Latest Review: "Sin" by Zakhar Prilepin
The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Will Evans (aka Bromance Will) on Zakhar Prilepin’s Sin, translated from the Russian by Simon Patterson and Nina Chordas and published by the quasi-mysterious Glagoslav Publications.
This has been an angry week at Three Percent. First, I dissed Alejandro Zambra’s latest book, then I got pissed off and paranoid about book awards, which should’ve been the end of the anger, but then yesterday, Kaija, the supposed “nice one” at Open Letter, went all unhinged, which is why I have 3-4 posts lined up for today that are all positive and nurturing and about unicorns and ponies and nice things.
First up in Bromance Will’s review of Sin, which sounds like a pretty interesting book, and which Will must’ve reviewed in a positive let’s-all-read-the-great-Russians!
Zakhar Prilepin is one hell of a writer, and an interesting figure to boot. Sin is an exciting debut in English for one of one of Russia’s most popular and critically-acclaimed writers.
Though this is his first novel published in English, Prilepin has written a lot: four novels, three books of short stories, plus a couple of books of essays, plus he’s a full-time journalist writing for an independent newspaper he started in Nizhny Novgorod (the fifth-biggest city in Russia), where he lives, and his columns and interviews frequently appear in national newspapers and magazines. Last time I was in Russia, summer 2011, his newest novel, Чёрная обезьяна (Black Monkey), was everywhere—in the front of every bookstore, in kiosks in the Metro, and his face and name were in every magazine and newspaper I came across, from the massive state organ RIA to the hipster cultural mag Большой город. [. . .]
Sin is a novel in stories—well, eight stories and a cycle of poetry—and it is fun and easy to read (with a highly sympathetic and likeable narrator, if that’s your thing). The stories jump around time periods in the life of the narrator, Zakhar (or Zakharka, as he goes by when he’s younger), from a summer in his grandparents’ village at seventeen (“Sin”), through a courtship with his beloved as a young man (“Whatever day of the week it happens to be”) through marriage and fatherhood (all the rest of the stories). At various points he is a writer, a bouncer, a bread truck un-loader, a soldier, and an office worker. He loves his girlfriend and (later) his wife and his children and the puppies that live in the courtyard of his apartment building, and he has some friends of moderately ill repute that are alternately amusing and sad that he likes to drink with.
So far, so good. Sounds interesting—a novel-in-stories in which one story is a cycle of poetry?!
“My foot slipped, and I fell on my side, on to the gravel bank, and immediately, at that very second, I saw the black shining wheels steaking [sic] past with a terrible roar.
“I gathered gravel in my palm, I felt the gravel with my cheek, and for a few minutes I couldn’t breathe: the huge wheels burnt the air, leaving a feeling of hot, stifling, mad emptiness.”
This excerpt is a perfect extract to take out of Sin, both for its display of Prilepin’s prose (which is always rushing forward, he is very easy and enjoyable to read, and for some reason, my pulse is always up when I read him, his stories morph into page-turners the more you get inside Zakhar-narrator’s head) as well as some of the problems of this translation Simon Patterson and Nina Chordas, and this publication by Glagoslav: there are frequent grammatical and spelling mistakes throughout the text, as if the editor fell asleep on the job, or their word processing document’s spellcheck went on the fritz. At the same time, the first sentence of the extract shows a particularly Russian standard of punctuation that drives certain American readers crazy (I know I am not alone in this). I stand by translators’ rights to adopt whatever style they want in their work, and if Patterson and Chordas chose a style that adheres more closely to the Russian punctuation (which I have double-checked, and it does), that is fine, but at the same time, sentences like that above are left choppy, fragmented, and in need of some breathing space. This work would be greatly enhanced with a translator’s afterword (I hate prefaces of all types, especially when they talk at length about the book you’re about to read).
Also of note, the layout and font of this book are awful. It looks like it was a manuscript smuggled out of someone’s 95 version of Word in a size 13 Verdana font, with awkward paragraph and line spacing; plus the margins are massive on the left side and too close to the binding on the right, with plenty of room at the top and bottom of the page. And the cover: whose portrait is that on the front? I wish it was Prilepin’s, but I don’t think it is (he looks quite striking: tall and broad-shouldered with a shaved head, his picture is on the back cover). And how many more books are going to come out of Russia with goddamn St. Basil’s Cathedral on the cover (Rasskazy is guilty of this too, and even Anna Politkovskaya’s Putin’s Russia)? What message does that send to any potential reader? Not a damn scene in this book takes place in Moscow, it would be like reading a book that takes place in Texas that has the Empire State Building on the cover. Why?
Yeah, it must just be one of those weeks . . . But on a serious note, read Will’s review, it’s extremely interesting.