29 August 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Brandy Harrison on Oleg Pavlov’s The Matiushin Case, translated by Andrew Bromfield, and published by And Other Stories.

A lover of foreign literature (particularly from Eastern Europe and Russia) Brandy—a new addition to our reviewer pool—recently finished a BA in English Language and Literature at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, and will be starting her MA this fall at Queen’s University, Kingston.

Here’s the beginning of her review:

The publisher’s blurb for Oleg Pavlov’s The Matiushin Case promises the prospective reader “a Crime and Punishment for today,” the sort of comparison that is almost always guaranteed to do a disservice to both the legendary dead and the ambitious living. Predictably enough, The Matiushin Case is nothing like Crime and Punishment, although anyone familiar with Russian literature can see how Pavlov gamely attempts to tick off certain boxes that are often associated with Serious Russian Themes: the unflinching examination of even the darkest corners of human existence, the exploration of wider social themes and problems through the careful depiction of individual experience, all heralded by a Biblical epigraph—“Am I my brother’s keeper?”—to signal the novel’s soul-searching, philosophical designs. For anyone who loves Russian literature, as I do, all of these elements are entirely welcome, but in Pavlov’s hands, the results are often mixed.

The Matiushin Case follows the relentlessly miserable life of the titular protagonist, from his troubled childhood in the shadow of his domineering father, Grigorii, and his rebellious elder brother, Yakov, to his experiences as a young man in the Soviet army. Much of the novel’s plot, such as it is, simply follows Matiushin as he sinks further and further into the deadening routine and violence of army life, first through his initiation and training, then his stint in an army hospital, and on through his life as a prison guard. This led me to consider that a more accurate comparison to Dostoevsky—if there really has to be one—would be to The House of the Dead, that wonderfully strange hybrid of memoir and fiction based on Dostoevsky’s life in a Siberian prison. This reflects the greatest strength of Pavlov’s novel, for the impression created by his detailed depictions of Matiushin’s daily struggles lend a rather haunting and bleak atmosphere to the work as a whole, offering the reader a truly vivid snapshot of army life in the declining years of the USSR.

For the rest of the review, go here

29 August 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The publisher’s blurb for Oleg Pavlov’s The Matiushin Case promises the prospective reader “a Crime and Punishment for today,” the sort of comparison that is almost always guaranteed to do a disservice to both the legendary dead and the ambitious living. Predictably enough, The Matiushin Case is nothing like Crime and Punishment, although anyone familiar with Russian literature can see how Pavlov gamely attempts to tick off certain boxes that are often associated with Serious Russian Themes: the unflinching examination of even the darkest corners of human existence, the exploration of wider social themes and problems through the careful depiction of individual experience, all heralded by a Biblical epigraph—“Am I my brother’s keeper?”—to signal the novel’s soul-searching, philosophical designs. For anyone who loves Russian literature, as I do, all of these elements are entirely welcome, but in Pavlov’s hands, the results are often mixed.

The Matiushin Case follows the relentlessly miserable life of the titular protagonist, from his troubled childhood in the shadow of his domineering father, Grigorii, and his rebellious elder brother, Yakov, to his experiences as a young man in the Soviet army. Much of the novel’s plot, such as it is, simply follows Matiushin as he sinks further and further into the deadening routine and violence of army life, first through his initiation and training, then his stint in an army hospital, and on through his life as a prison guard. This led me to consider that a more accurate comparison to Dostoevsky—if there really has to be one—would be to The House of the Dead, that wonderfully strange hybrid of memoir and fiction based on Dostoevsky’s life in a Siberian prison. This reflects the greatest strength of Pavlov’s novel, for the impression created by his detailed depictions of Matiushin’s daily struggles lend a rather haunting and bleak atmosphere to the work as a whole, offering the reader a truly vivid snapshot of army life in the declining years of the USSR. Matiushin is not particularly interesting or memorable as a character in and of himself, but the passages in which Pavlov offers insights into Matiushin’s psychological struggles and emotions within a brutal and decaying system can be powerful, as when a sudden disturbance in the prison zone throws Matiushin and his fellow soldiers into action in the middle of the night:

The strongest feeling of all . . . was that nobody could be killed: that Lady Death, if she existed, would be afraid of so many men, would overshoot and miss her target. [Matiushin] couldn’t keep up with his thoughts about death, unable to work out if he was dashing towards or running away from it, or what kind of night this was; like an animal, he was swept away by a single, headlong, mighty feeling, a clash of all human impulses—love, hate, despair, fear—that existed separately in his soul but had suddenly united into one vital, living force, as if another heart had started beating beside his first heart, and Matiushin, who couldn’t even cope with one life, suddenly had two lives in his chest.

Passages such as this have the power to occasionally redeem the novel’s sometimes monotonous and repetitive feel, turning the situation of this otherwise colorless and unremarkable young man into something suddenly—albeit momentarily—moving.

The reader is never really offered the same level of insight into the inner workings of any of the other characters, which is one of the shakier aspects of the novel. As its title suggests, the novel is about the case study of Matiushin, whose experiences are, presumably, meant to encapsulate the experiences of countless Soviet army recruits and offer a portrait in miniature of the misery, disintegration, and despair of Soviet life as a whole. With this in mind, it seems fair to entertain the idea that the secondary characters do not have to be compelling or complex in their own right. Yet the problem is that the secondary characters rarely rise above the level of caricature, which can make them—and by extension, Matiushin’s plight—seem faintly ridiculous instead of tragic. Matiushin’s father is a walking bundle of all literary Bad Russian Father characteristics rolled into one—a drunk, a miser, a domestic tyrant—whose personality seems to fluctuate rather unsteadily between these stereotypes throughout the first fifty pages or so of the novel. A cook at one of the camps behaves like someone straight out of Reefer Madness, whose penchant for marijuana has turned him into a crazed, potentially murderous threat to everyone who crosses his path, including Matiushin: “He lay in ambush for Matiushin when they were alone together in the catering block, waiting for moments when he bent down or sat on a stool, and then skipping up to Matiushin from behind and setting the large blade to his throat.” Matiushin’s fellow soldiers and military superiors tend to blur together into one large mass of coarseness, corruption, and hopelessness. Such cartoonish or vague characterization tends to undermine the self-conscious seriousness of the novel, making this relatively slim text—just under 250 pages in my copy—feel much, much longer and less compelling than it ought to be.

As for the novel’s Biblical epigraph, I was left with the feeling that Pavlov does not quite manage to develop the novel’s philosophical pretensions to any successful end, which is one of the reasons why And Other Stories’ attempt to equate him with Dostoevsky feels so ill-judged. Dostoevsky could tackle spiritual and philosophical questions with aplomb, effortlessly interweaving them with the individual crises of his characters and illuminating them. Pavlov cannot. The theme of brotherhood and the question of individual and collective guilt and suffering does recur, rather ham-fistedly, throughout the novel, but it ultimately falls flat. The fraternal relationship between Matiushin and Yakov that opens the novel is echoed elsewhere throughout the remainder of the text, as in the relationship between Matiushin and fellow recruit Rebrov, and in the first exchange between Matiushin and Karpovich, but there is something underdeveloped about all of it, and something not quite confident enough in Pavlov’s handling of it to give the novel a strong thematic foundation.

Nevertheless, The Matiushin Case can and does stand on its own merits, as Pavlov’s description of Matiushin’s hellish experiences will prove interesting to anyone with a marked interest in literature from or about the Soviet era. Although the novel’s execution is flawed, its strengths do suggest that Pavlov, already basking in the glow of significant critical success in his homeland, may have the chance in his future work to find a way of making his fiction match up more seamlessly with his ambitious literary designs.

8 August 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by Simon Collinson on Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, translated by Joanne Turnbull and Nikolai Formozov), and published by New York Review Books.

Simon is a bookseller and freelance reviewer based in Adelaide, Australia, and has written reviews various outlets, including the Australian Book Review.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky—in addition to having one of the coolest and most Z-heavy names I’ve ever seen—and his Autobiography have been hitting a lot of the right button’s lately: in June, it was announced that Autobiography of a Corpse won the 2014 Read Russia Prize, and just a few weeks ago it was announced that the book won the 2014 PEN Translation Prize. Congratulations again to everyone involved! And for everyone else . . . what more recommendation could you really need?

Here’s the beginning of Simon’s review:

One of the greatest services—or disservices, depending on your viewpoint—Bertrand Russell ever performed for popular philosophy was humanizing its biggest thinkers in his History. No longer were they Platonic ideals, the clean-shaven exemplars of the kind of homely truisms that might’ve been found in commonplace books: they had become eccentrics, weirdos, freaks. This was a transformation Russell’s readers might have felt privileged to witness. Then again, they might have been horrified.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky has done something similar with ideas, both those belonging to Russell’s eccentrics and those roaming about in other fields. Written between 1922 and 1939, the short stories collected in Autobiography of a Corpse wriggle into the liminal spaces between fiction, reality, and the world of ideas: in fact, there’s even a story called “The Collector of Cracks.”

Krzhizhanovsky is fundamentally concerned with how fiction and reality influence each other, and even though his work might reference a who’s who of modern and classical philosophy—Kant, Leibniz, Descartes, Hegel, Spinoza, Fichte, Berkeley—he’s anything but convinced of their ideas’ verity.

For the rest of the review, go here.

8 August 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

One of the greatest services—or disservices, depending on your viewpoint—Bertrand Russell ever performed for popular philosophy was humanizing its biggest thinkers in his History. No longer were they Platonic ideals, the clean-shaven exemplars of the kind of homely truisms that might’ve been found in commonplace books: they had become eccentrics, weirdos, freaks. This was a transformation Russell’s readers might have felt privileged to witness. Then again, they might have been horrified.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky has done something similar with ideas, both those belonging to Russell’s eccentrics and those roaming about in other fields. Written between 1922 and 1939, the short stories collected in Autobiography of a Corpse wriggle into the liminal spaces between fiction, reality, and the world of ideas: in fact, there’s even a story called “The Collector of Cracks.”

Krzhizhanovsky is fundamentally concerned with how fiction and reality influence each other, and even though his work might reference a who’s who of modern and classical philosophy—Kant, Leibniz, Descartes, Hegel, Spinoza, Fichte, Berkeley—he’s anything but convinced of their ideas’ verity. Indeed, this is the only work of fiction I’ve ever read which plays with the possibilities inherent in Leibniz’s utterly crazy idea of “windowless monads”:

Leibniz . . . could see only a world of discrete monads, of ontological solitudes, none of which has windows. If one tries to be more optimistic than the optimist and avow that souls have windows and the ability to open them, then those windows and that ability will turn out to be nailed shut and boarded up, as in an abandoned house. People-monads, too, have a bad name: They are full of ghosts. The most frightening of these is man.

“People-monads”! As any reader of this blog would know, Russian literature is thick with them. Krzhizhanovsky won’t be outdone in the alienation/existential horror department, either:

Man is to man a wolf. No, that’s not true, that’s sentimental, lighthearted. No, man is to man a ghost. Only. That’s more exact. To sink one’s teeth into another man’s throat is at least to believe, and that’s what counts, in another man’s blood.

Thankfully, though, even when he confronts us with these unpalatable truths Krzhizhanovsky doesn’t go for the arid humourlessness of a Sartre or a Nietzsche. There’s a dry comedy running through his work, a sensibility which dares to mock not only Soviet shibboleths, but bureaucracy, religion, and the art world. Another story traces the media frenzy and subsequent national preoccupation which develops, almost by chance, around a man attempting to bite his own elbow.

At times, Krzhizhanovsky’s foresight is chilling. “Yellow Coal,” the bitterest of the stories, and the last to be written, in 1939, depicts a society engineered to sustain itself on spite alone. This is a world in which an earnest ethnographer publishes a “Classification of Interethnic Hatreds, a two-volume work asserting that humanity should be split into the smallest possible ethnicities so as to produce the maximum ‘kinetic spite’”: a confection so eerily prescient that it’s hard to find it funny.

Krzhizhanovsky’s commentary on the Russian Orthodox Church, too, is a little more serious—even while he explores elsewhere what might’ve happened to Judas’s thirty pieces of silver after they left his hands:

Through the centuries, without respite, the kopeck candle did its work: A fire would begin to smolder in some small chapel, by an icon stand, then creep down passages, up into rafters, from shed to shed, hurling firebrands from roof to roof; its flaming tongues would leap over the Kremlin’s stone walls, slither up to the tent roofs of towers and belfries, and send bells crashing down amid the growing clamor of crowds and tocsins. And then cooling ashes and another ant-like building frenzy for five or six years. Because in five or six years the kopeck candle would again set to work.

It would be a mistake, though, to read this collection as just a set of reflections on a particular period in Russian history, or a tongue-in-cheek exploration of some arcane philosophies, or an indictment of the church. It’s first and foremost a fictional exercise of the highest order: one just as real, and just as delightful, as the best of Borges.

In true Borgesian fashion, when the stock of philosophy starts to thin, Krzhizhanovsky adds a few lashings of folk tales: a set of fingers which detach themselves from their pianist and spend a day wandering the streets of Moscow, or a conversation between a woman’s lovers’ Lilliputian counterparts about the form to be filled out by new arrivals—all of whom live together inside her eye.

This lunatic mode wouldn’t work nearly so well without Joanne Turnbull and Nikolai Formozov’s supple translation, which manages to convey a vivid sense of Krzhizhanovsky’s subtle wordplay without undue contortion in the English. Take this passage, a parody of Plato’s allegory of the cave:

True, the Nots teach their notkins that shadows are cast by things, but if one thinks about this sensibly, then one cannot know exactly if shadows are cast by things or things by shadows, and if one oughtn’t to cast aside, as pure ostensibilities, Not things, Not shadows, and the Nots themselves with their notional notions.

Funnily enough, ostensibilities abound in the collection’s final story, “Postmark: Moscow.” It’s an odd addition to the collection: whereas every other story is shorn almost entirely of obvious referents, “Postmark: Moscow” bristles with historical figures, Moscow localities—many of them burnt down or demolished since—and obscure artistic movements. In a way, then, Krzhizhanovsky is doing exactly that which his narrator derides: casting a thing (art) with a shadow (life). And what a thing it is!

8 April 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by Kseniya Melnik on Zakhar Prilepin’s Sankya, translated by Mariya Gusev and Jeff Parker, out from Dzanc Books.

In addition to being a new name in our reviewer pool, Kseniya was one of Granta’s “New Voices” series:http://www.granta.com/New-Writing/New-Voices-Kseniya-Melnik in 2010, and has written a book of short stories, forthcoming in May of this year.

Originally published in 2006, Prilepin’s novel is still very timely and relevant to current world events. Prilepin has been called “the most important writer in modern Russia, a sensitive and intelligent critic of his country’s condition,” and is someone not afraid to express his social consciousness—a trait that easily makes him one of the country’s most popular and acclaimed contemporary authors.

Here’s the beginning of Kseniya’s review:

When Sankya was published in Russia in 2006, it became a sensation. It won the Yasnaya Polyana Award (bestowed by direct descendants of Leo Tolstoy) and was shortlisted for the Russian Booker and the National Bestseller Award. Every member of the cultural elite had an opinion on it. There was even a hatchet job by the president of Russia’s largest commercial bank; the banker-cum-critic received an avalanche of responses rebuking his review. Many reviewers disagreed with the Prilepin’s political beliefs, but acknowledged that the novel is a literary masterpiece. Already widely translated in Europe, this book struck a raw nerve, to say the least. The timely English edition, featuring an excellent translation by Mariya Gusev and Jeff Parker (with Alina Ryabovolova), and a heartfelt forward by Alexey Navalny, a Russian anti-corruption activist, will introduce America to a unique talent as well as the kind of Russia very few foreigners have seen. For the soul of the country is never in the news headlines; it is in literature. Sankya succeeds brilliantly in plunging the reader into the psyche of the young people on the fringes of the success story Russia projected to the world during the Sochi Olympics.

Twenty-two-year-old Sasha Tishin—or Sankya, as his grandmother calls him—and his friends are members of the Founders, an extremist right-wing group loosely based on the now-banned National Bolsheviks. The Founders want to tear down the corrupt government, destroy Western-style capitalism, and build a better country—one based on dignity, on ideals, one close “to the soil,” something like the Soviet Union but not quite, not so bureaucratic. If that sounds vague, it’s because in the beginning the Founders don’t have a plan beyond demonstrations, which often devolve into street vandalism. The book opens with one such protest. Sasha and his friends narrowly escape the riot police, but even the possibility of jail hardly scares Sasha. He will survive it, he thinks, because he’d survived his mandatory army service, a notoriously harsh ordeal in Russia.

For the rest of the piece, go here.

8 April 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

When Sankya was published in Russia in 2006, it became a sensation. It won the Yasnaya Polyana Award (bestowed by direct descendants of Leo Tolstoy) and was shortlisted for the Russian Booker and the National Bestseller Award. Every member of the cultural elite had an opinion on it. There was even a hatchet job by the president of Russia’s largest commercial bank; the banker-cum-critic received an avalanche of responses rebuking his review. Many reviewers disagreed with the Prilepin’s political beliefs, but acknowledged that the novel is a literary masterpiece. Already widely translated in Europe, this book struck a raw nerve, to say the least. The timely English edition, featuring an excellent translation by Mariya Gusev and Jeff Parker (with Alina Ryabovolova), and a heartfelt forward by Alexey Navalny, a Russian anti-corruption activist, will introduce America to a unique talent as well as the kind of Russia very few foreigners have seen. For the soul of the country is never in the news headlines; it is in literature. Sankya succeeds brilliantly in plunging the reader into the psyche of the young people on the fringes of the success story Russia projected to the world during the Sochi Olympics.

Twenty-two-year-old Sasha Tishin—or Sankya, as his grandmother calls him—and his friends are members of the Founders, an extremist right-wing group loosely based on the now-banned National Bolsheviks. The Founders want to tear down the corrupt government, destroy Western-style capitalism, and build a better country—one based on dignity, on ideals, one close “to the soil,” something like the Soviet Union but not quite, not so bureaucratic. If that sounds vague, it’s because in the beginning the Founders don’t have a plan beyond demonstrations, which often devolve into street vandalism. The book opens with one such protest. Sasha and his friends narrowly escape the riot police, but even the possibility of jail hardly scares Sasha. He will survive it, he thinks, because he’d survived his mandatory army service, a notoriously harsh ordeal in Russia.

Sasha returns to his small, dreary town, visits his grandparents in the dying village of his childhood, then goes to Moscow again, to hang out in the “bunker,” the Founders’ headquarters, and shyly court Yana, the rumored lover of their jailed leader. Sometimes he just meanders the streets as his thoughts meander in his head. What to do? Where to go? Sasha’s father had died a year and a half before the novels opens; his father was the last of three brothers to succumb to alcoholism, and alcohol is a central character in the novel: a comforter, a friend, an agitator, and a truth-teller. Sasha’s mother, “tired, like every Russian woman who had been alive for more than half a century,” works long shifts. The only jobs Sasha had been able to find are physically draining: loader, construction worker. Yet, Sasha is not simply the drunken hoodlum he may appear to a passerby. He is Holden Caulfield with a Molotov cocktail, at once aggressive and vulnerable, tender (especially when it comes to his mother) and rude, self-possessed and romantic. But apathetic he is not. Just as the novel asks the big questions—What is our country? What is our history?—Sasha constantly interrogates himself: “Who am I? . . . Am I bad? Kind? Hopeful? Hopeless?” Sometimes, he has dialogue with a voice inside his head. These conversations and the way Sasha sees the world are very interesting.

The Founders stage an action in Riga to protest the imprisonment of seventeen elderly Red Army veterans by Latvian authorities on charges of foreign occupation. Though Sasha doesn’t participate, he is picked up in Moscow and is tortured for information. He barely survives but is proud to not have cracked. The plot complicates when Sasha is tasked with assassinating the Riga judge who sentenced his Founders comrades to fifteen-year sentences for the nonviolent Riga protest. Fittingly, it’s not the surprising outcome of Sasha’s assignment, but rather Yana’s success at emptying a bag of slop on the Russian president’s head in Moscow that sets off a full-scale war between the authorities and the Founders. Sasha takes a prominent role in the battle in his hometown, leading a group of assorted Founders (a former member of the special police, a drug addict, and several skinny, impassioned youths) to the limit of opposition and the edge of reason.

Prilepin, who has served in special police forces as well in the Russian military in Chechnya before becoming one of the leaders of the National Bolshevik group and getting arrested more than 150 times, clearly draws from his own experience. But the novel is not a polemic; it is a piece of art. It looks long and hard into the darkest crevasses of the consciousness of the young people stuck between eras, the young people who must be understood rather than dismissed if the country is to move forward. There are several instances where Sasha gets into heated discussions about Russia’s future and is challenged to formulate and defend his philosophy.

“And how does this ‘new-well-forgotten-old’ society contradict the idea of the nation’s future that irks you so much?” Sasha asks Lev, his roommate at the hospital, where Sasha is recovering from his beating.

“Because the idea of the nation’s future, Sasha, has been slipped to you by the angry and slovenly Slavophiles and contradicts anthropology. It contradicts evolution! It’s this idea that perpetuates the eternal circle we just discussed-from violence to chaos.”

Later Sasha says: “But I don’t live in Russia. I’m trying to bring her back. She was taken away from me,” and Lev replies: “Some executioners took Russia away from other executioners. And no one knows which of the executioners is the better. The current ones let you live, at least.”

These passages continue the dialogue that has been going on in Russian literature for centuries, with notable contributions from Ivan Turgenev in Fathers and Sons on the topic of Westerners vs. Slavophiles to What Is to Be Done?, Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s response to Turgenev, and on to Lev Tolstoy’s own What Is to Be Done? During most of the twentieth century, when Soviet literature was censored, the dialogue proceeded underground, in Chronicle of Current Events, a long-running samizdat periodical, and in books by Russian writers in exile abroad, such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

But it is not so much Prilepin’s engagement with politics that compels comparisons to the Russian greats—one prominent Russian critic called him the next Gorky—it is his language and his ability to vividly portray everyday life. Prilepin imbues everything with its own mood and secret history. Here’s how he describes the dying village of Sasha’s childhood:

“Like a pockmarked, hardened, dark ice floe, it had separated from the shore and was drifting away quietly . . . Farther along were the stables, where Granny hadn’t kept a goat for the past year, no pigs for three, and ten years since Domanka the cow was led away on her last walk. The stables emitted no scents of life, no manure smell. Not a single furry soul shuffled its hooves—nothing chewed, breathed noisily, nothing was frightened by Sasha’s steps. Only the smell of rot and dirt.”

Prilepin applies an equally nuanced and sensitive brush to his portraits of people. Interestingly, at places an authorial voice peeps from behind the third-person narrator close to Sasha: “He sat in the corner, slept sitting up, deeply, easily—young bones don’t care where they are thrown. However they fall, so be it.” In the middle of Sasha’s love scene with Yana, an episode that would not be nominated for one of those gleefully beloved worst-sex-scene contests, Prilepin writes: “She lay there, panting, quivering like a smooth lizard, some little-known, regal breed. Perhaps some kind of lunar lizard.” He pays vigilant attention to Sasha’s inner life, often introducing passages of introspection in a way that would be sneered at in some MFA workshops. Here is Sasha in the hospital, recovering after the beating: “a sudden realization simply descended upon him . . .” At the same time, the author is always alert to Sasha’s physical body, the persistent sentience of it that is more honest than Sasha’s unquiet, often drunken mind: “Sasha felt as if someone had taken out all his organs, boiled them, and put them back in—overcooked and trembly.”

I must note one scene in particular that left me devastated. In it, Sasha recalls his father’s funeral. His father is to be buried in the village so that his parents, Sasha’s grandparents, can visit the grave. However, the road to this village is so bad that it’s only accessible by car and only during the warm and dry May. Other times, you need a tractor, or a horse. Sasha gets a van driver to agree to drive the coffin to the village by not telling him where exactly they are heading. The only other people in the mourning party are Sasha’s mother and Bezletov, a former student of Sasha’s father. As they set out from the town, the lightly falling snow turns into a snowstorm. About two-thirds of the way to the village, the car gets stuck in the snow. The driver refuses to go any farther, and Sasha and Bezletov end up dragging the heavy coffin for several hours while his mother follows with a bag of food meant for the wake. As I read this tragic, absurd, darkly humorous scene, I cringed and thought: now this is a truly Russian funeral. The mourners, who are themselves about to expire from cold and exhaustion, are saved in an unexpectedly heartwarming fashion.

This is a novel of ideas, a novel of action, and a novel of heartbreak and beauty. Many might consider Sasha an anti-hero due to his political beliefs and his destructive tendencies, yet it is undeniable that he is trying to fill the well deep within himself with meaning. To me, that makes him a riveting character, and with him at the helm, Sankya takes its place among the best coming-of-age and political novels.

24 March 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by Sara Shuman on Two Crocodiles by Fyodor Dostoevsky and Felisberto Hernández, translated (respectively) by Constance Garnett and Esther Allen, and out from New Directions.

Two Crocodiles, as the review also explains, is a short book comprised of two stories—one from Dostoevsky, the other from Hernández—with the same title, but with very different contents.

Sara, in turn, is new to the Three Percent fray, and stands out somewhat for her Ph.D. in Public Health (and is an editor for a public health journal). However, she is a great lover of world literature, and is no stranger to the likes of Daniel Sada, Laurent Binet, and Mia Cuoto, to name a few.

Here’s the beginning of Sara’s review:

This pearl from New Directions contains one short story from Russian literary master Fyodor Dostoevsky (translated by Constance Garnett) and one short story from Uruguayan forefather of magical realism Felisberto Hernández (translated by Esther Allen). Both pieces are entitled “The Crocodile,” hence Two Crocodiles.

The edition is slim and aesthetically pleasing; it fits in your jacket pocket, making it perfect for reading on the subway and impressing the people around you with its beauty and your class. Flip it over and you even find endorsements from David Foster Wallace (re: Dostoevsky) and Roberto Bolaño (re: Hernández). Sold.

