“The Big Green Tent” by Ludmila Ulitskaya [Why This Book Should Win]
This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Stacey Knecht, BTBA judge and translator from the Czech and Dutch. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya, translated from the Russian by Polly Gannon (Russia, FSG)
There I lay, on my little yellow sofa, felled by the flu. The first three days were foggy, inside and out, but on the fourth day my eyes began to clear, and I reached for the fat Russian novel that had been waiting next to me ever since the fever hit: The Big Green Tent. Given my penchant for things Slavic, and the fact that the second half of a flu is usually easier than the first, this promised to be a pleasurable recovery.
It’s fascinating to trace the trajectories of people destined to meet. Sometimes such encounters happen without any special help from fate, without elaborate convolutions of plot, following the natural course of events—say, people live in adjacent buildings, or go to the same school.
These lines, at the start of Chapter One (they appear again halfway through the book, as if to remind us of their significance), sum up not only the book itself, but also the style in which it’s written. The novel unfolds, “following the natural course of events,” to reveal the cast of characters and the storylines one has come to expect from “the dear, dead, nineteenth-century Russians,” as my favorite literature teacher used to say, the kind of book in which we’d write a list of all those characters on the inside cover. Yet the author of The Big Green Tent, Lyudmila Ulitskaya, is still very much alive, widely acclaimed, and “an outspoken protester of the Putin regime” (The Atlantic, December 2015). The events she describes, the post-Stalin years up through the early 1990s, are palpably recent; and repression, unfortunately, is timeless.
Perhaps to ensure that the reader is aware of the fact that history can and does repeat itself, Ulitskaya brings past and present together, blurring our sense of time. There are passages here that echo those dear, dead Russians:
The storm took place at half past two in the morning. It was like an opera or a symphony—with an overture, leitmotifs, and a duet of water and wind. Lightning bolts flew up in columns, accompanied by incessant rumbling and flashes. Then there was an intermission and a second act. Maria Nikolayevna’s heart pains, which had plagued her all day, stopped immediately, as did Captain Popov’s headache, from which he had been suffering for the past twenty-four hours. He even managed to get some sleep before going to work. The only thing he didn’t manage to do was put a stamp on the document. But he could do that later.
Boris Ivanovich loved his mother-in-law; in her he saw Natasha, but with a more decisive character. In his wife, Natasha, he saw features of his mother-in-law — the first signs of a gentle fullness, small lines around the mouth, and a burgeoning soft pouch under the chin. Good, healthy stock. The generous plumpness of Kustodiev’s women, but all the more alluring for it.
Then, just two pages later, we’re reminded that this is a different era entirely:
What he was looking for was lying on his own desk in his office in the form of photocopied pages from Stern magazine. These were cartoons: gigantic letters spelling “Glory to the Communist party of the Soviet Union,” and under them a crowd of people and dogs trying to reach the sacred words. The words themselves were made of sausages: boiled salami, with circles of white fat where they had been sliced. [. . .] Another cartoon depicted a mausoleum made of the same kind of salami, with the word Lenin written in sausage links.
I’d be very happy for The Big Green Tent to win the BTBA 2016. The prose is rich, the translation, strong, the themes, relevant. There’s history, and humor, and a pinch of folklore. But above all: it cures the flu.