“Oblivion” by Sergi Lebedev [Why This Book Should Win]
Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!
The entry below is by P. T. Smith, a frequent Three Percent contributor who has also been a BTBA judge and has worked with The Scofield and Asymptote.
Oblivion by Sergei Lebedev, translated from the Russian by Antonina W. Bouis (Russia, New Vessel Press)
Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 74%
Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 16%
Judging from the cover copy and selected blurbs, the reason the Sergei Lebedev’s Oblivion, translated by Antonina W. Bouis, should win the 2017 BTBA is because it is an Important and Necessary novel: it “probe[s] the legacy of the Soviet prison camp system,” is “an important book above where Russia is today,” “discloses the weight of Soviet history,” and is “a haunting tale about the loss of national memory.” This is all true, sure, but would never be enough for me to pick up a novel, much less believe it deserves to win an award like the BTBA. More compelling is how it does these things, how the prose, structure, aesthetics, accomplish this. If a novel exists solely to be an important cultural, historical artifact, count me out.
So, Oblivion deserves to win because it’s a beautiful, creative, linguistically challenging novel interested in many things besides the history of Russia and its lasting influence. From his earliest pages, Lebedev sets the terms of his novel, not that it will be about Russia and history, but that essential to it all is language as something with a physical tangible presence in the world, about the land and the animals that inhabit it, and about the deeply, intimately personal. It is a gorgeous and mysterious, contextless, opening section:
Birches, snow, sky, road, fire, smoke, frost—I repeated the words that I remembered for only a slightly shorter time than I remembered myself. Birches, snow, firewood, sky, road, fire, smoke, frost—the words grew, as if they were material, had material energy; the words sounded symphonically, one through another, without blending, the frost was frosty, the fire fiery, the smoke smoky; the words became translucent, melting slightly, like pure flame, their phonetic casings lost their hardened precision, and the eye perceived the pure essence of meaning.
At any moment, the narrator may drift off, taking a minor observation and riffing in a widening gyre. When he witnesses an old woman “hilling potatoes in the garden,” he see a whole class of being: “These old women are a special breed—they don’t get tired, life to them is a daily chores—dig, water, hill, weed; they harness themselves habitually and probably only for themselves, without hope, without expectation, without haste.” You don’t need to agree with his insights, theories, explorations, don’t need to believe, or you can, but either way, they are beautiful, intelligent, and feed back on themselves, Lebedev’s way of giving personality to his unnamed narrator. Later, when of the same woman, he writes, “she had become something like a film strip or a gramophone recording that captured the image and the voice of the deceased; she did not embroider or invent things; she toiled as an eyewitness,” it’s a tacit admission that he is something other, not an eyewitness, not toiling. It’s this other role that allows the novel to work as it does.
One of these conceptual wanderings opens the space for the narrator to begin his recollections. Looking at his own life, the narrator meanders at length on the blindness of his elderly neighbor, known only as Grandfather II. It’s a meditation on blindness creating the consciousness of this man, and how it crafts the narrator’s perception of him, his memories of him. Grandfather II’s blindness is “why [he] did not persist in the viewer’s retina, he seeped through it, remaining a vague silhouette; you remember his profile better than his face, he somehow was always turned sideways, behind something, as if in a crowd.” As the narrator tells the story of his life with Grandfather II, making no distinction between his own memories and recollection of events before he was born, you understand that this man has some other history, and that when it is uncovered, that is when Russia’s history will be encountered. At first, the narrator seeks personal answers, to understand the role Grandfather II played in forming his childhood, and at the very moment that personal investigation becomes active, takes him to an old mining town, the space of the novel opens again, to the collective past, the narrator forced to look beyond himself, but never leaving that behind fully.
That Lebedev takes his time getting Oblivion to its destination elevates the book mightily. The novel’s structure is subtle, aligned with the moves of the narrator’s thoughts. The narrator is full of ideas, beliefs, declarations of faith and conceptual explorations, but none of it is Lebedev telling you anything, telling you the seriousness of his project, or even what that project will be. Lebedev does ask the reader to work, which is fitting for a book that should win the BTBA. The ask is rewarded as the narrator seeks answers without knowing his initial question, and uncovering more questions as he pursues answers; he’s fascinating as he stretches his language to accommodate his ideas; and throughout it all, there is the beauty in the prose and the depth of emotions found in the minor incidents that create the world of Oblivion.