I won’t compare and contrast the writing and themes from The Crocodile: An Extraordinary Incident to Dostoevsky’s more famous pieces (The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment), partly because it’s been done enough already, and partly because the goal of this book seems to be to juxtapose (or prove connected) the similarly-named stories of two very different authors from two very different literary worlds. In turn, Felisberto isn’t as well known as Dostoevsky, but literary giants Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar, and Italo Calvino all credit him as a major influence of their own work.

For the rest of the review, go here.

24 March 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

This pearl from New Directions contains one short story from Russian literary master Fyodor Dostoevsky (translated by Constance Garnett) and one short story from Uruguayan forefather of magical realism Felisberto Hernández (translated by Esther Allen). Both pieces are entitled “The Crocodile,” hence Two Crocodiles.

The edition is slim and aesthetically pleasing; it fits in your jacket pocket, making it perfect for reading on the subway and impressing the people around you with its beauty and your class. Flip it over and you even find endorsements from David Foster Wallace (re: Dostoevsky) and Roberto Bolaño (re: Hernández). Sold.

I won’t compare and contrast the writing and themes from The Crocodile: An Extraordinary Incident to Dostoevsky’s more famous pieces (The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment), partly because it’s been done enough already, and partly because the goal of this book seems to be to juxtapose (or prove connected) the similarly-named stories of two very different authors from two very different literary worlds. In turn, Felisberto isn’t as well known as Dostoevsky, but literary giants Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar, and Italo Calvino all credit him as a major influence of their own work.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Crocodile: An Extraordinary Incident

Ivan Matveitch and his wife are both ridiculous. In the opening paragraph we learn that Ivan is a cultured man, planning a trip to Europe “not so much for the sake of his health as for the improvement of his mind,” and excited to see a crocodile. Ivan’s wife, upon seeing the crocodile exclaims “Why, I thought it was something different,” clearly disappointed by the lack of a spectacle. The family friend and narrator of the story, Semyon, explains her crocodile-disappointment to the reader: “most probably she thought it was made of diamonds.”

Two pages later Ivan is ingested by the crocodile, where he stays for the remainder of the book, ordering Semyon to do his bidding, making plans for his wife’s social calendar, imaging his future fame, and criticizing the quality of Russian-made clothing. And while Ivan has no trouble causing Semyon to suffer with multiple requests and insults, he is also considers himself a real humanitarian, deciding not to adjust his position inside the crocodile—in order to prevent the creature from suffering.

Ivan to Semyon, from inside the crocodile:

“But I will prove that even lying like a log—nay, that only lying like a log one can revolutionize the lot of mankind. All the great ideas and movements of our newspapers and magazines have evidently been the work of men who were lying like logs; that is why they call them divorced from the realities of life – but what does that matter, their saying that! I am constructing now a complete system of my own, and you wouldn’t believe how easy it is! You have only to creep into a secluded corner or into a crocodile, to shut your eyes, and you immediately devise a perfect millennium for mankind. When you went to work this afternoon I set to work at once and have already invented three systems, I am now preparing the fourth. It is true that at first one must refute everything that has gone before, but from the crocodile it is so easy to refute it; besides, it all becomes clearer, seen from the inside of a crocodile . . . There are some drawbacks, though small ones, in my position, however; it is somewhat damp here and covered with a sort of slime; moreover, there is rather a smell of India-rubber exactly like the smell of my old galoshes. That is all, there are no other drawbacks.”

Felisberto Hernández, The Crocodile

In Hernández’s story, a pianist turned women’s hosiery salesmen uses crocodile tears to increase sales during hard times. The tears on demand are likely a reflection of an inner melancholy; New Directions describes the story as a “heartbreaker.” Yes, there is something unsettling about the narrator’s ability to cry on demand, but the recognition that there is something inside of many of us that would prompt us to use the same strategy may be more unnerving than heartbreaking.

“I longed to leave that shop, that city, that life. I thought about my country and about many other things. And suddenly, just as I was beginning to calm down, I had an idea. What would happen if I started crying right in front of all these people? It struck me as a very violent thing to do, but I’d been wanting to do something out of the ordinary, to put the world to the test, for a long time. I also needed to prove to myself that I was capable of great violence. And before I could change my mind I sat down in a little chair backed up against the counter and with all those people around me I put my hands to my face and began emitting sobbing noise. Almost simultaneously, a woman let out a loud cry and said, “A man is weeping.”

While these two stories have little in common beyond their name, they do offer the reader an opportunity to explore two lesser-known works from influential writers.

5 March 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This morning, after reading my post on Ukrainian literature, the translator/writer/editor Tanya Paperny passed along the following letter, which is signed by twenty-one Russian-language writers living in Kharkov, the second-largest city in Ukraine. I think it’s important that more people have a chance to read this, so I’m posting it here.

On March 1, the Council of the Russian Federation backed the Russian President’s appeal to take exhaustive measures to protect Russians in Ukraine, going as far as the introduction of Russian armed forces onto Ukrainian territory. On that same day, in the regional capitals of Western Ukraine, pro-Russian rallies instigated by city authorities took place. Participants in the rallies in Kharkov, including people who had been brought in on buses with Russian numbers, stormed the regional administration building and beat up the Euromaidan supporters inside, including the famous writer Serhiy Zhadan (he was taken to the hospital with a fractured skull, a concussion, and a possible broken nose). A Russian citizen and resident of Moscow climbed onto the regional administration building and installed a Russian flag.

Officially, the Federation’s Council is guided by the alleged reports of numerous infringements upon the rights of Russians in Ukraine. If such reports exist, they should be made public and each one thoroughly studied.

We, Russian writers of Kharkov, want our voices to be heard, too: at work and elsewhere, we freely communicate in Russian, even with our Ukrainian colleagues. In any case, the questions under discussion about linguistics or nationality cannot be reasons for military intervention.

We, Russian writers of Kharkov and citizens of Ukraine, don’t need the military protection of another State. We don’t want another State—hiding behind the rhetoric of protecting our interests—to drive its troops into our city and our country, risking the lives of our friends and relatives. All we need is peace and a calm life. And the decision by the Russian Federation and its military invasion is a real threat to this possibility.

• Anastasia Afanasyeva, winner of the “Russian Prize” and the “LiteratuRRentgen” prize, short listed for the “Debut” prize

• Dmitry Dedyulin, poet, writer

• Elena Donskaya, writer, teacher

• Inna Zakharova, poet, human rights activist

• Andrei Klimov, writer

• Svetlana Klimova, writer

• Vladislav Kolchigin, poet

• Alexander Kocharyan, poet

• Andrei Krasniashikh, co-editor of “Writers Union” literary journal, short listed for
Andrei Bely, “Nonconformism,” O.Henry and Daniil Kharms prizes, long listed for “Russian Prize”

• Alexandra Mkrtchyan, long listed for “Russian Prize”

• Kirill Novikov, poet

• Sergey Pankratov, writer

• Oleg Petrov, poet, writer

• Andrei Pichakhchi, writer, artist

• Irina Skachko, poet, journalist

• Yuri Solomko, short listed for “LiteratuRRentgen” prize, long listed for “Debut” and “Russian Prize”

• Tatyana Polozhii, poet

• Yuri Tsaplin, co-editor of “Writers Union” literary journal, winner of the 2002 “Cultural Hero” award at the national contemporary art festival

• Svetlana Shevchuk, writer

• Victor Shepelev, writer, programmer

• Vladimir Yaskov, poet, translator

[translated by Tanya Paperny]

3 December 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Will Evans on Anzhelina Polonskaya’s Paul Klee’s Boat, Zephyr Press.

Formerly an Open Letter apprentice and now his Own Man, Will is the mustache director behind Deep Vellum Publishing, a soon-to-be year-old literature in translation house based in Dallas Texas. Will knows incredible amounts about Russian literature, and his review on Polonskaya’s collection of poems is enough to make anyone interested. Here’s the beginning of his review:

Paul Klee’s Boat, Anzhelina Polonskaya’s newest bilingual collection of poems available in English, is an emotional journey through the bleakest seasons of the human soul, translated with great nuance by Andrew Wachtel. A former professional ice dancer(!), Polonskaya left the world of dancing and moved back home to the small town where she was born to focus on describing the ice within the human heart. Paul Klee’s Boat is Polonskaya’s first collection of poems published in English since her debut A Voice (Northwestern University Press, 2004), also translated by Wachtel. Her poems have been published widely in the meantime, in World Literature Today, Poetry Review, the American Poetry Review and International Poetry Review, Drunken Boat, The Iowa Review, The Massachusetts Review, and Prairie Schooner.

Described as “a rising star in Russia,” Polonskaya rose to prominence in the tumultuous post-Soviet 90s. One of the notable things about her is that she does not live in Moscow, but rather in a small town in the outer ring of exurbs outside Moscow. This distance, along with her unique background as an ice dancer with no formal poetry training other than what she read on her own from the great Russian poets, grants her work a sort of outsider status in the Russian poetry scene.
As you make your way through the collection, you will hear echoes of said great Russian poets, none more evident than the anguished voice of Akhmatova, reinvented in Polonskaya’s tragic “KURSK: AN ORATORIO REQUIEM,” a cycle of poems written over several years in remembrance of the 118 sailors killed in the sinking of the nuclear-powered Kursk submarine in August 2000. If there were one reason alone to buy this collection of poems, it would be for this requiem. It is tremendous. Powerful. Epic. Timeless. And so, so sad.

For the rest of the review, go here.

3 December 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Paul Klee’s Boat, Anzhelina Polonskaya’s newest bilingual collection of poems available in English, is an emotional journey through the bleakest seasons of the human soul, translated with great nuance by Andrew Wachtel. A former professional ice dancer(!), Polonskaya left the world of dancing and moved back home to the small town where she was born to focus on describing the ice within the human heart. Paul Klee’s Boat is Polonskaya’s first collection of poems published in English since her debut A Voice (Northwestern University Press, 2004), also translated by Wachtel. Her poems have been published widely in the meantime, in World Literature Today, Poetry Review, the American Poetry Review and International Poetry Review, Drunken Boat, The Iowa Review, The Massachusetts Review, and Prairie Schooner.

Described as “a rising star in Russia,” Polonskaya rose to prominence in the tumultuous post-Soviet 90s. One of the notable things about her is that she does not live in Moscow, but rather in a small town in the outer ring of exurbs outside Moscow. This distance, along with her unique background as an ice dancer with no formal poetry training other than what she read on her own from the great Russian poets, grants her work a sort of outsider status in the Russian poetry scene.
As you make your way through the collection, you will hear echoes of said great Russian poets, none more evident than the anguished voice of Akhmatova, reinvented in Polonskaya’s tragic “KURSK: AN ORATORIO REQUIEM,” a cycle of poems written over several years in remembrance of the 118 sailors killed in the sinking of the nuclear-powered Kursk submarine in August 2000. If there were one reason alone to buy this collection of poems, it would be for this requiem. It is tremendous. Powerful. Epic. Timeless. And so, so sad.

For some background on the Kursk submarine and why Polonskaya would devote a cycle of poems to the memory of its lost sailors, shortly after Vladimir Putin became president of Russia, while America was immersed in the Bush-Gore presidential campaign, the sinking of the Kursk became the first international incident affecting Putin, and gave hints to how he would engage the rest of the world for the next decade plus. After an explosion on board killed a large number of the sailors instantly, the submarine sank to the bottom of the Barents Sea in salvageable condition, and in relatively shallow water, but with an unknown number of the men still alive (some think it was most of the crew), no power, and oxygen depleting fast. Putin spurned offers of help from British and Norwegian rescue expeditions despite the lack of Russian crews that could do anything to help in the vicinity. In the delayed Russian response to the tragedy, all 118 sailors died. The men who survived the explosion suffocated to death, knocking in vain on the hull of the submarine for days on end in an attempt to alert rescue crews, and rumor has it several managed to write farewell letters to their loved ones. The tragedy became a permanent stain on Putin’s presidency. Many Russians will never forgive him for ignoring the chance to save the men on board in favor of trying to prove the still-weakened Russian state’s competency in its own matters—and failing miserably.

Westerners have all but forgotten the Kursk incident, since Putin went back to war with Chechnya around the same time and 9/11 distracted all foreign media for the decade since. But the Kursk sinking still means so much, and Polonskaya has provided the first attempt to come to terms with this tragedy, and she writes with a palpable sadness, alternating between the voices of Chorus, Sailor, Siren, and Angel to tell the tale of loss without ever naming the submarine or its sailors directly:

Chorus

00:15. Water in the hold. The deck rocks.
We sail. A taut wire of legs,
we bespatter the walls.

00:45. We’re sinking. The anchor glows
like a farewell star. Wind rasps, the cries,
the sea sucks the Great Bear.

00:53. The storm laid the blueness of its hands
on the heeling boat. Called for help,
no answer. Nothing lasts forever.

The effect is haunting. The nameless sailors transcend the political ramifications of Putin’s inaction and become universally recognizable victims. The voices in “KURSK: AN ORATORIO REQUIEM” provided the basis for the libretto to David Chisholm’s orchestral adaptation of the cycle, which premiered in Melbourne’s Arcko Symphonic Project in October 2011 (a link to watch a documentary on the making of the adaptation of Polonskaya’s poem into music can be found here on Vimeo, which also includes a video performance of the piece).
“KURSK” is presented at the end of the collection, which Wachtel lays out in an orderly fashion that follows, seemingly, some sort of thematic logic, wherein a poem about one subject segues into another poem on a similar subject, which opens the door into another theme, and so on. The first thematic cycle is a dialogue between the poet and the work of classic visual artists, from the collection’s namesake Paul Klee to Picasso, Magritte, and Michelangelo’s David. From the breathtaking “Like David”:

There’ll be snow tomorrow. It will alter our faces, sewing solemn lines of
      wrinkles.
Winter’s white goats will wander the orchard, stripping bark from the apple
      trees,
and they’ll look into the windows where we warm our hands over a quiet
      geranium fire.
Such are the days here, like drops of water in a prisoner’s solitary cell.
And we are immobile, like David, our legs planted deep in the ground.

Subsequent themes reveal themselves as layered elements that build off and complement each other in the shape and scope of each poem. The poems ponder a wide range of themes, such as the relationship between humanity and nature; or of the triumph of evil over good; of love lost; of “God’s indifference”; snow and cold (standing in for so, so much, emotional and physical, “the snow within”); the passage of time; the fragility of memory; family ties; soldiers and war.

The poems in Paul Klee’s Boat are for the most part unrhymed free verse. Occasional rhymes in the Russian are translated into English unrhymed, and occasionally structured poetic forms appear, but without holding true to the forms’ stylistic convention. The first half of the collection consists of shorter poems, all a page or less, then rounds out with five longer cycles of poems, starting with “The Wave,” a requiem about the devastating 2005 tsunami in Thailand, followed by the more personal “Greek Diary,” “Dalmatian Cycle,” and “Free Verses,” in which Polonskaya reflects on her own style, all of which crescendo in the epic sweep of the closing cycle, “KURSK: AN ORATORIO REQUIEM.”

The collection is not expressly political, and I am loathe to always analyze Russian poetry and literature toward the political, and Polonskaya never names names, nor does she descend into open criticisms of anyone in particular (“KURSK” being an exception to the rest of the poems). But there is an undercurrent of malaise in these poems that recalls the period of “stagnation” under Brezhnev, that has been morphed under Putin into “timelessness,” i.e. Russia has become a land that exists out of sync with the rest of the world. You can see it in the short excerpt above from “Like David,” the prisoners with their legs stuck in the cold winter’s ground. It’s as if perestroika and the Berlin Wall’s collapse never happened in Russia, and people can’t decide if Putin has thrown Russia back into the 1980 Soviet Union or Ivan the Terrible’s Muscovy. Without saying it, but in unspoken acknowledgement, Polonskaya paints a grim portrait of a contemporary Russia developing a sense of its own angst, gaining a voice yet still ultimately powerless, that reminds me of the pre-revolutionary poets and their entrapment between the tsar’s vice grip on power and the murky future that revolution would bring.

Paul Klee’s Boat is part of the series of contemporary Russian poetry called “In the Grips of Strange Thoughts” that Zephyr Press has published since an extensive anthology of the same name in 1999. Zephyr Press is an amazing and dedicated independent publisher that has been around since 1980, and has become one of the most important publishers of international poetry in translation, especially from the Russian. Their complete collection of Anna Akhamotva’s poetry put them on the publishing map in 1990, and they have since published emerging poets and new voices from across the world.

In short, Anzhelina Polonskaya is a fantastic poet whose work calls to mind Russia’s great poets past, and Paul Klee’s Boat is a vital addition to the contemporary poetry canon, a collection as interesting as it is touching that will inevitably be remembered for years to come.

3 September 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Not long ago, Nick Laird wrote an interesting article for The Guardian on the Slow Food Movement, an idea sprung from modern dissatisfaction with fast food. Participants gather to enjoy homemade meals cooked for as long as necessary. The emphasis is on the experience, not merely the consumption, of food. From this, Laird argues that poetry may be the antidote to Twitter and Facebook, both preaching the value of immediacy while encouraging reaction over contemplation. Whereas a Tweet is limited to a small amount of characters and is meant to be read quickly, a good poem is as long as it needs to be and asks to be digested slowly. Laird calls this the Slow Language Movement.

Leonid Tsypkin may not have written poetry, but his collection The Bride Over Neroch would certainly fit in with Laird’s idea. The prose is dense, detailed, and impossible to skim. It requires patience and tries its best to fuse many details into one enormous paragraph (and sometimes into one sentence). The book ought to be the perfect response to a world consumed with social media and instant connection. But this is part of the problem. The writing, while precise and complex, doesn’t always challenge one the way in which poetry, or rich prose, does. This may be a fault of the translation, but midway through the title piece I was wondering if the disconnect I felt was due to Tsypkin’s writing or due to my dwindling attention span. Both, maybe? I have no problem with a dense book, but I do ask that the author give me something to hang my hat on other than seemingly arbitrary observations of mountains. Though it is unfair to compare Tyspkin to other writers, while reading Tsypkin I thought of Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose My Struggle books are not short of mundane detail yet manage to be thoroughly engrossing, and László Krasznahorkai, who spins unwieldy sentences that demand close reading and grant significant rewards. Conversely, Tyspkin’s titular novella, a meticulous story of many generations of a Russian-Jewish family, sweeping though it may be, feels overstuffed and wearying.

Things improve, though. The second novella in the collection, “Norartakir,” employs a similar style with more satisfying results. The plot of the novella is simple (the description on the back cover is somewhat misleading), but, in this instance, the story takes a backseat. Travel log, revenge tale, and exploration of social/cultural differences, “Norartakir” offers more to chew on than the other long piece in the collection, though it too suffers from meandering prose that doesn’t always hit the mark.

Shorter tales follow, most of them achieving good results that do much to redeem the otherwise cumbersome spots in The Bride Over Neroch. “Fellow Traveler” and “Ten Minutes of Waiting” nicely document the absurd realities of systematic Soviet life. “Ave Maria,” compact in comparison to the longer pieces yet given enough room to unfold, is perhaps the best balance of Tsypkin’s digressive tendencies and his ability to relay a compelling tale.

As with many collections, the sum is not as good as its finest parts, though the stories offer enough worth recommending. Perhaps this is a book aimed at specific readers: those enamored with Tsypkin’s Summer in Baden-Baden will cherish this publication of the neglected writer’s remaining work; scholars of Soviet-era literature will likely find some of these stories enjoyable. And the before-mentioned Slow Language Movement can add Tsypkin to its list of important writers. Otherwise, let the casual reader beware: here there be both glories and duds.

3 September 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is from Vincent Francone on Leonid Tsypkin’s The Bridge Over the Neroch & Other Works, from New Directions.

My apologies to Vincent for posting this so late—he had it ready for us almost a month ago—but it’s never too late for a Russian classic. Great Russian works can sometimes be hard to get in to, but even the heavier Russian works have their merits, and their beauty, as Vincent points out in his review. Here’s the beginning of his piece:

Not long ago, Nick Laird wrote an interesting article for The Guardian on the Slow Food Movement, an idea sprung from modern dissatisfaction with fast food. Participants gather to enjoy homemade meals cooked for as long as necessary. The emphasis is on the experience, not merely the consumption, of food. From this, Laird argues that poetry may be the antidote to Twitter and Facebook, both preaching the value of immediacy while encouraging reaction over contemplation. Whereas a Tweet is limited to a small amount of characters and is meant to be read quickly, a good poem is as long as it needs to be and asks to be digested slowly. Laird calls this the Slow Language Movement.

Leonid Tsypkin may not have written poetry, but his collection The Bride Over Neroch would certainly fit in with Laird’s idea. The prose is dense, detailed, and impossible to skim. It requires patience and tries its best to fuse many details into one enormous paragraph (and sometimes into one sentence). The book ought to be the perfect response to a world consumed with social media and instant connection. But this is part of the problem. The writing, while precise and complex, doesn’t always challenge one the way in which poetry, or rich prose, does. This may be a fault of the translation, but midway through the title piece I was wondering if the disconnect I felt was due to Tsypkin’s writing or due to my dwindling attention span. Both, maybe? I have no problem with a dense book, but I do ask that the author give me something to hang my hat on other than seemingly arbitrary observations of mountains. Though it is unfair to compare Tyspkin to other writers, while reading Tsypkin I thought of Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose My Struggle books are not short of mundane detail yet manage to be thoroughly engrossing, and László Krasznahorkai, who spins unwieldy sentences that demand close reading and grant significant rewards. Conversely, Tyspkin’s titular novella, a meticulous story of many generations of a Russian-Jewish family, sweeping though it may be, feels overstuffed and wearying.

For the rest of the review, go here.

27 May 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Aleksandra Fazlipour on Red Spectres, a kind-of-creepy collection of Russian short stories by authors including Valery Bryusov, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Aleksandr Grin, from Angel Classics.

Aleksandra is a former independent-study student of Chad’s, and contributes pretty regularly to Three Percent. Here’s a bit of her review:

Muireann Maguire’s Red Spectres is a stunning and engaging collection of eleven Russian gothic tales written by various authors during the early Soviet Era, all but two stories of which are featured in English for the first time ever. These are not your usual ghost stories, told for cheap thrills around a campfire. Instead, I found myself puzzling over these tales for far longer than I normally would while reading a short work of fiction, and several nights I awoke from dreams—nightmares?—eerily similar to what I had read the night before.

Maguire’s translation is the most noteworthy feature of each tale, transforming relatively simple stories into remarkable works of fiction. While the stories themselves are simple, they have been made immeasurably chilling, exciting, and memorable. And what’s interesting to note, as written on the Angel Classics webpage, is that this type of Gothic-fantastic genre did very well for itself in the early 20th century, despite official efforts to shut it down.

For the rest of the review, go here

27 May 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Muireann Maguire’s Red Spectres is a stunning and engaging collection of eleven Russian gothic tales written by various authors during the early Soviet Era, all but two stories of which are featured in English for the first time ever. These are not your usual ghost stories, told for cheap thrills around a campfire. Instead, I found myself puzzling over these tales for far longer than I normally would while reading a short work of fiction, and several nights I awoke from dreams—nightmares?—eerily similar to what I had read the night before.

Maguire’s translation is the most noteworthy feature of each tale, transforming relatively simple stories into remarkable works of fiction. While the stories themselves are simple, they have been made immeasurably chilling, exciting, and memorable. And what’s interesting to note, as written on the Angel Classics webpage, is that this type of Gothic-fantastic genre did very well for itself in the early 20th century, despite official efforts to shut it down. I don’t want to spoil the tales for you by describing each of them. I doubt that I will be able to convey them as wonderfully as Muireann Maguire has, but here is a passage from one of the tales, “The Red Crown” by Bulgakov . . .

“I’ve become used to everything: to our white building, the twilight, the ginger cat that comes and scratches at my door. But I cannot get used to his visits. The first time it happened I still lived downstairs, in room 63: he appeared out of the wall, wearing his red crown. Nothing about him frightened me: he looks just the same in my dreams. But I know perfectly well that if he’s wearing the crown, he must be dead. And then he spoke, moving dry lips clotted with blood. He parted his lips, came to attention, raised his hand to his crown, and said:

‘Brother, I can’t leave the squadron.’

And every time since the first time, the same thing happens. He arrives in his soldier’s blouse with the ammunition-belts over his shoulder, with his curving sabre and spurs that never jingle; and he says the same words. First he salutes. And then:

‘Brother, I can’t leave the squadron.’

How he frightened me the first time! He scared the entire clinic. It was all over for me then. I’ve figured it out rationally: if he’s wearing the crown, he’s been killed, and if a dead man comes and speaks to me, I must be mad.”

The translator here manages to convey the narrator’s sense of confusion and subsequent acceptance beautifully, but in other stories (and in fact, in other places in the same tale) conveys the sense of panic and frantic secrecy, allowing the reader to experience the chaos characteristic not only of the Russian gothic genre, but of early twentieth century Russia itself in the aftermath of two revolutions and a civil war. Maguire is skilled because she allows the reader to experience the seven different authors in the same volume, and each unique voice is preserved. The storytelling seems deliberately just vague enough to entertain separate readings of the same story, where ghosts and insanity and alternate realities are equally possible and the reader gets to choose.

The stories in Red Spectres, featuring authors such as Georgy Peskov, Valery Bryusov, and the aforementioned Mikhail Bulgakov, are exciting and full of possibility. And, upon subsequent re-readings . . . somehow, brilliantly, these eleven translated short stories can easily transform into twice as many tales, if not more—no doubt the way the masters of Russian gothic literature who invented the stories intended them to be.

