Sunday, May 28, 2017

Instructions for Everything: Gadol’s Director. Instructions for Liberation

Alexandr Gadols Режиссёр: инструкция освобождения (Director. Instructions for Liberation; please note that this title and transliteration of the author’s name are on the book’s cover) turned out to be an interestingly pleasant surprise from start to finish. I was surprised when a colleague from the Institute of Translation whod been deputized as a book courier handed the book to me in New York earlier this month and even more surprised at the novel’s unexpected layers and twists, and how they affected me. Director is about prison life but that’s only part of the story. The book is also about how the narrator, who’s identified only by the nickname “Director” (though he has no films, shows, or plays to his name, only the real-life scenarios he cooks up...), attempts to stay out of prison; getting knifed can be a temporary help. It’s about metaphysical things, too. This is a book where an English-language translation of the Bible is smoked. In prison. In any case, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised at how much I enjoyed Director: Gadol won third place for the book in the 2016 Russian Prize competition.

There are so many angles I could take on Director—this may be one of my biggest surprises since I don’t often seem to end up enjoying books that feel so open to varying interpretations—that I think I’ll first pick up on a small point raised by critic Aleksandr Chantsev here, on Rara Avis, and move on from there. The title of Chantsev’s review, “Антропология тюрьмы, свободы и страны” (“The Anthropology of Prison, Freedom, and a Country”) sums up a lot about the book: I’m not sure which social science I’d choose to describe Director but anthropology is as good as any, with psychology and sociology viable candidates, too. My favorite motif in the book is film noir, which pops up fairly frequently and contributes to the anthropological portrait. Gadol is even quoted on the back of the book saying that when he was in prison he imagined himself as a film hero, something that made his life a little easier and kept him from losing his mind. Beyond that, Gadol, who has also worked as a director for Kiev TV stations, notes that he particularly enjoys American noir from the 1940s and 1950s. Director includes references to Crime and Punishment, which feels pretty noirish in its own early way and there are trips to a bar called Capone, which hosts a “Chicago in the Thirties” gangster party. Just for fun, I’ll add that there’s a mention of Dawn of the Dead, too.

Director’s prison scenes are interesting—looking at phenomena like pecking orders and how people can be good as individuals but jerks when together are only a couple of the social sciency aspects that attract—but my favorite layer of the book is Director’s time spent outside, when he’s waiting to learn his fate. After visiting a scammy and seemingly very young psychoanalyst (!) on a hill (the novel takes place in a city on seven hills, which could be Moscow, though I think it’s Kiev, and not just because Gadol is from Ukraine and Chantsev guesses Kiev, too… this just doesn’t feel like a Moscow book to me…), Director decides he wants to be a scammy psychoanalyst, too, so he rents himself an office, buys himself a diploma, and procures himself a gun, a Colt 45 like Dirty Harry’s. Of course.

There’s an absurd and noirish feel to all that that goes nicely with a passage I marked later on, where light comes through venetian blinds, creating lines on characters’ faces: Gadol even writes that this is like a shot from a noir film. (Personal experience strengthened this for me, too: I remembered analyzing light on criminals’ faces in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing during film class…) A bit later, at the Capone with the scammy and seemingly young psychoanalyst and some of his buddies, Director describes the sounds, smells, and people as being cinematic: things remind of black-and-white film noir and a conversation about the search for truth ensues, along with mentions of Casablanca, Citizen Kane, and The Godfather theme song, too.

