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. But Prilepin is also a controversial figure in Russian letters: politically active, he is a member is of the National Bolshevik Party (which is neither communist nor fascist, but some sort of weird hybrid in between), an outsider political organization/party headed up by the writer Eduard Limonov, and in 2012, Prilepin wrote a now-infamous “open letter to Stalin” that was accused of thinly-veiled anti-Semitism. And speaking of Stalin, there is an awesome poem in this book with the title “I’ll buy myself a portrait of Stalin.” To speak of Stalin in Russian literature is a taboo, this poem is remarkable, and Prilepin is, while controversial (and I make no judgments, I know too little), remarkable too.
Why do I mention Prilepin’s political inclinations? Because, as one old Soviet poet once said, in Russia, a poet is more than a poet; a writer is more than a writer. Or is he? Does he have to be? If you are American, and you read something by Zakhar Prilepin (which isn’t his real name but rather his pseudonym), is he more than a writer to you? Or is he just another Russian whom you can discard if he’s not Tolstoyan or anti-regime or doesn’t fit the mold of all the beautiful Russian stereotypes that have existed from Pushkin to Brodsky . . . we like our Russian writers to be daring, to be politically active, and to suffer some sort of persecution—basically, everything we don’t ask for in writers from anywhere else. Russian writers are held the worst levels of double-standards by global critics, where works are judged for their “insight into the Russian soul” or their “political satire” without placing the writers into the context of global culture and international literature where they justly belong.
Sin is Prilepin’s first book published in English, and it was brought out by Glagoslav Publications, a new publishing house based in the Netherlands and UK that specializes in eastern Slavic literatures (Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian). Only a few of Prilepin’s stories have been available in English previously, most notably in the Rasskazy collection and the elusive Read Russia compilation put together for BEA 2012 (why this collection hasn’t been made available, at least as a downloadable file online, is beyond me. If anyone can tell me how to convert the book I have into a PDF file, aside from manually scanning each page, let’s pirate it!).
Sin is one of the most highly-regarded novels of the post-Soviet period: it won the National Bestseller after it was published in 2008, and in 2011 won the decade-spanning “SuperNatsBest prize, in which judges selected the best/most important (their criteria is vague) book that had ever won or been nominated for the National Bestseller award (in 2011, Prilepin also won the Russian Booker of the Decade for the 2000s for his novel San’kya, which I’m happy to see is coming out in English translation via Dzanc Books’s new DISQUIET imprint).
Why do I keep writing all of this? Why all this pedantic context? Here I am, trying to “teach” the reader of this review something about Russia and about Prilepin, as if I really knew. I hate myself for this review, because here I am, another scholar of Russian literature writing a review of a new Russian novel . . . published by a company that only publishes Russian literature. Isn’t this a vicious cycle? We’re Russianists and Slavophils writing reviews of Russian books to be read by other Russianists and Slavophils! I want somebody else to review this book who doesn’t know a goddamn thing about Russian literature today and can judge the merits of the book on the book itself—on Prilepin’s vivid language and complex characters! BUT WHAT IF THE CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING!? What if my pedantry can get somebody new to read this book and see that even though Putin’s name is never mentioned once, the hallmarks of Putinism are painted on every page?! And that even though the political undertones (and overt display of political themes, as in the closing story, “The Sergeant”) are everywhere, the joy and beauty of the narrator’s love for his wife and children (and his beautiful cousin, one summer when he is still a teenager) is still breathtaking. But is it breathtaking to someone who’s not in so deep with Russian literature? Can we judge Prilepin as a post-modernist-post-Soviet-21st-century writer without the context?
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.
Zakhar the narrator lives in Nizhny Novgorod, which is only explicitly described once (when Zakhar-narrator drives from Nizhny Novgorod to his home village in the province of Ryazan, where the real-life Zakhar is also from), but the rest of the time, you can tell it’s not Moscow or Saint Petersburg, and that’s a pretty remarkable thing in Russian literature these days, considering 90+% of Russian cultural figures live in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, or abroad. Imagine if all American writers and directors and ballet dancers and anyone else affiliated with the arts lived in New York or Los Angeles and that was it. It’s kind of like that for film in the US, but no other arts industry. So it’s refreshing to read a book that’s NOT set in Moscow or Saint Petersburg.