21 May 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

This slender, uncanny volume—the second, best-selling collection of stories by Russian author Ludmilla Petrushevskaya to appear in the U.S.—has already received considerable, well-deserved praise from many critics and high profile publications. Its seventeen short tales, averaging ten pages each, are grouped into four sections: “A Murky Fate”; “Hallelujah, Family!”; “My Little One”; and “A Happy Ending.” But there is little in them that readers might associate with true love or happy endings. Instead, Petrushevskaya delivers a smoking, cast-iron skillet upside the head: promiscuity, serial mendacity, domestic violence, dangerous liaisons, ineptitude, ignorance, geriatric romance, and cringing fear. Love stories? Seamy debacles. Hookup sagas set in a grim Moscow and environs. Coupling stories fraught with meanness, misery, and egregious misunderstanding. Workaday women sharing sour, collective apartments and tawdry, loveless lives. Young women who flower, suffer abuse, and wither. Collision stories: hapless women, old before their time, thwarted by brutal men. Though the men hardly fare better.

In “A Murky Fate,” an unmarried thirty-something living with her mother engineers a drab tryst with a man who services her with perfunctory courtesy and patronizing affection. But in her sterile office-life world, this confers a blissful memory: “There was nothing but pain in store for her, yet she cried with happiness and couldn’t stop.”

“The Fall” offers a dry comedy of manners at a state-run seaside resort where vacationers escaping the rainy north come together only to multiply one another’s misery. A gaudy temptress attracts a mooning pack of suitors before efficiently selecting her tall, confident “Number One.” They find the sex lovelorn travelers yearn for, only to fall prisoner to their coveted exclusion and inevitable teary separation: “Our golden couple has departed. The delicate Carmen and her faithful husband, Number One, are jetting through the frozen air away from each other, back to their children and spouses, back to the cold, and to hard, grim work.”

In “The Goddess Parka” a schoolteacher called A.A. goes to summer in the country, rents a porch on a cabin, and falls sway to old Aunt Alevtina who plays Yentl to his bachelor, setting him up with young Nina, but it’s a hard sell: “Nina didn’t impress A.A. She was heavy, very shy, with large pale eyes. But he did notice her casual, almost indifferent manner when she was examining some old prescriptions of Alevtina’s—the manner of a true expert.” Only Alevtina’s funeral provides the maudlin catalyst the shy couple requires to find one another and fall into what promises to be a mechanically indifferent relationship.

Alcoholism, an exposed nerve throughout the collection, drives the story of Ali-Baba, a scheming addict who hocks her mother’s first edition volumes of Russian symbolist poet Alexander Blok for drink and drug money. One of Blok’s own poems speaks perfectly to Ali-Baba’s dead-end existence:

Night, street and streetlight, drugstore,
The purposeless, half-dim, drab light.
For all the use live on a quarter century—
Nothing will change. There’s no way out.

You’ll die—and start all over, live twice,
Everything repeats itself, just as it was:
Night, the canal’s rippled icy surface,
The drugstore, the street, and streetlight.1

-10 October, 1912

It’s a tale of misery masquerading as self-preservation, as Ali-Baba attempts to escape from her so-called “life partner”: “[He] had tossed her over the railing of his balcony for stealing his booze. She hung four floors above the ground, clutching at the railing, until two truck drivers forced their way into the apartment and rescued her.” Ali-Baba’s own weird magic is that of a strange survivor; her Cave of Sesame is state-mandated rehab to which she gravitates, but only on her own sick terms. This involves a tryst with the drunken Victor, who is as crocked as Dostoyevsky’s Marmeladov from Crime and Punishment. When Victor pisses the bed, she ODs on sleeping pills and wakes up in the psychiatric hospital to fresh sheets and three squares a day.

“Two Deities” offers the awkward mismatch between thirty-five-year-old senior editor Genya and Dima, a simple, office courier of twenty. A single drunken encounter—on her mother’s sofa—after an office party, produces a child, and they become reluctant, embarrassed parents: ordinary failures in the public eye, but gods to the child who has, unlike so many, a reliable mother and father.

Sweet, virtuous Oksana in “Like Penélope” (as in Cruz) faces the common, nearly impossible challenge of finding love while trying to eke out some kind of modern life: “Oksana studied forestry in a third-tier college—the only one she could attend for free. Upon graduation she could expect to get a clerical job in a state agency tallying birches and firs on paper. She and her mother shared a two-room apartment in a standard concrete building.” Their drab, nondescript warren of misery is a standard location for these tales:

“In one respect their housing situation stood out: right below them, on the third floor, lived an incredibly noisy family of violent alcoholics. Every night the floor shook with screams, banging, and knocking; the lady of the house regularly interrupted her partying to stumble outside and yell “Murder!” and “Help!” Oksana tiptoed past their ravaged door; outside she dressed in dark clothing and wore her hat low over her face.”

Her mother, Nina, holds a thankless job editing textbooks, but she is a charitable soul. She takes in Klava, an old Ukranian friend hiding from “shakers”—violent loan sharks pursuing her son, Misha. Nina’s charity, vexing to her daughter, eventually brings Oksana face to face with Misha, and the hint of a dangerous, derailing passion.

“Father and Mother” is a short study in Dostoyevskian madness wherein young Tanya longs to escape from her endlessly warring parents; the father a carefree soldier, the mother a negligent harridan with an unwashed brood:

“The squalor of that household was beyond description, because the mother did her housework sloppily, saving her energy for the high point of her day: for eleven at night, which bled into midnight and later, so the children got no sleep and couldn’t get up in the morning for school. The mother went further in her sacred rage, appearing at the officers’ mess with the little one and kicking her husband as he walked out the door, as if to disprove the conventional wisdom that such methods never brought anyone’s husband back (quite the opposite). Leaving behind her children unfed, she’d chase her husband through town, screaming the most horrible things—that, say, she had found bloody rags tucked in a hole in the wall and that Tanya had had a miscarriage by her father.”

This passage eerily echoes the wrenching battles between Crime and Punishment’s Marmeladov and Katerina Ivanovna Marmeladova:

“Ah!” she cried out in a frenzy, “he has come back! The criminal! the monster! … And where is the money? What’s in your pocket, show me! And your clothes are all different! Where are your clothes? Where is the money! Speak!”

And she fell to searching him. Marmeladov submissively and obediently held up both arms to facilitate the search. Not a farthing was there.

“Where is the money?” she cried—“Mercy on us, can he have drunk it all? There were twelve silver rubles left in the chest!” and in a fury she seized him by the hair and dragged him into the room. Marmeladov seconded her efforts by meekly crawling along on his knees.

“And this is a consolation to me! This does not hurt me, but is a positive con-so-la-tion, ho-nou-red sir,” he called out, shaken to and fro by his hair and even once striking the ground with his forehead. The child asleep on the floor woke up, and began to cry. The boy in the corner losing all control began trembling and screaming and rushed to his sister in violent terror, almost in a fit. The eldest girl was shaking like a leaf.

“He’s drunk it! He’s drunk it all,” the poor woman screamed in despair —“and his clothes are gone! And they are hungry, hungry!”—and wringing her hands she pointed to the children. “Oh, accursed life!”2

The most experimental tale of the bunch—inspiration for the collection’s macabre title—is “Hallelujah, Family!,” a complicated, multi-generational, matriarchal tangle of several daughters born out of wedlock, written as a chain of 45 numbered paragraphs, confusing enough to sometimes require embedded reference numbers:

36. [Victor had] accumulated several notes from Zhanna as well as a number of letters from Alla with pictures of little Nadya, who was a replica of Victor plus dimples and curls. His mother also wrote—that Alla’s life with her mentally ill mother (2–5) was becoming unbearable, that the crazy woman had put washing detergent in Nadya’s cereal and wouldn’t let Nina Petrovna see her own granddaughter.”

All this collective madness finds balance in Petrushevskaya’s superb narration: clever, sardonic and maternal, a terse, almost breezy, delivery with spare, tasteful description, and an economy reminiscent of other masterful meditations on troubled relationships: Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and Thomas Farber’s Who Wrote the Book of Love? Praise, too, for translator Anna Summers who renders these blunt tragicomedies with crisp phrasing and textured color appropriate to their wretched situations: “The baby was covered with a septic rash—his whole little head felt like a cactus due to the tiny bumps.”

These unsparing, unbearably human stories would kick their way through a Las Vegas wedding chapel like a regiment of angry Spetsnaz, their ethos being that the brutal disappointments of modern life are simply unexceptional; shreds of love and companionship are small triumphs; a squalid affair is better than a spiteful marriage. But a few of these tales, at least, harbor shades of love, tenderness, affection, resolution, and forgiveness, the nitty gritty workaday side of living together that is part and parcel of redemption. I had to read the book twice to zero in on this fact because the first pass, despite Petrushevskaya’s sardonic flair, brought only a wave of depression, an impression of wicked, gleeful anti-love stories with unbelievable twists of suffering no one should have to live through. One especial example is the tale of “Milgrom”:

“Her husband dumped her, literally kicked her out of the house, and took away her child, a little boy. First he took Milgrom out of her Lithuanian village—she was a rare beauty, sixteen years old, but she didn’t speak any Russian, just Yiddish and Polish—and then he divorced her; you could do that then—with total freedom he went and divorced her. And he brought another woman to live with him and told Milgrom to leave. So she left. She was eighteen years old. She nearly went crazy; she spent all her days and nights on the street across from her old window so she could see her child.”

Yet Milgrom—years later an old crone and expert seamstress—is able to bring happiness to a clumsy, unskilled girl who is starting to feel her own beauty for the first time. Milgrom sews her a garment worthy of her young spirit:

“The girl puts on her dress; looks in the mirror; escapes from that sweet-musty smell, out into the street, the sunset; and walks by countless doors and windows, behind each of which, she thinks, live only Milgroms, Milgroms, Milgroms. She walks in her cool new black dress, and she is seized with happiness, filled with joy.”

It’s those rare gems of happiness that illuminate, and sometimes ennoble, these mad stories, the silver linings to their gray, leering cloudscapes.

1 Translation from Russian by Alex Cigale (as published by Offcourse at http://www.albany.edu/offcourse)

2 from Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Pocket Books, 2004; trans. Constance Garnett).

21 May 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Brendan Riley on There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, from Penguin.

Brendan has written reviews for Three Percent in the past, and has worked for many years as a teacher, translator, editor, and writer. Brendan’s translations include works by Juan Velasco, Álvaro Enrigue, Juan Filloy, and Carlos Fuentes.

Petrushevskaya’s previous collection published in English, There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby (Penguin Books), came out in 2009 and was on NPR’s/Jessa Crispin’s 2009 best books list. Here’s a bit of Brendan’s review:

This slender, uncanny volume—the second, best-selling collection of stories by Russian author Ludmilla Petrushevskaya to appear in the U.S.—has already received considerable, well-deserved praise from many critics and high profile publications. Its seventeen short tales, averaging ten pages each, are grouped into four sections: “A Murky Fate”; “Hallelujah, Family!”; “My Little One”; and “A Happy Ending.” But there is little in them that readers might associate with true love or happy endings. Instead, Petrushevskaya delivers a smoking, cast-iron skillet upside the head: promiscuity, serial mendacity, domestic violence, dangerous liaisons, ineptitude, ignorance, geriatric romance, and cringing fear. Love stories? Seamy debacles. Hookup sagas set in a grim Moscow and environs. Coupling stories fraught with meanness, misery, and egregious misunderstanding. Workaday women sharing sour, collective apartments and tawdry, loveless lives. Young women who flower, suffer abuse, and wither. Collision stories: hapless women, old before their time, thwarted by brutal men. Though the men hardly fare better.

In “A Murky Fate,” an unmarried thirty-something living with her mother engineers a drab tryst with a man who services her with perfunctory courtesy and patronizing affection. But in her sterile office-life world, this confers a blissful memory: “There was nothing but pain in store for her, yet she cried with happiness and couldn’t stop.”

“The Fall” offers a dry comedy of manners at a state-run seaside resort where vacationers escaping the rainy north come together only to multiply one another’s misery. A gaudy temptress attracts a mooning pack of suitors before efficiently selecting her tall, confident “Number One.” They find the sex lovelorn travelers yearn for, only to fall prisoner to their coveted exclusion and inevitable teary separation: “Our golden couple has departed. The delicate Carmen and her faithful husband, Number One, are jetting through the frozen air away from each other, back to their children and spouses, back to the cold, and to hard, grim work.”

For the rest of the review, go here.

8 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

Happy Moscow by Andrey Platonov, translated from the Russian by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and others, including Olga Meerson, Jonathan Platt, Nadya Bourova, Angela Livingston, and Eric Naiman, and published by New York Review Books.

This piece is by BTBA judge Bill Marx, who also runs Arts Fuse, a great source for criticism and commentary on a range of art forms.

To my knowledge, none of Russian writer Andrey Platonov’s early science fiction novels have been translated into English. Robert Chandler, the writer’s fearless advocate and translator, once told me in conversation that they were minor efforts, though I would love to read them. To my mind, Happy Moscow reads at times like a marvelous anticipation of the futuristic excursions of Polish writer Stanislaw Lem. As in the latter’s acerbic novels, wry but demented visions of utopia and dystopia meet, mingle, and morph at the bloody crossroads of humanity and technology, language and gibberish, innocence and despoliation. As Eric Naiman writes in his introduction to an earlier version of the NYRB translation, “in both form and content this work captures the strange combination of enthusiasm and catastrophe that characterized Russia in the twentieth century.” Neither proclamations of unshakeable cheer nor prophecies of global meltdown are in short supply today: Platonov dramatizes the clash between Russian extremes of propaganda and reality to the point of cartoon absurdity. His deconstruction of reality-denying hubris remains provocative, still one step ahead of the postmodern pack.

Written between 1932 and 1936 and unpublished until 1991, Happy Moscow generates its characters (in particular Moscow Chestnova, the book’s sexy but sentimental and injury prone heroine) out of pure Stalinist kitsch, bloated visions of “immortal” vitality that from time to time crash into an increasingly degraded existence. Early on, the bold and beautiful parachutist Moscow finds herself plummeting helplessly to the ground:

She flew, her cheeks red and burning, and the air tore harshly at her body, as if it were not the wind of celestial space but a heavy dead substance—it was impossible to believe that the earth could be harder and still more merciless. “So, world, this is what you’re really like!”

Ah, the tragicomic exhilaration of the new Soviet woman falling toward the old, old ground.

Unsurprisingly Happy Moscow counterpoises its energetic (and amusing) rhetoric of ideological confidence with compelling images of excrescence and decay. Platonov’s humane ethos is articulated by a skeptical character as he is leaving a room filled with corpses that are being dissected in the scientific search for “the cistern of immortality”:

He was saddened by the sorrow and poverty of life, saddened that life is so helpless that it must almost uninterruptedly distract itself through illusion from an awareness of its own true situation. Even Sambikin was seeking illusions in his own thoughts and discoveries—he too was carried away by the complexity and great essence of the world in his imagination. But Sartorius could see that the world consisted primarily of destitute substance, which it was almost impossible to love but essential to understand.

Happy Moscow is a wild study in cosmic disillusionment, a diagnosis of linguistic, political, and metaphysical fiddle-faddle whose challenging use of broad caricature and stylistic instability will lead some readers to toss it into the bin of genre fiction, while others will dismiss it as a surreal doodle. But this book deserves to win because it is a sui generis masterwork, a satiric fantasia of unmistakable brilliance from one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, with ample collaborative evidence offered by the other pieces in this volume, particularly the story “The Moscow Violin.”

27 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following on yesterday’s announcement of Mikhail Shishkin’s April tour, here’s an excerpt from an essay he wrote for The Independent, A Revolution for Russia’s Words:

My departure from the language, the loss of Russian murmuring in my ears, forced me to stop, to be silent. On the rare occasions when we meet, writers from Russia are amazed. “How can you write in this boring Switzerland? Without the language, without the tension?”

They are right – the atmospheric pressure in Russian letters is heightened. And the language is changing rapidly. My exit from Russian speech forced me to turn around and face it. Work on my text came to a halt. Just as there are rests in music, so are there silences in a text. Perhaps they are its most important part.

What is the language I left behind? What did I take with me? Where do the words go from here? A labour of silence. If I was to go further, I had to understand where the essence of writing in Russian actually lay. Being at once creator and creature of the fatherland’s reality, the Russian language is a form of existence, the body of a totalitarian consciousness. Daily life has always muddled through without words: with bellowing, interjections, and gag lines from film comedies. It is the state and literature that require coherent words.

Russian literature is not a form of existence for the language, but a way of existing in Russia for the non-totalitarian consciousness. The totalitarian consciousness has been amply served by decrees and prayers. Decrees from above, prayers from below. The latter are usually more original than the former. Swearing is the vital prayer of a prison country.

Edicts and cursing are the nation’s yin and yang, its rain and field, phallus and vagina; the verbal conception of Russian civilisation. Over the generations, prison reality produced a prison consciousness whose governing principle was that the strongest gets the best bunk. This consciousness was expressed in a language called up to serve Russian life, maintaining it in a state of continuous, unending civil war. When everyone lives by prison camp laws, the mission of language is a cold war between everyone and his neighbour. If the strong must inevitably beat the feeble, it is the mission of language to do this verbally. Humiliate him, insult him and steal his ration. Language as a form of disrespect for the individual.

Russian reality produced a language of unbridled power and abasement. The language of the Kremlin and the prison camp slang of the street share one and the same nature. In a country that lives by an unwritten but distinct law – the place of the weakest is by the slop bucket – the dialect suits the reality. Words rape. Words abuse. Had the borders always been under lock and key, there would be no Russian literature.

The whole piece is worth reading and can be found here.

21 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin, translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz and published by Open Letter Books

BROMANCE WILL IS IN THE HOUSE.

Mikhail Shishkin’s debut English-language novel Maidenhair deserves to win the 2013 Best Translated Book Award because it is not only the best translated book in the best translation to have come out in English—it is the best book that came out in 2012, period. Accomplished translator Marian Schwartz has wrought a miraculous, beautiful, lyrical rendition of Shishkin’s unique poetic language that draws on the grandest narrative traditions of the nineteenth century classics and combines them with the living, breathing Russian language as it exists today.

Language itself, and the importance of the Word in life, love, and history, is at the heart of Maidenhair. The plot, or what semblance there is of a plot, centers on an unnamed interpreter who works for the Swiss immigration office, translating the horrific stories of would-be Russian immigrants describing why they deserve asylum in Switzerland to the interpreter’s boss, a figure described as Peter, guarding the gates of Heaven, determining who is able to enter Paradise within the Swiss borders. The interpreter is the axis on which the narrative magic of Maidenhair spins: he is a narrator who retells the stories of the asylum-seekers; a conduit for the historical stories he is reading about the Persian Wars; a doting father writing letters to his son, all addressed to “My dear Nebuchadnezzasaurus!”; the son lives with his former wife, who in one thread travels to Rome with the narrator, only to have their marriage fall apart; he is a would-be biographer of a talented young singer in late tsarist, early Soviet period, Isabella Yurievna.

The stories all weave together in head-spinning fashion, the interpreter is the only connection between the separate narratives within the novel, though it takes a while for the reader to piece together how these stories are connected, as the characters’ philosophical monologues and asides demonstrate the grand themes Shishkin is working with. And that reminds me of Shishkin’s own words: that Maidenhair is not a novel to be understood, but rather to be felt; it is a novel that hinges less on plot than on the emotional resonance that connects each separate story. Schwartz handles the narrative shifts within Maidenhair with the grace of a prima ballerina, confident and even-keeled, even as the narration jumps from an early twentieth century language of the Petersburg intelligentsia to the coarse, brutal language of refugees who may or may not be fleeing violence and persecution in their home villages.

And to personally editorialize, to add an element of competition to why Maidenhair in particular deserves to win this year’s BTBA rather than any of the other extremely well-qualified works of translation: I can say in all honesty that Maidenhair is the best Russian novel to come out in English since Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita exploded into the world’s consciousness in the mid-1960s.

Like many others before me, I have suffered an unvanquishable love of Rusisan literature ever since I took a Nineteenth Century Russian Literature course my freshman year at university. And I love it all now, all Russian literature: the grand Russian novels of ideas, the linguistic and stylistic revolutionaries of avant-garde poetry, the mystical philosopher-authors exploring the outer reaches of human existence, the brilliant and brave souls who dared to describe the absurdity of totalitarianism, be it tsarist, Soviet, capitalist . . . but I had been feeling at times like I’d reached the end of the Russian rope, that I’d made my way through all the great Russian works, and all I had left to content myself with were forgotten little gems that slipped between the cracks of the great Masters; but all the while I kept hoping beyond hope that somehow, someway, a contemporary Russian author would emerge to re-engage me with the history of Russian literature, to give hope to the written word in ways I thought I’d never feel again, not since I was introduced to that towering genius of twentieth century Russian letters, Bulgakov (and how wonderful and how tragic it is to be introduced to true works of creative genius like Master and Margarita, wonderful to know greatness on such a level, tragic in the knowledge that such works of genius stand alone, once you meet them, you have drastically winnowed down the number of life-changing novels remaining to be discovered, and nothing can replace the joy of discovery, of opening a novel for the first time not knowing by the end that it would completely change your life, that you would become a different, more fulfilled human being by the time you closed that novel. And yes, you can re-read, revisit, re-engage with these classics, these works of creative genius, and you can develop a deeper relationship between the text and the characters and the author behind it all, but you cannot replace the joy that comes from that first reading, the joy of discovery).

Maidenhair is the novel I have been waiting for; a powerful, moving novel that combines everything I love about literature in general, the beauty of language, the power of ideas, the love of characters, the genius of the Author as Master. I believe in the ability of the written word to change and transform physical reality outside of the textual vessel. I know I am not alone in these loves, these beliefs, and I know now that Russian literature is alive and well in so many ways, for there is an author who can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the greatest of Russian writers in history, who can craft the most beautifully-woven novels of ideas, because I have read Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair, and I was able to feel it all again, the pure, unadulterated joy of discovery, of a truly great work of literary fiction, as if for the first time.

It is no exaggeration to describe Mikhail Shiskin as the greatest living Russian writer. Shishkin is already renowned in Russia as the first author to win all three of the big literary awards there: the Russian Booker, the Big Book, and the National Bestseller. I read and fell in love with Maidenhair before Shishkin withdrew from the official Russian delegation to the 2013 Book Expo America, in effect making him a dissident author. And if there is one thing history has shown, it is that the West loves dissident Russian literature. Think of the Russians who have won the Nobel Prize: Ivan Bunin (the most underrated of the great Russian authors, won the Nobel in 1933), Boris Pasternak (1958), Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1970), Joseph Brodsky (1987)—all officially dissidents, yet all deserving for the quality of their writing, the eternal nature of their ideas. Even before his recent political stance, Mikhail Shishkin was a worthy candidate for future Nobel laureate, and the appearance of Maidenhair in English translation started generating Nobel buzz immediately. Some say it takes a few works in English to catapult an author to global status worthy of Nobel recognition: Maidenhair is Shishkin’s first novel to appear in English, published by Open Letter Books, while his second English novel, The Light and the Dark, will be published by Quercus in November 2013. Shishkin’s Nobel future is unknown, his present candidacy for BTBA is more clear. He deserves to win, Maidenhair is a book of uncommon, exceptional genius, and its win would reserve its rightful place as the best translated book of 2012.

If this piece doesn’t convince you that Maidenhair should win the 2013 Best Translated Book Award, or if you can’t be bothered to read a 900-word love letter to Maidenhair, take the advice of the brilliant booksellers at the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, they say what I am trying to say in far fewer words, with their own style of poetic genius:

11 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

So, our author Mikhail Shishkin (whose Maidenhair is the most important book I’ve ever published) cause a bit of a stir over the weekend, when he decided against participating in the Read Russia delegation to BookExpo America this summer.

Here’s the complete text of his letter declining the invitation, as translated from the Russia by Marian Schwartz:

To the Federal Agency for the Press and Mass Communications and the International Office of the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Center

February 27, 2013

Dear Sirs,

Thank you for your invitation to take part in the activities of the official Russian delegation at BookExpo America 2013, the international book fair in New York being held from May 30 to June 1 of this year.

I understand how important participation in this kind of book fair is for a writer and for promoting his books in America and other countries. This is a unique opportunity to make contact with American publishers and readers, since the English-language book market remains virtually closed to writers from countries like Russia. Especially since all expenses for traveling to and staying in the United States (and this is no small sum) are taken on by the official Russian side.

Nonetheless, I am declining. Not because “my schedule doesn’t permit it,” but out of ethical considerations.

I have accepted similar proposals from you many times in the past and have participated in international book fairs as part of the Russian writers delegation, but in the last year the situation has changed.

In any self-respecting country, the state, through various foundations and organizations, supports the advancement of its writers abroad, pays for translations, invites writers to participate in international book fairs, and so on. For example, in Norway this is done by Norla; in Switzerland, Pro Helvetia. Naturally, by taking part in an official delegation, the writers represents not only himself personally and his books but also his country, his state.

Russia’s political development, and the events of last year in particular, have created a situation in the country that is absolutely unacceptable and demeaning for its people and its great culture. What is happening in my country makes me, as a Russian and a citizen of Russia, ashamed. By taking part in the book fair as part of the official delegation and taking advantage of the opportunities presented to me as a writer, I am simultaneously taking on the obligations of being a representative of a state whose policy I consider ruinous for the country and of an official system I reject.

A country where power has been seized by a corrupt, criminal regime, where the state is a pyramid of thieves, where elections have become farce, where courts serve the authorities, not the law, where there are political prisoners, where state television has become a prostitute, where packs of impostors pass insane laws that are returning everyone to the Middle Ages—such a country cannot be my Russia. I cannot and do not want to participate in an official Russian delegation representing that Russia.

I want to and will represent another Russia, my Russia, a country free of impostors, a country with a state structure that defends the right of the individual, not the right to corruption, a country with a free media, free elections, and free people.

Naturally, this is my personal decision and has not been made in consultation with other writers invited to New York; each is free to act in accordance with his or her own notions of ethics and reasonability.

Respectfully yours,

Mikhail Shishkin

Of course, Russia’s deputy minister of the press, Vladimir Grigoryev (who gives the most boring of all boring speeches) came out against Shishkin, using some really Sovietesque language:

We regret this. This sort of thing happens when a Russian writer spends many years away from the motherland. There are many examples of this in history.”

Yeah, gee, I wonder why . . .

