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.



  1. This sounds incredible. Your recent posts have dealt with incredible complex writing, a welcome trend. Someone somewhere will produce a thesis on the role of red-headed women in Russian novels - if they haven't already!

    1. Thank you for your comment, Made of Words, these books really are complex... And that truly is welcome! I love the idea of a thesis on red-headed women in Russian novels!

  2. The Anatomy of the Moon sounds incredibly interesting. I couldn't find any information on the author, I was wondering if you knew where I could find some? The only info that shows up is about the tennis player.

    1. I think it's very interesting and hope others will, too! This is Kuznetsova's first book published in book form, though she published previously in a literary journal. Tomorrow I'll post a link to a Russian site.

    2. Hm, the site's not coming up but I'll check on that!

  3. Hi Lisa, I'm a recent follower of the blog but I've been reading your translations for years (and adore them.)

    "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."

    Yes! I'm an actor and currently doing Henry 4th, part 1. I find what you said above to be exactly true of my experience with Shakespeare.

    I'm curious: why do Russian writers of a certain time period (the ones I'm thinking of are Dostoevsky,Turgenev, and Chekhov) spend so much time describing in such detail their characters' faces? And why, after all that detail, do I often find I still cannot picture with clarity what this person looks like?

    This may not be the space you want to discuss these sorts of questions. But it occurred to me you might be the prefect person to ask.

  4. Thank you for your comment and for reading my blog and translations, z.chast.! It's interesting to hear that your experiences with Shakespeare are similar to my experiences with translations.

    Given that I'm no specialist in nineteenth-century Russian literature, I don't think I can answer your question. But I can say that I sometimes get a little impatient with detailed descriptions so may not read them very carefully because I want to get on with the story! Happy reading to you!