Saturday, August 21, 2021

Open Wounds: Svetlana Kuznetsova’s Anatomy of the Moon

I’ve used words like “flail” and “flummox” in all too many blogposts but today I’m invoking both, in advance, as I finally put fingers to keyboard and write about Svetlana Kuznetsova’s Анатомия Луны (The Anatomy of the Moon). I read Anatomy for the first time, electronically, in January, then read it in book form several months later. Now I’m translating the novel, finishing a first draft. But I’m still unsure what or how to write about Anatomy. As with any book, the more I translate, the more I see in the book. But the more I see in the book, the more I realize there’s still more to learn and grasp. When I translate, I read, I write, and I soak up details and motifs, making connections and finding ways to connect my emotional and intellectual reactions to the text. I think this is one of the biggest reasons I love translation so much, even if I’m still not always able to explain what I feel or understand in my books.

If I had to choose one word to describe The Anatomy of the Moon, it might (likely?) be “trauma.” I suppose that’s especially fitting since trauma often accompanies coming of age, something I also see in Anatomy, albeit in multiple stages at the life of Lo, the redheaded narrator who sees herself as a banshee. (Yes, “Lo,” like that other Lo; this is a thread I have yet to pull by rereading Lolita. And yes, that most famous line does echo in Anatomy…) Lo lives in a sort of ghetto, a borough called 20/20. She’s an artist and she escaped to 20/20 after the counterfeit art ring she was involved with was busted. (!) 20/20 is filled with others who have nowhere else to go. Among them is a Russian gang leader, a sort of gang manager; he was dumped in 20/20 by the police. He’s missing most of his nose. Others in the area are missing things, too: physical fingers or limbs, parents, or God, who’s left the premises for other parts of the universe.

God’s absence and the vacuum it creates on Planet Earth is one of the central motifs in Anatomy. At one point (I’ll paraphrase a bit here), Lo asks God to come back to pat people’s heads and protect them, be they sinners, prostitutes, or banshees shivering like little birds in the cold winter. She’s essentially praying for everyone. Residents of 20/20 seem to live on adrenaline (there’s brutal ethnic gang warfare, particularly between Russian and Salvadoran groups; this almost feels geopolitical, allegorical) and anesthetics like bootleg absinthe and the cannabis that Fedya Afrikanets, the Russian gang’s head warrior grows in mass quantity at his apartment by the waterfront. The artists in the area – one’s surname is Satanov, which is pretty clear, another’s is Grobin, nicknamed “Grob,” or coffin – avoid the rumbles but join in at the gang’s gritty bar that’s known as a teahouse.

I could write pages and pages about the many plot elements and turns in Anatomy – the Lo-Grob-Afrikanets love triangle, the meanings of characters’ losses of body parts and relatives, and the many twists in gang and even drug trafficking relations – but what underlies everything, at least to my mind, is art and authenticity. Among some beautiful descriptions of winter (blizzards, blocks of ice sticking out of the Neva-like river, wind rattling in ventilation shafts, I love this northern, Petersburgesque stuff) and horrifying accounts of battles and abuse, some in the past, some in the present, are threads about art. Yesterday’s work included what I might call a rant (I love translating a good rant!) about art, praising cave art in Lascaux and taking Duchamp’s Fountain to task, while also referencing (for the second time) Piero Manzoni’s Artist’s Shit. God is gone, beauty is gone, Van Gogh is crying. Art has become an acquisition, something Lo and her fellow counterfeiters capitalize on in a consumer-oriented society that cares more about money and collections than appreciation of beauty and human beings… That society, which is geographically close but on another planet both socially and economically, treats people like the residents of 20/20 as disposable. And gang warfare, ethnic hatreds and ugly stereotypes, extreme poverty abound in 20/20. There’s a lot of extremely uncomfortable material in Anatomy. The book feels like a warning, a cautionary tale about what happens when the world goes off-kilter, when cans of crap are sold as art, and people don’t count. Of course there are many acts of kindness among friends and allies, not to mention some humor, and Kuznetsova’s characters aren’t all bad – more than anything, they’re people who’ve gone astray and have had little or no positive guidance in their lives – but it’s the bigger picture, the one that includes an absent God, a God who’s on the lam, that stays with me most. That and Fedya’s statement that the residents of 20/20 are like scraps of wood after a shipwreck. Indeed they are. Shipwreck. Fragmentation. Kuznetsova hammers on motifs like these, giving the novel a rhythm that doesn’t let the reader forget the trauma, the violence, and what’s missing in everyday lives.