And also of course, a bunch of other Russian writers are piling on Shishkin, talking about how he’s able to criticize the government from the “safety of Switzerland,” which is where Shishkin now lives.

All of this—along with the gripes that he’s doing this to get publicity for The Letter-Book, which is coming out in the UK sometime soon, or that he’s angling for the Nobel Prize—is fucking irritating. Since when is it not OK to criticize Russia and Putin’s never-ending reign? Any half-informed hipster in Brooklyn can get politico cred and free skinny jeans for yelling “Free Pussy Riot!,” but a writer being asked to represent Russia’s tyrannical, fairly insane government can only decline if he’s living in the country where Pussy Riot is jailed and Putin Youth flush away books they don’t agree with? What the fuck sense does that even make?

I’m so glad that Masha Gessen takes a lot of this to task in her NY Times piece today:

Prominent opposition writers also condemned Shishkin. Dmitry Bykov, a liberal writer and poet, suggested that Shishkin may be angling for a Nobel Prize in Literature. Eduard Limonov, a nationalist writer and poet, was more blunt: “So he is barking from Switzerland. Yes, my dear, Russia is a shameful paternalistic medieval state. But you have no right to say anything from the safety of Switzerland.”

All of this sounds painfully familiar. As a Russian journalist who speaks out against the regime, I am often told to get out of the country if I don’t like it — and just as often that, as someone who has lived in the United States and could live there again, I have no right to talk or write about Russia. By this logic, only those who have no choice but to live in Russia are entitled to criticize its regime. These arguments are old anti-dissident demagogic standbys, hardly unique to Russia, and they barely deserve attention.

But there is something else that the debate over Shishkin’s statement has exposed. The Russian state thinks it owns its citizens, including its writers, and many of its citizens, including its writers, appear instinctively to agree. To them, the very act of asserting one’s autonomy is suspect, which is why when someone does they look for ulterior motives. Shishkin must have fallen out of touch, or into bad company, or have a bigger plan, they reason — as though just claiming the right to choose one’s allegiances was not both the most basic and the most ambitious goal of all.

What really pleases me about all this is that Shishkin will be spending the month of April in the U.S., teaching at Columbia, doing events in Austin, San Francisco, Buffalo, Rochester, Boston, and as part of the PEN World Voices Festival. This tour is brought to you by Open Letter Books, the Center for the Art of Translation, the University of Buffalo, the University of Rochester, Columbia University, Holy Cross, the University of Texas, and other organizations not part of the Russian government. (More details coming soon.)

And to end on a high note, here’s a good review of the book at Slightly Bookist:

The first reading of Maidenhair is like tipping the pieces of a 1000-piece jigsaw out of the box and turning them all picture-side up. It’s quite the endeavour, requiring dedication to a fiddly and time-consuming task. Once the pieces are all out, there’s a vague sense of what the finished puzzle might look like: some sky, some grass, a white poodle with a red ribbon, a Bavarian castle standing grimly above a river. In no way, though, is your task complete. The same is true of a single reading of Maidenhair: once through is simply not enough to really appreciate it. The most you can hope for is to catch sight of some particularly attractive individual pieces, a fuzzy idea of the bigger picture, some parts that look really interesting, and the occasional group of pieces that could be anything. [. . .]

Maidenhair has stayed with me in the two months since I’ve read it. It’s a book that confirms Open Letter’s excellence in curation (except, of course, for a slight gender imbalance).1 If I say it’s worth persevering with, it sounds as though reading it is unenjoyable, which is far from true. But Maidenhair is a book that demands and then rewards attention, so it’s not one to read if you’ve turned into a gadget and can’t even concentrate long enough to read a single tweet without checking your email halfway through.

Also, World Literature Today also has a positive review that reinforces the difficultly/payoff of disentangling Maidenhair:

This array of connections forms a complex puzzle that can at times be dizzyingly intricate and even baffling. But disentangling Shishkin’s structure is one of the principal pleasures of reading Maidenhair. It is not only aesthetically satisfying but also reveals Shishkin’s unique worldview, which manages to engage Russia’s literary heritage while at the same time creating something new and altogether original.

Controversy and counter-controversy aside, you should just buy and read this book. Your life will be better for it.

1 We’re always trying to change this. And although still representing only 40% of our list, over the next 15 titles, we’re bringing out 6 books written by women and two anthologies including both male and female writers. It’s never perfect, but at least that’s a bit better . . .

4 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Will Evans (aka Bromance Will) on Kirill Medvedev’s It’s No Good, which is translated from the Russian by Keith Gessen, Mark Krotov, Corry Merrill, and Bela Shayevich and published by n+1/Ugly Duckling Presse.

By now, most of you know who Bromance Will is, but for those who don’t, he was an apprentice here last summer and is starting up his own publishing house in Dallas. (And I have to give a public shaming to University of Texas at Dallas for not snatching Will up and hiring him. Huge loss, UTD. Huge.)

Anyway, here’s the opening of his review of this really interesting sounding collection:

To call Kirill Medvedev a poet is to focus on only one aspect of his work: Medvedev is a committed socialist political activist, essayist, leftist publisher, and literary critic who lives in Moscow and who uses the medium of poetry as his artistic base for a broader discussion of art and politics, and the artist’s place in today’s global consumer capitalist society.

In 2004, Medvedev renounced the copyright to his own work and forbid any publication of his works via a LiveJournal blog post (included in this collection), announcing that any collected editions of his works henceforth would be pirated and published without the express permission of the author. Subsequently, a publisher in Moscow followed his advice and published a pirated collection of Medvedev’s works up to that point and fittingly titled it Texts Published Without Permission of the Author. Two of America’s best indie publishers, n+1 and Ugly Duckling Presse, have teamed up to present the first English-language pirated sampling of Medvedev’s works up to this point, It’s No Good: Poems/Essays/Actions, featuring wide-ranging excerpts selected from the first decade of his writing, including a well-curated selection of poetry to his most significant blog posts, along with lengthy essays on politics and art, descriptions and accounts of his political “actions,” and literary obituaries, all written between 2000 (the first cycle of poems published as It’s No Good [Всё плохо]) and 2012.

You don’t need to know anything about Russia today to read and enjoy Medevedev and, further, to identify universal themes within his work. This edition presents a potent mixture of Medvedev’s poetry and prose that, in his own words, explores the “link between politics and culture.” Medvedev breaks with centuries of Russian (and Western) artists’ attempts to create an apolitical world for themselves outside of the political and economic system in which they create their art: for Medvedev, art and politics are wholly inseparable, the artist cannot escape the influence of power and capital on their art.

Click here to read the full piece.

4 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

To call Kirill Medvedev a poet is to focus on only one aspect of his work: Medvedev is a committed socialist political activist, essayist, leftist publisher, and literary critic who lives in Moscow and who uses the medium of poetry as his artistic base for a broader discussion of art and politics, and the artist’s place in today’s global consumer capitalist society.

In 2004, Medvedev renounced the copyright to his own work and forbid any publication of his works via a LiveJournal blog post (included in this collection), announcing that any collected editions of his works henceforth would be pirated and published without the express permission of the author. Subsequently, a publisher in Moscow followed his advice and published a pirated collection of Medvedev’s works up to that point and fittingly titled it Texts Published Without Permission of the Author. Two of America’s best indie publishers, n+1 and Ugly Duckling Presse, have teamed up to present the first English-language pirated sampling of Medvedev’s works up to this point, It’s No Good: Poems/Essays/Actions, featuring wide-ranging excerpts selected from the first decade of his writing, including a well-curated selection of poetry to his most significant blog posts, along with lengthy essays on politics and art, descriptions and accounts of his political “actions,” and literary obituaries, all written between 2000 (the first cycle of poems published as It’s No Good [Всё плохо]) and 2012.

You don’t need to know anything about Russia today to read and enjoy Medevedev and, further, to identify universal themes within his work. This edition presents a potent mixture of Medvedev’s poetry and prose that, in his own words, explores the “link between politics and culture.” Medvedev breaks with centuries of Russian (and Western) artists’ attempts to create an apolitical world for themselves outside of the political and economic system in which they create their art: for Medvedev, art and politics are wholly inseparable, the artist cannot escape the influence of power and capital on their art. As Medvedev states in his essay “Literature Will Be Tested” (evoking Brecht):

The metaphysical consciousness of the artistic intelligentsia is based, as I’ve said, on the idea that any product of nonmaterial labor exists outside its context and speaks for itself . . . “There is no freedom from politics”: this is the banal truth one must now grasp anew. Political passivity also participates in history; it too is responsible.

In his poetry, Medvedev uses a brutally simple free-verse style, rare among Russian poets, evoking a sentimental humanism in constant dialogue with the world around him, be it artistic, political, or wholly personal, reminiscent of a mixture of Vladimir Mayakovsky with Charles Bukowski, whom Medvedev has translated into Russian, and with whom he shares a “genuine contact” (24) that explores the collective aspect of human experiences.

(I remember this about myself:
when I was little I thought
that when it came time for me to die
that everything would be different
and that it wouldn’t be me anymore exactly
and so for me, in the form that I was then,
there was nothing to fear)
children think that
in the form
in which they now exist
they will live forever

In contrast to his poetry, Medvedev’s essays use simple language to explore complex political and cultural issues on power and art, whether it is the attraction of aesthetic appeal of fascism, or the hierarchies of power in the Russian poetry underground. In a long biographical essay on the underground poetry publisher Dmitry Kuzmin, with whom he’d had a falling out, Medvedev calls for a new form of socialist-democratic art, with the artist as a leading figure in creating collective political consciousness and inspiring direct action:

For a leftist art, there are no individuals: there is simply a single human space in which people exist . . . But no work of art is a thing in itself, as bourgeois thought claims, nor is it a divine reflection, as religious thought claims, but evidence of all society’s defects, including the relations of the dominant and dominated. The task of innovative art is to insist on the uniqueness of the individual while revealing the genuine relations between people, the true connections in society, and, as a result, to forge a new reality.

Throughout It’s No Good, in all of the literary methods and actions that he employs, Medvedev cycles through series of questions on the role of the writer as artist; the role of the artist as political figure; the role of art in politics, in general; the way art morphs and is shaped by money; the importance of leftist art in the fight against neo-fascist and capitalist hegemonies. Medevedev continuously evokes the work of political artists from outside of Russia who came before him, from Pasolini to Brecht, placing himself among an international tradition of artistic activism for leftist, socialist, anti-fascist political causes: “whereas I want—revolution / to change the face of everything, / to overthrow everything and everyone— / they want / a petty bourgeois revolution—”.

It’s No Good is presented in a beautiful paperback covered with Russian avant garde-esque art (Tatlin’s tower is evoked on the front cover, the back cover descends into lines floating in autonomous space), which segues nicely with Medvedev’s theories of art as political weapon, and recalls the intentions of the Soviet Constructivists in the post-Revolutionary period, when artists felt like they had the power to create a better place on Earth, a truly harmonious socialist society, through their art. The American publishers of It’s No Good are no strangers to leftist political thought: Ugly Duckling Presse puts out some of the best poetry and prose from around the world of a truly independent and radical nature, while n+1 published the first collection of writings on the Occupy movement, and publishes some of the best international literature in their journal, as a recent issue featured an excerpt of Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair.

The impressive team of translators for It’s No Good include Keith Gessen, a co-editor at n+1 who helped translate Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s There Once Lived a Woman Who Killed Her Neighbor’s Baby, as well as Mark Krotov, an editor at publishing behemoth-extraordinaire FSG. Two other translators, Cory Merrill and Bela Shayevich, combine with Gessen and Krotov to give Medvedev a powerful and sympathetic voice in English that is remarkably unified and direct, overwhelmingly sympathetic, and refreshing and enjoyable to read.

As a poet, Medvedev will appeal to the casual poetry reader as much as the avid chapbook hound, and his nonfiction prose will undoubtedly help It’s No Good land on many graduate student bookshelves for years to come. It is Medvedev’s unique mixture of poetry and prose, artistic and political at once, that gives It’s No Good a lasting power that immediately places him in the forefront of international activist art. While Medvedev delves into the complexities of art’s role in Putin’s Russia from his place within the Russian context, the American, and Western reader, in general, comes away not only with a greater understanding of the complexity of a political activist’s lot in Russia today, but burning with the universal questions about every society’s relationship between art and politics.

Sin
1 February 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

1 February 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

31 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Will Evans on Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair, which is translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz.

Maidenhair will be available to purchase from our very own Open Letter Books on October 23, 2012.

Here’s part of Will’s review:

Contemporary Russian literature all too often falls into a ghettoized section of world literature that keep fans of translated and international literature from fully enjoying the best works of the last twenty years. One problem is a tendency for Western sources to focus on the political elements in a Russian text that inevitably denigrates the quality of the literature itself. At the same time, too many scholars of Russian literature place contemporary Russian literature into a different ghetto altogether, with the predominant sentiment in American universities being that great Russian literature died once upon a time with Bulgakov or Pasternak. This fact is, of course, 100% not true. Both of these problems keep Russian literature from its proper place in discussions of world literature. We appreciate so many of the Russian classics as above politics and existent outside of but wholly influenced by the passage of historical time, while their themes are inherently but subtly political as they discuss the contradictions and distortions in the daily realities of the Russian society that combine to make the stories so timeless and powerful.

Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair is the type of novel that professors of Russian literature can hold up as a shining example in their classrooms that no, Russian literature is not dead (nor has it ever been), while those who might not know their Pushkin from their Shishkin can read and enjoy Maidenhair as a standalone work of literary brilliance; while at the same time the notoriously fickle American readers who might have read Anna Karenina when Oprah’s Book Club made their recommendation or stumbled upon and enjoyed Master & Margarita can sink their mindsteeth into Marian Schwartz’s incredible translation of Shishkin’s novel and marvel in the fact that Maidenhair harkens back to the great classic Russian novels of ideas in every way.

Click here to read the entire review.

31 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour |

“Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair is the type of novel that professors of Russian literature can hold up as a shining example in their classrooms that no, Russian literature is not dead (nor has it ever been), while those who might not know their Pushkin from their Shishkin can read and enjoy Maidenhair as a standalone work of literary brilliance; while at the same time the notoriously fickle American readers who might have read Anna Karenina when Oprah’s Book Club made their recommendation or stumbled upon and enjoyed Master & Margarita can sink their mindsteeth into Marian Schwartz’s incredible translation of Shishkin’s novel and marvel in the fact that Maidenhair harkens back to the great classic Russian novels of ideas in every way.”

Contemporary Russian literature all too often falls into a ghettoized section of world literature that keep fans of translated and international literature from fully enjoying the best works of the last twenty years. One problem is a tendency for Western sources to focus on the political elements in a Russian text that inevitably denigrates the quality of the literature itself. At the same time, too many scholars of Russian literature place contemporary Russian literature into a different ghetto altogether, with the predominant sentiment in American universities being that great Russian literature died once upon a time with Bulgakov or Pasternak. This fact is, of course, 100% not true. Both of these problems keep Russian literature from its proper place in discussions of world literature. We appreciate so many of the Russian classics as above politics and existent outside of but wholly influenced by the passage of historical time, while their themes are inherently but subtly political as they discuss the contradictions and distortions in the daily realities of the Russian society that combine to make the stories so timeless and powerful.

Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair is the type of novel that professors of Russian literature can hold up as a shining example in their classrooms that no, Russian literature is not dead (nor has it ever been), while those who might not know their Pushkin from their Shishkin can read and enjoy Maidenhair as a standalone work of literary brilliance; while at the same time the notoriously fickle American readers who might have read Anna Karenina when Oprah’s Book Club made their recommendation or stumbled upon and enjoyed Master & Margarita can sink their mindsteeth into Marian Schwartz’s incredible translation of Shishkin’s novel and marvel in the fact that Maidenhair harkens back to the great classic Russian novels of ideas in every way.

Since his first novel came out in 1994, Shishkin has won Russia’s three most prestigious literary prizes: the Russian Booker, the National Bestseller, and the Big Book. Despite his prodigious and award-winning talents, Maidenhair is his first novel published in English, and will be formally released on October 23, 2012 by Open Letter Books. Shishkin’s former day job was as an interpreter in Switzerland; and he splits his time these days between Zurich and Moscow – both facts play in to the characters in Maidenhair. He has previously taught for a semester at Washington & Lee University in Virginia, and is returning to the USA in spring 2013 to teach a seminar at Columbia and to give talks across the country relating to Maidenhair. The international nature of Shishkin himself plays in to the narrative structure of Maidenhair, as his characters inhabit positions across the globe and throughout history all at once; the émigré Russian writer of the past has given way to the globalized Russian writer of the 21st century, wherein borders are insignificant, the author is at once entirely Russian and at the same time entirely a global citizen.

At its core, Maidenhair is a novel of ideas that reads like a 21st-century Tolstoy, concerned with the big questions of life, death, love, and everything in between:

…here, in the trenches, people never talk out loud about the main thing. People smoke, drink, eat, and talk about trivial things, boots, for instance… (251)

Maidenhair is a novel that talks about the main things constantly: faith and spirituality; the importance of enjoying fleeting moments of beauty in the face of death; throughout, the quest for love, affection, and human ethics touches on every character, and make themselves apparent in philosophical dialogue, mythological references, and spiritual ruminations:

Life is a string and death is the air. A string makes no sound without air. (150)

Maidenhair is at the same time, like the great works of Russian literature, above politics and timeless. Its narrative grace and the power of its ideas would feel every bit at home in literary salons alongside Tolstoy and Chekhov 1902, though it was written a full century later.

To discuss the plot of Maidenhair feels vulgar. It is hard to describe and seemingly banal. But as Zakhar Prilepin (another incredible contemporary Russian author who is awaiting his first published translation in America) discussed at a recent Read Russia event at Book Expo America, the plots of the greatest works of Russian literature are all exceedingly banal: young man kills a pawnbroker and an investigation follows; a young woman cheats on her husband with a young officer. What makes these stories original is not their plot but the presentation of the author’s ideas and their critiques of social mores that exist at once across the globe. So it is with Maidenhair. The plot is, in fact, rather banal; four narratives are interwoven throughout the novel: stories told by Russian refugees seeking asylum in Switzerland to a Russian interpreter working for the Swiss government; the interpreter’s trips to Italy and his subsequent estrangement from his wife and son; letters written by the interpreter to his son, addressing him as an emperor of a far-off made-up land, all starting out with, “Dear Nebuchadnezzasaurus!” and incorporating elements of historical and mythological texts the interpreter is reading on his breaks from work; and diary entries written by an Isabella on whom the interpreter was supposed to write a biography, who the not-so-average Western reader might not know is the famous Russian singer of the first half of the 20th-century, Isabella Yurieva*.

The interpreter is the only character that ties the four narratives together. The reader lives inside the nameless interpreter’s head, with the narratives combining throughout as a mixture of things that he is reading at the time (a lot of mythology and classical history), things he is working on (including the diary entries and the extensive Q&A sections with asylum-seekers), and things he is doing (trips to Italy, writing letters to his son). The style is confusing to discuss, but easy to read, because Shishkin repeats the themes of humanity’s interconnectedness throughout history and fate.

You just have to understand destiny’s language and its cooing. We’re blind from birth. We don’t see anything and don’t pick up on the connection between events, the oneness of things, like a mole digging its tunnel… (268)

Rather than discuss the plot structure and the “action” in the book, so as not to give away any of the brilliance in the text, it must be said that Maidenhair is a novel not to be understood (to use Shishkin’s own quote), but to be felt at every turn of the page, a novel to be processed as the narrative progresses, though the further you read, the less time matters, and you find yourself living inside a narrative world where everything is connected, and everything is happening all at once:

Before I just couldn’t understand how all this could be happening to me simultaneously, but I am now, loupe in hand, and at the same time I’m there, holding him close and feeling that I’m about to pass out, dying, I can’t catch my breath. But now I understand that it’s all so simple. Everything is always happening simultaneously. Here you are writing this line now, while I’m reading it. Here you are putting a period at the end of this sentence, while I reach it at the very same time. It’s not a matter of hands on the clock! They can be moved forward and back. It’s a matter of time zones. Steps of the dial. Everything is happening simultaneously, it’s just that the hands have gone every which way on all the clocks. (497)

Shishkin has declared in Russian-language interviews that Maidenhair is a novel about everything, and in more recent novels he attempts to solve humanity’s crisis of life and death. Maidenhair is no different.

This is what I believe: If somewhere on earth the wounded are finished off with rifle butts, that means somewhere else people have to be singing and rejoicing in life! The more death there is around, the more important to counter it with life, love, and beauty! (328)

Everything in the book makes sense together, even when reading and the narrative shifts from the singer’s diary in the 1920s to the interpreter’s mystical Q&A session with a refugee to Rome and to letters, everything is connected to the greater whole of what Shishkin is attempting to create, an entire universe of beauty, of yearning for love, of life in the face of death, of the history in everything, all tied in to the much greater questions of God’s role in everything:

The divine idea of the river is the river itself. (24)

The title of the book is emblematic of Shishkin’s themes of God and love at the same time: maidenhair is a type of fern that grows wild in Rome, the Eternal City that plays such a central role in the novel. Yet in Russia, maidenhair is a house plant that cannot grow without human care and affection:

For us, this is a house plant, otherwise it wouldn’t survive, without human warmth, but here it’s a weed. So you see, this is in a dead language, signifying something alive: Adiantum capillus veneris. Venus hair, genus Adiantum. Maidenhair. God of life. The wind barely stirs. As if nodding, yes yes, that’s true: this is my temple, my land, my wind, my life. The greenest of grasses. It grew here before your Eternal City and will grow here after. (500)

Even the epigraph to Maidenhair is so significant to the work that it deserves to be quoted, for it contains the essence of what Shishkin is up to:

And your ashes will be called, and will be told:

“Return that which does not belong to you;

reveal what you have kept to this time.”

For by the word was the world created, and by the word shall we be resurrected.

–Revelation of Baruch ben Neriah. 4, XLII

The theme of the word is one of the big themes that recur throughout Maidenhair in each narrative, with the importance of the recorded dialogue in the interpreter’s mission or in the diary entries of Isabella. The themes are complex and deep, but the sentiments expressed in them, the emotion of the characters that come through in the text, are all human and completely relatable. The most important themes that are discussed throughout the work include God (faith and spirituality), fate (and the individual), time (and time/space), war (across time and history), history (or the power of memory), diaspora (especially interesting as Shishkin spends much of his time outside of Russia, yet remains a quintessentially Russian writer), intertextuality (as a narrative and rhetorical style, and for the novel’s use of text-in-text-in-text), Russia’s role in the world (and their view of themselves in the world), the role of art in human society (the power of beauty to transcend the mundane day-to-day), migration/immigration (and the connection to paradise myths), mythology (of all stripes), Rome (after all, it is the Eternal City, so emblematic of humanity’s Eternal Problems) . . . The list could go on forever, the themes are huge, the book is a page-turner, not in the sense of plot-twists, but in the sense that every page contains a new revelation.

May I make one recommendation to you, the future reader of this brilliant novel? If so, please be an active reader while you read this book: keep a pen in hand, Post-It notes at the ready, or your e-book highlighting function at the ready, because every single page in this book contains ideas encapsulated in perfect quotes that you will want to revisit, along with the entirety of the novel, time and time again.

Maidenhair is the first Russian book of the 21st-century to appear in English translation that can be truly counted as an instant classic in the broad field of world literature, capable of being taught in university classrooms and discussed in book clubs for centuries to come. Every individual, every emotion, every idea that humanity has ever generated and will forever generate is encapsulated in the 500 pages of Maidenhair. With its perfect combination of style and substance, Maidenhair might just be the book you’ve been waiting your entire life to read.

*Editor’s note: The original review post listed Isabella Yurieva’s name incorrectly as Isabella St. George.

27 July 12 | Chad W. Post |

This week, Will Evans joins us to talk about contemporary Russian literature (READ THIS BOOK) and the Read Russia initiative at this year’s BEA. (Sidenote: click on that link just to see the section at the bottom left corner where you can share the page via “Socialist Media.” Seriously.) We talk about Zakhar Prilepin, Mikhail Shishkin, Dmitry Danilov (who looks a bit like Ignatius J. Reilly, see below), and Oleg Kashin.

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5 July 12 | Will Evans | Comments

Our pals over at Publishing Perspectives have an interesting couple of pieces up this morning on the fantastic Russian writer Master Chen (the penname of Dmitry Kosyrev): one is an interview with the author, and the other about a Kickstarter campaign started by Russian Life Magazine to fund the translation and publication of Master Chen’s Silk Road Trilogy: The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas, The Pet Foal of the House of Maniakh, and The Pet Monkey of the House of Tang.

Master Chen was at a bunch of Read Russia events at BEA, and it was a pleasure to hear him speak about his work. There are a vast number of fascinating Russian writers who have yet to have any of their works translated into English, Master Chen among them, who blow my mind with the fantastic creativity of their ideas and the originality of their writing styles. If you think you know a lot about Russian literature because you’re fond of the classics, you would be pleasantly surprised at how much diversity there is in the Russian literary world today.

In the interview with Daniel Kalder on Publishing Perspectives, Master Chen discusses his style as a mixture of thriller and high literature, a unique Russian form of genre writing, as popularized by Boris Akunin:

Where do you fit on the genre spectrum?

Well, if you can imagine a cocktail of James Clavell and Robert Silverberg shaken with a bit of Salman Rushdie and sprinkled with Somerset Maugham, that’s about where I belong. Christie and Simenon have nothing to do with me, since I’m not sure I write detective novels as such. Sometimes I think that I write music, only problem is I never learned how to write it down, so I use letters.

His work features prominently Asian themes and stories, Master Chen’s area of expertise, like those that make up the Silk Road Trilogy:

Your story in the Akashic “Moscow Noir” anthology was set in contemporary Moscow, but hinted at the Soviet past. Usually however you set your stories in the East. Is there a reason why you avoid the Soviet Union and Russia?

Fear of competition, probably. I love being a monopolist. Nobody among Russian writers knows the things I know, so why should I dump my advantage, especially in the Asian Age that is already here?