With its brief chapters, jumping timelines, and multiple storylines, Director is the sort of book that’s particularly ripe for varying interpretations. I noted lots of existential moments (“a mini existential crisis” among them) but my dominant prism for reading became truth-and-noir, with that preference for non-prison scenes, though the prison scenes often echoed the outside and addressed the nature of truth. There seem to be gurus on hills everywhere in Director—there’s a fair bit of religion involved, not just the afore-mentioned Bible but also Buddhism—though not all are genuine (or are they?) and there’s hardly anyone in the novel who uses a name that’s printed on, say, a government-issued form of identification. (And what’s in a name, anyway?) There’s also talk of being behind bars that are formed by everyday things, like letters and words on the pages of books or stars in the sky. Meaning that prison is everywhere you turn. A cover blurb from Alexander Snegirev praises Gadol’s concentrated prose, which he says is almost poetry, and I have to agree. Gadol’s language, which often includes prison/criminal slang and sometimes involves long lists, creates situations and imagery that simultaneously feel abstract and vividly concrete. Reading the book was a sensory experience: climbing those hills nearly made me sweat, there was lots of second-hand smoke to inhale, and watching people who’re watching people on public transportation (in a scene that felt almost like flash fiction) made me feel like a voyeur, too.

A story almost long enough to consider a novella follows Director in the volume and “Живучий гад” (hmm, I’ll go literal and call it “A Tenacious Snake”…), which is very linear—this time I felt almost like I was watching a train wreck, right up close—is far easier to describe than Director. The story tells of Sasha, who begins a life of dubious entrepreneurship at the age of twelve by buying fishing lures and reselling them at a premium after gluing “foreign letters” on the packages. Sasha becomes the first black marketeer in his school, eventually moving on to (spoiler alert!) running a videosalon (these sites for makeshift, unauthorized movie showings were a real phenomenon), comfy pay toilets, synthesizing LSD, and, eventually (but of course!), a run for politics. The story made me laugh, too: Sasha’s lessons in life from American movies like Good Fellas and Used Cars (which, imagine that, is apparently helpful for teaching a kid how to buy a used car) are sometimes hilarious, though the anthropology of (sometimes petty) criminal behavior struck me most. “A Tenacious Snake” feels like a diabolical appendix to Director, what with its myriad mentions of movies plus lots of false and farcical identities—Sasha even enlists an adult to act as the nonexistent Georgian head of the videosalon—that make the combination of the story and the novel feel like a small volume of case studies of what goes wrong or (perhaps more accurately) what goes false in ways that make children want to become criminals. Unlike one of the characters in Director, I don’t think the theme music from The Godfather is to blame.

Disclaimers: I received a copy of Director from Русская премия (Russian Prize), thank you very, very much! I’ve long felt remiss in not following the Russian Prize—and, really, literature written in Russian by writers living outside Russia—more closely so am especially grateful for a reminder of the importance of the award and the authors it recognizes. There will be more to come! I also want to add that Director is from publisher Eksmo’s .RU imprint, which focuses on contemporary Russian-language books by authors living outside Russia.

Up Next: Award news: Big Book finalists, National Bestseller winner, and Yasnaya Polyana Award longlist. Then more books…

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Food for Thought: Sorokin’s Manaraga
Manaraga, in Russia's Komi Republic
I think the only way to write about Vladimir Sorokin’s latest novel, Manaraga is to imagine myself in the book for a minute. So: if I, a woman, were somehow miraculously admitted into the exclusive ranks of book’n’grill chefs in some near-but-future century that I’m too lazy to calculate, what would be the most appropriate meal to grill using Manaraga (preferably a signed first edition) as a (burning, yes, burning) log?

My answer would be mixed grill. Preferably ordered by a book club whose members have finicky taste. And not to worry if they don’t read the book: there’s not much old-fashioned reading in Manaraga. What is important is what is to be grilled: I’d hope for a barely compatible combination of shrimp, sausage, and some kind of nicely marinated chicken pieces. The chicken would be skewered since lots of things get skewered in Manaraga. The chicken would be the meal’s highlight because so often marinade is where the real flavor is. Humor is the marinade in Manaraga, at least for me.

