Sunday, January 8, 2017

Sukhbat Aflatuni’s Weirdly Enjoyable Ant King

I’d intended to include Sukhbat Aflatuni’s Муравьиный царь (The Ant King) in my 2016 year-end post, listing it as the weirdest book I read last year… but then, in all my December 31, year-end hurry, well, I simply forgot. The Ant King is weird and wonderful in a fun, postmodern way—I love weird, it can carry me away—and it’s my favorite, so far, of all the books I brought back from Moscow last year, though I’m now thoroughly enjoying Sergei Kuznetsov’s Kaleidoscope, which is also slightly weird, not to mention, to various degrees, enjoyable, wonderful, and postmodern, depending on the individual chapter/story.

Part of what makes The Ant King peculiar is that the first part—a first-person narrative from an architect named Lena—kept me reading despite not being especially interesting or unusual. Lena tells of all sorts of family hell, flashing back to childhood, as well telling of present-day legal issues related to a building failure. Most important, she describes two family vacations, one in her childhood, the other in adulthood: both involve her adopted brother (intimations of incest) and the adult vacation includes (but of course!) a fling with a lifeguard in red shorts generally referred to as Mikhalych, a name that’s a slightly abbreviated patronymic. Maybe family vacations deserve more credit as plot elements.

The second half of the book is a third-person narrative that focuses much more on Mikhalych, who’s essentially the novel’s title character—ant kings, according to the text, which I’ll translate loosely here, fertilize the queen then die as unneeded organisms that have done their job—so it’s interesting that he’s known by his patronymic. Though the book’s ending doesn’t make Mikhalych’s fate clear, it is clear that he did his ant king biological duty: he, Lena, their baby, Lena’s teenage son, and Mikhalych’s treasured tank of tranquilizing fish all live together. I think the best part of the book is Mikhalych’s car journey through a blizzard—this wacked-out trip reminds me a bit of Vladimir Sorokin’s Blizzard (previous post) but Aflatuni’s journey feels far fresher to me—to bring his mother to a gerontozorii, isolated housing for geronty, people who become immortal (and dangerous) from rogue sleeping pills.

I suppose the juxtaposition of the generally realistic first narration with the rather odd surrealistic portion of the second narration is a big part of what makes The Ant King feel fresh to me, particularly because Aflatuni slathers on a thick layer of (oh, happiness!) storybook motifs that make me want to pull out my old notes on Vladimir Propp. Among them are Old King Cole, Baba Yaga, vampires, and Kolobok, a Gingerbread Man-like character who escapes his grandparents. Mikhalych’s geront mother even reinvents the Kolobok story during the car ride. That ride, by the way, brings us to locales off the cell phone grid (danger!), the River Beda (beda is trouble: the Oxford Russian Dictionary offers up “misfortune” and “calamity”), and, of course, the forest. Plus there are weird cops, the story of Mikhalych’s father being hit by lightning, and a million other things, including the gerontozorii itself, a monastery (there is a runaway, a twist on Kolobok, here), not to mention waxen-faced geronty who approach the car. The latter reminded me of Night of the Living Dead.

If you were to ask me what I think all this amounts to, I’m not quite sure how I’d answer… beyond fun reading that made me think about Propp, archetypes, dying, and society. That’s already a lot: this is yet another short-but-dense text of a book I’d love to read again (or, honestly, translate, to really get at all the connections…). What stands out most for me is how Aflatuni depicts family and, hmm, the structure and order of life and communities. Mikhalych, for example, analyzes his relationship with Lena as if they were ant colony members, Lena’s parents have marital difficulties, the sibling situation is uncomfortable at best, and then there’s the question of isolation at the gerontozorii and the monastery. That layer, together with all the Proppesque motifs, which of course often include family, sometimes feel updated (a term I don’t much like flashes here: “paradigm shift”) for the present day—combining the deep, dark forest as a place to disappear with going off the cell phone grid is just perfect, as is the immortality-giving drug that shows that better living does not always come through chemistry—lend the book’s characters a beautifully motley collection of traits, meanings, and motives from folk motifs, myth, and contemporary life. It’s a fitting way to examine what’s (sur)real and look at patterns. I’m now very much looking forward to Aflatuni’s Adoration of the Magi.

Since we mentioned ants: Shelley Fairweather-Vega’s translation of Hamid Ismailov’s story “The Dervish and the Mermaid” is in Image magazine, here. The connection: the story is from Ismailov’s (currently unpublished) novel Gaya, Queen of Ants, written in Uzbek. (Aflatuni is also from Uzbekistan.)

Another ant reference: I failed in my attempt to finish the Strugatsky Brothers’ Жук в муравейнике (Beetle in the Anthill). Though I enjoyed aspects of an investigator’s work tracking someone down—futuristic devices for translation and communication were kind of fun—the Strugatskys’ blend of corny humor and interplanetary travel, either of which sometimes work for me on its own, just didn’t hold me. This must be the fourth or fifth of their books I’ve tried; I read more than half. I’ll keep trying for another one or two…

Up Next: That roundup post I keep talking about, Kuznetsov’s Kaleidoscope, Nose Award winners, and Plot Project bits on reading Crime and Punishment, which I may well include as add-ons to my regular posts. I’m also thinking about a Pushkin Project for later in the year: that would combine a reading of Andrei Sinyavsky’s Strolls with Pushkin—which I received from the Russian Library/Columbia University Press in Slava I. Yastremsky and Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy’s translation—with reading Pushkin works Sinyavsky mentions. It looks like the perfect starting point for some remedial work on my knowledge of Pushkin.


  1. Thank you for mentioning Ismailov's ant story here! I'm not familiar with Aflatuni's work, but from your description, it sounds as if both authors have used the anthill as a starting point for metaphors about society and order. Ismailov's anthill is perhaps more overtly political, with his queen clearly dominating a whole swarming mass of hapless subjects, none of whose individual fates matter to her, using and abusing them as she pleases. You won't find any ants in the story you link to here, but then again, that story is completely different from the rest of the novel. (It all fits together, though, in a strange and harrowing way - there must be something about ants that opens the door to the weird.)

    1. Thank you for your comment, Shelley, it's always good to hear from you! I was very happy to mention the story here: after hearing you speak about your work on Ismailov at ALTA, I was glad to read the story, which is--like the Aflatuni novel, though for different reasons--weirdly enjoyable and difficult to describe. (Something like "otherworldly" just isn't enough!) As an insect fan from way back, I'll be watching for further news on your Ismailov translations, hoping to read them in full. Fingers crossed!

      Also, remembering that you'd mentioned a grant you received for this work, I Googled and found your Slavfile piece, which was a lot of fun to read.

  2. Thanks for posting about this book! I've known Aflatuni's poetry and criticism for years, but I've always wondered about his fiction. I'm intrigued.

    1. And thank you for your comment, Jamie! I enjoyed the book very much for its quirks and, hmm, the author's willingness to take risks. I'm sorry it hasn't gotten more attention. Have you translated any of Aflatuni's poetry?