Saturday, July 10, 2021

Fear Itself: A. Pelevin’s Pokrov-17

The short and simple version: Alexander Pelevin’s Pokrov-17, which recently won the National Bestseller Award, is a strange and scary novel that kept me up at night. Part of me would love to leave things at that: Pokrov-17 is also complex as well as impossible to describe in much of any detail without spoiling the entire book for prospective readers.

The longer, rather jumbled version: The basic plot is that journalist Andrei Tikhonov is sent from Moscow to the Kaluga area for an assignment in a strange, closed area known as Pokrov-17. And what a road trip that turns out to be. He wakes up in the closed zone, in his car, with a corpse. And I bet you can guess who the killer is. Weird things have been happening in Pokrov-17 – “pokrov,” incidentally, means “cover” or “veil” or “shroud” or “protection” and has an entry on Orthodox Wiki, here – for decades and there’s a clear connection between those odd events (utter blackouts, for example, that come on suddenly and last for varying durations) and a battle fought in the local Church of the Veil of Our Lady in 1941. What really creeped me out, though, is that people can transform (their DNA changes), taking on traits of animals (bird feet, horse tails, dog heads, and the like) after being exposed to a certain substance; the process takes about a month. Also: Tikhonov wrote a World War 2 novel with scenes from the local battle. And then there’s this: Tikhonov’s trip is taking place during the so-called October Events of 1993, which are mentioned many times. There’s also a mysterious institute studying strange phenomena in Pokrov-17, a man named Харон (Charon!) who gives new meaning to notions of Spiderman, and (pick one more item, Lizok!) some strange haloed shadows. All the local anomalies can be traced back to the church and the battle.

And fear. The darkness is the fear of death, a man known only as the Captain tells Tikhonov. Though there are other colorful characters, I don’t want to give away too much so I’ll just say there’s instability in the community, the metamorphosized beings tend to run amok, and Tikhonov finds himself pulled into a very special mission. At a certain point, I knew what was going to happen: everything made sense because I read my Propp back in grad school and have read other A. Pelevin books. Warped time (there are three temporal layers here) and weird metaphysics are Pelevin’s thing and it felt perfect that he set Pokrov-17 during the October Events, when people also felt pretty much in the dark about what was happening inside the Russian White House.

I’m not quite sure how Pelevin stitches all this together to make such an absorbing novel but the excerpts from Tikhonov’s book, Tikhonov’s accounts of his travel in Pokrov-17, and the various documents that Pelevin inserts – a review of Tikhonov’s novel, a Yeltsin speech, and interviews – give the book depth and a sense of fictional authenticity. So do cultural references, including bits of songs, like DDT’s outrageously popular Что такое осень (“What’s Autumn”), which just about anybody who lived in Russia in the early nineties can sing and which gets on Tikhonov’s nerves when the Captain keeps reciting/singing it in the car. And then the Captain quotes Alistair Crowley – “one is eternally alone” – which I found, only now, is from Diary of a Drug Fiend. Which leads me to this: My only regret is that I read Pokrov-17 too quickly. The cultural and historical references deserve more attention than I gave them but Pelevin creates such tremendous suspense with Tikhonov’s first-person narrative and, especially, the horror of the metamorphoses that I couldn’t help myself. Even without a more careful reading, though, Pokrov-17 left me plenty to think about, particularly the way many people fear history and/or use history to create fear.

It’s not fair to compare a writer’s various novels – particularly when the author, like A. Pelevin, is capable of writing varied books – but even if Pokrov-17 doesn’t possess the literary dazzle of The Four (previous post), which has the stellar combination of space travel, cats, and Vvedensky (among other things), it inhabited me thanks to its quick-paced plot plus all those horrifying metamorphoses as well as revelations that provide plenty of metaphysical, existential, religious, and cultural threads to pull. Which is to say that Pokrov-17 offered plenty to keep me up at night, making it a fitting companion for our June heatwave.

Up Next: Svetlana Kuznetsova’s Anatomy of the Moon, Vera Bogdanova’s Pavel Zhang and Other River Creatures, and Eugene Vodolazkin’s book about a fictional island.

Disclaimers and Disclosures. The usual. I translated Masha Regina, by Vadim Levental, whose imprint at Gorodets published Pokrov-17.

Saturday, June 26, 2021

The 2021 Yasnaya Polyana Award Longlist

Well how about that? Somehow I’d completely forgotten the Yasnaya Polyana Award longlist was on the way… and then there it was, announced, earlier this week. There are 45 books on the list; roughly half are somehow familiar (even very familiar) but the rest are somehow new to me. Which is why I so love longlists, something I seem to say over and over...