There is one more thing which I felt when I was working on my latest novel The Wine Taster which, after all this time, is about Russia (but begins in Germany and ends in Spain). Even though it is a clear case of monopoly again, since no Russian writer knows about wine as much as I do, I still felt that I did not quite like writing about Russia, it’s kind of a constraining task for me, locking myself within Russian borders. Anyway, look at how many “real” Russian writers there are, still nagging at it: hopeless country, hopeless people, things are so bad…They were doing it in the 19th century, they’re still doing it. You don’t need me if you buy their depressive lamentations. I’d rather tell my readers: the world is dazzling, it offers you so much fun, stop banging you head against the same old wall, there are so many things to learn and to do. And by the way, if you know the world, then maybe you will start seeing your own country in a different way.

The idea of Kickstarter campaigns to fund translations is brilliant—anything to see more translations released in English is a good idea—and I think we will see many more crowd-funded projects from independent and small presses (and authors, of course, looking to self-publish) in the future, the same way many musicians and record labels are using Kickstarter to to fund music video shoots, recording sessions, and album releases. The upside for the creator is that you are in direct communication with your audience, something the publishing world could only stand to improve upon, and the upside for the audience is that they feel like they have a direct impact on the creation of a product they want to see; it’s a novel take on the market economy, and I hope to see more worthwhile projects funded any way possible.

Support the project to translate Master Chen into English, head over to the Silk Road Trilogy’s Kickstarter page and donate what you can, and think about any other foreign authors deserving of translation campaigns on Kickstarter, then let us know your thoughts!

15 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

The latest review to our Reviews Section is a piece by Aleksandra Fazlipour on Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s The Letter Killers Club, which is available from NYRB Classics.

Here is part of her review:

The Letter Killers Club, by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, follows the meetings of a secret society of men who believe that committing words to paper has “crushed the reader’s imagination.” The men, self-labeled as “Conceivers” and known by nonsense syllables instead of their given names, meet every Saturday in a firelit room lined with empty black bookshelves to exchange works of fiction that they call “conceptions” that they are forbidden to write down. There is a sense of tension pervasive in the novel between the members of Letter Killers Club during their meetings that is reflective of the political climate of the 1920s in Soviet Moscow, where Krzhizhanovsky’s works were censored in an effort to prevent anything that did not positively portray Russia from publication.

Over the course of the novella, the audience peers in at the club meetings and experiences several different conceptions as they unweave. The president of the club, Zez, is extremely dedicated to the creative process, perhaps more so than the other six conceivers in the room. Any written manuscript smuggled in must be committed to death within the flames of the fire. Furthermore, the narratives presented are often inconsistent and wrap up in a way that might even be unexpected to the storyteller themselves. When this occurs, Zez often redirects the conceiver and demands the story be retold with a different ending or be restarted altogether. This leads to stilted dynamic within the room. In order to act as a moderator within the room, the narrator is drawn into the group.

Click here to read the entire review.

15 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

The Letter Killers Club, by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, follows the meetings of a secret society of men who believe that committing words to paper has “crushed the reader’s imagination.” The men, self-labeled as “Conceivers” and known by nonsense syllables instead of their given names, meet every Saturday in a firelit room lined with empty black bookshelves to exchange works of fiction that they call “conceptions” that they are forbidden to write down. There is a sense of tension pervasive in the novel between the members of Letter Killers Club during their meetings that is reflective of the political climate of the 1920s in Soviet Moscow, where Krzhizhanovsky’s works were censored in an effort to prevent anything that did not positively portray Russia from publication.

Over the course of the novella, the audience peers in at the club meetings and experiences several different conceptions as they unweave. The president of the club, Zez, is extremely dedicated to the creative process, perhaps more so than the other six conceivers in the room. Any written manuscript smuggled in must be committed to death within the flames of the fire. Furthermore, the narratives presented are often inconsistent and wrap up in a way that might even be unexpected to the storyteller themselves. When this occurs, Zez often redirects the conceiver and demands the story be retold with a different ending or be restarted altogether. This leads to stilted dynamic within the room. In order to act as a moderator within the room, the narrator is drawn into the group:

As a temporary measure, we decided to include an outside pair of ears, an average reader brought up on letterizations: would the emptiness of our shelves prove sufficiently visible? Here Fev began to fret: ‘Darkness,” he said, ‘turns men into thieves—it’s only natural: what if this intruder, whose head we shall stuff full of our conceptions, manages to extract them and exchange them for money and fame?’ ‘Don’t be absurd,’ said Zez. ‘I know the perfect person for this. We may reveal all our themes to him, without a worry. He won’t touch one.’ ‘But why?’ ‘Because he’s all thumbs: what Fichte called a ‘pure reader’: the best match for pure conceptions.’

In their quest to come up with the perfect and most innovative conception, the conceivers often disagree with one another and the story comes to a head when one conceiver storms out of the room and does not return to another meeting—Rar, the only conceiver who showed a thread of humanity and who reached out to narrator and who disobeyed the rules of the Letter Killers Club, turns up dead. Over the course of the novella, the Con Shakespearean actor, split into two conflicting characters, journeys into the Land of Roles to find the perfect Hamlet to bring to the stage. A young bride is wed to an entire town. A medieval priest doubles as a jester. An elite ruling class uses mind-control by way of machines and biochemical ether to enslave lower classes. A Roman scribe is stranded by the River Acheron and is unable to move into the afterlife when a little girl comes across the money meant for his passage. Three men voyage to determine the true purpose of the mouth—to kiss, to eat, or to speak. However, the tales within the story do not join together into a larger narrative, which adds to its appeal: the club is not focused on the tales as much as they are focused on their purpose, which is the elimination of the written word.

In the ultimate act of betrayal against the club, the ‘pure reader’ who acted as the narrator throughout the book commits the tales presented to him within the meetings to paper. This suggests that the environment, as opposed to solely the written word, is largely responsible for crushing one’s imagination. The novel concludes with a question of how dangerous words, or the lack thereof, can be, especially in a setting as tense as Soviet Russia in the 1920s.

31 May 12 | Will Evans | Comments

I’ve been reading the Three Percent blog for over a year now, and now here I am, sitting in Chad’s office, writing a blog post for Three Percent to introduce myself to the Three Percent Army – the cult of translated literature, the gang of literary ruffians who make up the core audience of Three Percent, Open Letter, and all literary endeavors worldwide. Today is my third day as an Open Letter summer intern (or, as my BEA badge would have me called, an “assistant editor”!), and I’ll be posting some items on the Three Percent blog all summer, so this is an introduction into the mouth of madness that you shall all enter at various points throughout the summer.

I graduated from Duke University a few weeks ago with a MA in Russian Culture – literature, media, politics, history, you name it, I study and love it – and became aware of Three Percent (and Open Letter, and independent, nonprofit, and translation-friendly presses) and the universe of how translated literature functions in the world around the time I started my MA program in fall 2010. I spent three months last summer in St. Petersburg and Moscow, where I took some classes and translated the Russian journalist Oleg Kashin’s first novel, Fardwor, Ruissa! A Fantastical Tale from Putin’s Russia (Roissya Vperde: Fantasticheskaya Povest’). In the process of translating, I was drawn into the world of translators and publishers who make the magic happen – getting translated books into the hands of readers like myself. That’s when I came across Three Percent, and became a regular reader, which led me to buy the Three Percent e-book, in which I took note of how Chad declared a need for more publishers of translated literature and more recognition given to the translators and the publishers.

Around the same time, my wife accepted a summer association position at a law firm in Dallas, and I began brainstorming things to do in Dallas for the rest of my life with a Russian degree, and BOOM, the idea was born that I would start a publishing company in Dallas (which is, nicely enough, home to the American Literary Translators Association!). All I needed was some experience in the business, and after a quick email to Chad asking for some professional advice and expertise, I’m in Rochester, reading Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair in preparation for all of his BEA appearances (plus his event w/ Marian Schwartz & Chad at McNally Jackson!) and copy-editing the new Quim Monzó . . . learning the ropes, and enjoying the hell out of it.

I’m new to this business, but I love it. I will be at BEA next week, and would love to meet with anybody and everybody. Hopefully I can compare literary tattoos with Tom Roberge and mustaches with Dmitry Bykov and brainstorm ideas about my future publishing company with those-in-the-know. See y’all in NYC at BEA.

15 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is Fr. Grant Barber’s piece on Thirst by Andrei Gelasimov, which is translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz and published by AmazonCrossing.

Grant Barber is a regular reviewer for us, as well as being a keen bibliophile, and an Episcopal priest living on the south shore of Boston.

Thirst is a really interesting book, due in part to the fact that Marian Schwartz is such a brilliant translator. Her list of accolades is intense: recipient of two translation fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, past president of the American Literary Translators Association, translator of Nina Berberova, 12 Who Don’t Agree, Oblomov, The White Guard, and A Hero of Our Time among many, many others. Her translation of Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair will be coming out from Open Letter next summer.

Here’s the opening of Grant’s review:

Gelasimov embraces the “show, don’t tell” dictum effectively throughout this short novel from the unique start. The first person narrator, later identified as Constantine or Kostya, has just returned to his home and is trying to fit a lot of bottles of vodka into his refrigerator, and on the window sill, on the floor, in the bathroom and clothes hamper. He’s planning a bender after having done some sort of work, work he’d completed to buy vodka. There’s a knock at the door from his neighbor, a single mother:

I would share more, but you have to read the whole thing to get the full impact of the extended quote that follows this paragraph.

15 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Gelasimov embraces the “show, don’t tell” dictum effectively throughout this short novel from the unique start. The first person narrator, later identified as Constantine or Kostya, has just returned to his home and is trying to fit a lot of bottles of vodka into his refrigerator, and on the window sill, on the floor, in the bathroom and clothes hamper. He’s planning a bender after having done some sort of work, work he’d completed to buy vodka. There’s a knock at the door from his neighbor, a single mother:

“I’m sorry to bother you again,” she said. “My Nikita’s acting up. Please help me out this once. I can’t cope with him myself.”

“No problem,” I said.

I threw on my jacket and went out. I even left my door open.

“Well then, who here doesn’t want to go to bed?”

The little guy shuddered and stared at me as if I were a ghost. He actually dropped his blocks.

“Who here isn’t listening to his mama?”

He was looking at me, speechless. Only his eyes got big as saucers.

“Come on, get your things,” I said. “Since you don’t want to listen to your mama you’re going to be living with me. You get to take one toy.”

He was absolutely speechless, and his mouth was very wide open.

[. . .]

He shifted his eyes to Olga and whispered:

“I’ll go to bed. Mama, I’ll go to bed all by myself right away.”

[. . .]

Then she said, “You’ll have to forgive me for bothering you all the time. It’s just that he . . . you’re the only person he’s afraid of. He stopped listening to me completely.”

I grunted.

“Makes sense. I would’ve been even more afraid if I were him.”

[. . .]

At home I walked over to the mirror and stood in front of it a long time. I looked at what had become of me.

If only Seryoga hadn’t been wrong back then and hadn’t left me to burn up last in the APC. But he thought I was done for. That’s why he pulled the others out first. The ones who still were showing signs of life.

Which means I’m only good for frightening little boys right now.

This whole opening series of events sets up all that is to come: difficult childhoods, especially of Kostya, focused on his philandering and volatile father and an uncaring world; the set piece of boy Koysta hoisting himself up onto the operating table while suffering from acute appendicitis, and within the hectoring presence of the surgeon illustrates well what sort of world he grew up in. We hear about his service in the Soviet Army fighting the Chechens, and the loyalty the surviving soldiers share with one another, as well as the conflicts between them, past and present. We keep returning to this past, especially the attack that left Kostya’s face so disfigured by burns, in an unfolding series of flashbacks.

Three further dynamics play out. First, the young student Kostya was bored in school which lead to his “doodling,” and discovery by the failed-artist head master of Kostya as a naturally gifted artist. This alcoholic headmaster brings Kostya to his home to skip school and draw, although Kostya has only ability, no sense of refinement or sense of beauty. This is another failed father figure in his life. Second, two of his army comrades interrupt the start of his three month bender to enlist his help in finding a third, missing friend. This quest ultimately is inconsequential as a quest, but does set up Kostya’s break from isolation and pattern of work to drink. Third, Kostya reconnects with his father, his new wife, and younger children. Dad hasn’t changed, but the rapport Kostya develops with the wife, and more importantly the two half-siblings, returns Kostya to his drawing.

By the end of the novel his somewhat estranged-from-one-another friends have reached a truce. Kostya has stood up to his father. Kostya has begun drawing—creating—people from his past as restored in an alternative reality: a dead soldier now with wife and children, another who lost his leg now with two working legs. Kostya ends the novel with a drawing of a face—his own, undamaged true self—showing it to Olga and Nikita, and Nikita’s spoken insight that Kostya only looks like a monster.

In some ways, explained this way, Thirst might come off as almost formulaic. Maybe archetypal is the better label of the arc that shows the rebirth of an injured man into real adulthood as well as moving toward reintegration through art, with all of this inner reality mirrored by the recognitions of people surrounding him.

Gelasimov does this with pared down language, effective weaving of past and present, grounding in the particulars of unique place and time, with consistency of voice and narrative pacing. He has taken what might be clunky and predictable in other’s hands and made a work of art. He doesn’t waste a word, an image, a story, but weaves them into a related whole. This is a novel to reread, to see how well everything fits together, to marvel at how images and incidents reflect and inform each other. Gelasimov doesn’t use lyrical, “poetic” language, but he has written a work with the concision of poetry.

8 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Vincent Francone on Victor Pelevin’s The Hall of the Singing Caryatids, which is just out from New Directions in Andrew Bromfield’s translation.

Coincidentally, I just finished reading this last night. And I completely agree with Vince’s review: this is a strange, surprising, unsettling, great book. I’ve not read a lot of Pelevin, but after finishing this, I decided to go back and start Homo Zapiens . . .

I’ll be posting more about Hall of the Singing Caryatids in the near future (in a “Why I heart Scott Esposito” post), but for now, I just wanted to mention a few disparate things:

1) Thanks to Vince for reviewing for us. All of our reviewers are spectacular, but I think Vince deserves a special shout-out for so consistently writing interesting, solid reviews. (You can read the all here.)

2) If you have a review in with us and are anxiously awaiting to see it appear, don’t fret! For once (thanks to Six, our current intern), we actually have a backlog of pieces to run. That is not the usual situation, so forgive me for cherishing it. We’re actually set through the holidays, which means that we’ll have good shit to post while everyone is dreading enjoying their family time!

3) This deserves it’s own post, but props to ND for fixing their website. I haven’t explored this as much as I should, but it only took 30 seconds to find The Hall of the Singing Caryatids and download the cover image. This is compared to spending 30 minutes screaming at their old site and its annoying incompleteness. Thank you, ND people. If only all publishers could take your lead.

And now, the opening of Vince’s review:

The first I’d heard of Victor Pelevin was while interning at Words Without Borders. We published his story “Akiko” which struck me as the funniest, strangest thing I’d seen in ages. I decided to seek out his other work, and while his book A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia offered some good tales, I was left with a feeling of uncertainty about this Russian literary superstar.

My uncertainty has gone the way of the dinosaur since reading The Hall of Singing Caryatids, the latest work of his to be translated into English. This slim novel manages to amuse, ridicule, horrify, and awe in a very compact space. While reading it, I was consistently surprised and often more than a little uncomfortable. This is a book that is difficult to summarize without misleading. The back cover description implies a bawdy farce with elements of science fiction, but that is not exactly accurate. The strangest moments of The Hall of Singing Caryatids arrive in deceptively benign packages, in slogans on T-Shirts (DKNY: Divine Koran Nourishes You) and dubious quotes posted in club’s cafeteria (“BEAUTY SUCKS D . . K”), and in the moments when the protagonist, Lena, communicates telepathically with a praying mantis.

Let me back up and discuss the plot.

Click here to read the full piece.

8 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The first I’d heard of Victor Pelevin was while interning at Words Without Borders. We published his story “Akiko” which struck me as the funniest, strangest thing I’d seen in ages. I decided to seek out his other work, and while his book A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia offered some good tales, I was left with a feeling of uncertainty about this Russian literary superstar.

My uncertainty has gone the way of the dinosaur since reading The Hall of Singing Caryatids, the latest work of his to be translated into English. This slim novel manages to amuse, ridicule, horrify, and awe in a very compact space. While reading it, I was consistently surprised and often more than a little uncomfortable. This is a book that is difficult to summarize without misleading. The back cover description implies a bawdy farce with elements of science fiction, but that is not exactly accurate. The strangest moments of The Hall of Singing Caryatids arrive in deceptively benign packages, in slogans on T-Shirts (DKNY: Divine Koran Nourishes You) and dubious quotes posted in club’s cafeteria (“BEAUTY SUCKS D . . K”), and in the moments when the protagonist, Lena, communicates telepathically with a praying mantis.

Let me back up and discuss the plot. Lena auditions for a job in an underground club that caters to the whims of elite clientele. At this point, one can imagine any number of perversions to come, though the book is more in line with Bulgakov’s The Fatal Eggs and Heart of a Dog than Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. Lena gets the job partially because she can sing but also because she looks good naked standing on one leg. The job involves posing as a statue—literally. The girls in the hall are frozen thanks to a shot synthesized from praying mantises. Yeah, it sounds pretty weird, but in the context of the book this all makes sense. It gets stranger, as the girls, in their statue state, are able to communicate with a praying mantis, all while humming and singing for the amusement of largely absent customers. Any hope the reader has for outrageous sex or overly grotesque metaphors of state power and female subjugation are dismissed when the book turns away from such easy shocks and moves toward more impacting territory. This book subverts expectations and writes its own rules, asking for the reader’s trust as it settles on disturbing and oddly beautiful conclusion.

The usual descriptions of post-modern, post-post-modern, magic realist, sci-fi, or absurdist are too heavy with cultural baggage to convey what Pelevin achieves in this tale. While these elements are present, they are not employed in common fashion. Pelevin seems giddy with his literary tinkering, moving the story away from the obvious outrages in the work of his countryman Vladimir Sorokin. There is plenty of opportunity for Pelevin to turn the underground sex club into a Caligula-like romp, but when the one and only sex act finally arrives it is encapsulated with: “And they danced the dance that engenders new life.” Pelevin is not going to waste time and space dwelling on these details, especially when what follows is so much bigger. The end result is a brief, powerful book that is equal parts humorous and unsettling.

9 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Prelude Apology: Sorry for being a bit behind—I’m home sick with a nasty cold . . . More posting and podcasting next week.

This week’s featured Read This Next title is Penguin Lost, the second book in Andrey Kurkov’s detective series that, yes, includes a penguin (and is translated from the Russian by George Bird):

Andrey Kurkov’s first book to be published in English, Death and the Penguin, was hailed by leading critics in the US and the UK as “a tragicomic masterpiece” (The Daily Telegraph) of suspense about life on the crime-riddled streets of an impoverished, post-Soviet Kiev. But until now, fans haven’t been able to read the sequel and find out what happened to Viktor and his silent cohort, the penguin Misha, whom Viktor was forced to abandon at the end of the novel while fleeing Mafia vengeance.

Admirers need wait no longer. Now available for the first time in the US, Penguin Lost sees Viktor grab at the opportunity to return to Kiev incognito and launch an intensive, guilt-wracked search for Misha.

It’s a search that will take Viktor across the Ukraine to Moscow and back, vividly depicting a troubled landscape. It once again lands Viktor in league with a series of criminals and corrupt officials, each of whom know something of what happened to Misha, and each of whom are willing to pass that information along if Viktor will just help them with one more job. . . And it’s a tale told once again in a style that’s part Bulgakov and part Hitchcock, simultaneously funny and ominous, nearly absurd and all-too-real.

Readers may find themselves rooting even harder for Viktor this time, as he presses forward on his odyssey under even more dangerous circumstances, in another brilliantly rich and topical book from a contemporary Russian master.

Everyone I know who has read Death and the Penguin absolutely loves it, and I’m sure this is going to be a huge favorite as well.

Click here to read an extended preview. And remember, you can buy the novel directly from Melville House Publishing by clicking here.

In addition to the preview, we also posted a short interview with Kurkov himself:

Read This Next: To butcher a quote from Michel Houellebecq: it’s a writer’s responsibility to find a theme and then use their novels to explore that theme. In your novels, I sense that this kind of thematic exploration is going on. Do you feel that your work has an overarching theme? That you’re returning to the same ground again and again? If so, what do you feel this theme to be?

Andrey Kurkov: Until recently I had been writing two kinds of novels. The first kind are novels dedicated to the history of the evolution of the Soviet utopian mentality, and the second—evolution of post-soviet mentality. Now I am going on only with post-Soviet theme, i.e., what happens to people who live in the country much younger than they are. The fact is that in the early-mid 90s most of people (who were not old) were really infantile and were waiting either for a miracle, or for luck, or were looking for would-be victims. I was interested in evolution of post-Soviet infantile intellectuals, until I noticed that, with time, some of them stopped being passive and left their hide-outs, where they were hiding from roughness of life. Penguin Lost is actually a transitional novel in this sense—Viktor was very infantile in Death and the Penguin, but became more entrepreneurial and dynamic in the sequel.

Finally, you can also read E.J.‘s review of the novel:

Viktor Zolotaryov, the hero of Death and the Penguin, here returns for a second adventure, this time seeking out his friend and closest companion, the penguin Misha. At the start of the novel Viktor is in Antarctica, having taken Misha’s seat on a plane to escape with his life at the end of Death and the Penguin. Misha has, in the meantime, disappeared, and most of the action in Penguin Lost consists of Viktor’s increasingly dangerous attempts to track down his friend, whom he thinks has been moved from Kiev to Moscow.

And so begins a tour through the underworld, which in this case is the world of the moneyed elite, or which has instead has become the only world, of post-Soviet Russia and Ukraine. [. . .]

The Viktor of Penguin Lost is a more energetic and invigorated figure than the one we met in Death and the Penguin, one who, at first, seems to have taken his fate in to his hands in a way that the earlier Viktor seemed incapable of doing. But for all his activity, it becomes apparent that all this energy and vigor is only allowed to find expression by the good graces of the moneyed and powerful, that only stubbornness and luck allow him to accomplish anything at all—his seeming willfulness masks a helplessness, a complete domination of the public and political sphere by the demands of criminal-capitalism, that seems an even more damning criticism of the post-Soviet East than the one represented by the beaten-down Viktor of Death and the Penguin.

Enjoy all of this, and be sure to get a copy of the book . . .

And if you’re looking for something new to read, we now have extended previews of 14 titles up at Read This Next that you can check out.

24 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Julianna Romanazzi on Ludmila Ulitskaya’s Daniel Stein, Interpreter, translated from the Russian by Arch Tait and available from Overlook Press.

Ludmila Ulitskaya is one of a handful of contemporary Russian writers to have a number of their works translated into English. And the others that come to mind—Pelevin, Sorokin—are all males. Over the past few years, Schocken has published The Funeral Party, Medea and Her Children, and Sonechka: A Novella and Stories.

Helps that in addition to being a first-class author, Ulitskaya is a bit of a controversial figure, as chronicled in this piece in the Guardian, which includes a pretty sweet quote:

“My perception of Putin as an individual is that he is quite juvenile, not very mature, and all the pictures we have of him from state television are of Putin climbing Everest or fighting a tiger or extinguishing a fire. It’s just a kind of joke, these macho games.”

Anyway, on to Julianna’s second review of the week . . .

To some in the realm of journalism and literary representation the notions of “poetic license” and “poetic truth” stand as two very dubious cornerstones on which to build factual novels. The shaky foundations leave all kinds of room for interpretation, embellishment and, perhaps in the wrong hands, the glorification of the undeserving, Binjamin Wilkomirki’s Fragments a prime example.

Russian bestselling author Ludmila Ulitskaya, however, brings an interesting take to the table with her book Daniel Stein, Interpreter, a semi-fictitious (more on that later) account of the real life Brother Daniel who led an unconventional and in some ways unbelievable life. Ulitskaya’s novel chronicles the life and ripple effects of literary creation Dieter “Daniel” Stein, an alter ego based on the real Oswald Rufeisen—priest, Gestapo, and Jew.

Presented in epistolary format, the book brings the reader through a web of documents—everything from recorded “Talks to Schoolchildren” to NKVD archives, newspaper articles, and personal letters—on two twisting and intermingling chronological timelines. The first, as is a recurring theme, starts with one of Brother Daniel’s acquaintances in 1985, one for whom he starts as only a rumor. On paths always winding, whether through hearsay or by accident, the people of Ulitskaya’s novel and those existing in real life come to him with problems personal and profound.

Click here to read the full review.

24 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

To some in the realm of journalism and literary representation the notions of “poetic license” and “poetic truth” stand as two very dubious cornerstones on which to build factual novels. The shaky foundations leave all kinds of room for interpretation, embellishment and, perhaps in the wrong hands, the glorification of the undeserving, Binjamin Wilkomirki’s Fragments a prime example.

Russian bestselling author Ludmila Ulitskaya, however, brings an interesting take to the table with her book Daniel Stein, Interpreter, a semi-fictitious (more on that later) account of the real life Brother Daniel who led an unconventional and in some ways unbelievable life. Ulitskaya’s novel chronicles the life and ripple effects of literary creation Dieter “Daniel” Stein, an alter ego based on the real Oswald Rufeisen—priest, Gestapo, and Jew.

Presented in epistolary format, the book brings the reader through a web of documents—everything from recorded “Talks to Schoolchildren” to NKVD archives, newspaper articles, and personal letters—on two twisting and intermingling chronological timelines. The first, as is a recurring theme, starts with one of Brother Daniel’s acquaintances in 1985, one for whom he starts as only a rumor. On paths always winding, whether through hearsay or by accident, the people of Ulitskaya’s novel and those existing in real life come to him with problems personal and profound.

