It’s hard not to think of twentieth-century Russian history as you crack open 2017, Olga Slavnikova’s Russian Booker Prize winning novel. The year 2017 will mark, of course, the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, which culminated in the collapse of the Czarist autocracy and gave rise to the Soviet Union. It’s against this backdrop that readers enter this novel: a pot brimming with precious stones, a dash of spy novel intrigue, and a raw-to-the-bone social critique bubbling and boiling in a dense, evocative stew.
Excuse the metaphor. This is not a novel of food—far from it. But 2017 is a novel that asks you to savor it slowly, bite by bite. Translator Marian Schwartz, one of the most accomplished Russian translators working today—who has translated the works of Nina Berberova, Edvard Radzinsky, and Mikhail Bulgakov, among others—has recreated Slavnikova’s dense novel in a smooth, eminently enjoyable English text. Passages describing the craft of obscure trades like gemcutting or rock-hounding flow from sentence to sentence with ease, making the translation seem effortless.
At its core, 2017 is a deceptively simple novel that explores the notion of authenticity in a modern life. In the mythical region of the Riphean Mountains, a gifted gem cutter named Krylov meets a woman named Tanya who, unbeknownst to him, happens to be the wife of his rich but humorless mentor, the professor and gem trader Anfilogov. Krylov and Tanya begin a torrid affair that finds them in new beds each time they meet. Meanwhile Krylov’s ex-wife, Tamara, a wealthy and powerful funeral director who still has her eyes set on Krylov, enters the picture and thinks it’s about time she and Krylov get back together again. And what about that rotund spy trailing Tanya and Krylov’s every move? Well, he may or may not have been hired by Tamara to keep track of their affair.
2017 is, in short, a playfully fun novel that uses farcical elements and outlandish, oversized characters to beguile you into reading further. For instance, in one particularly fun sentence, Dickens-like in its wit, we get the following description of the spy: “His mustache looked like it had been drawn on by a graffiti artist provoked by all the blank space on his face.”
But behind the farce there’s some serious stuff going on. In a geographically isolated northern region of the country where some of the very best deposits of precious stones are found, people, animals, and vegetation are dying because of a cyanide leak. Just why this is so—and just who is to blame for the leak—is what ultimately propels the novel’s plot.
In the post-Soviet society Slavnikova envisions, it seems most everyone is out to make a quick buck. Take Professor Anfilogov, for example, who is driven to accumulate wealth despite the fact that, once he has it, he has no real use for it. Or Krylov’s ex-wife Tamara, whose funeral business rakes in the dough until an environmental scandal breaks, revealing just how she got her money in the first place. (And yes, the scandal’s got something to do with why everything’s dying up north.) Only Krylov the gem cutter—a man with some real inertia issues—seems immune to the pull of easy wealth.
But along with wealth comes power, and this is where the novel makes its deepest cut into post-Soviet (and potentially all) structures of power. Here is Tamara lecturing Krylov:
“You and I are having a material conversation now,” Tamara pulled him up sharp. “No matter how important what you’re not telling me is, what I’m going to tell you now is much more important. You and your Anfilogov have a special kind of business. The issue is not whether it’s legal or illegal. The problem is that you want to go it alone. I mean all your friends who used to come over when we were renting that little place on Kuznechnaya and then stopped coming over. I want you to be clear about one thing: today, everyone belongs to someone, and you’re doing everything in your power not to. All people and all businesses are part of a single world molecule. This molecule is a lot simpler than the most primitive human individuality. . . . Even inside the molecule the upper levels are much more primitive than the lower ones. You can’t even imagine how crude, coarse, and simple-minded the functions are at the highest stages of power, where I’ve only had a peek.”
Though it might be too tempting to see everything here through the lens of power (of the Soviet kind), particularly when the Red Cavalry and White Cossacks engage in deadly skirmishes on the 100th anniversary of the Revolution, it’s not at all a stretch to view the unfolding plot in post-Glasnost terms. The question of who is to blame for the mess up north becomes central. Was Tamara the one responsible for the environmental disaster? Or should blame be held against the authorities who, as Tamara claims, “knew about the cyanide leak . . . and did absolutely nothing!”?
But if you look closely for simple answers in 2017, you won’t find them. Throughout the novel the same question of authenticity is raised by various means and by various characters, ultimately pointing to what is really at stake in the year 2017. Whether it’s the transparency of rainbow quartz, or the authenticity of a well-lived human life, or even the authenticity of history itself, 2017 examines the difficult problem of achieving authenticity in a modern capitalist state. And by doing so, Slavnikova gives a dose of humanity to the characters who inhabit her fictional world. Though she can be a little heavy on description at times, Slavnikova is a gifted writer with a talent for weaving the disparate threads of her expansive narrative together, and with Schwartz’s able hand bringing this novel to life in English, readers should enjoy this book as they would enjoy a fine meal: slowly and thoughtfully.