First off: seven of the books and authors on the list coincide with the 2021 Big Book Award shortlist (last week’s post): Yury Buida’s Сады Виверны (The Wyvern’s Gardens), Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Кока (Koka), Maya Kucherskaya’s Лесков. Прозёванный гений (Leskov. The Missed Genius (almost in the sense of “the one who got away,” albeit with a sleepy tinge)), Alexei Polyarinov’s Риф (The Reef), Viktor Remizov’s Вечная мерзлота (Permafrost), Marina Stepnova’s Сад (The Garden), and Leonid Yuzefovich’s Филлэлин (The Philhellene). Mikhail Elizarov’s Земля (Earth) (previous post) won the 2020 National Bestseller Award and was a 2020 Big Book finalist.

There are other familiar names on the list – German Sadulaev, Alla Gorbunova, and Shamil Idiatullin are but a few – though I’ve only read two books on the list: the afore-mentioned Earth and Sergei Lebedev’s Дебютант, a very absorbing thriller with parallel plotlines and timelines that’s known in English, in Antonina Bouis’s translation for New Vessel Press, as Untraceable. I’ve read chunks of Stepnova’s book as well as Sergei Samsonov’s Высокая кровь (High Blood); I translated samples from both. On another note: roughly a third of the authors on the list are women. Among them are Vera Bogdanova and Elena Posvyatovskaya, whose Павел Чжан и прочие речные твари (Pavel Zhang and Other River Creatures) and Важенка (Vazhenka), respectively, are already either in my book cart or on order.

So now the especially fun part: a few unfamiliar authors and titles that sound promising and are already available in book form:

  • Keren Klimovski’s Время говорить (Time to Speak?) is set in Israel in the late 1990s and early 2000s, combining genres (detective, family, journey) as it tells of a teenage girl whose parents divorce.
  • Given the dearth of information about it and Google’s habit of bringing up stories about (presumably wooly?) mammoths, I’ll let Evgeny Mamontov’s Музыка в аэропорту (Airport Music) remain a mystery. Particularly since I haven’t been in an airport in ages…
  • Natalia Repina’s Жизнеописание Льва (The Story of Lev’s Life) is on order; it’s a book about a young man who’s a librarian. Set in Moscow and Peredelkino.
  • And, since I can’t find a fourth book that’s utterly unfamiliar as well as appealing, here’s a bit of a cheat that truly does sound good: Olga Medvedkova’s Три персонажа в поисках любви и бессмертия (Three Characters in Search of Love and Immortality), which I have a PDF copy of thanks to Medvedkova’s literary agency, Elkost. No wonder Medvedkova’s name sounded familiar!

Disclaimers and disclosures: The usual. I’ve translated excerpts from several of the books on this list and received books, virtual and print, from their publishers and agents. I’ve also translated books by two of the award’s jurors. 

Up next: Svetlana Kuznetsova’s The Anatomy of the Moon and Alexander Pelevin’s Pokrov-17.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Lizok’s Summer Reading Plan: The 2021 Big Book Shortlist

On Wednesday the Big Book Award announced a list of thirteen finalists for the 2021 prize. I’ve read very little from this year’s longlist thus far so can’t decide if I’m surprised that some authors (Vera Bogdanova, for example) didn’t make the list, though I know I’m a little disappointed Bogdanova’s novel – as well as, for various reasons, books by Sergei Nosov, Pavel Krusanov, and Irina Bogatyreva – wasn’t on it. Lots of familiar, perennial nominees and “usual suspects” were left out, too: Ilya Boyashov, Shamil Idiatullin, Zakhar Prilepin, Andrei Rubanov, Sergei Samsonov, and Roman Senchin among them. And Alexander Pelevin’s Pokrov-17, which recently won the National Bestseller Award, isn’t a Big Book finalist either. I’m reading Pokrov-17 now and enjoying it for its suspense and weirdness but haven’t yet read enough to go on record saying more than that.

In any case, the good news is that this year’s books look far more promising than last year’s, though (as my husband likes to say) that sets the bar pretty low. I’m sure some of my positive feelings about the 2021 list involve my familiarity with some of the authors: I’ve translated three of them and know four more. I’ve read and enjoyed (or at least finished!) books by others. And those I haven’t read generally sound interesting. Unfortunately, my biggest regret about the list is that (here I go again!) only four of the thirteen books were written by women, though (as always), I don’t know much about the overall pool of Big Book nominees. I’m happiest because I’m glad this list looks likely to keep me reading.