The second timeline, starting in 1959, follows the life of the man himself. Born a Jew in Poland and given a German education, Daniel came of age during the Holocaust and hid his ethnicity from the SS by working as an interpreter for the Gestapo, translating in turn for the Germans, Belorussians and the NKVD. While working for the Germans he organized the freedom of 300 Jews from the Emsk ghetto, escaped massacres and his own executions, and after the war converted to Catholicism and became a priest. He later moved to Israel. And that’s where the story really takes off.

Despite Ulitskaya’s creation of some characters and documents—and it should be noted that many of the documents and testimonies in the book are in fact real—her Daniel is not an exaggeration. Teaching without discrimination and at times to the dismay of his adopted Catholic Church, Brother Daniel went back to the teaching of God before the split of Judaism and Christianity. In the midst of writing a biography Ulitskaya gives an insightful and at times comical and cathartic look at tensions in and beyond Israel—of faith, of lifestyles, of ecclesiastical orders and families.

With the whole of his life he raised a heap of unresolved, highly inconvenient issues which nobody talks about: the value of a life turned into mush beneath one’s feet; the freedom which few people want; God for whom there is ever less room in our life; and life which has closed in on itself. Have I packaged that temptingly?

3 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Just got an email about this awesome offer from Melville House that I wanted to share for a few reasons.:

From the As-If-The-Cover-Didn’t-Tip-You-Off-Already department: Death and the Penguin by Andrei Kurkov is the perfect example of why the Melville House International Crime series is like no other: It’s political, it’s literary, it’s hilarious, it’s terrifying, and IT DOESN’T TAKE PLACE IN SCANDAVIA.1

To get the word out, for the next four days the ebook version of Death and the Penguin is on sale all over the interwebs for only $3.99.



To make this deal even sweeter if you buy it in the next 48 hours we’ll reimburse the complete cost of your purchase with a gift certificate to our website.

 All you have to do is buy the ebook, — we recommend from your local Independent Bookstore’s website — and email us your receipt —contact@mhpbooks.com.
 We’ll reply with a coupon.

 It’s that simple.

I might be jumping the gun here—currently, the book is stil $14.95 via the Indie Bound website, although the Amazon price is updated—but as soon as you can TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THIS DEAL.

I read this book a number of years ago when it came out from Harvill in the UK and thoroughly enjoyed it. We’re actually going to be featuring the sequel Penguin Lost as part of Read This Next, so you should start preparing now . . .

The idea of giving readers a $3.99 gift certificate is super-awesome as well. And if you look at Melville House’s website, it will take approximately .03 seconds to find something you want to buy.

Coincidentally, L Magazine released their “Best of Brooklyn” lists today, including one for Books & Media that includes this award:

Best Small-Press Branding

Melville House
How to trick attractive young people into buying reissues and literature in translation? Collect-‘em-all series of jacket-pocket sized titles with clean covers. Their Art of the Novella and Contemporary Art of the Novella now being imitated by New Directions’ Pearls series, the Dumbo publisher has moved into an International Crime line (shades of Europa Editions and, well, large-house trends) and started the Neversink Library for out-of-print classics (including slim, terse Simenons) not already rediscovered by NYRB Classics.

AGREE.

1 Yeah, we all make spelling mistakes. Especially when typing in ALL CAPS which, for some reason known only to Bill Gates and that Jobs guy, seems to circumvent most spellchecking programs. LIVING ON THE EDGE.2

2 Also interesting is that there are over 465,000 instances of SCANDAVIA on the interwebs. Including sites like this, where crazy people can ask batshit questions such as “What is the official language of Scandavia?” I LOVE THE WORLD WIDE WEB.

3 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is an insane piece that I wrote about Vladimir Sorokin’s Ice Trilogy, which is translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell and available from New York Review Books.

I am aware of how crazily self-indulgent and odd this review is, but after writing about Sorokin so many times in such a short period (see this PEN roundup, and this review, and this podcast), I think my mind broke, and instead of writing a review, I ended up describing my vision of a miniseries version of the Ice Trilogy:

Back a few years ago, New York Review Books released Ice, one of the first books by Russian literati bad boy Vladimir Sorokin to make its way into America. After all the hype surrounding Sorokin—for being the star of post-Glasnost Russian literature, for being well hated by the Putin Youth, for writing fairly offensive books involving people “eating packets of shit” and “fucking the earth”—this novel was a bit disappointing. Not that it was bad, just underwhelming.

In a way, it’s unfortunate that Ice ever came out as a standalone volume. Put in context between the novels Bro and 23,000 it feels much more expansive and spooky, making the whole project significantly more fascinating.

That said, this trilogy would work much better as a TV miniseries . . . It’s one of those books that I wish I could edit wholesale. I’d love to cut this book apart, partially restructure it, trim away some of the redundancies, speed up the overall pacing, and really play up the Lost-style creepiness.

So, rather than analyze the book as is, I’m going to spoil the whole thing right here and now by recounting the six-part miniseries version that exists in my mind:

Episode One: Open in Siberia 1908 with a woman in Russia giving birth to a baby boy who is born at almost the exact moment of the Tunguska event. Huge explosion in the sky, crazy colors. Should be disorienting and ominous. Camera leaves the intimacy of the house where Alexander was born to pan upwards to show a huge region of Siberia that’s been totally flattened by this mysterious event. By a huge ice meteor that’s now mostly buried in the permafrost.

In present times, Olga travels to Israel to meet Bjorn, a man that she met through a online message board for people who have suffered and survived the “Ice Hammer.” When they meet, they show each other these strange scars on their breastbones. Every time Olga touches her chest, we get a flashback to a time when she was tricked and drugged and bashed in the chest with an “ice hammer” (a stick with a chunk of ice at the end of it) by some strange blond haired and blue eyed people who keep urging her to “speak with her heart.” She was left for dead, and is now determined to figure out who the fuck these people are.

These flashbacks correspond with the story they hear from the old man they go to meet—a dying Jew who, during WWII, was part of a group of kids pulled from a camp and taken to the woods where several are smashed in the chests with ice hammers. He describes two ancient, almost otherworldly people who seemed to be in charge, and watched the smashing in silence, with serenely creepy looks on their faces. Episode ends with the camera focusing in on their faces.

Click here to read the entire thing.

3 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Back a few years ago, New York Review Books released Ice, one of the first books by Russian literati bad boy Vladimir Sorokin to make its way into America. After all the hype surrounding Sorokin—for being the star of post-Glasnost Russian literature, for being well hated by the Putin Youth, for writing fairly offensive books involving people “eating packets of shit” and “fucking the earth”—this novel was a bit disappointing. Not that it was bad, just underwhelming.

In a way, it’s unfortunate that Ice ever came out as a standalone volume. Put in context between the novels Bro and 23,000 it feels much more expansive and spooky, making the whole project significantly more fascinating.

That said, this trilogy would work much better as a TV miniseries . . . It’s one of those books that I wish I could edit wholesale. I’d love to cut this book apart, partially restructure it, trim away some of the redundancies, speed up the overall pacing, and really play up the Lost-style creepiness.

So, rather than analyze the book as is, I’m going to spoil the whole thing right here and now by recounting the six-part miniseries version that exists in my mind:

Episode One: Open in Siberia 1908 with a woman in Russia giving birth to a baby boy who is born at almost the exact moment of the Tunguska event. Huge explosion in the sky, crazy colors. Should be disorienting and ominous. Camera leaves the intimacy of the house where Alexander was born to pan upwards to show a huge region of Siberia that’s been totally flattened by this mysterious event. By a huge ice meteor that’s now mostly buried in the permafrost.

In present times, Olga travels to Israel to meet Bjorn, a man that she met through a online message board for people who have suffered and survived the “Ice Hammer.” When they meet, they show each other these strange scars on their breastbones. Every time Olga touches her chest, we get a flashback to a time when she was tricked and drugged and bashed in the chest with an “ice hammer” (a stick with a chunk of ice at the end of it) by some strange blond haired and blue eyed people who keep urging her to “speak with her heart.” She was left for dead, and is now determined to figure out who the fuck these people are.

These flashbacks correspond with the story they hear from the old man they go to meet—a dying Jew who, during WWII, was part of a group of kids pulled from a camp and taken to the woods where several are smashed in the chests with ice hammers. He describes two ancient, almost otherworldly people who seemed to be in charge, and watched the smashing in silence, with serenely creepy looks on their faces. Episode ends with the camera focusing in on their faces.

Episode Two: Alexander (born at the start of episode one) is now in college. He pines after a pretty young thing, but she’s all wrapped up in Kulik, a renegade science professor who is determined to find the Tungus meteor. As a way of impressing the girl, Alexander joins up with Kulik’s latest expedition into Siberia. There are trials, tribulations, and as they grow closer to the spot where the meteor landed, Alexander falls into a fugue state resulting in his being separated from the rest of the group. Wandering around, he is drawn to a particular swampy area where he uncovers the Tungus ice meteor. He falls upon the ice, feels his heart “awaken,” finds out his true name is “Bro,” and hears an otherworldly voice explain how once upon a time there were 23,000 “Light-bearing rays” that created all the worlds of the universe. Their one mistake was creating Earth, which was filled with “disharmonious water.” Because of the water’s mirror-like qualities, the 23,000 rays of light get trapped, become humans, cause violence, fuck shit up, etc. There is a solution though! Once the hearts of all 23,000 “rays” are awoken and learn all the “heart words,” they can form a huge circle and the universe will be reborn in healthy, sublime light. It’s like hippy paradise. (See pages 77-80 for the complete new age description.)

Back in current times, Olga and Bjorn are in Guangzhou having dinner with Michael Laird, another ice hammer survivor. He explains a bit more to them about the Brotherhood of the Light and the way they use the ICE Corporation as a front to find the 23,000 who will awake and turn into light, etc., etc. When Olga asks why Michael and his fellow investigators are in Guangzhou, he explains that this is where the Brotherhood is based, where the 23,000 are going to gather and bring about the new world. They toast to the “resistance,” the Michael puts down his glass without taking a sip, and Olga and Bjorn slump to the floor. A waiter ties up Olga’s and Bjorn’s hands and carry them out of the restaurant.

Episode Three: Bro leaves the swamp with a huge chunk of the Tungus ice, in search of some guidance as to how to start this rebirthing process. He finds a girl; in his eyes, her chest glows. He bashes her with some ice (thank you very much!) and “Fer’s” heart is awoken. They embrace in a loving, still asexual way as their hearts speak to one another. In a Zen bliss that’s as creepy as it is content, they wander Siberia, discovering other chosen people, and indoctrinating them into the Brotherhood by slamming them with ice until their heart speaks their true name. During this phase of the Brotherhood, there’s a lot of “heart conversations” and weeping over the sadness of the world. There’s also a lot of hope—these people truly believe that they will bring about universal nirvana. They are sweet, totally asexual, and operate in a sort of benevolent hive-mind fashion. Their numbers grow slowly, but since Fer & Bro (when together) can see exactly who is a chosen person and who isn’t, they are extremely efficient in their operations. But then Fer dies . . .

Olga and Bjorn are now working in the “Dead Bitches Factory” where they skin dead dogs in order to make the straps for the ice hammers. There are 189 people trapped in this underground factory filled with hanging dogs and sterile jail-cell dormitories. Olga tries to rebel, yelling “Fuck you!” at one of the cameras. A bunch of Chinese men flood into the factory and tase the shit out of her. Fade to black.

Episode Four: After the passing of Fer, the Brotherhood searches for another person with her abilities. Eventually, they awaken Khram, who sort of has the gift of being able to identify other “rays of light,” but not really. So the Brotherhood starts kidnapping and bashing all sorts of blond-haired, blue-eyed people in search of new members and the heartmate that would enhance Khram’s abilities. Bro dies and it’s up to her to lead the Brotherhood on the path toward 23,000. Their numbers increase steadily through random attempts, but it’s slow going through Soviet times when they face persecution from a few sides. Nevertheless, when people’s hearts are awoken, the Brotherhood takes care of them physically and financially, and they all have a chance to do some naked (non-sexual) heart-bonding. And based on the looks on their faces, this is some good stuff.

A really old man invites Olga to sit with him during lunch. She’s still a bit discombobulated from the post-outburst beatdown, but she senses that this man knows more than he’s letting on. The guy—Ernst Wolf—ends up explaining that his father is one of the main leaders of the Brotherhood. Ernst ended up down here after he was bashed at age 17 and it was determined that he was an “empty shell,” and not one of the rays of light. He tells Olga about a time he saw his father and 22 others in a small circle, unmoving, speaking with their hearts, etc. Ernst trying to disrupt the hippy heart speak by hitting his father with a red-hot poker, but his dad didn’t even flinch, even as his skin burned. Ernst believes in the Great Transformation of the 23,000. But he also thinks this could be very bad shit. As he’s carted off to be killed (sub-plot: Ernst has cancer, no one who is sick can remain in the factory, etc.), he slips Olga a note and a key to a possible way out.

Episode ends with an infomercial for the ICE Machine—a high-tech flak jacket complete with an “ice chamber” over the middle that, once you put this on and plug it in, bashes you in the chest until your heart wakes up and you hallucinate a circle of happy people. According to the infomercial, this device will fix all the world’s problems—violence, depression, anxiety, pain—thanks to the special qualities of the Tungus ice. This is obviously an extremely quick way for the Brotherhood to find their 23,000, and a perfect front for all their questionable activities . . .

Episode Five: Opens with a young, possibly mentally challenged boy waking up and searching for his mom. She’s mysteriously disappeared, so he tries to get his own breakfast. As he falls from the stove while reaching for the cupboard, a man catches him. They talk for a minute, and the man reassures the boy that his mom is visiting her sister, that she sent the man to bring the boy there. Everything seems sweet and on the up-and-up. The boy asks what’s in the man’s suitcase: “Nothing,” he says with a laugh, as he gasses the boy and stuffs him into the suitcase.

We find out through conversations among the leader of the ICE Corporation that there are only a handful of people left to find, the main one being a young boy who is pretty much the Brotherhood Jesus. This boy is en route to their headquarters where his heart will be awoken and Khram can pump some heart-knowledge into him. Once he arrives and the last few people are bashed awake, the ICE suits turn some keys in a special circular device, and around the world people are notified via cellphones and whatnot that it’s time for the Great Transformation. They all start heading to China . . .

Olga enlists Bjorn in her escape plan. They use the key to open the special passageway and make a run for the surface. Alarms go off, and after lots of running around in air vents and trying to find a way out via a secret elevator, Michael Laird captures them and tells them that he needs their help.

Episode Six: Starts right where #5 left off. Michael brings Olga and Bjorn into a room and explains the Brotherhood, the joy of becoming light, the rebirth of the world, the end to all problems, how they’re correcting the one great mistake, that this is all good shit, etc. Over the course of this conversation, Olga and Bjorn’s demeanor changes. They seem to be more at peace . . . almost happy. Michael tells them that he needs them to hold the two weaker members of the brotherhood (two children) in the circle so that all 23,000 hearts can speak the 23 heart words 23 times and the world comes to a blissful end. Won over by the simplicity of Michael’s viewpoint and the enveloping calmness that he exudes, they agree.

On a marble covered island, 23,000 naked people start joining hands. All is silent as they assume the lotus position. Everything is peaceful, calm. There is a low level buzzing. Olga and Bjorn are on opposite sides of the circle, each with a young kid on their lap, giving off the best vibes they can. The screen goes white.

Olga is the first to awaken. Everything is extremely bright. She can’t really make out much of anything at first. As her eyes adjust, she notices that everyone around her is unconscious and flat on the earth. She checks the man next to her—dead. As is the woman next to him. In fact, they’re all dead. Everyone except for Bjorn. They repeat “By God” a series of times (“By God?” “By God.” “By God!”), join hands, and walk off.

*

OK, that interpretation may be a bit self-indulgent, but the point is that there’s something fundamentally interesting about Sorokin’s trilogy. When I saw the play version of Ice in New York last month, I was struck by just how adaptable this material is—a testament to the fact that Sorokin has tapped into something.

(I don’t think I did this justice, but there’s a great tension among the innocent beliefs of the Brotherhood, the sort of latent human desire to witness the end of the world and for this experience to be rapturous, and the hyperviolent and invasive way in which the Brotherhood finds its members.)

That said, this trilogy is loaded with flaws and shortcomings. I mentioned this in my review of Day of the Oprichnik, but Sorokin’s use of italics is baffling and all over the place. For the most part, the prose itself is utilitarian to the point of awkwardness (“Later I dreamed about that lard. Dreamed I grabbed hold of it, but it was like the oat pudding they boil up for wakes—it slipped between my fingers!”), with the exception of three more “experimental” set-pieces, which, due to their brevity and uselessness in advancing the story, seem unnecessary and out-of-place. There’s a ton of repetition in these books, especially when someone’s heart is awoken—there must be two dozen near identical descriptions of how people are hit with an ice hammer until their heart speaks its name, then there’s the pressing of bare chests, the weeping, etc. Finally, the fixedly chronological telling of events can get rather boring, especially since the reader can see the end goal from a very early point and has to wade through all those repetitions to find out what happens . . .

This tension—between the compelling core of the trilogy and the less than amazing way in which it’s related—is what makes the Ice Trilogy so frustrating as an artistic object. It’s powerful stuff, but, at the risk of ending this epically long review with a crappy metaphor, the greatness of this book is like ice buried in the permafrost—chisel that all away and you’d have a very pretty object.

4 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece that I wrote on Vladimir Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik, which just came out from FSG in Jamey Gambrell’s translation.

Since this is a day of Sorokin (the event write-up, the discussion in the podcast), I’m going to skip all the normal author and reviewer stuff and go straight to the review:

Since the novel’s main engine, so to speak, is the attempt to describe (and satirize) an invented world, these set-pieces work exceedingly well. It’s through Komiaga’s experiences that we learn about the “Western Wall” that cuts New Rus off from the stinking filth of Europe, about the political issues related to taxing all the Chinese inhabitants of Siberia, about the importance of religion, the ban on hard drugs (weed and coke are totally cool), and the restrictions on swearing and obscenity. This novel operates within one of the common trappings of science-fiction novels, in which the author ends up building a plot simply in order to show you the various aspects of the world he invented.

You can read the entire review by clicking here.

4 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Set in a futuristic Moscow (2028 according to the jacket copy), Day of the Oprichnik is exactly that: a day in the life of Andrei Danilovich Komiaga. The oprichniki were essentially a cultish “death squad” that was set up by Tsar Ivan the Terrible back in the mid 1500s to protect his ass and slay his enemies, and in Sorokin’s latest novel, they do exactly that—and in graphic detail—all in service of His Majesty, the new ruler of Russia.

As a reader jumping in blind to this book, it doesn’t take long to realize that this isn’t exactly the Russia we’re familiar with . . . In the second paragraph, Komiaga is awoken by screams, moans, and “the death rattle” emanating from his “mobilov” and recorded by “the Secret Department, when they were torturing the Far Eastern general.” Then there’s reference to a “news bubble,” the Far Eastern Pipeline which “will remain closed until petition from the Japanese,” and his Mercedov with its “transparent roof.”

It’s in the last paragraph of this opening chapter that we see what direction Komiaga’s day is heading:

In the rearview mirror I see my homestead receding. A good house, with a heart and soul. I’ve been living in it for only seven months, yet it feels as though I was born and grew up there. The property used to belong to a comrade moneychanger at the Treasury: Gorokhov, Stepan Ignatievich. When he fell into disgrace during the Great Treasury Purge and exposed himself, we took him in hand During that hot summer a good number of Treasury heads rolled. Bobrov and five of his henchmen were paraded through Moscow in an iron cage, then flogged with the rod and beheaded on Lobnoe Mesto in Red Square. Half of the Treasury was exiled from Moscow beyond the Urals. There was a lot of work . . .

Over the rest of the book—the rest of Komiaga’s day—he helps destroy the home of a fallen nobleman (and rapes his wife in some surreal prose), goes to church (New Rus is ardently religious), investigates a pasquinade defaming His Majesty’s son-in-law, helps pass judgement on an obscene new performance, takes a bribe, does some super-hallucinagenic mindmelding drug of Philip K. Dick proportions, tries to help repress a subversive storyteller, consults a psychic for His Majesty’s wife, and participates in a oprichinki orgy, among other sordid, frequently disturbing tasks.

Since the novel’s main engine, so to speak, is the attempt to describe (and satirize) an invented world, these set-pieces work exceedingly well. It’s through Komiaga’s experiences that we learn about the “Western Wall” that cuts New Rus off from the stinking filth of Europe, about the political issues related to taxing all the Chinese inhabitants of Siberia, about the importance of religion, the ban on hard drugs (weed and coke are totally cool), and the restrictions on swearing and obscenity. This novel operates within one of the common trappings of science-fiction novels, in which the author ends up building a plot simply in order to show you the various aspects of the world he invented.

In this case, there’s no really overarching plot to speak off aside from simply seeing what happens in a typical day in the life of a member of this special group. What they’re allowed to do, how their oppression works, etc. In contrast to the sci-fi book that relies on the creativeness of its inventions (social, scientific, and whatnot), the reason Sorokin’s book is mostly successful is due to its satirical charms and frightening truth that, no matter what changes, there’s always a secret group of oprichniki with special privileges.

It’s probably my own shortcoming, but I get the sense that some of Sorokin’s targets slipped by me . . . Or, to put that more positively, that Russian readers (or readers more well versed in the contemporary Russian scene), will get even more out of this. One bit that I particularly liked (which brought to mind an essay of Dubravka Ugresic’s from Thank You for Not Reading and plays to my obsessions) was this bit about literature in New Rus:

Bookstands are also standardized, approved by His Majesty and approved by the Literary Chamber. Our people respect books. On the left side there’s Orthodox Church literature; on the right the Russian classics; and in the middle, the latest works by contemporary writers. First I look over the prose of our country’s contemporary writers: Ivan Korobov’s White Birch; Nikolia Voropaevsky’s Our Fathers; Isaak Epshtein’s The Taming of the Tundra; Rashid Zametdinov’s Russia—My Motherland; Pavel Olegov’s The Nizhny Novgorod Tithe; Savvaty Sharkunov’s Daily Life of the Western Wall; Irodiada Deniuzhkina’s My Heart’s Friend; Oksana Podrobskaya’s The Mores of New Chinese Children. I know all these authors well. They’re famous, distinguished. Caressed by the love of the people and His Majesty.

One of the main problems I had with this book is that it’s not as humorous or biting or disturbing as I expected. Sorokin has been the figurehead for contemporary Russian literature for years now. He’s been featured in major publications on several occasions (like the New York Review of Books where he was referred to as “the only real prose writer, and resident genius” of late-Soviet fiction), with the general view being that his works are the most subversive, controversial, brilliant things being written in Russia today.

For example, almost every single piece about him that I’ve read (or written), makes mention of the fact that the Putin Youth symbolically flushed his books down a paper-mache toilet. Or that the untranslated novel “Blue Lard” has a graphic sex scene starring Khrushchev and Stalin. All of which ended up constructing a sort of image of a punk trouble-maker, a shocking sort of explosive writer. That may be true in some contexts, but Day of the Oprichnik, for all its political concerns, isn’t the fireball of controversy that I was expecting . . .

Getting that reputation out of the way allows for his work to be appreciated for other reasons though, which will benefit his reputation (in this country at least) in the future. Day of the Oprichnik isn’t a bad book, in fact, it’s enjoyable to read—something that sounds odd to say when it’s a book featuring a sizable helping of destruction and violence. But Komiaga’s voice is compelling, and he serves the reader well in leading us through this new, perplexing world.

An interesting aspect of Komiaga’s voice, that happens also to be a translation question, is the use of italicized words throughout the text. Sometimes these italics imply a special new code of sorts, like when he refers to “an order to squash the innards” during “a raid,” or the order to perform a “red rooster.” Other times, the italics are particular phrasings emphasized to provoke a certain feeling (usually creepy), like in this bit related to the nobleman’s wife:

This work is—passionate, and absolutely necessary. It gives us more strength to overcome the enemies of the Russian state. Even this succulent work requires a certain seriousness. You have to start and finish by seniority.

There are so, so many of these italicized words and phrases in the book, many of which just seem odd or distracting or emphasizing the wrong word. (“I’ve seen many book and manuscript bonfires—in our courtyard, and in the Secret Department.”) I have every confidence in the world in Jamey Gambrell’s translation (she also did Sorokin’s The Queue and The Ice Trilogy, so she definitely knows his work and style), but I am curious as to how these worked in the original Russian. Sometimes punctuation and other forms of emphasis don’t always translate exactly . . .

Overall, Day of the Oprichnik is an intriguing book (a 7.1 out of 10), and hopefully in combination with the recent publication of The Ice Trilogy, will help English readers have a much better understanding of Sorokin’s art, and not just his reputation.

4 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As mentioned on last week’s podcast, and further elaborated on in this week’s one (BTW, you can subscribe to the Three Percent podcast at iTunes), Vladimir Sorokin was one of the authors I was most interested in seeing at the PEN World Voices Festival.

Way back when, I read his short, early novel The Queue in a Readers International edition, and at the time I found it pretty charming and inventive. The entire book is a play-like narrative about an endless number of people waiting in line to buy . . . something. They have no idea what’s for sale, how many will be available, or anything else. But they feel obliged to wait and find out. Out of this sort of dry, Soviet setting, an absurd, Beckett-like story develops in which people fall in love, leave the line, return to line, recite their number in line, stay in line for days . . . In short, a fun, entertaining little book.

Over the ensuing years, Sorokin’s reputation as the contemporary Russian author worth paying attention to has grown in leaps and bounds, mostly due to the portrayal of his books as shocking, offensive, aggressively anti-govermental, all the stuff that we (Americans, literary readers, seekers of the new) tend to gravitate towards.

When Ice came out from NYRB the other year, it was a pretty hotly anticipated book, although in the end, the reviews were fairly mixed, possibly due to its mostly non-political bent. (I’d also blame the fact that this was only the middle part of a trilogy. The book can stand alone by itself, but I think it will benefit from the larger scope of the trilogy.)

