Sunday, July 28, 2019

Verbinina’s Moscow Time

I think I’ve written before that I have a particular (perhaps even peculiar) attraction to detective novels because I enjoy reading about fears. Valeria Verbinina gives her Московское время (Moscow Time) a perfect setting for all sorts of fears: Moscow in 1939. Verbinina’s retro detective novel doesn’t offer the “изящество” and “вкус” (elegance and taste) that Akunin’s Fandorin series offers right on the cover, but Moscow Time made for good, albeit slightly didactic, entertainment during a busy time in the heat of summer. (“Busy” and “heat” pretty much sum up my whole summer!) Even if many of the novel’s details were long-forgotten a few days after finishing, the contours of the book – which feel most important anyway – settled in pretty solidly.

The basic plot is relatively simple: a student named Nina walks into in the middle of a police operation one night on her way home from the Bolshoy Theater, where she’s just seen Ivan Susanin. (!) Nina immediately develops a crush on one of the (disguised) team members, a respected and dedicated investigator fond of sleeping in his office. Nina lives in a communal apartment, an aspect of the story that reminds me a bit of Yulia Yakovleva’s retro detective novels: communal apartments offer fantastic opportunities for introducing characters with diverging histories, professions, and motives. And of course residents often clash. Although Verbinina sometimes goes on a bit too long when telling backstories – though I sincerely love that Nina’s father is a tuba player – she puts the neighbors to good use in her plot. A plot that includes a serial killer. A strangler.

The whodunnit aspect of Moscow Time feels less important than all those fears I mentioned. There’s discussion of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and lots of background on World War 2, plus details on Nina’s father’s earlier life, which includes World War 1 and 1917. Appropriately, that chapter is called “Тревога,” “anxiety” or “alarm.” Verbinina’s narration, which sometimes reverts to the first-person, as if the narrator is a guide to times past, offers plenty of hindsight, not to mention a few footnotes, including one that alerts the reader that saccharine was used a lot in the Soviet 1920s. There’s also some history of early Soviet-era serial killers, including one that Mikhail Bulgakov wrote about in “The Komarov Case”. (Bulgakov also appears in some of Verbinina’s chapter epigraphs.) Though I occasionally thought the narration and footnotes got a little too pedagogical (saccharine, for example, is something I’ve run across many times), I enjoyed picking up other historical tidbits.

There’s plenty more here to observe, including Verbinina’s use of redacted curses (I’m sure people really did swear in Soviet times!); one character accusing another of using a newspaper photo of Stalin for, ah, wiping; differing opinions on Vertinsky; a character who is (once) called Lizok, and some marital advice. On a more plot-oriented level, there’s some good-cop-bad-cop material plus a downtown chase scene involving a bread truck. All in all, Moscow Time was easy, entertaining reading that just keeps rolling along, the sort of book I’d be quick to recommend to readers looking to build their Russian reading skills. There’s lots of dialogue and the story moves along at a decent clip. Even if it’s not dense with suspense and ends a touch too rapidly, what interested me most about Moscow Time in the first place was observing how a prolific contemporary Russian author envisions Soviet-era serial killings and communal life in a novel that blends history, crime, and coming of age.

And now off to the beach with another detective novel, Samantha Harvey’s The Western Wind, set in the Middle Ages.

Disclaimers and disclosures: The usual.

Up Next: Alexander Pelevin’s Kalinova Yama, which was good but not the wonder of The Four, and Anna Kozlova’s Rurik, which has really sucked me in.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Big Book 2: Evgenia Nekrasova’s Kalechina-Malechina

I seem to be reading a lot of authors who create out-of-kilter worlds that demand extra attention: deciphering Alexander Pelevin’s The Four requires a reread and Alexei Salnikov’s Petrovs and Indirect left me feeling the need to repeat, too. And then there’s Evgenia Nekrasova’s Kalechina-Malechina, which I read happily until, all of a sudden, the young heroine, Katya, met a kikimora in her kitchen in the middle of the book. Although the change felt abrupt – I’d been used to Katya’s dreary life with her parents, wretched classmates, and teacher who smokes in the classroom (whoa, shades of grad school!) and was expecting an entirely different sort of change – after reading some of Nekrasova’s short fiction, I realized she was taking it easy on her readers with the kikimora. I now feel ready for just about anything, though I’m still glad I read the book in two large chunks, before-kikimora and after-kikimora. Reading Salnikov’s Petrovs chapter-by-chapter worked best for me, too, to let the oddities and details settle. Sometimes that’s the best way to absorb them.