I recently read and loved David Shields’s Reality Hunger, and like Shields, I like for my literature to take on a life of its own based on the life of its creator. It doesn’t have to be “fact,” that would be trite, but it has to come from a place of truth, inspired by the reality of the author. And the life that Prilepin describes is all too real. I can close my eyes smell the dank stairwells and cramped corner stores that Zakhar visits throughout his life. I can see the village where his grandparents live, where their neighbor still doesn’t own any electrical appliances. These hallmarks of decay are emblematic of the malaise educated, urban professionals and youth feel in Russia today. Brezhnev’s time as leader of the Soviet Union was described as “stagnation,” but Putin’s Russia is beginning to take on a similar tone; my favorite line in a book I translated by the journalist Oleg Kashin had to do with the “scum of Putin’s stagnation“—but a different word for stagnation, something more along the lines of “timelessness.” Putin’s Russia exists outside of time, the rest of the world moves on, goes forward, and Russia stays Russia, the elites at the top in Moscow getting infinitely wealthier, while the rest of the country slides further into irrelevance, malaise . . . timelessness. Prilepin gets at that, but with a dose of the little joys that come from our most basic human instinct: love (cheesy, eh?). And where the line between Zakhar-author and Zakhar-narrator is drawn, I don’t know. And I don’t want to know.
Prilepin was born in the Soviet Union but grew up in Russia—this loss/change of homeland figures prominently into Sin, as well as the writing of the new generation of Russian authors, those who were born Soviet but became Russian, and who plumb the depths of Russian and Soviet history to build a literary identity that straddles time and geopolitical space. The closing story in the novel, “The Sergeant,” is set on the borderlands of Russia, still in Russia, yet outside of the country, set among a small contingent of soldiers guarding an outpost just beyond their base (think “Restrepo” but with Chechens in place of Afghans), where the title character (it is never stated who Zakhar is in this story, it could very well be the narrator, who only goes by The Sergeant) engages in a running inner dialogue with himself about why he and his comrades are made to serve on this hostile frontier and their relationships with the land they’re fighting for:
He couldn’t remember when he had last pronounced this word—Homeland. There hadn’t been one for a long time. At some point, maybe in his youth, his Homeland had disappeared, and in its place nothing had formed. And nothing was needed.
Sometimes there was a forgotten, crushed, childish, painful feeling beating in his heart. The sergeant didn’t admit it and didn’t respond. Who hadn’t felt this . . .
It’s hard for anyone outside of Russia to understand what the Caucasus region means to Russia (and I’m not about to try and describe it), but regardless of its political importance, it has played a role in the development of countless Russian writers from the days of Pushkin and Lermontov to Tolstoy and now Prilepin, who himself served in the OMON (Russia’s most badassmotherfucker division of paramilitary forces, kind of like the SWAT team mixed with Special Forces) in the Chechen wars of the late 1990s. Can you imagine a place in America where you are IN America and yet simultaneously OUTSIDE of America? I know Texas seems like that place, but it’s not, and I for one can’t imagine it . . . it’s insane. And it’s a Russian reality still today, a borderland at the edge of an empire where radically opposed cultures have been in conflict for centuries. It’s a place where men become boys and boys and men alike die every day while the military and political stalemate continues.
And speaking of stalemate, I particularly like the end of the story “Wheels,” which continues in the all-too-common theme of “Russia as a train that doesn’t know where it’s going” motif that exists in contemporary Russian literature. But I like Prilepin’s take on it, when the narrator Zakhar is running alongside the traintracks at the end of the story and falls, the train rushing past him as he lays on his side, and you can feel the stagnation of life in Russia today:
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? In the end, these are not unimportant quibbles I have with the book, and I do not mean them to be personal attacks against publisher, editor, or translator—but as, apparently, the target audience for this book (I received an unsolicited email from the publisher advertising the book while still a graduate student in a Russian program), I do hold everyone to a high standard of quality—Prilepin is arguably one of the greatest writers in the world right now, and this is his debut in the literary world’s dominant language (of the moment), throwing his name into the hat for the first time in serious discussion of Western literary recognition (not that that is everything)—if you expect a reader like me to buy a book and enjoy it, I want it to be a book worth holding in my hands, a book without mistakes on many pages, and a book that I will hold on to and cherish and share.
With that said, I hope the second edition (or future American edition) corrects some of those mistakes, and that many more of Prilepin’s books make it in to English.