Sunday, January 28, 2018

The 2018 National Bestseller Award Nominees/Longlist

Well. This year’s National Bestseller Award certainly puts the “long” in “longlist.” Sixty-four books. Thank goodness we learned multiplication with arrays: the longlist page on the orderly new NatsBest site features a five-by-twelve array of book covers plus four strays. I think there are only sixty-three nominators, though, meaning one book was probably nominated twice.

Given the longness of the list, I think I’ll first mention some books of interest—some that I’ve read, others that I’ve only heard about—and then note a few, by authors previously unknown to me, that sound interesting. I could write a whole series of posts about other books I’ve heard good things about, books that interest me, and who nominated what, but instead I’ll just say that, even without researching all the titles, these nominees seem like a pretty decent crop of books for starting an award cycle. I’ll also add that it’s easy to follow their fates, thanks to the super-transparent NatsBest process. Jury members’ reviews are already being posted to the site.
  • Ksenia Buksha’s Рамка (The Detector), nominated by Sergei Nosov, wasn’t bad (previous post), though I did think there was a bit of a muddle in the middle. Paradoxically, this polyphonic novel presents a view of the near future that almost comes close to being peculiarly fascinating. (Most peculiarly: it’s grown on me since I read it and posted.) I especially liked the dog.
  • Yana Vagner’s Кто не спрятался (Accomplices), nominated by Anna Starobinets, is a hermetic murder mystery set in a European mountain house/hotel. The flashbacks did me in because they broke the novel’s tension, but I give Vagner credit for her cast of rather annoying film industry characters, their spouses, and their problems.
  • Oleg Zobern’s Автобиография Иисуса Христа (The Autobiography of Jesus Christ), nominated by Alexander Snegirev, sounds worth a try if only for the title and memories of the humor in a few Zobern stories I’ve read.
  • Sergei Kuznetsov’s Учитель Дымов (Teacher Dymov), nominated by Ilya Danishevsky, is a thoroughly enjoyable novel about three generations of a family. I was sorry to see it end. Teacher Dymov feels like an ensemble piece that complements Kuznetsov’s much longer and more complex Kaleidoscope (previous post).
  • Inga Kuznetsova’s Пэчворк: после прочтения сжечь (Patchwork: Burn After Reading), nominated by Igor Sakhnovsky, sounds mysterious and rough, in the emotional sense, thanks to mentions of violence, victims, and masochism. I’ve read some of Inga’s poetry so will seek this one out.
  • Aleksei Sal’nikov’s Петровы в гриппе и вокруг него (The Petrovs in Various States of the Flu is probably a bad title translation but…), nominated by Galina Yuzefovich, was a Big Book finalist that I didn’t/couldn’t finish in electronic form but very much want to try again now that there’s a print version available. It just feels like a book to enjoy on paper. I’ve read tons of praise for The Petrovs so am looking forward to trying again.
  • Olga Slavnikova’s Прыжок в длину (Long Jump), nominated by Sergei Shargunov, is about an athlete who loses his lower extremities in an accident. On the shelf.
  • Anna Starobinets’s autobiographical Посмотри на него (Look at Him, I think?), nominated by Natasha Banke, is on my shelf, too.
  • Sasha Shchipin’s Бог с нами (God With Us), nominated by Ksenia Rozhdestvenskaya, is a novel about residents of a small city preparing for the end of the world. Also on the shelf.
  • Yulia Yakovleva’s Вдруг охотник выбегает (Tinker, Tailor), nominated by Julia Goumen, is an atmospheric detective novel set in 1930s Leningrad (previous post).
Three completely unfamiliar books that sound interesting:
  • Daniel’ Orlov’s Чеснок (Garlic), nominated by Roman Senchin, is, according to Senchin, realistic, autobiographical, and poetic.
  • Natal’ia Kim’s Родина моя, Автозавод (Avtozavod, My Native Land), nominated by Maya Kucherskaya, is composed of brief stories (not my favorite genre) but the fact of Kim’s focus on the region near a big car factory during 1980-2000 beckons. Humor and detail have been promised.
  • Kristina Gepting’s Плюс жизнь (Plus Life), nominated by Konstantin Mil’chin, is about a young man whose mother passed HIV on to him. The book won a Litsei award last year and Mil’chin’s nomination refers to the book as simple but notes Gepting’s desire to tell real stories about real people and reality. I do love good, basic storytelling.
Disclaimers: The usual. Some of the books I’ve already read or have on the shelf were given to me by organizers of the Russian stand at the Frankfurt book fair, thank you! I also collaborate with certain of the authors and nominators mentioned in the post, as well as NatsBest secretary Vadim Levental, whose Masha Regina I translated.

Up Next: Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, which I already mentioned enjoying very, very much. Some English-language titles. And the sequel to Yakovleva’s Tinker, Tailor

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Polyphony, Hermetic Settings, and Two Novels: Medvedev’s Zahhak and Buksha’s Detector

Some novels leave me with little to say. Sometimes that’s because I enjoyed the book so much that I just want to let my enjoyment be enjoyment, without any analysis, and just write “Read this.” Those feelings are often strongest if I read the book electronically: a virtual leafing through my electronic notes rarely feels very practical, satisfying, or edifying, as is the case with Vladimir Medvedev’s Заххок (Zahhak). I read Zahhak months ago but the book has stayed with me thanks to Medvedev’s vivid voices, settings, and plotlines. But. Then there are times when I have little to say because a book doesn’t affect me much and seems to fade as soon as I finish the last page. Unfortunately, that’s close to the case with Ksenia Buksha’s Рамка, which I’ll just call The Detector, though that only covers part of the meaning here. The Russian title refers to a walk-through detector used for security; the basic meaning of “рамка” is “frame” or “border.” In its plural form (which gets a separate entry in Oxford’s Russian dictionary though not in my beloved Russian-only Morkovkin dictionary) the word means “framework” or “limits”; I sometimes think of this as “guidelines.”

