Sunday, October 27, 2019

Big Book 3: Aflatuni’s Earthly Paradise

Hm. Sukhbat Aflatuni’s Рай земной (Earthly Paradise) left me at something of a loss. After reading it during the summer, I referred to it as “a bit confused” in an “Up Next” section. I’ll stick with that assessment, but I think I’ll append that analysis with a line from novelist Daniel Orlov’s July review on, which states things even more directly: “Увы, получился очень хорошо написанный и очень скучный роман.” Which means that, alas, it turned out to be a very well written but very boring novel.

Books like Earthly Paradise leave me at a loss largely because they leave so little trace, even immediately after finishing. (Perhaps that’s what leaves the impression of “boring”?) My problems with Earthly Paradise arise largely because Aflatuni does certain things (like write!) pretty well but the book’s individual elements – plotlines, characters, overall feel, thematic motifs – just don’t meld enough to create what I consider a cohesive and satisfying novel. This particularly hurts after his Ant King (previous post), where two very different sections somehow, mysteriously, fit together with a whole lot of verve.

Given the mismatch (or maybe mishmash?) of narrative lines and structure, Earthly Paradise read best to me as the story of a friendship between two women – Plyusha and Natalie – who both live in a building next to a site where Poles were shot during the 1930s. There is also a thick thread that (I’ll admit) made me glaze over so much that I barely remember it: it involves a manuscript by a Polish Orthodox priest. (The manuscript tore me away from plotlines interested me more.) There are also lots of mentions of the Garden of Eden, the Fall, Adam and Eve, and other religion-related topics in the Plyusha/Natalie portions of the book. Those felt more organic to me than the manuscript itself thanks to, for example, conversations, but neither the biblical references nor the priest’s spirit could knit the novel together for me. As so often happens in novels (at least for my picky reading habits), Aflatuni does very nicely creating vivid, memorable characters but fails to place them within a framework that allows a vivid, memorable novel to develop.

Plyusha, Natalie, their characteristic tics, and their friendship were what kept me reading. Plyusha works with archives at a museum that focuses on political repression and she crochets little doilies for everybody. She feels like she’s an ear (large and warm!) to listen to Natalie, who’s more of a livewire and has read War and Peace three times. (How could I not like her after that!?) As if W&P weren’t enough, Natalie is even accused of being an instrument of the dark side. Plyusha’s mother sells Herbalife. Natalie takes karate lessons. Plyusha has an odd relationship with her former professor, Natalie doesn’t do well with her mother, Natalie accuses Plyusha of leading a sheltered life, things happen at the execution site… and so on. They kept me going until the end.

Even so, I came up feeling pretty empty, despite having met two characters with good potential who ended up squandered because the larger questions in the novel – political repression, history, contemporary views of history and political repression, religion – felt a little like (to use a horrible, worn cliché) round pegs for square holes. Or vice versa. They can get crammed and jammed together, but the result isn’t comfortable or elegant; they need custom finish work to be a good fit. Which is unfortunate because I enjoyed Plyusha and Natalie’s company, their situations had lots of potential, and the awful history of the NKVD’s Polish operation deserves discussion, more than it gets here. I feel more regret than usual that a novel fell short for me in large part because it tried too hard to toggle between a primary narrative and an inserted text. Given reader comments on I have to suspect, too, that Orlov (with whom I don’t agree about everything, though I second all his final conclusions, including that the historical and political elements of the book don’t click) and I are more critical than many, if not most, readers who might be more content to skip, skim, and forgive.

Up next: Anna Kozlova’s Rurik, Liubov Barinova’s brand-new Eve, two books in English, and some other books in Russian, including Alisa Ganieva’s biography of Lilya Brik, which I’m continuing to enjoy, and the very interesting Big Book finalist biography of Venedikt Erofeev by Oleg Lekmanov, Mikhail Sverdlov, and Ilya Simanovsky.