I suppose that’s why Anatomy grabbed me so strongly the first time I read it: the novel kept me up at night, both as I read and as I considered what I was reading, thinking about the characters’ many sides, both as imaginary people who feel almost real and, even more as, well, literary devices created to convey the author’s messages. Anatomy still keeps me up because I still can’t forget about it. That’s not just because I’m translating and it’s not just that Kuznetsova writes about people on the margins who barely exist for most of the world, about haves and have-nots, about violence, about deep societal divisions, about things that shouldn’t happen. It’s because what she writes feels so phantasmagorically true and sad that it won’t leave me alone.

This may seem an odd way to conclude a post but no book has made me recall, so vividly, a sociology course I took years ago with Philip Rieff. Rieff showed us films – he called us “the video generation,” a term I resented because I’ve always been so book-oriented – and discussed the ways the films portrayed the breakdown of what he called the sacred order. He often said he hoped that, decades hence, we’d face situations that would bring back memories of the course and our discussions of the sacred order. I’m not sure if I first thought of Rieff because of Anatomy’s depiction of a broken sacred order or because one of the films we watched was Luis Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty, where toilets play a major role in one scene. Either way, Rieff’s teachings on the sacred order – a framework I don’t think of in strictly religious terms – helped shape my views of the novel and how it fits with my own perceptions of the world. My only regret in focusing here on the sacred order is that I’ve held back on so many other layers, including formal aspects of the book – not to mention the wonderful rabbit holes Anatomy offers, what with astronomy, banshees (very interesting!), art history (Breughel!), paint colors for the Eiffel tower, and a zillion other things – as, flummoxed, I flailed my way through writing this post.

Up Next: Marina and Sergei Dyachenko’s The Ritual, about, how about this, a princess and a dragon. Aleksei Polyarinov’s The Reef, a Big Book finalist.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. I’m translating The Anatomy of the Moon (author commissioned, no publisher as yet) and the author provided me with copies of the novel.


Saturday, August 7, 2021

Ah, Sweet Mysteries of Life: Repina’s Lev: A Life

Natalia Repina’s Жизнеописание Льва (which I guess I’ll call Lev: A Life rather than something with “biography”) is a moderately mysterious short novel about a rather mysterious person named, of course, Lev. Repina lives up to her title, describing Lev’s life in 221 not-so-large pages that she splits into three parts. Lev is a somewhat unusual, awkward, and sensitive person. At one point, as a child, he’s described with a sentence that sounds painfully familiar: “He sometimes feels like an antenna that picks up on the conditions of others.” (“Он иногда чувствует себя антенной, которая ловит чужие состояния.”) I’ve written “others” because Lev is also a child who saves the worms he finds on mushrooms. In the second part of the novel, as an adult, he says (I’ll paraphrase/translate) he doesn’t eat killed animals or use leather things, nor does he give cut flowers or kill flies and cockroaches. He also sniffs books. Something I’ve done, too.

