Saturday, December 25, 2021

Alienation, Take #534: Filipenko’s Return to Ostrog and Valitov’s Corner Room

My reading habits have been a bit odd in recent months – Big Book reading and a project have been two of the big reasons – and my thoughts about the books I’ve read seem to differ a bit from usual, too. To be more specific, my thoughts on how to write about the books I’ve read seems to be leaning more toward roundups than posts about single books. That is, in large part, because I’ve been noticing so many common themes.

I started noticing certain common themes about two years ago, in early 2020, when I was preparing a talk for Bowdoin College. I found the text of the talk in my “Travel” folder, which feels especially appropriate since that forty-minute drive (one-way) was my last pre-pandemic travel. After mentioning in my talk that many of the books I’ve translated – among them are Vodolazkin’s Laurus, Stepnova’s The Women of Lazarus, and Abgaryan’s Three Apples Fell from the Sky – include complicated childbirth or pregnancies that require hospitalization, I add that “…I see some very distinct and common threads about severe difficulties coming into the world, very often in times that are just as turbulent as the births themselves.” I could add numerous other books, such as Stepnova’s The Garden, a finalist for this year’s Big Book and Yasnaya Polyana awards.

Now, almost two years after I wrote that talk, I seem to be reading a lot of books about children from dysfunctional family situations, kids who are orphaned or, hm, underparented to various degrees, literally and/or figuratively. I’ve already written about several of these books relatively recently – Oksana Vasyakina’s The Wound and Alexei Polyarinov’s The Reef (previous post), Svetlana Kuznetsova’s Anatomy of the Moon (previous post), and Anna Kozlova’s Rurik (previous post) – where the nature and severity of the problems differ greatly. The Women of Lazarus fits this category, too. I think what fascinates me most about these books, as well as the two I’ll write more about below, is the presence of two common threads: forms of alienation and the loss(es) accompanying the alienation. I’m still trying, for example, to get over Vasyakina’s mention of watching The Wall over and over as a small child. Polyarinov’s characters include a cult leader and a mean mother. And the corner of the world Kuznetsova describes is rather hellish, with gang supremacy being the primary (and primal) authority and many characters missing, physically, body parts. Everybody seems to have sustained losses and feel separated from something (often society and the world itself) and/or someone. Saying there’s a lot of trauma in these books puts things mildly.

These are, of course, common themes in world literature and they’re not new at all in Russian literature either – here are links to some previous posts with the words “orphaned” and “orphan” – but I seem to be happening upon books by young writers who address these topics. Posts with “orphanage” include Vera Bogdanova’s Pavel Zhang and Other River Creatures and this post will ensure that Sasha Filipenko’s Возвращение в Острог (Return to Ostrog) will be on the list, too: Filipenko’s town called Ostrog (a word that translates to “prison” or “jail”) is home to both an orphanage and a prison, and there’s a spate of suicides among children at the orphanage. And then there’s another book, which I just don’t think I can finish, despite some merits: Timur Valitov’s debut novel, Угловая комната (The Corner Room), where the narrator is a more metaphorical orphan, a young man (a writer) who visits his hometown after the death of his father, whom he barely knew, in part because of the father’s prison sentence.

I read Filipenko’s book very recently but, oddly (albeit probably for good reasons), it hasn’t really stuck with me and I find that Valitov’s, where the language and situations were especially simple, wasn’t staying with me much even as I read. In the case of Ostrog, I think Filipenko’s combination of genres – investigators from Moscow come to Ostrog to look into the suicides and decide whether or not to indict anyone – felt a bit too typical to find a truly distinctive place in my mental filing cabinet. What will never leave me, though, perhaps since I saw it first-hand when I lived in Moscow and volunteered at a shelter, is the literal orphanage theme, where the children are doomed – the Pied Piper of Hamelin is invoked, indicating the fate of rats – and may be released from one prison (the orphanage, where they age out in their teens) only to end up in another, the real jail. That’s where one of the main characters, the hyper-correct Petya, who’s not really of this world, has landed. Reading retention is highest for some of the lively and absurd touches Filipenko inserts into the narrative: a karaoke-singing investigator whose personal life is a wreck, a heartbreaking story he reads, and a local cop’s use of Platonov’s Chevengur to beat Petya. (!) What struck me most about the book, however, is the thread of loneliness, which Kozlov, one of the investigators, calls an “epidemic.” He sees people in cars who aren’t speaking to one another, he’s still yearning for his ex-wife and, well, you can see where this all leads, what with the orphanage and the prison and death and the metaphysical prison of life… It would have made for especially dreary pandemic-era reading if not for Filipenko’s humor, bits of absurdity, and concision.

Filipenko’s book is far, far more vivid than Valitov’s, where I found a whole lot of numbness and apathy, both in a literal sense, with a lot of drinking, and a more figurative sense, with the narrator’s seemingly limited ability to relate to or be around other people. One odd common thread that I caught while writing this post: Valitov’s narrator also mentions Chevengur, which he reads. The narrator says a person is a body full of dumplings (пельмени) disagreeing with Serbinov’s diary entry in Chevengur that says (in, thankfully, Anthony Olcott’s translation) that “Man is not meaning, but a body filled with passionate veins, ravines of blood, mounds, openings, satisfaction, and oblivion.” I think that reaction sums up, even explains, a lot, given the narrator’s distance, or perhaps better yet, his estrangement, from friends and relatives. (It’s no wonder the big soccer tournament that’s in town is just a phantom in the background…) I love pelmeni but, hmm, I hope there’s more to me and you and all the rest of us than dumplings. I think I most appreciate The Corner Room’s everydayness, the alienation and ennui (given the book’s strong French themes) that cloak so many of the narrator’s actions, though the sum of all those literary parts (I’m not quite sure how else to state this) didn’t add up to a novel that I could finish, despite reading 200 (of 318) pages. I suspect it couldn’t keep me going because it lacked what I continue to think of as “new information,” not so much in a literal almanac-like sense but in the sense of new literary angles on life, death, and identity. I wonder if perhaps all the numbness (which felt very, very real and topical but perhaps, paradoxically, not developed enough to make for what I consider compelling fiction) and the rather derivative French element of the book simply left me uninterested. And sad because there’s so much good material. As well as heartened, too, in some sense because Valitov has chosen complex, difficult, material for this, his debut novel. If you’re interested in more on The Corner Room, Galina Yuzefovich wrote a detailed review for Meduza that Google translates well enough into English to give you a much better sense of the book than I can muster. Though The Corner Room clearly isn’t my novel, I’m interested in giving more of Valitov’s work a try.

Up Next: Next week: New translations for 2021. Books by Dmitry Danilov and Kirill Ryabov, which both offer comic relief. And Leonid Yuzefovich’s The Philhellene

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. I’ve translated books and/or samples of many of the books mentioned in this post.


  1. Very interesting, and I like this:

    I suspect it couldn’t keep me going because it lacked what I continue to think of as “new information,” not so much in a literal almanac-like sense but in the sense of new literary angles on life, death, and identity.

    That's a good way to sum up the problem I had with Shishkin's first novel, Записки Ларионова, which is brilliantly written but lacks what I now can call new information. (Sorokin's Роман, which I'm reading now, is superficially similar but very different!)

    1. Thank you for your comment, Languagehat! Yes, there are lots of very good books that lack that "new information" I always crave. I borrow that phrase from a musician (a bass guitarist, somehow that seems fitting!) I knew in Moscow: he used to say this when he listened to music that just didn't excite/stimulate/interest him. Here's wishing you lots more new information in your reading!