So this spring, when both FSG brought out Day of the Oprichnik and NYRB published the complete Ice Trilogy and Sorokin was selected to attend the World Voices Festival, it felt like his time had really come. Add to that this feature in the New York Times and it seemed like this was going to be Sorokin’s coming-out party. His real launch into the American literary scene.

It’ll be interesting to see how this all plays out . . . Day of Oprichnik is interesting, but not exactly what most American’s are looking for. I’m reading The Ice Trilogy
now, and find it more intriguing, but it’s also a complicated book for readers to get a handle on, since there are things about the cult that are simple and good-hearted, and things that are creepy as shit.

But before getting to that, I want to say that I wish the conversation between Keith Gessen of N+1 and Sorokin would’ve gone a bit smoother. Not that it was a bad event, but with Sorokin’s need to be translated and his meticulous, thoughtful, halting style of speaking, the conversation got a bit bogged down and Keith wasn’t really able to get to all the points he had obviously planned on. There was a lot of time spent talking about the beginning of his career, especially about Norma, in which the first 100 pages contain scene after domestic scene in which all the characters end up eating a little package of shit . . . They also talked about the literary underground and The Queue, but most of the new works were left out when time ran out . . .

Hopefully Gessen and Sorokin will do a written conversation at some point. Keith’s a very perceptive reader, and I think he would be able to frame Sorokin’s importance in a very meaningful way that would really help draw people to his works.

Although it was a bit disturbing—because the book is a bit disturbing—I think the performance of Ice worked a bit better. This event took place an hour after the conversation, and much of the audience was the same as at the first event. It was directed by Kornel Mundruczo from Hungary and took place in the Old Gymnasium. Setting wasn’t ideal—the actor and actresses read from a table on the same level as the seats, so for short people like me, we weren’t able to see all that much—nevertheless, it was very well-done, especially considering that their first rehearsal was on Tuesday . . .

Not to give away everything, but Ice (and the trilogy as a whole) is about a cult that aims to “awaken the hearts” of the 23,000 chosen people. They believe that once your heart is awoken, you can understand all the “heart words” and that once all 23,000 members are found, the world will be transformed into something beautiful and hippy and stuff.

All sounds pretty good, right? Well . . . the way they determine whether you’re “chosen” or not is by pounding the shit out of your chest with a hammer containing a piece of the ice meteor left by the Tunguska event. If you heart speaks its true name, then you’re saved! If not, you die. Creepy, no? And all the chosen people have blond hair and blue eyes, naturally.

The coolest moment of the performance was at the end, when the cult’s workings have been revealed and they’re expanding their search for the 23,000. At that moment, a screen dropped down and the best faux informercial I’ve ever seen was projected on it. The ad was for the ICE Machine, which looked like a rubber s&m sort of chestplate with a chunk of ice over your sternum, which, when plugged in, would repeatedly pound you and awaken your heart. It was perfectly spot-on in the way it kept cutting away to an image of the ICE Machine floating against a black background, available for only $230 by calling 23-23-223-23-23 . . .

As intended, this performance got me psyched to read the whole trilogy, so expect a formal review at Three Percent in the next few weeks . . .

18 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Kind of in conjunction with the release of Daniel Stein, Interpreter, the Guardian has a longish piece on Ulitskaya that focuses on her more dissident side, especially in relation to Mikhail Khodorkovsky: Articles, Dialogues, Interviews, a collection of her letters with jailed billionaire Khodorkovsky:

[Ulitskaya] was the first woman to win the Russian equivalent of the Booker prize and, more recently, has attracted both controversy and acclaim for publishing her correspondence with the jailed billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky. This week, she will be talking at the Foreign Policy Centre in London about personal and political freedom in Russia, examining what it is to be an artist in a state run by Vladimir Putin, a man not known for his tolerance of free speech or respect for human rights.

“I’m not afraid,” Ulitskaya insists, speaking through a translator. “Compared to the Stalinist era, our government now is a pussycat with soft paws … Having said that, I believe that Khodorkovsky is in jail because the whole society was so scared that no one stood up for his defence. There were threats: the court was afraid, the witnesses, the judge, because no one had the courage to speak up and that saddens me. That loss of dignity frustrates me because our society had only just started overcoming its fear after so many years of oppressive rule. The Russian people have once again started to be gripped by fear.”

Khodorkovsky, the former head of oil giant Yukos and once Russia’s richest man, was jailed for eight years in 2005 along with his business partner after being found guilty of embezzling more than £16.3bn worth of oil from his own company and laundering the proceeds. Khodorkovsky’s lawyers maintain that the charges are absurd and based on a failure to understand normal business practices. Their client, they argue, is a political prisoner and a symbol of a corrupt Russian judicial system – a view supported by Ulitskaya. “I’m absolutely convinced that all of the allegations were absurd,” she says. “It started from tax evasion, then got blown out of proportion. The next allegation was theft, which is completely absurd because you can’t steal from yourself.” [. . .]

Ulitskaya began writing to the imprisoned oligarch in 2008, addressing her letters to him in the Soviet-era labour camp in eastern Siberia where he was incarcerated. The correspondence lasted for a little under a year and their letters covered everything from personal backgrounds to political motivations. At first, Ulitskaya did not expect to find they had much in common. The child of two scientists, she had grown up in Moscow with an innate mistrust for authority after both her grandfathers were imprisoned by Stalin’s regime. By contrast, Khodorkovsky’s parents worked in a Soviet-era factory and, as a boy, he was a faithful member of the Komsomol, the youth wing of the Communist party. As an adult, he rose to become one of Boris Yeltsin’s most trusted advisers. But gradually, she learned to respect him.

“I was travelling round Russia a lot and I would constantly come across different traces of his charitable work,” Ulitskaya says. “He spent a lot of money on education, setting up children’s homes, giving schools the latest computer equipment. My support for Khodorkovsky primarily lies in how much money he spent on charitable enterprises.

“In Russia, there is a drastic gap between rich and poor, to the extent that I feel the country is on the brink of civil war. The salary of a civil servant can be hundreds of thousands less than that of a businessman. It causes huge irritation, especially when people show off their wealth, with all their furs and bling. I hope that the next generation will be educated more to spend their money wisely and charitably. And, for me, the first person to realise he should act like this was Khodorkovsky.”

In prison, she says, the businessman “has undergone enormous growth as a person and I really admire the way he has conducted himself during the last few years, despite the torment he and his family have been through. He is an outstanding individual.” [. . .]

Given her outspoken nature, Ulitskaya could be forgiven for feeling uneasy in her homeland or fearing for her family – she lives in Moscow with her husband, an artist, and has two grown-up sons. But she insists she feels “completely free” and dismisses Putin as “a joke”. [. . .]

“My perception of Putin as an individual is that he is quite juvenile, not very mature, and all the pictures we have of him from state television are of Putin climbing Everest or fighting a tiger or extinguishing a fire. It’s just a kind of joke, these macho games.

“But if I want to judge Vladimir Putin as a politician, these are my criticisms: our country is in an atrocious condition. Schools and hospitals are underfunded, our pensioners are on the brink of poverty and the condition of our army is shocking. Our soldiers are underfed and live in unsanitary conditions.”

Click here to read the complete interview.

8 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Kaija Straumanis on Yuri Rytkheu’s The Chukchi Bible, translated from the Russian by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse and soon to be available from Archipelago Books.

Rytkheu is one of the only (if not the only) Chukchi writers to be translated into English. His A Dream in Polar Fog came out a few years back to a decent amount of critical attention, and I suspect that The Chukchi Bible will also do pretty well. You can read an excerpt from this new book at Archipelago’s website.

Kaija Straumanis is one of the MA Translation students here at the University of Rochester and is currently working on a translation of a Latvian novel. She also has a large interest on translating humor and is well known among the translation students for the very entertaining, polyphonic way she reads aloud . . .

Here’s the (very Three Percent) opening of her review:

A bird flies around, takes a few shits, the shit turns into land and, voilà, the world is created.

That may sound like a summary of a terrible animated short or a 1970s acid trip, but it’s simply my poorly hyper-abridged version of one of many truly beautiful Chukchi folk tales that mark the beginning of time and man in Yuri Rytkheu’s The Chukchi Bible. Here’s the real version:

“A raven was flying over an expanse. From time to time he slowed his flight and scattered his droppings. Wherever solid matter fell, a land mass appeared; wherever liquid fell became rivers and lakes, puddles and rivulets. Sometimes First Bird’s excrements mingled together, and this created the tundra marshes. The hardest of the Raven’s droppings served as the building blocks for scree slopes, mountains, and craggy cliffs.” [. . .]

Author Yuri Rytkheu (1930-2008) is considered the “father of Chukchi literature“—though the title should probably be more along the lines of “only Chukchi literary figure“—and during his lifetime, published several novels and collections of short stories and poetry. Only a few of his works have been translated into English, the most recent preceding The Chukchi Bible being A Dream in Polar Fog (Archipelago Books, 2006). Rytkheu was born and grew up in the coastal village of Uelen, which is located in the Chukotka region of Russia and is the country’s eastern most settlement. While his previous works have been fictional, The Chukchi Bible is a hybrid of legend and hard fact. In a short introduction Rytkheu explains, “The book is not just the story of my lineage, and not just the story of our clan, but also the genealogy and the root of all my books.”

Click here to read the full review.

8 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A bird flies around, takes a few shits, the shit turns into land and, voilà, the world is created.

That may sound like a summary of a terrible animated short or a 1970s acid trip, but it’s simply my poorly hyper-abridged version of one of many truly beautiful Chukchi folk tales that mark the beginning of time and man in Yuri Rytkheu’s The Chukchi Bible. Here’s the real version:

A raven was flying over an expanse. From time to time he slowed his flight and scattered his droppings. Wherever solid matter fell, a land mass appeared; wherever liquid fell became rivers and lakes, puddles and rivulets. Sometimes First Bird’s excrements mingled together, and this created the tundra marshes. The hardest of the Raven’s droppings served as the building blocks for scree slopes, mountains, and craggy cliffs.

There’s just something amazing about folk tales. I grew up with them as bedtime stories and have had a soft spot for them ever since, even preferring them to all things Disney. See, I find fairy tales lack that realistic nitty-gritty and hometown hero charm only a culture-specific folk tale can evoke. “Folk tales” focus on specific aspects of a culture, its values and history, whereas “fairy tales” are mostly about dwarves, princes hooking up with princesses, and evil queens getting tossed into canyons. While both forms of story telling are meant to entertain, folk tales are better in regard to educating and reminding us where we come from. And The Chukchi Bible has no shortage of heroes, culture, reality and that delicious nitty-gritty that makes stories like this all the more tangible.

Author Yuri Rytkheu (1930-2008) is considered the “father of Chukchi literature“—though the title should probably be more along the lines of “only Chukchi literary figure“—and during his lifetime, published several novels and collections of short stories and poetry. Only a few of his works have been translated into English, the most recent preceding The Chukchi Bible being A Dream in Polar Fog (Archipelago Books, 2006). Rytkheu was born and grew up in the coastal village of Uelen, which is located in the Chukotka region of Russia and is the country’s eastern most settlement. While his previous works have been fictional, The Chukchi Bible is a hybrid of legend and hard fact. In a short introduction Rytkheu explains, “The book is not just the story of my lineage, and not just the story of our clan, but also the genealogy and the root of all my books.”

The first part of The Chukchi Bible is a crash-course in the Chukchi way of life—something that is so far removed from anything I’ve personally known or understood that it took some getting used to. Harpooning whales and spearing seals for food and clothing, washing their faces with urine to improve complexion, accommodating a guest by letting him sleep with your wife or daughter . . . Rytkheu’s writing and vivid imagery brings out the best and worst, the most common and most abnormal of the life on the Arctic coast. What I mean by this is that, while the customs, actions and lifestyles described are initially shocking, I was eventually able to understand that it was simply the way things were done; out of a necessity for survival and a respect for one’s culture.

The second part of the book starts with the birth of Rytkheu’s grandfather, Mletkin. Once the book moves into Mletkin’s life, the imagery and tone of the narrative take on a more personal feeling:

Mletkin always had a particular, not to say unnatural, curiosity about death. Whenever it fell to him to assist Kalyantagrau in helping someone to die, he would peer intently into the dying one’s face, and each time he was just as astonished at how little the dead person resembled the living one. Oh, on the outside, the two were similar enough. But only on the outside. It was strikingly apparent that something internal and imperceptible was disappearing, something invisible but so essential that the body of the deceased suddenly seemed so more than a covering, the outer clothing of the person who had now passed into the unfathomable beyond.

The story follows Mletkin throughout his life—from a boy just going through the motions of village life in Uelen, into a young adult who starts to see how the outside world is not only different from his own, but can also be detrimental to it, and finally into a man who has traveled the world and is so self-aware it is at times frightening.

However, it’s hard to label the entirety of Rytkheu’s work purely as fiction. The Chukchi Bible is a record of how and what the Chukchi hunted, what they ate, what they wore, how they named their children, claimed their spouses, and how their culture was slowly but surely upended by both Russian and American influences. And yet it focuses on Rytkheu’s own family and is a kind of homage to his grandfather, Mletkin, the last shaman of the coastal Siberian village of Uelen. This historical account of the Chukchi people and the author’s roots is lush with mystic elements of Chukchi folk culture. Biography, history, fantasy—it’s a three-in-one deal. Rytkheu moves smoothly from one genre to another in a conversational, educational, but never boring manner.

What’s great about The Chukchi Bible is that it conveys the hauntingly beautiful connection between man and nature alongside the scientific aspects of the harsh reality in which Rytkheu’s resilient ancestors lived and interacted—all the while weaving it seamlessly with that folk tale thread. The emotional and factual experience while reading this is analogous to taking a book of the Brothers Grimm and a National Geographic documentary, mixing it into a half liter of Coke, then dropping in a Mentos and enjoying the ensuing explosion as it all rains down.

That’s right—it’s freaking awesome.

13 October 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following up on yesterday’s posts, here’s a piece on the Russian Debut Prize that I also wrote for Publishing Perspectives. Interesting project and seems crazy in its scope—30,000+ entries a year?!

Back in 2000, the “Debut Prize” was established by the Pokolenie (Generation) Foundation to support Russian writers under the age of 25. Ten years later, the best works generated by this competition will be made available to English and Chinese readers.

According to Olga Slavnikova, winner of the Russian Booker Prize and director of the Debut Prize, “The Debut inspires young Russian writers to complete that first book. The Debut prompts them to commit to literature their unique experience, what might be described as the shock of their first encounter with grown-up life.”

By setting the age limit at 25, this prize is helping engender novels by authors who were children when the USSR collapsed, who escaped the Cold War, and are coming of age in a world that their parents could never have predicted. In the words of Ms. Slavnikova, “One may say without exaggeration that this is the most ingenuous and honest literature in Russia since 1917, the year of the deplorable October coup.”
Although tens of thousands of manuscripts are submitted for the award every year, virtually none of these “ingenuous” works makes it out of Russia. To help promote this new generation of Russian authors, the Pokolenie Foundation is launching an international program. This year anthologies of the “Best of the Debut Prize Winners” will appear in both Chinese and English.

GLAS — one of the most successful and well-respected English-language publishers of Russian literature — recently published Squaring the Circle, which includes pieces from Aleksei Lukyanov, a two-time Debut Prize finalist; Gulla Khirachev, who is mostly known for her avant-garde children’s tales, but won the Debut Prize in 2009 for her first work of fiction for adults; Polina Klyukina, who was a finalist in 2008; and Olga Yelagina, who was a finalist in 2005, among others.

These pieces have been selected from all of the winners from the past decade. The 30,000+ entries are first whittled down into a 100 author “shortlist,” and the 20-25 Debut finalists are brought to Moscow for “Debut Week” — a week of lectures, classes, talks, and an award ceremony in which winners in various categories receive 200,000 rubles (approx. £4,000 or $7,500).

In addition to GLAS’s Squaring the Circle, a Chinese anthology will also be produced. And over the next few years, collections will appear in French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Japanese, in addition to annual anthologies in English. Along with promoting Russian culture, an underlying hope is that these anthologies will entice more foreign publishers to bring out translations of contemporary Russian authors.

30 March 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by K.E. Semmel on Olga Slavnikova’s 2017, which is translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz (one of our favorite translators) and published by Overlook.

K.E. Semmel is the Publications & Communications Manager of The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD. His translations of the work of Danish authors Simon Fruelund, Pia Tafdrup, and Jytte Borberg have been published or are forthcoming in numerous literary journals. He’s the recipient of translation grants from the Danish Arts Council. And his review makes this sound really interesting:

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.

Click here to read the entire review.

30 March 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

22 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next ten days, we’ll be featuring each of the ten titles from this year’s Best Translated Book Award poetry shortlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



The Russian Version by Elena Fanailova. Translated from the Russian by Genya Turovskaya and Stephanie Sandler. (Russia, Ugly Duckling Presse)

For the poetry finalists, each of the five judges is writing about two books. Idra Novey—poet, translator, executive director of the Center for Literary Translation at Columbia University—is up first.

The Russian Version obliterates the stereotype of what Great Russian Poetry should sound like. Fanailova has the candor and compassion of Akhmatova and a gift for striking metaphor that might bring Mandelstam to mind, but she is also ruthlessly quick to fire “from the hip,” as she says in the title poem, and her aim is impeccable. In the ironic poem “(The Italics are Mine),” she writes:

In the era when poetry flowed
From human shortcoming,
When poetry was waiting
For dry remainders,
It did its best, I beg your pardon,
Like a hysterical bitch . . .

All of the poems in The Russian Version veer off in delightfully unexpected directions like this. What begins in sweeping historical statement often turns to sly aside or to some in-your-face metaphor. Turovskaya and Sandler do a superb job of keeping these shifts in tone in Fanailova’s poems palpable and surprising. Throughout the book, the voice in these translations are as lively and distinctive as in any poetry currently being written in the US, if not more so. To the credit of both Fanailova and her translators, the poems consistently come across as both alluringly raw and carefully honed. “Now you can say what you actually think,” Fanailova writes in “The Queer’s Girldfriend, “and not what Great Russan Poetry demands.”

Instead of striving for Great Russian Poetry, Fanailova tells of a “tired Petersburg,” a grandmother who sets an apple tree on fire and has the stained dress of a “perpetually slovenly cook.” In an excerpt from her 2002 collection Transylvania Calling, she writes of a woman off to an abortion clinic “like a soldier marching the familiar march” and in the next line of soldiers “fucking beautiful Uzbek girls/unbraiding bridles with their tongues.” Powerful juxtapositions like these, of a tired city and a tree on fire, or of a woman marching like a soldier and soldiers marching over women, crop up throughout the poems. Fanailova, never takes these moments too far or editorializes unnecessarily. Like the scars of the married couples she describes in the same poem, she lets her lines “speak for themselves.”

A well-placed silence is key to the craft of poetry and Fanailova is a master of such silences. In a poem earlier in the collection, she writes:

I love to keep silent,
And to guard the thin-walled, fragile things
I save in cigarette papers.

In the selections contained in this book, spanning nearly twenty years of work, Fanailova knows just when to quietly roll up a poem in cigarette paper and when to let it unfurl. Her version of Russia is one told through a “grease-paint made of crystals” and the result is mesmerizing.

2 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [6]

I’m no marketing guru, but there is one rule of advertising that I think everyone should follow: if you dominate a market, never draw attention to your (smaller) competition. This is why Apple attacks Microsoft so directly in ads—for better or worse, Microsoft has a market share the size of a Chicagoan’s shoulders and Apple wants to bite that. Thus the direct, negative advertising.

So when Russian Life brought out a new translation of Ilf & Petrov’s The Golden Calf (or rather, The Little Golden Calf in Anne O. Fisher’s translation) at the exact same moment that we did, I totally ignored it. Sure, based on our contract it’s a violation of copyright, but shit, we all know how Russians deal with copyright issues (“the more the merrier!”), and really? Russian Life‘s entire distribution system seems to consist of their website and Amazon.com. Fine, cool, whatever. Open Letter’s not afraid of a little competition—the new translation we commissioned from Helen Anderson and Konstantin Gurevich is brilliant, and has received outstanding praise from places like the L.A. Times and PRI’s World Books. I know it’s great. And if more people end up reading Ilf & Petrov’s hysterical masterpiece because there are two brand-new translations, then so much the better. The point is getting people to pick this up; no one’s going to make an Koreiko-like fortune off of the sales of this book. At least not for a hundred or so years.

So we didn’t send the cease and desist letter to Russian Life that we could have. And I never even bitched up a storm here on the blog. Why draw attention? There’s maybe a thousand people in the country who realize that two versions of this book even exist, and the rest of the people familiar with The Golden Calf are probably reading our edition.

But then . . . yesterday happened. And this page on the Russian Life website was sent out to—at minimum—the SEELANGS (Slavic & East European Languages) listserv and Nicole Rudick, who reviewed our edition of The Golden Calf in the L.A. Times.

In case you don’t feel like clicking through—though trust me, this shit is hilarious—this page is a list of ten reasons why the Russian Life edition of The Little Golden Calf is superior to our version, ranging from the “Translator” to the “Cover Design”. Seriously? Propaganda is where you turn first in trying to jack our sales? (Before going any further, I want to point out what a stupid, stupid game this is . . .)

I’m not going to defend our book, or go through their list point by point rebutting each of their claims—it’s clear that Russian Life is bitter and jealous about the reviews we’ve been getting and this is their cry for attention—but in addition to having the collective back of our translators/editors/designers, I just can’t help myself . . . Some of the stuff on the Russian Life site is too much fun not to share with all of you.

First off, their criticism of the title. According to Russian Life‘s unattributed post (and by the way, in case anyone is wondering, this is Chad writing—all these opinions are mine and don’t reflect the views and opinions of anyone else affiliated with Rochester, Open Letter, Three Percent, or Russia. So if any of what follows pisses off anyone at Russian Life, e-mail me directly at chad.post@rochester.edu):

Ilf and Petrov did not actually use “zolotoy telets,” the set Biblical phrase for “the Golden Calf.” Instead, they called their book Zolotoy telyonok, using the everyday, normal word for “calf” to deliberately lower the register of the Biblical image. We feel that a translation that misses Ilf and Petrov’s sly, intentional desacralization of the image of the Golden Calf misses the whole point of the title; the care we took in conveying this intention of the original title is emblematic of the care we took throughout the edition.

In other words, “The Little Golden Calf” is >>>>> “The Golden Calf.” Well, this confusion of accuracy for quality (a motif that runs throughout the Russian Life post) is pretty silly. Sure, telyonok is “little,” but as someone else pointed out, the “desacralization” just doesn’t come across in English via “little.” This is problem in translating most diminutives, which is why we went with the straight “Golden Calf.”

And their “first complete translation” posturing is beyond insane. We’re all agreed that the previous translations are flawed, incomplete. And I’m willing to let pass the fact that our edition contains additional material that theirs doesn’t. Why? Because I know that Russian Life is placing the emphasis on first and not on complete. That they believe that they deserve special recognition since their edition supposedly came out a month-and-a-half before ours. Oddly, both of our pub dates were December 1st, but—again with the confusion—since the book was reviewed on January 15th, they assumed that was when copies became available. (We’ve had this in house and for sale since early-November. All real publishers know that pub dates are an artificial load of crap.) (Again, this is all so stupid.)

But sticking with the subject of reviews and confusion, there’s another page in which Russian Life breaks down a single passage, comparing the two variations, and finding that their edition is much superior, ‘natch. I’m not one to bash a translator, but I’m not above sucker punching a publisher, so let’s take a closer look at how they frame this “comparison.” First off, here’s the quote they use from our edition:

“Investigating Koreiko’s case might take a long time,” the character announces. “God only knows how long. And since there is no God, nobody knows. We are in a terrible bind. It might be a month, it might be a year. Either way, we need some legal standing. We need to blend in with the cheery masses of office workers. That’s what the bureau is all about. I have long been interested in [3] administration. I am a bureaucrat and a mis-manager at heart. We will be collecting [4] something very funny, for example, teaspoons, dog tags, or bells and whistles. Or horns and hoofs. That’s perfect! Horns and hoofs. [1] How about that? [5] Besides, I already have some excellent blank forms that are suitable for any occasion and a round rubber stamp [2] in my bag.”

Now, I’m not going to stoop to picking apart the Fisher/Russian Life version (although “We need to blend in with the office workers’ energetic masses” sounds icky), but I will point out two things: 1) the interjection “the character announces” is from the L.A. Times review. So rather than quote the passage in our edition, Russian Life quotes the review quoting the passage in our edition. It’s all the same right?—as careless as the rest of their diatribe. And 2) what the fuck is up with this footnote numbering system? I have no problem with them picking out lines to compare and pick apart, just do it in some sort of logical order.

I’m going to let their typeface bit just go, ‘cause really? WTF is this, high school? You’re bragging about your font choice? Ain’t nothing quite like judging a book by its Courier.

And the cover design? I’m hoping there’s some tongue-in-cheek that I’m just missing here:

Our cover was designed by the wonderful Ufa-based illustrator Julia Valeeva, who perfectly captured Bender’s iconic features (Bender’s cap and scarf) as well as other symbolic images from the novel (the suitcase of money, the little plate with a sky-blue rim, the Koreyko file, etc.). This makes our edition immediately recognizable to Russians who grew up on a diet of re-runs of one of the four television or movie versions of the Bender novels, ranging from the classic 1968 The Little Golden Calf to the 2005 version, where Bender was played by Russian superstar Oleg Menshikov.

First of all, the use of bold is simply unhinged. It’s like unnecessary quote sort of tactless. But if you’re looking to sell your book to Russians who already are stuffed on Bender, why didn’t you publish it in Russian? The whole point of translation is to introduce a book to a new audience that may not be familiar with the original. Who isn’t aware of Bender’s quintessential features. And although I hate to do this in a public place, I’m going to take a second here to explain a bit of elementary marketing. First, from the Russian Life website:

The edition as a whole was conceived as a way to introduce the English-speaking reader to Ostap Bender as he is understood in Russian culture, that is, as a household name whose quips and comebacks are still used in everyday Russian speech to this day. Thus our edition includes:

  • an introduction by Alexandra Ilf, herself a respected scholar of Ilf and Petrov’s works;
  • a translator’s foreword;
  • a bibliography of scholarship on Ilf and Petrov available in English;
  • the notes;
  • an appendix deciphering characters’ names, which are “speaking names” in the tradition of Dickens and Gogol;
  • a bilingual appendix of popular phrases from the novel.

