Saturday, September 17, 2022

Hey, Dima! Congratulations on Your Awards for Hey, Sasha!

I’m days late and many dollars short here but very happy to write that Dmitry Danilov won two awards this fall for his novel Саша, привет! (Hey, Sasha!). He won Prose of the Year about two weeks ago and just yesterday he won the Yasnaya Polyana Award, too. Before I go on about Sasha, I should note that Islam Khanipaev won the YP reader’s choice award for his Типа я, which I’ve called Like Me; the book got an impressive 46.3% of the vote.

I read Hey, Sasha! an embarrassingly long time ago. It was so long ago (last year…) that I don’t remember when Danilov sent me the text. Or even which device I read it on. What I do remember, on conscious and subconscious levels, is the reading itself. Everything of Danilov’s that I’ve read – Description of a City, Horizontal Position, and “Black and Green” – speaks to me in similar ways by (to borrow a phrase from his Description) getting into my livers. What’s most remarkable about the fact that Danilov’s prose reaches my livers is that his writing initially looks so simple, almost rudimentary. But he uses that apparent simplicity to great effect, constructing texts that have a surprisingly emotional, almost moving effect. As I wrote in my post about Description of a City, “Danilov has been called a new realist but his realism is a very particular and peculiar realism. His realism is abstract and almost transcendent, a realism with a lot of остранение, defamiliarization.”

With Hey, Sasha!, Danilov adds a huge dose of absurdity to the usual elements of his realism. The short plot summary is that a man, Sergei, a university instructor, commits a moral crime by having consensual sex with a woman under twenty-one. Perpetrators of moral and economic crimes (but not violent crimes) are subject to capital punishment so he’s sentenced to death. He’s imprisoned in a hotel-like place in central Moscow and forced each day to face the possibility that he’ll be shot during a walk down a certain hallway. After that walk, he’s allowed to go out to a park. The hotel-like facility is described as “three-star” and meals are brought to him. Sergei lectures his students over Zoom, though they seem to raise their virtual hands more to ask about their instructor’s situation than to discuss the literature they’re reading. Meanwhile, his wife and the young woman have forgiven him. (His wife, by the way, also teaches literature and deals caustically with students’ curiosity about her husband, ultimately finishing a lecture on the Serapion Brothers by telling her students to read Wikipedia.) Everybody’s forgiven Sergei but the state.

My favorite scenes in this novel – the novel, by the way, reads like a wily blend of a script and a conventional novel – involve religion. Our (anti?)hero receives brief visits from a lama, a rabbi, a priest, and an mullah. None of them really feel they have much to offer to Sergei and they all pretty much urge him to waive his right to have them visit. They speak in rather similar terms, though I particularly liked the rabbi for discussing soccer. And, really, what could the two of them talk about other than sports? As Sergei says, he’s essentially already a dead man. We’ll all die, whether we’re shot in that metaphorical hallway or hit by a chance meteor or stricken by some uncontrollable disease. There’s always something. The point is that no matter who we are, we get up in the morning and walk down some version of that hallway, knowing we might be finished. But we work hard at forgetting, so we can live…

That’s all familiar material – Hey, Sasha! reminds in many ways of Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, as one article or social media post (which I now can’t find!) reminded me yesterday – but, as always, Danilov inhabits it and makes it his own both. His stripped-down language and humor are perfect for a tell-it-like-it-is story of this sort. And then there are the Orwellian absurdities of society and the world these days. And isolation that almost reminds of lockdowns, complete with Zoom meetings, though most of us don’t have three-star hotel services that included meals. Best of all is that Hey, Sasha! got into my livers so thoroughly that I barely had to look at the text to remind myself of details, even all these many months after reading the book. I did forget Sergei’s name but I didn’t forget Danilov’s jokes or how the novel keeps flowing along. I also didn’t forget the most important thing: the feeling of mental claustrophobia I always get when I read successful fiction that addresses absurdity, death, and societal norms. I’m sure that feeling of claustrophobia arises largely because art, meaning literature in these cases, so resembles what we consider real life, particularly when depicting various forms of imprisonment, as Danilov, Nabokov, and so many others do.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. Plus Danilov is a friend.

Up Next: My next attempt to chip away at my backlog…