I suppose the mysteriousness of the novel for me is connected to the fact that some books make me feel like an antenna, too. I read and read and read Lev, understanding the words, taking in the emotions, settings, situations, and moods, but wasn’t always quite sure what to do with the words and descriptions. I don’t write that to cast blame on Repina, in fact I like the sort of book when I read and read and read, then finish one day with a pile of feelings about what I read. And often, as with Lev, those feelings include a sadness that the book ended because I’d grown accustomed to characters like Lev. Books like this flummox me, though, when I try to describe them, particularly when they’re life stories that are driven more by the passage of time than a plot with lots of action. Yes, there are relationships, though Lev has some uncomfortable dating situations. Yes, there’s a deception (to help someone keep an apartment) that even involves literature. Yes, the first part of the book is set at a Peredelkino dacha, where Lev goes with his mother (an accompanist at a music school) and grandmother; he plays with the neighbor kids. Yes, there are various intrigues among the dachafolk. And the last part of the book involves searches for Lev during the part of his life when he particularly resembles the “contemporary holy fool” (“современный юродовый”) Evgeny Vodolazkin describes him as in a blurb on the book’s cover.

I wonder if one of the reasons I find Lev so difficult to describe is that Repina did such a nice job writing the book (another blurb, from Marina Stepnova praises her voice) from multiple perspectives, drawing (and drawing out) characters and creating atmosphere. She lets Lev e-nun-ci-ate certain words and allows the final narrator’s panic to come through loud and clear on this reader’s antenna. And, unusually, the book moved along quickly for me even though I was immersing myself in its atmosphere more than following a plot: I sometimes consciously felt that I didn’t want to put the book down, lest I break Repina’s spell or leave the places she describes.

Another factor is (and here I’ll borrow from a third blurber, critic Natalia Lomykina) that Repina’s book is nostalgic in its depictions of the former intelligentsia (Lev even thinks of long-time dacha people with the word “formers,” using the Soviet-era word “бывшие”) as well as lost values from another time. All these elements accumulate into a strange sense of coming of age not just for Lev (who dies at age fifty-nine) but for Peredelkino, Russia, and Lev’s generation, as well as social constraints and the values Lomykina mentions. I’m so used to this thematic line in contemporary Russian novels that I often don’t even think about it, taking it for granted, though here Lev’s use of the word “formers,” which feels very marked to me, made it stand out.

I don’t have much plot to outline – despite the deception, which involves literature and draws in Lev since he’s a librarian who happened to study Mandelstam’s Voronezh Notebooks – but when I look back at my notes, they return me to the book’s atmosphere and, well, the life and lives Repina describes so completely and concisely. Early on, for example, she mentions how the ear grows accustomed to background noises like distant trains or planes gaining altitude. (Perhaps this got me because we hear distant trains at our house and they never fail to remind me of Platonov’s heartbreaking “Immortality,” which Robert Chandler and I translated?) Later there’s discussion of individuals’ public and private selves; still later Lev’s observation that elderly people look dead when they sleep (!!) and the feeling that when a dacha is torn down, childhoods go with it. I guess the most relevant question I can ask about Lev is, Why does this book tug at me so much? If I’m honest, I don’t even have to ask myself the question. I already know it’s because of the tragic fragility of individuals who can get lost, societies that can change, and life itself, which inevitably ends. I suppose what I mean to say is that Lev is about life, living life, and what happens when a life is no longer lived. On the simplest level, it’s about what happens when we go from Point A to Point B, just like the two taxi rides that frame Repina’s wonderfully mysterious novel about Lev’s life.

A special note to subscribers: With the recent demise of FeedBurner, I’ve transferred my blog feed to I think (hope! cross my fingers!) that I’ve done everything properly and all subscribers will now receive posts with the help of I subscribe to posts via email and an RSS reader and will make adjustments if anything fails to work properly after this post goes up. A special thanks to subscribers for letting my posts invade your inbox or RSS reader! 

Up Next: Svetlana Kuznetsova’s The Anatomy of the Moon, which I was going to blog about today but decided against because that will be a more involved post and I was distracted this afternoon by the squash vine borers that are ending our zucchini season. (Lev would not be happy with me: I dissected the stems to inspect the damage and destroy the larvae, lest they overwinter and hatch next year.) And then Marina and Sergei Dyachenko’s The Ritual.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. I’ve translated books by two of the three blurbers mentioned in this post and I know the third, Natalia Lomykina, through Facebook. You can view the blurbs and read the beginning of the novel on Labirint, where I bought my book.