Sunday, March 26, 2017

Two Short Novels by Valery Zalotukha

One of the books I brought back from Moscow last September is a big, thick collection of short stories and not-very-long novels by Valery Zalotukha, whose gigundo novel Свечка (The Candle) was a Big Book Award runner-up among jury and reader’s choice voters in 2015. Zalotukha’s publisher gave me the collection and recommended I read the novella Мусульманин (The Muslim), which served as the basis for a 1995 film of the same name, directed by Vladimir Khotinenko. The movie won a special jury prize at the Montréal World Film Festival that year and won a (Russian) Nika Award for best screenplay in 1996. Zalotukha, who passed away in 2015, was a well-known screenwriter: he also wrote Makarov, which Khotinenko also directed, and which also won awards.

The Muslim is brief—around 80 pages—and written very clearly. It’s dated 1994 and feels almost like an early example of чернуха, that dark-dark-dark realism I’ve written about so many times; it is village-based. Zalotukha tells the story of Kolya, who has returned to his hometown from the war in Afghanistan, where he was MIA. Lots changed during those years: Kolya’s father committed suicide, his bully of a brother (Fedya) was released from prison, and Kolya himself has converted to Islam and uses the name Abdula.

You can read Dennis Grunes’s excellent detailed summary (with spoilers!) of the film version of The Muslim, which appears to be very close to the novella, so I won’t waste time outlining the plot, particularly since the simple use of the word чернуха above tells you that many things can and will go wrong after Kolya’s return. What made the novella particularly interesting for me was the 1990s atmosphere that Zalotukha creates: villagers sniff American dollars, collective farms are changing, one character speaks in advertising slogans, and there’s a mention of the ubiquitous Mexican soap opera The Rich Cry, Too, which sucked in millions of Russian viewers. There’s also a bit of a carnival feel when lots of dollars get loose…

At the core of the story are cultural differences and otherness. Kolya stands out from his family and townspeople not just because of his new name: he also refuses to take part in certain rituals, like drinking vodka at his father’s grave or accepting free, essentially stolen, feed grain. There’s a particularly sharp contrast between Kolya and Fedya because Kolya has a strong work ethic and Fedya, though initially loyal to his brother, is prone to heavy drinking and violence. The Muslim features another other, a mysterious visitor, an outsider who comes to town. Though The Muslim’s ending felt a bit more obvious—and perhaps more sudden—than I might have hoped for, the novella kept me thoroughly engaged, both because of my interest in the 1990s and because I always enjoy reading about cultural clashes that include figures like the all too typical Fedya.

Zalotukha’s Последний коммунист (The Last Communist), which is dated 1999 and was a Russian Booker Prize finalist in 2000, was less satisfying. The Last Communist is a family drama of sorts, too, and it also tells of a son’s return. This return feels less monumental: Ilya Pechenkin returns from school in Switzerland to his wealthy family in southern Russia. The 1990s are still in full force here, too, and it feels like Papa Pechenkin, who made his fortune in agriculture, owns the town. (I wonder if it’s a coincidence that his initials work out to VIP if they’re shown as first name, patronymic, surname?) It’s Ilya who wants to be the last communist and foment some sort of revolution, and Zalotukha works in plenty of family conflict—there are father-son relations, of course, as well as VIP’s extra-marital activity with a modest schoolteacher—as well as lots of reminders of the many sociopolitical and sociocultural aspects of generation gaps. Although Ilya makes friends with some peculiar characters who inspire Zalotukha to include martial arts poses at the market and a conversation about why people love McDonald’s (no swearing or barfing there, to which I would add clean and calm, pluses in the 1990s), it’s VIP, with his preference for movies over reality and his utter cluelessness about everything and everyone around him that caught me most.

I could stick lots of labels on The Last Communist—absurd, farcical, tragicomic, among them—and there are little gusts of classics blowing through the book, too, what with references to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (my reread, which is slow but steady, is paying off already!) and Ostrovksy’s How the Steel Was Tempered. Despite wonderfully absurd situations in The Last Communist that lend the novel a humor that feels peculiarly poignant—all the more so for having met people who were a bit like VIP—the plot was a bit too madcap and even confused at times for my taste, making me appreciate the clarity, brevity, and, yes, even the obviousness of The Muslim even more. I always admire stories and novels that are straightforward but difficult to put down, usually for reasons I can’t quite explain. What’s strangest about reading Zalotukha (this includes The Candle, too) is that I find myself wanting to read more even when his storytelling isn’t as sharp as it might be: I suspect that’s both because his writing is generally very energetic, which I appreciate, plus it almost always feels as if the Russia that fascinates Zalotukha is the same Russia that fascinates me.

Disclaimers: Thank you to publisher Vremya for my copy of this Zalotukha collection! It’s a huge book so there’s still plenty more to read. Including Makarov.