I’ll start with the chicken because I love marinated chicken (especially this simple and ridiculously versatile recipe) and I loved the humor in Manaraga, too. As is already obvious, half the fun of Manaraga is that it’s about books. About the sad fate of books in an age where electronic reading has taken hold and only money is printed. This is a time when book’n’grill chefs use illicitly procured books to grill food in private homes—this is known as reading—and fulfill clients’ specific requests. Sorokin doesn’t spare much of anyone, skewering everything from self-publishing to poor paper quality in the Yeltsin-era (oh, do I have evidence of this on the Bookshelf!) for an edition of Andrei Platonov’s Chevengur. Books used as logs fit with aspects of clients’ celebrations or lives, too, so a reading with M. Ageyev’s Novel [or “romance”] with Cocaine includes white powder and a reading for the cast of a Master and Margarita adaptation includes the novel plus, of course, jokes about manuscripts burning (or not). And there’s also the insight that Chekhov stories are ideal for cooking shrimp… I had many an audible laugh with Manaraga. Here’s another one: reading Bakhtin is a good moneymaker. Fortunately, Sorokin didn’t let me down on an obvious laugh: I’d wondered how far in I’d need to go for a mention of Fahrenheit 451: since it just had to be there, I don’t think I’m spoiling anything at all to say it’s about half-way through. It involves steak.

Part of why Sorokin’s humor works so well in Manaraga is that he creates a homey voice for his narrator, Geza, a 33-year-old man who travels the world to read Russian classics. I should add that he’s guided and protected by electronic “fleas” implanted in his head. Book’n’grill is an underground venture so it’s dangerous and the fleas—this is one of the futuristic aspects of the novel—assess safety and provide background information on what Geza sees. Woe be to anyone whose fleas are removed and becomes naked and helpless. (This is yet another reason I wouldn’t want a smart phone...)

Shrimp is risky grill food (even in this delicious rendition) because it can dry out so quickly, which means there are times when it feels like Sorokin’s using one too many of his familiar tropes. We get details of a man’s journeys and work, and that somehow reminds of The Blizzard and Day of the Oprichnik, even more so because holograms, a giant narco-goldfish, and mentions of past wars come into play. Many of those familiar details didn’t matter much to me because I was so taken by the book-related layer. Even so, the weakest element of Manaraga is related to those tropes: though most of the individual readings are fun enough to read, the slow-burn thread (skewer?) that Sorokin chooses to hold those episodes together—a threat to the book’n’grill chefs’ Kitchen conglomerate, caused by mass-produced molecular copies of one certain individual old copy of Nabokov’s Ada—and create the semblance of a novel feels more like a plot device to create the semblance of a novel than an organic development. This seemed more like a linkage and development problem than anything else: the conclusion (cue the action genre!) made perfect sense to me, though because of accounts of the individual readings that preceded it.

In the end, Manaraga feels rather like sausage: something in it might be a little artificial, clichéd, and/or guilt-inducing but—like this Maine-made kielbasa that’s so delicious that even I happily ate some cold one night—it’s very tasty fun and pretty filling, too, since there’s plenty of food for thought about the present and the future of books. Electronic or print? Bespoke or mass-produced? For the mind or the market? Are books like franchises? And what is reading, anyway? And how should it affect you? As with mixed grill, there’s something for just about anyone in Manaraga and—given the humor and my familiarity with Sorokin’s menu of literary ingredients—the book feels almost like comfort food. I wonder, of course, if that’s a good thing… and I ask myself if that’s because I’ve immersed myself further into Sorokin’s world or because his writing doesn’t have the edge it used to? Or both?

I won’t offer my answer to all those questions but I realize now that I forgot to add marinated mushroom burgers to my mixed grill menu: they’re light but nutritious and delicious, too.

Yes, I’m hungry.

Edit, three days later. I should add that my original post wasn’t clear enough about the nutritional aspects of Manaraga: comfort food or not, what sticks with me most about the novel is the broader sociocultural implication of Sorokin’s vision of literature, books, and, perhaps most frightening of all, the huge influence of fleas. Again, it’s Geza’s homey storytelling voice that underpins the novel’s success for me: Geza makes this world feel as if it’s (almost?) normal.
For more fun details (and some mild spoilers) about Manaraga, visit literary agent Galina Dursthoff’s site, here.