Both these books left me with little to say—one because I got so caught up in it, the other because it left me fairly indifferent after a promising start—but both novels’ characters had plenty to say because they’re polyphonic, albeit to varying degrees, allowing characters to tell their own first-person stories, generally in chapters labeled with their names. Medvedev presents seven characters who simply tell about events from their lives in turbulent Tajikistan in the early 1990s. Buksha offers a blend of monologues, dialogues, and description, an approach that often feels like verbatim—it’s almost as if the lines were taken from actual interviews or conversations. Some sections are written without capitalization or punctuation.

Zahhak succeeds beautifully because Medvedev focuses his narrators’ energies primarily on present-day actions, weaving in bits about their pasts. Though a few chapters felt a tiny bit long, the book had more than enough momentum to keep me up at night. Perhaps what’s most interesting is that his seven narrators who tell stories of their lives and what’s around them—teenaged twins Andrei and Zarina; their uncle Jorub; a Russian journalist; the Afghan war veteran Davron, a Sufi scholar, and a local boy from a village who’s a comic-turned-tragic figure—don’t include the title character, Zahhak (named for a figure from Persian mythology), a sort of paramilitary criminal who wants to cultivate poppies in a village. Another element of the book’s drama, though, revolves around Zahhak setting his eye on young Zarina. Medvedev’s ability to play on archetypes, recent and not-so-recent history, as well as the reader’s dread and sense of justice (not to mention indignation: Zarina’s so young!) make Zahhak painfully compelling. The varying voices were a joy to read—and translate, too, when I worked on brief excerpts. Two characters especially stood out for me. Journalist Oleg is a wonderfully useful creation thanks to his Central Asian experience, which lends him the ability to explain, organically, local history to clueless readers like me. And though every figure feels tragic, Davron, who has long been in mourning for his wife, especially interested for me for his complexity, loyalties, and psychic tics brought on by memories.

Buksha’s The Detector starts off well. Ten characters are tossed into a holding cell at a monastery on an island just before the coronation of the tsar; they’re being detained for not passing through a (metal?) detector successfully. It’s unclear what they have in common. The novel takes place in the not-so-distant future and there are futuristic elements like implanted chips (apparently for normalization), a delicious teleported meal (if only!), and the downfall of LiveJournal. The characters are suitably quirky, even somewhat interesting, and I enjoyed their monologic introductions. Among them are a journalist, a bureaucrat, an apologist, a wedding planner/emcee, a woman who understands what her dog says (shades of Gogol?), a foster mother, and a businessman. Shut in their cell, they tell about their lives and gather information from the outside world from the businessman’s family and the dog mom’s dog, all of whom show up just outside the cell window. One character attempts suicide.

Buksha does well combining tragedy and comedy—she incorporates life stories that are pretty naturalistic plus humorous moments like the dog barking in French—but the novel started falling apart for me when dreams took over. (Confession: this meant I skimmed/skipped several of the book’s brief 43 chapters.) Dreams are tricky in fiction and, despite the characters dreaming of one other, I suspect part of the point here is that each person is in his or her own sleepy world—and frame, too—meaning that despite often sympathizing and empathizing with one other during their waking hours, these people just aren’t going to stay up all night to, say, discuss favorite works of literature, play a game, or resolve the slippery and eternal question of how to make the best borsch. As Lev Oborin’s very astute review for Vedemosti points out, these characters are all essentially superfluous people (лишние люди). They’re descendents of good old Oblomov.

I think there’s a technical issue at work here. In my reading experience, novels with hermetically sealed settings seem to click along best when authors keep their characters stuck in their surroundings and maintain emotional tension by not letting the characters’ minds wander from their physical setting too far and/or too long. I came to that realization when The Detector—like Yana Vagner’s Кто не спрятался (The Accomplices), which I recently began but abandoned after 200 pages—mentioned Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (known by other titles through the years).

The Accomplices is about a murder at an iced-in vacation house in the mountains and it works beautifully as long as the Russian characters and their local host are together, whether they’re cooking, arguing, drinking, trying to sleep, or discovering and (heavens!) moving the body. It’s filled with wonderfully unappealing characters but the book lost all its verve and tension for me as soon as flashbacks started taking me out of that damn house with no electricity, cell phone coverage, or hope for a quick visit from the police. Vagner’s Vongozero (previous post) and Truly Human (previous post) work because the characters are so utterly stuck with their immediate problems, whether they’re trapped in cars or a tiny house. The same goes for The Detector, as long as the characters are interacting and awake. Unfortunately, the ending, which takes place during waking hours, offers little in the way of a conclusion, though I agree with Oborin that the clicking of a metronome does not bode well for anyone’s future. (The metronome clicks for you?) So as not to end this mammoth and meandering mess of a post on a complete downer of a note, I’ll add that, despite my misgivings, I’m glad I read The Detector—the characters are generally vivid and Buksha can be very funny—and I’m still looking forward to reading Buksha’s polyphonic ЗаводСвобода”, (The Freedom Factory), which won the National Bestseller Award a few years ago and which my colleague and friend Anne Fisher translated into English for Phoneme Media. Anne read some very funny excerpts from her translation at a conference last fall, something that does bode well for enjoying the book.

Up next: A book I just started and am thoroughly enjoying but don’t want to name, lest I jinx anything. Some English-language titles, including Paul Goldberg’s The Château, which includes a fair bit of Russian.

Disclaimers: The usual. As mentioned, I translated excerpts from Zahhak for Medvedev’s literary agency.