Disclaimers and Disclosures. The usual.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

2019’s Yasnaya Polyana Award Winners

The onslaught of award news continued this past week as the Yasnaya Polyana Award announced winners. Sergei Samsonov won the contemporary Russian prose category for his Держаться за Землю (Hold Onto (the?) Earth or something similar that captures the importance of mining?) a novel about coal miners and geopolitical conflict, war, in the Donbass region. The award’s news item includes a statement from jury member Vladislav Otroshenko that notes a growing tendency toward writing about contemporary life. This gladdens me after a spate of books about (twentieth-century) history, although – without having yet even attempted to read Samsonov’s book – I’d wondered about exactly what seems to concern reviewer Mikhail Vizel most about the novel. He writes (in my paraphrase) that the events in Donbass are still too hot, too agonizing, for an epic with a bird’s-eye view of events to be artistically effective. He does, though, seem to think many things work well in this fairly traditional novel, where point of view shifts between various characters who inspire reader sympathy.

I was very happy to see that Grigory Sluzhitel won the reader’s choice award for Дни Савелия (Savely’s Days) (previous post), which I’d been so sure would win that category that I bet some catnip on it. Meanwhile, Hernán Rivera Letelier’s El arte de la resurrección (English title: The Art of Resurrection), in Darya Sinitsina’s translation Искусство воскрешения, won the foreign book award. (My quick searches don’t show that the book has been translated into English; here’s a list of translations from Goodreads. A quick check of Amazon doesn’t turn up any English translations of Letelier books and the only two titles WorldCat comes up with for English sure look to be Spanish. There is, however, a review of The Art of Resurrection here.) Finally, so I can end on an up note rather than yet another book that apparently hasn’t been translated: Yasnaya Polyana’s event award went to Igor Volgin for his TV show Игра в бисер (The Bead Game), in which Volgin and four guests discuss literature, some Russian, some non-Russian, mostly by authors who are no longer among the living. (Vodolazkin’s Laurus is an anomaly!) I saw lots of familiar names – writers, scholars, critics, professors – on the guest lists and realize I’ve been missing out on what appear to be interesting programs. I feel particularly silly since Volgin was at the Frankfurt Book Fair last year and I didn’t take note! The show has been on since 2011 so there’s lots to choose from.

Disclaimers and Disclosures. The usual. Two authors I’ve translated are on the YP jury and I know both Grigory Sluzhitel and Mikhail Vizel. Here, by the way, is Vizel’s piece about the award for the Год литературы site.

Up Next: Anna Kozlova’s Rurik, Sukhbat Aflatuni’s Earthly Paradise, two books in English, and some other books in Russian, including Alisa Ganieva’s biography of Lilya Brik, which I’m continuing to enjoy, and Liubov Barinova’s brand-new Eve, which kept me up at night reading.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