And so. Kalechina-Malechina is, as I’ve summarized in previous posts, a shortish novel about a schoolgirl who lives outside a large “Gulliverish” city. I jotted in my book that she’s a girl after my own heart: she owns a dumbphone, sleeps late, loves night, and is an independent latchkey kid. She’s also a lousy at needlecrafts and her teacher threatens to send her to a school for slow learners if she can’t crochet some mittens. I called the novel “edgy” earlier, too, because Nekrasova doesn’t hold back on details of daily horrors and offenses, some of which recall chernukha: beyond the inane mittens we find, among other things, a bullying boy (he even swears at school); there’s abuse (and disgusting latrines) at summer camp and with an adult who, theoretically, should be trusted; and, though I can’t find the spot, I seem to recall that a boy (the bully?) drops his pants at school. Oh and Katya breaks her prissy friend’s nice smartphone, causing a rift. After these problems, the kikimora’s appearance has an almost light(e)ning effect: there are some wonderfully comic scenes where the two of them take a train to visit a relative so Katya can play loan shark for the afternoon to collect on a debt to her father, passing off the kikimora as a visiting relative during the trip.

All sorts of other things happen in Kalechina-Malechina, which takes its title, by the way, from this poem by Alexei Remizov, though I’m less interested in the plot – and its resolutions – than the novel’s stylistics and motifs. Returning to the title, this master’s thesis (PDF here!) by Magdelena Mot notes childhood and rituals in the cycle Посолонь (Sunward or Sunwise) in which “Kalechina-Malechina” appears: Mot’s abstract notes “Posolon’ calls for the regaining of a lost cyclicity and looks back in time at the common folk’s way of life.” And “… in Posolon’ Russia is all about folklore, joyful games, tales and rituals.” This fits nicely with Katya’s experiences, where life is anything but simple but she creates her own rituals to lend normalcy where perversion – of rules, hierarchies, behaviors, and kindnesses – has taken over.

As if that weren’t enough, there’s a Platonovian (or Platonovesque?) feel to Nekrasova’s writing. There are neologisms: she constantly plays on the word “выросший,” an adjective used as a noun for “grown-up” by adding a “не-” for someone who’s not grown-up, meaning a kid, plus, as another example, Katya’s father “даладничал” (“wellfined”) in one spot after smiling. Even more important, there’s also what Dmitry Bykov calls a “платоновская тоска” (“Platonovian melancholy/anguish/yearning/pining/despair” – “тоска” is, after all, a flexible word) to what I’ll call Nekrasova’s worldview. As in Platonov, at least as I read him, there’s a sense of feeling crushed but there’s also a strange exuberance, partly, I think, because of his stylistic unusualness. That feeling, that sense, fits neatly with Nekrasova’s writing about twisted aspects of seemingly contemporary, gray (the color of poor Katya’s hair!) life outside a Gulliver-sized city.

Olesya Gonserovskaya’s illustrations 
add a lot to the book.
(Left to right: Katya and the kikimora.)

I admire those and other aspects of K-M but I think what strikes me most is a gratitude that is more social: I’ve used the word “edgy” to describe the novel and appreciate the way Nekrasova’s angle on Katya’s world, combined with folklore motifs (the kikimora), the references to Remizov, and even some humor, serve to update and enliven the chernukha genre by depicting crushingly (that word again!) awful circumstances – for a child, no less – alongside mystical and mythical elements. This occurs in Nekrasova’s short fiction, too: in “Несчастливая Москва” (“Unhappy Moscow,” where the title clearly echoes Platonov) strange daily changes in Moscow (like people suddenly speaking English instead of Russian) affect Nina, a cheerful, positive go-getter who refuses to leave the city, and in the beautifully composed “Лакшми” (“Lakshmi”) in which, hmm, a woman handles spousal abuse in a unique way. Nekrasova’s main characters’ – note that they’re all female – blend inner strength and outer, even supernatural, forces that combine to lend them abilities that empower. Although Kalechina-Malechina worked very nicely for me once I accepted the kikimora’s presence, I think the several works of short fiction that I’ve read thus far are even better because short-form fiction meshes so perfectly with Nekrasova’s direct, concise style and ability to describe social ills and various types of (that word again, too!) perversions with colorful, biting vignettes and details that feel both real and otherwordly. I’m looking forward to reading more.

This is the second 2019 Big Book Award finalist that I’ve read in its entirety. The first was Grigory Sluzhitel’s Savely’s Days (previous post), which also contains excellent illustrations.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. I received a copy of Kalechina-Malechina from the publisher after Elena Shubina recommended it to me last fall. Nekrasova sent me a care package of her stories, including a collection that won a Litsei award in 2018. Thank you to all involved!

Up Next: More fun with genres and fears – a perfect combo for summer – thanks to Valeria Verbinina’s retro detective novel Московское время (Moscow Time).