Up Next: A short novel set in Baku by Afanasy Mamedov.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Feeling Happily Sentimental about Postmodernism: Sergey Kuznetsov’s Kaleidoscope

Sergey Kuznetsov’s Калейдоскоп (Kaleidoscope) is yet another novel that’s nearly impossible to describe: it’s 850 pages divided into more than 30 loosely-but-closely linked chapters that cover 1885-2013 and involve several dozen characters in many countries. Summarizing by saying that Kaleidoscope is about everything doesn’t say much at all. Irina Prokhorova, founder of the NOSE Award, focused more by calling the novel “новейший сентиментализм,” which might be as good a description as any: in a sense, Kaleidoscope is, to translate Prokhorova’s words literally, “the newest/latest sentimentalism,” what with its accounts of various sorts of political, social, economic, and personal upheaval that involve huge shares of pain and joy. A kaleidoscope, after all, involves reflectors and light to create its patterns.

The joy of Kaleidoscope for a reader like me lies in its structure and composition. As an example, Kuznetsov links a noirish chapter-story (echoes of Dashiel Hammett…) set in 1928 to chapters set in Shanghai during the 1930s. Later in the book and in history, there’s a New York master of the universe type (shades of Tom Wolfe…) who resurfaces in Silicon (oops, no silent “e,” Lizok!) Valley and truly does end up master of his own universe; Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters also get mentions. One generation may die but their children pop up later.

Materials—often pieces of glass—shift inside a toy kaleidoscope, creating changing pictures when the cylinders are twisted; in Kaleidoscope, Kuznetsov twists the cylinder of his novel, shifting plot lines, temporal and geographical settings, and characters to show new aspects of life and history. As I jotted down during my reading, there’s a lot to love here because the shards always come together to form a new picture, even when the world seems to be falling apart morally, politically, and/or socially. I think of the book’s subtitle—расходные материалы—as something like “shifting materials” or even “recurring materials” here, though the Russian term often refers to things that need to be replaced, like batteries, toner cartridges, or razor blades.

Part of the novel’s success lies in Kuznetsov’s recurring use of the kaleidoscope metaphor, presenting a child with a kaleidoscope as a holiday gift in the book’s first chapter and then reinforcing the theme—and teaching the reader to read the book—by noting, for example, shards of history as well a kaleidoscope-like key chain in a Silicon Valley scene where someone notes that, “In a/the postmodern world we learn to find harmony not in order but in chaos.” The chapter-stories in Kaleidoscope don’t look random or chaotic for long even though they differ greatly in terms of form and stylistics.

Another one of my notes says that Kaleidoscope “demands/prefers active reader participation to make connections and consider influences.” I should add that I found that aspect of the reading especially fun: Kuznetsov provides apparatus for the book that includes a list of recurring characters and the chapters in which they appear, plus a list of “literature” that includes books (fiction and nonfiction) and films that provided inspiration in various forms (Kuznetsov mentions phrases and observations). This is a wonderfully mixed lot with dozens of titles, including Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, and of course Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. I say “of course” about the Pynchon not because I’ve read it (I haven’t) and found shards in Kaleidoscope (which of course I couldn’t) but because more than one Russian reader recommended Kaleidoscope to me last fall in Moscow, calling it “Pynchon Lite.” Though the Pynchon element may be lost on me, those other titles I listed, plus many others—including Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, which I read a large chunk of years ago before I forgot where I was (I should have read linearly…) and, “of course” again, Ian Fleming’s Bond bookswere not.

Reflected glimmers of those books—along with slivers of history, including real-life characters—are part of what underpin the postmodernist feel of Kaleidoscope and the kaleidoscope of our lives. (Speaking of real, true history, I read up on things like the 1910 Great Flood of Paris and Shanghai in the 1930s and even fractals while reading Kaleidoscope…) Bits of those materials shift and recur, forming patterns involving world wars, revolutions of all sorts, utopian ideas, and, of course, love and partings that result from the afore-mentioned wars and revolutions, as well as emigration.

In the end, it’s hard to express or explain why I loved Kaleidoscope so much and didn’t want it to end—I realized in my last days of reading that I’d been waiting until late in the evening to pick it up. I was subconsciously rationing my last pages, postponing the inevitable end. (The end of history is here, too…) The connectedness of Kaleidoscope’s characters and historical threads is somehow comforting, as are the hope and creativity and love that arise during times of upheaval. Beyond that, the book is solidly composed and Kuznetsov finds very admirable balances when drawing his characters and settings: within the limited pages of each chapter-story, he offers just the right amount of detail to create vivid and simulacrumesque atmosphere and characters, link themes and characters in chapters, and address questions about what it means to be a human being living in the twentieth (plus or minus…) century. (I borrowed “simulacrums” from Max Nemtsov’s review of the novel, which also involves a disco ball…) To come back to Irina Prokhorova’s use of “sentimentalism” in describing Kaleidoscope, I can only say that the novel made me feel sentimental about a lot of things. On one level, I realized how much I love postmodern literature that’s this colorful, and beautifully organized and structured, and—corny though it may sound—able to make me feel so sentimental, so emotional, and so curious, about the human experience itself. That, I suppose, is what I meant when I wrote that Kaleidoscope is about everything.

