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.


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