Up next: I hadn’t been planning to write about Manaraga so soon so the backlog grows! First up will be also a shortish novel by Aleksandr Gadol that won third place in last year’s Russian Prize competition. And lots of award news, too: the Big Book short list and NatsBest winner. Plus Afanasy Mamedov’s novella set in Baku that I mentioned in so many previous posts. And some futurist-related reading in English, including Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist and James Womack’s translations of Vladimir Mayakovsky in “Vladimir Mayakovsky” & Other Poems.

Photo credit: By ugraland [1] from Moscow, Russia - Flickr, CC BY 2.0,

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Yet More Award Info: Another Better-Late-Than-Never Post

Better-late-than-never posts seem to have become a bit of a habit here at the Bookshelf. Then again, this does seem to be award season: posts about the Big Book shortlist, Yasnaya Polyana longlist, and NatsBest winner will all be on the way relatively soon, too. In a more timely manner. I hope.

For now, though, a few bits of old news.

I’m often remiss in writing about the annual Pushkin House Book Prize since it covers only nonfiction, but this year’s shortlist includes a few titles that sound particularly interesting even to a fiction freak like me. One, Teffi’s Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea, is a translation by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler, Anne Marie Jackson, and Irina Steinberg, with an introduction by Edyth C. Haber. Another is Daniel Beer’s The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, which I’ve been interested in since reading several enthusiastic reviews when it was released. (I suspect the title helps, too, since I thought Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead was so good…) And then there’s Simon Sebag Montefiore’s The Romanovs: 1613-1918, which sounds especially vivid. The other titles—Rosalind P. Blakesley’s The Russian Canvas, Anne Garrels’s Putin Country, and Simon Morrison’s Bolshoi Confidential—help create a nicely rounded shortlist. Pushkin House’s page with the shortlist includes links to helpful individual pages about each book so I’ll leave the details to them. The winner will be announced on June 7.

And then there’s the Russian Prize, the Русская Премия—for writers who live outside Russia and write in Russian—which was awarded in late April, just when I was so caught up in finishing a translation that I completely missed the news. Oops. Mikhail Gigolashvili won the long fiction award for his Тайный год (The Secret Year, I guess…), which should arrive at my doorstep any day now. Second and third prizes went to, respectively, Shirin Shafieva for Сальса и Веретено (Salsa and Vereteno) and Vladimir Lidskii for Сказки нашей крови. Метароман (hmm, maybe The Fairytales of/in Our Blood. A Metanovel, or even “tall tales,” depending on the book…). Short fiction awards went to Tatiana Dagovich, Leia Liubomirskaia, and the team of Andrei Zhvalevskii and Evgenia Pasternak, and poetry awards were made to Gennadii Rusakov, Sergei Solovyov, and Oleg Iuriev. All titles, along with countries of residence and brief descriptions, are available on the information-packed Год литературы site, here, or on the Russian Prize site, here.

Finally, two brief items on translations. I’m very excited that my translation of Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina, published by Oneworld, is a finalist for this year’s Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize, which will announce results on June 3. Contemporary Russian fiction was represented on the 2017 Best Translated Book Award prose shortlist, too, by Oblivion (Предел забвения in Russian), written by Sergei Lebedev, translated by Antonina Bouis, and published by New Vessel Press. Since this one’s all over, I’ll mention that the BTBA winner for prose was Lúcio Cardoso’s Chronicle of the Murdered House, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson and published by Open Letter Books. The poetry winner was Alejandra Pizarnik’s Extracting the Stone of Madness, translated from the Spanish by Yvette Siegert, and published by New Directions.

Disclaimers: The usual.

Up Next: There’s a bit of a backlog around here, particularly with more award posts coming… There’s also the Afanasy Mamedov novella set in Baku that I mentioned in previous posts. And some reading in English, including Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist, which was perfect reading for (and about) a hectic time; it pairs nicely with James Womack’s translations of Vladimir Mayakovsky in “Vladimir Mayakovsky” & Other Poems, which arrived not long ago. There’s also a shortish novel by Aleksandr Gadol that won third place in last year’s Russian Prize competition… I just finished it but it got under my skin enough that I may write about it first.