Sunday, September 8, 2019

It’s the Pits: Digging Deep In A. Pelevin’s Kalinova Yama

Yes, Alexander Pelevin remains my favorite Pelevin even if his Калинова Яма (Kalinova Yama) doesn’t offer quite the level of cosmic suspense and heady thrills, chills, and excitement of Четверо (The Four) (previous post), which I so enjoyed a couple months ago. In The Four, Pelevin skillfully, even sneakily (I admire “sneakily” in writers), connects three very distinct plotlines, partly aided by, surprise!, a Vvedensky poem. Kalinova Yama feels heavier, weightier, with its twentieth-century history – Spain, Germany, the USSR, wars – and the novel’s storytelling devices feel slightly labored, too, though I enjoyed the tension of the slower pace. All told, Kalinova Yama v. The Four is a case where the comparison sounds far harsher than the reality, at least for me: I finished and enjoyed Kalinova Yama, unlike a friend who picked it up thinking it was by that other Pelevin; alas, she found the book “нудная (the Oxford Russian Dictionary offers up “tedious” and “boring” – think “nudnik”!), perhaps because she was expecting something completely different. Kalinova Yama did feel a slight bit long, something Dmitry Bykov mentions here, so pruning could have prevented a little skimming, per Elmore Leonard’s tenth rule, here. But I digress.

So, yes, I finished the book, enjoying it and letting it keep me up at night. Describing Kalinova Yama isn’t easy, though. I jotted in the back of my book “blends World War 2, psychology of the 1930s, folk motifs, spy novel.” All basically true. The main character initially seems to be a Soviet journalist, Oleg Safronov, but he turns out to be German, one Helmut Laube, who’s working undercover and receives instructions to travel to Kalinova Yama in June 1941. He tells his editor he wants to go interview a local writer. (Ha!) The catch – the mystery, really, which I’ll be very vague about so as not to spoil things – is that something happens in Kalinova Yama and Laube’s train ride turns out to be extraordinarily, even epically, problematic.

Pelevin writes his novel in several layers. The layer that interested me most was Laube’s activity in June 1941: the runup to his travel and the travel itself, which gets weirder and weirder. And then even weirder. But I like weird. (In fact I’m prizing weird books more and more these days, perhaps because of the state of the world?) I loved the numerous takes on the train station and Laube’s contact in Kalinova Yama, not to mention the conductor in Laube’s train car; the word “проводник” can also mean a sort of guide, which this conductor ends up being, too. Other pluses: interrogation transcripts that are interspersed throughout the novel and some of the texts attributed to the local writer. I was less interested in Laube’s past in Spain and Poland (some passages felt too long) and his future, from which he tells of his post-war fate; I zipped through some of it fairly quickly.

There were other texts tossed in, too, including an article (real or not, I’m not sure) about the psychology of the яма/yama, a word that means, among other things, “pit” or “dip” or “pothole” or even “prison,” and is used in the book’s title, which is a toponym. This, of course, sets up an interesting set of pits: the personal and psychological, as well as the geographical and physical, plus something bigger and more metaphysical, what I came to think of as a sort of meta-pit. Pelevin’s at his best describing what I’ll call Laube’s series of approaches into Kalinova Yama (there’s far more to it!) and all the confusion (so much confusion! so many dreams! so many nationalities! so many names!) that arises around Laube, then tossing in information on how others see Laube. There are also nice touches like a talking duck, a yucky hotel, and a cigarette case that magically doesn’t empty. All in all, my only regret is that I read The Four, Pelevin’s third book, before reading Kalinova Yama, which is his second book: Kalinova Yama has more than enough to offer as an interesting, twisted, and even enigmatic exploration of identity and reality that kept me reading and wondering, but The Four felt much more accomplished, more sparkling, to me, with nothing at all (per Elmore Leonard) that I ever considered skipping or skimming.

Disclaimers and disclosures. The usual.

Up next. Anna Kozlova’s Rurik, Sukhbat Aflatuni’s Big Book finalist Earthly Paradise, and then something else. Two books written in English: Jennifer Croft’s memoir Homesick and Olga Zilberbourg’s Like Water and Other Stories.


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