First off, you know who’s a household name? Lady Gaga. Notes, bibliographies, appendices, and introductions a household name do not make. Sorry folks, but the above list appeals to academics only. For an author/book to reach a level of popularity, to even delusionally pretend to be on the “household name” level, it needs to reach an enormous general audience. A general audience that just fell asleep reading the words “bilingual” and “appendix.” No offense, Russian Life, but the Mel Brooks movie of The Twelve Chairs did more for Ostap Bender in the U.S. marketplace than ten million footnotes.

But while we’re on the footnotes, check this shit out:

9. “Giving the fig” in Russia is a mildly obscene gesture in which the thumb, positioned in that it sticks out between the first and second fingers, is brandished in someone’s direction; it means something like “take that!” or “you’ll get nothing from me!”

That’s one of their footnotes. Can someone explain to me what benefit the reader derives from ramming eyes-first into the phrase “giving a fig” and then having to flip to the back of the book and suffer through that dreadfully clinical description to get the gist of the passage they just read? This is why I hate footnotes—it makes for lazy translations that demand extra work from the reader. Which, FYI and back to Marketing Lesson 101, doesn’t help with reaching the whole “household name” goal.

OK, OK, everything above is a bit batshit, I know, I know, and I get what they’re trying to pull and where they’re coming from. And I really shouldn’t be making fun, or trying to bash a tiny publisher, but there’s a real sense of bitterness in these complaints that’s hard to ignore. Such as the bit where we’re criticized for using the edition edited by Alexandra Ilf (the same Alexandra Ilf who signed a contract with us for the rights to the book), whereas her preface is the GREATEST THING EVER.

But so be it. I can let that all go.

But not this. Seriously, even if none of the above was irritating or funny, I would’ve written this whole piece just to include this:

9. SIZE. Our edition is over 35% longer than the 315-page Open Letter edition. In order to include the Additional Materials noted above, our edition is 448 pages long, yet remains compact and lightweight.

10. PRICE. Our edition sells for $20, Open Letter’s edition sells for $15.95. But, as the Russia proverb goes, Skupoy platit dvazhdy (A miser pays twice.)

This is a joke right? Ignore the whole page-count/word-count fallacy and focus on the primary message: “35% more paper at a 20% higher price!” Is this the five-year plan of book publishing? Our book is better because it has more pages. Ever hear of page margins and the impact layout has on length? Or better yet, how about fact checking: our edition, which I have in front of me, is 336 pages . . .

OK, Russian Life, you win. I paid attention to you.

And now on with normal business.

27 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next three weeks, we’ll be highlighting a book a day from the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. Translated from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull. (Russia, New York Review Books)

Since today is the day Apple revolutionizes the future of book publishing and saves us all releases their new overly-slick device, and with Lost only six days and a handful of hours away, it seems like the perfect day to write about a fantastical story collection that includes a lengthy piece on time travel.

This is one of those books that must drive a certain B&N buyer (and a dozen sales reps) absolutely insane. All the book world prejudices come into play: 1) short story collections don’t sell, 2) dead authors don’t sell, 3) who gives a shit about Soviet Russia?, 4) could be cross-shelved in either sci-fi or literature, and 5) how do you pronounce “Krzhizhanovsky”? (The last one is actually serious . . . Can anyone give me a phonetic? Marian? Anyone?)

To be completely honest, I was only able to read a few stories from this before it was selected to the longlist. But after finishing it last night, I’m extremely glad that it made the cut and that I had the chance to fall into Krzhizhanovsky’s meta-fictional, Borgesian sort of world.

According to the bio info in the book, it sounds like Sigizmund lived a pretty interesting life . . . Born in 1887, he died in 1950 and it wasn’t until 1989 that a collection of his fictions could be published. The censors killed the first few possible publications since his writings didn’t portray the new Soviet state “in a positive light” and then WWII got in the way.

Although the pieces are quite as avant as Kharms, the strange sense of humor and the self-reflexiveness of the book remind me of the OBERIU. With a little bit of Calvino thrown in for good measure.

The book opens with a surreal story named “Quadraturin” after a strange substance that you can apply to the walls, floor, and ceiling of your apartment to make it bigger. And bigger. And bigger. Until the vastness of the apartment is much more problematic than its original confined nature.

“The Bookmark” further evidences Krzhizhanovsky’s obsession with the impossible or surreal—this story includes a bit with a guy telling a story about how the Eiffel Tower just gets up and walks away—but also introduces a metafictional element that really caught my imagination and runs through a number of the other stories:

“You see,” the sharp-featured man burst out. “It hooked you. How? You haven’t read it?” he glanced back over his shoulder. “No? Well then. The idea: to debunk all the bunk of which life is made. The plot: a writer, at work on a novel, discovers a character missing. The character has slipped out from under his pen. Work comes to a halt. One day, the writer happens to look in on a literary reading and is stunned to find himself face-to-face with his character. The character tries to run out the door. But the writer—I think this is how it goes—grabs him by the shoulder and elbow, like this, and says: ‘Listen, just between us, you’re not a person, you’re a . . . ‘ They end by agreeing not to spoil things for each other anymore and to devote themselves wholeheartedly to their common cause: the novel. The author introduces his character to an individual essential to the plot’s development. This individual then introduces the character to a charming woman with whom he falls head over heels in love. The remaining chapters of this novel withing a novel quickly begin to go awry and askew, like lines typed on a sheet that has popped out from under the bar. The author, upon receiving no new material from his love-besotted character, insists he break with the woman. The character tries to dodge, to play for time. At his wits’ end, the author demands (this over the telephone) immediate submission to his pen or else . . . But the character simply hangs up. The End.”

Granted, this sort of meta-twist might have been ballsy in 1927, but in today’s meta-infested world, fictional games like this are only as interesting as the uniqueness of the ideas they convey. Like this lengthy speech that the eccentric idea-man Saul Straight gives in “Someone Else’s Theme” when talking to a book critic:

“Didn’t one of your confrers, the most outspoken of them, I’m thinking of Hennequin, wasn’t he so incautious as to admit that ‘a work of fiction affects only those whom it portrays’? Open La Critique scientifique: that’s literally what it says. But a work of fiction recounts the life of its characters. If one were to allow a character into life without a ticket, so to speak, if one were to give him the bookcase key and the right to knock on existence’s door, then that character would be forced during his sojourn among us—about this there can be no doubt—to devote himself to criticism, and criticism alone. Why? Simply because he of us all is the one most concerned with his own fate, because he must hid his nonexistence, a nonexistence that, you must agree, is more inconvenient even than being of noble birth. And so a creature less real than the ink with which he writes takes up self-criticism in a desperate attempt to prove his alibi with respect to the book: I was never there, he says, I was an artistic failure, the author couldn’t make readers believe in me as a type in there, in the book, because I’m not a type and not in the book, rather I, like all of you, dear readers, am out here among you, this side of the bookcase door, and I write books myself, real books, like a real person. True, when the critic is making a fair copy of this tirade, he always changes ‘I’ to ‘we’ (‘As we wrote in our article’—‘We are glad to report’): all this is perfectly natural and explainable—a creature with a poor sense of identity had best avoid the first-person singular. At any rate, the characters populating books, like us, the people populating our planet, are either believers or atheists. Clearly. What I’m trying to say,” Straight wen on excitedly (the critic couldn’t get a word in), “is that not all characters turn into critics (if that were to happen, we’d all be done for!). No, the ones who become critics are the ones who deny their author’s existence—they’re the book’s atheists. They don’t wish to be invented by some inventor and so take revenge the only way they know how: by trying to prove that it’s not the author who invents the characters, it’s the characters who invent the author. You’ll say I stole that from Feuerbach: I don’t deny the critic’s erudition, I only deny his existence.”

These kind of cerebral games can be traced throughout the stories in this book, but rather than go on and on, I’d rather point out that the title story (or more of a novella), “Memories of the Future” is absolutely brilliant. And reading it when I did, it played right into my current Lost obsession. Basically it’s the story of a young boy who decides he wants to make a “timecutter” so that he can skip ahead into the future . . . or go into the past. He’s a Faraday-like character, and his ideas about the “shape of time” and the idea of making time “dance in a circle” are great, but so is this bit about time and essence (last long quote, I promise):

A quarter of an hour after the first aphorism an outside observer might have acquainted himself with the theory of time’s cuts as set forth in the batting eyes of the lady from across the river.

As applied to love, the theory went like this: memory, “unrolling its long scroll,” may, like a reel of film, be edited. One may cut bits out of both time and the reel and dispense with the longueurs. Thus if one were to make cuts between a woman’s first meetign with her first lover and her first meeting with her second, her third, and so on, that is, if one were to leave what was purest, most sincere, and deeply embedded in memory, the film reel onto which we had transposed this series of spliced-together first meetings would show us the woman—with the speed of a roulette ball skipping from number to number—whirling from embrace to embrace and aging before our eyes. To a lawyer, of course, this would recall the article in the Criminal Code dealing with mass violence. Try editing the superfluous out of anything at all, leaving only what is essential, and you’ll see that it won’t be to your . . .

Overall, and simply put, this book kicks ass and if you like anything above, run out and buy it immediately.

7 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our review section is a piece by Margarita Shalina (bookseller at St. Mark’s, translator, reviewer, all around multi-talented person) on Victor Pelevin’s The Sacred Book of the Werewolf, which actually came out last year (hey, no one said we had to be timely). Here’s the opening of her review:

“What a crazy idea that was—to change the name of the KGB. One of the greatest brand names ever was simply destroyed!”

Pelevin has a great knack for relaying the oddities of the Russian condition in terms that almost anyone can understand. Product placement in Generation “P” revealed to the rest of the world that, yes, young people of the post-communist era did indeed choose Pepsi, or perestroika, but with the same freedom as when their parents chose Brezhnev, that is none at all. This time Pelevin’s leitmotif is the Russian folktale. In Sacred Book of the Werewolf, Pelevin has dusted off the characters of fox and wolf—stars of the traditional Russian folktales collected by Alexandr Afanas’ev in the mid nineteenth century. In Sacred Book, Pelevin has personified fox as a sex worker and wolf as an FSB agent.

In Russian folktales, fox is the perpetual trickster. In keeping with this Pelevin’s fox is a prostitute named A Hu-Li. The name itself is a profanity in Russian to match her occupation which translates to “[s]omething like living in America and being called Whatze Phuck.” A Hu-Li is a two thousand year old were-creature who adores Nabokov and resembles a Lolita—“nowadays everybody’s read Lolita, even the Lolitas.” She engages clients at high end Moscow hotel bars, takes their money but does not have sex with them. A session with A Hu-Li, the trickster fox, is a chimera. A hypnotic suggestion channeled through the power of her glorious red tail—“the organ that we use to spin our web of illusion.” While the client is immersed in splendid fantasies copulating with the hotel bed sheets, A Hu-Li feeds off of the sexual energy produced by the lone client and sits flipping through a glossy magazine. When she momentarily nods off her client, a Sikh businessman, “slips off the tail” and in a state of shock proceeds to throw himself from the hotel room window, “One of my sisters used to say that when a client slips off the tail during an unsuccessful session, for a few seconds he sees the truth. And for a man this truth is so unbearable that the first thing he wants to do is kill the fox responsible for revealing it to him, and then he wants to kill himself . . .” A Hu-Li finds herself surrounded by wolves, that is, the FSB (nee KGB, nee NKVD, nee CHEKA.)

Click here for the full review.

7 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“What a crazy idea that was—to change the name of the KGB. One of the greatest brand names ever was simply destroyed!”

Pelevin has a great knack for relaying the oddities of the Russian condition in terms that almost anyone can understand. Product placement in Generation “P” revealed to the rest of the world that, yes, young people of the post-communist era did indeed choose Pepsi, or perestroika, but with the same freedom as when their parents chose Brezhnev, that is none at all. This time Pelevin’s leitmotif is the Russian folktale. In Sacred Book of the Werewolf, Pelevin has dusted off the characters of fox and wolf—stars of the traditional Russian folktales collected by Alexandr Afanas’ev in the mid nineteenth century. In Sacred Book, Pelevin has personified fox as a sex worker and wolf as an FSB agent.

In Russian folktales, fox is the perpetual trickster. In keeping with this Pelevin’s fox is a prostitute named A Hu-Li. The name itself is a profanity in Russian to match her occupation which translates to “[s]omething like living in America and being called Whatze Phuck.” A Hu-Li is a two thousand year old were-creature who adores Nabokov and resembles a Lolita—“nowadays everybody’s read Lolita, even the Lolitas.” She engages clients at high end Moscow hotel bars, takes their money but does not have sex with them. A session with A Hu-Li, the trickster fox, is a chimera. A hypnotic suggestion channeled through the power of her glorious red tail—“the organ that we use to spin our web of illusion.” While the client is immersed in splendid fantasies copulating with the hotel bed sheets, A Hu-Li feeds off of the sexual energy produced by the lone client and sits flipping through a glossy magazine. When she momentarily nods off her client, a Sikh businessman, “slips off the tail” and in a state of shock proceeds to throw himself from the hotel room window, “One of my sisters used to say that when a client slips off the tail during an unsuccessful session, for a few seconds he sees the truth. And for a man this truth is so unbearable that the first thing he wants to do is kill the fox responsible for revealing it to him, and then he wants to kill himself . . .” A Hu-Li finds herself surrounded by wolves, that is, the FSB (nee KGB, nee NKVD, nee CHEKA.)

In Morphology of the Folktale, Vladimir Propp meticulously reduced the Russian folktale to a series of functions. Unfortunately, he ignored class. Russian folktales seem to be split into two categories—the mundane folkloric tales pertaining to commoners and the grandiose fairytales dealing with royalty. In the former fox and wolf cohabitate, are occasionally spouses and live modestly among both the human and the animal denizens of the forest. These tales do not always contain a “hero” and tend to be anecdotal. All creatures are at the mercy of the cunning little fox as she lies, cheats and steals from them. However, there is no place for fox in the latter category, the grandiose fairytales that deal with themes of usurpation, murder, intrigue and betrayal in the once upon a time kingdoms of Russia. Unlike fox, bear or cow, it is the grey wolf alone who can cross over and fluidly operate both among the forest dwellers and the royals. The power struggle for control of the kingdom is especially the domain of the wolf as the power struggle for control of Russia is the domain of the FSB. The wolf is a facilitator usually servicing a wronged prince, the “hero” proper. He is capable of reanimating the dead and has the ability to transform into a horse or even a human being. The wolf’s interference consistently changes the outcome of what appear to be deadlocked situations. In the grandiose fairytales the wolf is his own man, so to speak, as all around him man is wolf to man.

Alexander is the FSB werewolf who steals A Hu-Li’s heart. He and the other werewolves maintain files on citizens and work at extracting oil from the ground of northern Russia by howling at the moon. Their howls are lamentations meant to draw tears from an ancient folkloric brindled cow skull patched together by steel bands. If the wolves’ lament filled cries draw tears from the skull the earth will produce oil. “_I know what you think of us—no matter how much you give them, Little Khavroshka won’t get a single drop, it will all be gobbled up by these kukis-yukises, yupsi-poopses and the other locusts who obscure the very light of day. You are right, brindled cow, that is how it will be._” “Kukis-yukises, yupsi-poopses” refers to YUKOS, the short lived non-state owned Russian oil and gas company, a product of post-perestroika privatization it was dismantled by the Russian government amongst charges of fraud, tax evasion and embezzlement with its head Khodorovsky tried and sentenced to a Siberian prison in 2005. In Pelevin’s folktale, Alexander the FSB wolf is awarded The Medal for Services to the Motherland for his heroic oil extracting howls.

Everything goes well for fox and wolf until fox affectionately kisses wolf for the first time transforming him into a dog. As in the folktales a wolf, regardless of how noble or heroic he is, will be doomed to play the hapless fool at the mercy of the little trickster fox as long as they occupy the same story and since A Hu-Li is the narrator of Sacred Book it is very much her tale. Alexander the wolf becomes a black dog of misfortune that “happens” to people and to things. Initially emasculated and ousted from the FSB werewolf pack for having turned from a gray werewolf into a black dog he is depressed and filled with resentment until Alexander realizes that he carries misfortune with him everywhere he goes and that this willful misfortune can be utilized by the FSB.

‘I was just thinking, maybe I should go to work. To find out how things are going.’

I was staggered.

‘Are you serious? Aren’t three bullets enough for you? You want more?’

‘You get these misunderstandings in our profession.’

Pelevin has always played with symbolic narrative by marrying the fantastic to the doldrums of contemporary life. In Life of Insects, Pelevin’s characters are savvy little bugs with identities and agendas all their own, unnoticed in the grander scheme of things they are completely engrossed in the dramas of modern life nonetheless, tiny negligible representations of bustling individuals at large in society. In the case of Sacred Book, the outcome is satire or a veiled Russian state of the union address where sex workers and FSB agents seek to evolve into a higher being, a sort of messiah that all were-creatures await called the super-werewolf and “the super-werewolf can’t be caught by the tail.” Perhaps Pelevin is attempting to relay that Russians have been living their lives in a perpetual state of moral ambiguity going back as far as the ancient folktales. In such a state, why shouldn’t a fox or a wolf or a sex worker or an FSB agent aspire to evolve into a higher being?

28 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Announced earlier this week, this year’s Rossica Translation Prize was awarded to Amanda Love Darragh for her translation of Iramifications by Maria Galina.

The prize of £5,000 is split between the translator and publisher—which in this instance is the admirable Glas, one of the finest publishers of contemporary Russian literature—and is given to the finest English translation of a Russian work published within the past two years.

This year Academia Rossica also instituted a Young Translators prize worth £300, and awarded to James Rann . . . for, something. (It’s not listed on the website, and besides, the award is for the translation of “a passage of contemporary Russian literature,” not the complete work. Which is cool—the real point is to encourage younger translators.)

Click here for more information about Academia Rossica, a London-based organization creating a better cultural exchange between Russia and the West.

3 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is of Vladimir Sorokin’s The Queue, which came out from New York Review Books last fall. NYRB has also published Sorokin’s Ice, and have plans to do a few of his other titles as well. That, plus FSG’s publication of A Day in the Life of an Oprichnik might lead to a Sorokin moment . . . One that doesn’t involve his books being flushed down a mock toilet. . . .

Margarita Shalina from St. Mark’s Bookshop wrote this review, which opens:

Each act of transgression, no matter how nominal or extreme expands the margins of ongoing discourse. Sorokin specializes in such acts. The Queue, his first novel, was originally published in the mid 1980s by French publisher Syntaxe. It is a postmodern snapshot of a surreal bygone era destined for collapse, cursed to the privations of the economic crash of the 1990s where a system of ration cards will be implemented, only to be reborn from the ash like a bright red phoenix of pseudo-capitalism caged by a land of murdered journalists, a market flooded by counterfeit Chinese goods.

However, that is the present. The past of The Queue is oddly innocent as Russia is seemingly cursed to forever lose and regain its innocence much like Prometheus and his liver. Why is it innocent? Because it has never been clear to anyone what the citizens of the Soviet Union actually thought of the Soviet Union. Somewhere along the line, the citizens understood what they had lost but they all still agreed that by forfeiting their basic rights, they would be taken care of. With conformity came the security of jobs, healthcare, homes, education, maybe even a Volga. Now, in the aftermath of collapse, sentimentality is wide spread, surfacing among the generations that vividly remember the oddities of the Soviet Union, akin to some mass hysteria or Stockholm Syndrome acting itself out as we love our torturer but only after he has left the room. [For the rest, click here.

3 March 09 | Chad W. Post |

Each act of transgression, no matter how nominal or extreme expands the margins of ongoing discourse. Sorokin specializes in such acts. The Queue, his first novel, was originally published in the mid 1980s by French publisher Syntaxe. . .

Read More...

9 December 08 | Chad W. Post |

Yuri Druzhnikov is most well known for his novel Angels on the Head of a Pin (2003), which was included on the University of Warsaw’s list of the top ten Russian novels of the twentieth century. Though six of his books have been translated in English, he has not received as much critical attention as other contemporary writers such as Victor Pelevin and Vladimir Sorokin. Pushkin’s Second Wife and Other Micronovels (2007) is Druzhnikov’s collection of ten “micronovels,” a term which Druzhnikov explains in the postcript, stating that “in the twenty-first century this new genre has acquired legitimacy, filling a niche for a genre in which large-novel ideas accumulate energy in the space of a mere thirty pages.”

In this collection, Druzhnikov explores the psyche of Russians before and after the collapse of communism, using Russia’s political situation as a background for the broader exploration of the influence of daily challenges and struggles on the human mind.

The first micronovel of the collection, “Pushkin’s Second Wife,” explores the life of Diana, a museum tour guide:

Diana was in love with Pushkin, selflessly . . . She was absolutely certain that Pushkin belonged to her personally and she to him as well, of course. Her love for him and devotion to him brought energy to her life and gave her happiness of always being with him—day and night. But here in the real world she stepped into her communal flat, unlocked the door to her room and was all alone.

Diana, who feels disconnected from everyone around her, begs an artist to cut her life-sized Pushkin out of a piece of plywood. When Pushkin comes home with Diana, she treats him like a lover, imagining entire conversations and interactions with him. She finds comfort in this wooden figure who feels more real to her than anyone else in her life. Her solace, though, is constantly disrupted by people mocking and ridiculing her, which reminds her of the emptiness and inadequacy of her daily life.

This “micronovel” was impressive in its exploration of the human need to fantasize and imagine a different life, especially when the world around them is chaotic and unforgiving, yet the repetitive nature of the story was slightly disappointing. Druzhnikov’s lengthy descriptions of Diana’s devotion to Pushkin are rather excessive and unnecessary at times, which is ironic considering this is a “micro” novel. (A 100-page “micronovel,” but nevertheless.)

His shorter “micronovels” are much more poignant and compelling, especially when Druzhnikov weaves stream-of-consciousness passages into his writing. The shorter stories are very diverse in their subject matter. In “The Man Who Read Me First,” a middle-aged man meets the wife of his former boss, a censor at a Russian newspaper, and is forced to revisit his complicated relationship with a man whose job was to restrict his ideas. In “The Death of Tsar Fyodor,” an elderly actor who is extremely attached to his job in the theater has an identity crisis when the theater director begins to faze him out of the company. In “Money Goes Around,” a cab driver brings his daughter Masha to work. As they drive people around, a cynical discussion about money ensues, and Masha’s curiosity and interest in the power of money in the world is set against her dad’s criticism of the process of monetary circulation. The balance of description and dialogue makes this one of the strongest works in the collection.

Druzhnikov lets the conversations among the characters speak for themselves, forcing readers to think about their meaning without tying them up into general, tidy conclusions. However, on a larger scale, these works are, at least in part, used to expose the failures of the Soviet Union, and Druzhnikov’s writing can feel propaganda-esque at times. Though it may be difficult to move past this weakness of the work, it is also important to recognize its strengths: Druzhnikov’s skillfully explore the ways in which individuals continue to cope in the midst of confussion, oppression, and corruption, and the ways in which interpersonal relationships change and develop in the midst of national chaos. Aside from the utilitarian feel that sometimes surrounds these “micronovels,” this is a thoughtful and interesting work that is worth a read.

5 October 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

According to the Moscow News, the Russian PEN Center recently sent a letter to the Moscow’s prosecutor’s office, “asking for a thorough investigation of a road accident involving well-known Russian author Vladimir Sorokin earlier this month.”

This does sound really suspicious:

According to press reports, Sorokin was riding his scooter on an empty highway outside Moscow in plain daylight and was knocked off the road by a truck, which didn’t stop after the accident. Sorokin suffered some injuries, including a broken collar bone, and was taken to hospital where he underwent a surgery.

Sorokin’s been a controversial figure in Russian letters for years now. His novel Blue Lard—which includes a hot dictator-on-dictator sex scene starring clones Josef Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev—got him charged with pornography and basically pissed of much of Russia.

Moving Together, which says it has the support of Russian President Vladimir Putin, held a demonstration against literature they allege degrades traditional Russian society and tore up 6,700 books, including some of Sorokin’s, in front of TV cameras. [. . .]

The protesters threw books by Sorokin and Karl Marx into an oversized cardboard toilet outside Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre, which is considered the benchmark for high Russian culture and has also commissioned a libretto from Sorokin. (From CNN’s coverage back in 2002.)

The idea of an “oversized cardboard toilet” for eliminating books does crack me up, although the fact that this actually happened is deeply disturbing.

Reader’s International published an English version of The Queue years ago, and more recently, NYRB published Ice.

His new novel sounds interesting as well:

Incidentally, Sorokin’s most recent novel, last year’s Den oprichnika (A Day of an Oprichnik), which had a much sharper political edge than his previous books, satirizing the federal security service (FSB) by making a comparison with the Oprichnina, a notorious organization that terrorized the country’s population under Czar Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century, did not cause any controversy or have a substantial public resonance. However, it could have upset many people, not exactly those in FSB.

22 August 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following up on yesterday’s post about possible charges being brought against Astakhov for his depiction of Russian police in his novel Raider, the UPI reports that prosecutors have decided not to pursue this.

20 August 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Via GalleyCat:

In a case that will no doubt be watched around the globe, Russian writer Pavel Astakhov is facing possible libel charges for the contents of his novel Raider, reports RadioFreeEurope. Moscow city prosecutors have already questioned Astakhov at the behest of Ivan Glukhov, head of the city police’s main investigative directorate. According to Glukhov, the novel “contains numerous insulting and libelous deliberations” about the directorate, and defames the reputation of Russian police in general. [. . .]

Some analysts believe that there are deeper motives behind this case — that it is intended to serve as a warning to authors by holding the threat of prosecution for what they write over their heads.

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