And so. Here’s the list, in Russian alphabetical order by author surname:

  • In Narine Abgaryan’s Симон (Simon), a man’s death brings together his former loves, who tell their stories. I read a large chunk of Simon on my reader but am going to reread (and finish) the novel on paper. (I think I’m getting crankier and crankier about electronic reading! I really need to flip those pages.) 
  • Dmitry Bavilsky’s Желание быть городом (The Desire to be a City?) describes itself in the book’s subtitle as “Итальянский травелог эпохи Твиттера в шести частях и тридцати пяти городах” – “A Twitter-era Italian travelogue, in six parts and thirty-five cities.” The publisher’s description uses the terms “documentary novel” and “autofiction.” I’m not much for travelogues but I do like, even relish, the thought of Bavilsky describing works of art he hasn’t seen.
  • Yury Buida’s Сады Виверны (The Wyvern’s Gardens, I guess?) sounds difficult to summarize with its three countries and four temporal settings so I’m just going to focus on thinking about the word “wyvern” for now. And buy the book.
  • Oksana Vasyakina’s Рана (The Wound) may well be the book on the list that intrigues me the most, with (apparently) an account of the narrator traveling with her mother’s ashes, bringing them to be buried. I read Polina Barskova’s introduction and the beginning of Vasyakina’s text on my reader but am going to order a print copy so I can fully appreciate Vasyakina’s writing.
  • Evgeny Vodolazkin’s Оправдание Острова (The History of Island), which I loved on the first reading for its chronicle-like format (sometimes!) and stylization (varying!) and blend of timelines. It’s a very Vodolazkonian novel; he’s exceptionally skilled at writing about favorite themes from new angles that make his material fresh, relevant, and related to his others works without repeating them. I’m working on a short sample translation now and had a good laugh remembering how cats came to be.
  • Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Кока (Koka) is a continuation (of sorts?) of The Devil’s Wheel (previous post), which I loved so very much about ten years ago. Two friend who’ve already read Koka enjoyed it. It’s in my reading cart and will probably be the book I choose after I finish Pokrov-17. Like The Devil’s Wheel it’s very long (720 pages) so should keep me busy!
  • Andrei Dmitriev’s Этот берег (That Shore) apparently tells the story of a retired schoolteacher who’s been living in Russia then moves to Ukraine, where he finds a new life for himself.
  • Maya Kucherskaya’s Лесков. Прозёванный гений (Leskov. The Missed Genius – I almost want to say something like “slept through” or “yawning” here to capture the sense of sleeping!) is a very big book (656 pages, 668 grams) about Nikolai Leskov. My life is embarrassingly under-Leskoved but, inspired by factors including Languagehat’s posts about Leskov and, subsequently, some personalized reading recommendations plus my own impressions after reading “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” back in my first youth, I’m looking forward to letting Kucherskaya, a kind person and a good reader, guide me to and through more Leskov.
  • Vladimir Paperny’s Архив Шульца (Shults’s Archive) looks, hm, potentially interesting, if a bit overwhelming at first: a Russian émigré living in Los Angeles receives a package of materials that turn out to form a family archive. A blurb from Alexander Genis uses the word “мозаика” (mosaic), something I confirmed by paging through a PDF of the book. We’ll see how it goes!
  • Alexei Polyarinov’s Риф (The Reef): I’ll leave the description to the publisher (here) and add that I’m looking forward to this one after finding Polyarinov’s Center of Gravity (previous post) fairly good.
  • Viktor Remizov’s Вечная мерзлота (Permafrost) is another heavyweight, clocking in at 925 grams (over 800 pages of rather small type, yeow) with a story based on actual events, about prisoners laying a railroad line in Siberia during 1949-1953. I enjoyed Remizov’s Ashes and Dust back in 2014 (previous post) and praised Remizov’s storytelling so am looking forward to Permafrost, which comes highly praised by Maya Kucherskaya and Vasily Avchenko.
  • I read a large chunk of Marina Stepnova’s Сад (The Garden) on my e-reader and found that it interested me far less for its nineteenth-century plot and characters (which, after translating two twentieth-century Stepnova books, made me feel a bit off-kilter) than for its stylized language. I had fun translating a sample. I’m going to buy a paper copy of The Garden since it’s another book that didn’t feel right to read electronically. (Have I mentioned that I don’t like e-reading?)
  • Leonid Yuzefovich’s Филлэлин (The Philhellene) is a novel where characters converse through journals, letters, and mental conversations. Yuzefovich’s own back-cover description refers to the novel as being closer to “variations on historical themes than a traditional historical novel.” This is one of those books where I’ve purposely avoided learning too much before reading.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The Usual. I’ve translated excerpts from two of these books and entire books by three of the finalist authors. I know other authors on the list and have ties to some of the others through publishers and literary agents.

Up Next: Svetlana Kuznetsova’s The Anatomy of the Moon, which I’m translating and enjoying for the third time but still don’t know how to write about. Vodolazkin’s The History of Island, which I’m rereading the way it should be read – slowly; A. Pelevin’s Pokrov-17, and maybe Alexander Belyaev’s The Air Seller, quick reading that I started while waiting for Pokrov-17 to arrive…