The NOS(E) Award’s 2019 Longlist

The NOS(E) Award announced its longlist a week or two or three ago and, well, yes, I’ve been very slow in posting. Particularly since this is the one longlist I like to list in full: there are sixteen books this year, so wish me luck. (Given some of the titles, I need it!) I’ll list the books in the order they appear on the Mikhail Prokhorov Foundation site. The shortlist will be announced on Halloween (trick or treat, dear readers!) after a public debate.
  • Nikolai Kononov: Восстание (Uprising) is a “documentary novel” apparently inspired by the life of Sergei Solovyov, one of the organizers of the Norilsk camp uprising. It’s on the shelf.
  • Andrei Ivanov: Обитатели потешного кладбища (literally: Inhabitants of an/the Amusing Cemetery, I’m thinking this is likely a metaphorical title…) is set in post-war Paris, among Russian emigres, and if the book’s description is to be believed (alas, that’s not always the case, they often feel like a game to me), it apparently hits on a cornucopia of emotions (love and hate) and plot lines (collaboration, resistance, spying, and murder). Among other things. (I am so long overdue to read Ivanov!)
  • Aleksandr Dolinin: Комментарий к роману Владимира Набокова Дар(Commentary on Vladimir Nabokov’s Novel The Gift) is apparently exactly what the title says it is. (Sample
  • Kirill Kobrin: Поднебесный экспресс (The Celestial Express) sounds like an interesting sort-of-but-not-really-a-detective-novel set on a direct train trip (seventeen days!) from China to London. 
  • Alexander Stesin: Нью-йоркский обход (something like All Around New York sounds like it fits the description) concerns a doctor’s observations of work with very diverse patients in New York and New Delhi. (Sample) (Review)
  • Aleksandr Skidan: In Путеводитель по N. (A Guidebook to N.) the N. seems to stand for Nietzsche! :) In this mock autobiography, N. speaks in the voices of luminaries like Rilke, Dostoevsky, and Proust. Hm.
  • Linor Goralik: Все, способные дышать дыхание (literally something like All Capable of Breathing a Breath, perhaps? Or maybe “Everybody”? I’m interested in figuring out how to read this title.) The brief description introducing this excerpt says the book concerns a country that’s facing a huge catastrophe and discovers that empathy can be a double-edged sword. A Big Book finalist, one I’m having a hard time finding a way into.
  • Aleksandr Yarin: Жизнь Алексея: Диалоги (The Life of Alexei: Dialogues) sounds like a polyphonic, polygenre book that includes lots of philosophy and contradictions. And intentional anachronisms, something I do tend to enjoy. (Sample) (Review)
  • Daniil Turovskii: Вторжение. Краткая история русских хакеров (Interference. A Brief History of Russian Hackers. Or maybe Break In? I’m not sure if this concerns the 2016 elections in the US or not.) is a journalist’s account of what’s mentioned in the title. (Sample)
  • Maria Rybakova: Если есть рай (If There’s a Heaven/Paradise) is a bit of a mystery because it has only been published in journal form (in Znamya), meaning there’s no cover blurb (not that those are always very helpful!) and my assumptions could be wildly wrong. The online pages do look inviting, though, particularly after hearing/reading good things about Rybakova’s Gnedich.
  • Evgenii Nikitin: Про папу (About Papa) is, according to the cover, an illustrated “anti-novel,” and, based on the publisher’s description, it sounds like a lovely anomaly for these troubled times we live in. The author wants to make people happy? About Papa is easy reading that prompts smiles and thought? Happy?! Smiles? (Really!) Seriously, though, this sounds like exactly what I need. (Sample)
  • Evgenii Chizhov: Собиратель рая (The Collector of Heaven? Maybe something more like Collecting Heaven? No matter: we have more heaven/paradise…) concerns a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s disease who often leaves the house and gets lost, and her son (nicknamed “King” because he’s flea market royalty) who goes out to find her. It’s about memory, nostalgia, and people who came of age in the 1990s. I enjoyed Chizhov’s Translation from a Literal Translation (previous post) and am looking forward to this book. (Sample) (Review)
  • Aleksei Polyarinov: Центр тяжести (Center of Gravity) sounds like a long (though Labirint says it’s only 480 pages so I’ll read it in ten days, ha ha, ha ha) and (potentially) formally complex novel about a journalist, a hacker, and an artist. (Review
  • Pavel Peppershtein: Тайна нашего времени (Secret of Our Time) is a collection of sixteen stories with the author’s illustrations, published by Garage. I’ve been meaning to read Peppershtein’s fiction for years, after reading (and later translating a text) about his work with Inspection Medical Hermeneutics
  • Sofia Sinitskaya: Мироныч, дырник и жеможаха. Рассказы о родине (Mironych, Hole-Worshippers, and ???. Stories About the Motherland. Oh, that “жеможаха” is difficult, I keep going around in circles with it, feeling like I get it but then realizing I’m not quite there. It’s in the sample, it’s from a hymn, words are run together, and it’s mentioned in Saltykov-Shchedrin and, subsequently, Rozanov but, hm, it’s used in the novel as a nickname so I think I just have to read the book.) contains three novellas set in three separate times, the Great Terror, the late eighteenth century, and the turn of the twenty-first century. The book’s description claims (in my very loose account!) that Sinitskaya’s following in the tracks of Gogol and (even more exciting) Vaginov… (Review) (Sample)
  • Aleksei Sal’nikov: Опосредованно (Indirectly or somesuch) is also a Big Book finalist. It’s also the lone book on this list that I’ve read in full. I enjoyed this novel about a woman in the Urals who writes poetry, which has narcotic effects in the world Sal’nikov describes.
Disclaimers: The usual. Knowing a couple of the authors, if only slightly.

Up Next: Anna Kozlova’s Rurik, Sukhbat Aflatuni’s Earthly Paradise (more heaven/paradise, I think it’s a trend), two books in English, and some other books in Russian, including Alisa Ganieva’s biography of Lilya Brik and Liubov Barinova’s brand-new Eve, both of which I’ve been enjoying very much.