Lots of Hounding feels familiar, almost as if it might have come from newspaper articles (troll farms, anyone?) and I wondered if Filipenko added in italicized musical terms and explanations that liken the novel to a sonata to try to make it feel artsier. Toward the beginning, for example, there’s a mention that the “hounding” motif will appear in a certain part of the melody. Though the musical notes (oops, sorry for the pun!) added a somewhat irritating instructional quality to the novel while also almost lending the feel of tragic operatic inevitability, I have to admit I didn’t pay much attention, perhaps partly because I found Filipenko’s inclusion of song lyrics from, for example, Zemfira and Nike Borzov far more convincing. In any event, they fell by my mental wayside as I turned pages because of the plot, particularly in the first half, where Lev’s personal resentment builds as public life falls apart after the default. And then there’s poor Pyatyi, who just plain wants to get some sleep.

Above the individual characters’ problems there hangs a roiling dark cloud of accursed questions about truth, media, politics, patriotism, money, access, message, privilege, nastiness, and, yes, hounding. Questions that seem to be popping up everywhere. Though the defined setting and characters in Hounding are uniquely Russian, the themes that underlie them feel depressingly universal, common, and even perhaps Propp-like. I would be thoroughly derelict in my duties if I didn’t mention that Filipenko includes numerous very funny jabs, like Mrs. Slavina founding a foundation to help the victims of plastic surgery or Sasha Slavin mentioning an over-dependence on intonation and diminutives in contemporary Russian. Though I might have appreciated slightly more psychological development of secondary characters—that despite having been informed from the very, very beginning that I was about to read chamber music—I couldn’t put this suspenseful, chatty book down.

Up Next: Booker Prize finalists, to be announced on Wednesday. Moscow trip report. American Literary Translators Association conference trip report. Alexander Snegirev’s Vera/Faith and Oleg Zaionchkovsky’s Timosha’s Prose.

Disclaimers: I received an electronic copy of the book from Big Book but read it in print form.


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