Disclaimers: The usual, including having met Kuznetsov in person (at least once, but maybe twice?) and on the Internet.

Up Next: The Yasnaya Polyana Award longlist plus at least two novel(la)s by Valery Zalotukha.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

History, Languages, and All Manner of Other Things: A Few Thoughts About Paul Goldberg’s The Yid

Paul Goldberg’s novel The Yid offers up an unusual angle on Stalin’s Russia: Goldberg begins the book on February 24, 1953, sending a Black Maria with attendant staff to arrest one Solomon Shimonovich Levinson, “an actor from the defunct State Jewish Theater.” Everything goes topsy-turvy in Levinson’s apartment—and, really, in the rest of the novel, just as things have gone topsy-turvy in the USSR over the last several decades—thanks to Levinson’s skill with sharp objects. And so. What does a non-state actor (sorry for the pun!) do with dead bodies killed unofficially? And how might a non-state actor (meaning someone like Levinson) and his buddies try to combat Stalin? This second question is a new variation on the age-old burning question of “What is to be done?”

The fun of The Yid, which looks at the horrors of fascism, racism, and the Soviet past, isn’t just its element of something akin to an almost gleeful alternative history, it’s in its telling. Even more so for a reader like me who so loves to have a writer guide her through a book. The Yid may be Goldberg’s debut novel—he said in an appearance at Print Bookstore in Portland a couple weeks ago that he’s written other, unpublished, fiction—but he makes masterful use of language and literary devices as he establishes an absurd world that blends historical truth (and even historical characters, something I think very, very few writers do successfully) with a fictional world that’s extraordinarily playful and theatrical, drawing, among other things on Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Three early examples. Goldberg begins with a trilingual epigraph from Shmuel Halkin’s Bar-Kokhba (Moscow State Jewish Theater, 1938), very shortly thereafter calls the first part of his book “Act I,” and defines certain terms in his second paragraph:
A Black Maria is a distinctive piece of urban transport, chernyy voron, a vehicle that collects its passengers for reasons not necessarily political. The Russian people gave this ominous carriage a diminutive name: voronok, a little raven, a fledgling.
By page nine, he’s already blending Yiddish, Russian, and English in ways that made me happy as both a reader and a translator. Just scroll down to “Dos bist du?” in this excerpt on the Jewish Book Council site for a sample. The words are playing, the characters are playing, and Goldberg is again showing his readers how to read his book. This time, there’s a crude rhyme that involves two languages; Goldberg even offers an explicit explanation. (Side note: I think Goldberg makes wonderful use of Russian mat, obscenities, in The Yid.) There’s an obvious obviousness and staginess throughout the book that sometimes extends to (oh, here’s a random find, flipping the pages) a bit of a soliloquy from Pushkin’s Boris Godunov, presented in both transliterated Russian and Anthony Wood’s English translation. Late in the book there’s also a mention of how historian Edvard Radzinsky covers “the events at Stalin’s dacha in the early morning of March 1, 1953.” All of that, plus, of course, Goldberg’s abundant humor, remind the reader not to take this world too literally… all while taking its tragicomedy, absurdity, and historical mayhem and reality very seriously. I’ve been a sucker for that paradox for years.

I enjoyed The Yid very much as a reader but I think I enjoyed it even more as a translator because I love observing how writers handle dialogue with multiple languages. I particularly appreciated Goldberg’s combination of translations, transliterations, and original language because, yes, dear readers, he shows that these things can work together. There was even a practical element for me, in noting the words Goldberg uses to refer to unfortunate features of the Stalin era, things that are in Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes, which I’m translating: cattle cars, guards, transit prisons, deportees… There are, of course, plenty of books containing those words, but something about Goldberg’s lively combination of English, Russian, and Yiddish really won me over, even more so because he also blends genres, temporal settings (I didn’t even get to that!), cultures (or that!), and so much damn sad history into around 300 pages. I’m looking forward to his next novel.

For more:

Disclaimers: I received a copy of The Yid from the publisher, Picador; thank you to James Meader for sending a copy of the book, which he also edited, as Goldberg’s acknowledgements note. With all its languages and references, I’m sure The Yid presented a slew of editing challenges. Kudos to Meader and the rest of the editorial team for their work.

Up Next: Sergei Kuznetsov’s Kaleidoscope, which I loved for being a book about nearly everything that matters in this world, then Valery Zalotukha’s The Last Communist, which I’m enjoying very much because (about half-way in, anyway) it’s succeeding at the opposite feat and feels almost like chamber theater about post-Soviet Russia, focusing on a wealthy family in a small city… I’m not sure about conquering Sukhbat Aflatuni’s Adoration of the Magi: though I enjoyed some individual passages, the novel lacks, hmm, narrative drive and 100 pages felt like several hundred more. That means that reading six more hundreds of pages feels nigh on impossible right now. Though far, far stranger things have happened.