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.

7 April 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Every semester I tell my publishing students about the time I was walking around BEA with Jerome Kramer and he pointed out how the whole fair was “filled with failure.” Mostly I want to shock and break them—every good professor needs to upend his/her student’s expectations and their latent belief that they “know a lot of things”—but it’s also a statement that I stand by.

Pretend you’re a writer. Or rather, someone who wants to be a writer. You spend years working on your novel (or worse—collection of poems) and then spend three times that amount of time trying to find an agent willing to send this around to a bunch of editors who read approximately five pages (this is actually what happens, sorry) before deciding that your years of labor aren’t “good enough” (a.k.a. “potentially profit-making”) to be published. Even if you do find a publisher, unless you wrote the next Fifty Shades, you’ll end up selling less than 2,000 copies. Most likely, you’ll end up self-publishing your work through Amazon and 1/10 of your 400 Facebook friends will buy the $.99 ebook version. Congrats!

Or pretend you’re a publisher. You wade through hundreds of awful manuscripts every year and find 10-12 that you actually like. Along the way, you respond to approximately 1,000 emails from authors and agents harassing you for answers, questioning your judgement, making you wish that worked in a job that actually made money. Finally, the book you love, that you edited with all the best intentions, that you promoted to all your favorite Brooklyn tastemakers comes out . . . and no one talks about it. It sells 2,000 copies. Such a great book! And fuck, man . . .

Let’s say you’re a translator. You do samples on spec. You get someone to finally publish the book that you have always wanted to work on. You and your editor exchange five emails. The book comes out without your name on the cover. Reviewers praise the author’s style without mentioning you. The book sells 2,000. Because you only earn 1% of the list price on ever sale, you never earn back your $2,500 advance. (Which was what you received for a year of work.)

Booksellers don’t have it any better. You have to cater. You might have your own opinions on what books are great, and which ones you would rather not ever have to sell. But the customer is always right. Amazon killed your mojo. Ebooks are bitching up your profit margins. And instead of buying the extremely well-written, well-translated Dutch book you love, everyone is chuffing off with Freedom. The book you staff-picked and put in every customer’s hands sold 6 copies at your store. And you still earn just a smidgen above minimum wage.

I wouldn’t want to be a reviewer at a major publication. All the courting must make you want to puke. “No really, this is her breakout book. It’s got relatable characters, unexpected twists, and a midget! Can I buy you a drink?” And then you have to review the “big” books: Franzen, Eggers, etc., etc. Books that are fine, but which don’t make the world a better place. Life-changing, challenging books “aren’t of interest” to your demographics . . . So you pretend to give a shit about the latest debut author from Bushwick who “realistically” portrays her generation, knowing all the while that this whole thing is a fucking scam: that the only reason this book is being printed is because Ms. Bushwick used to write for the most-popular of popular blogs . . . And everyone hates you for not reviewing the much better book that only sold 2,000 copies . . .

There really is no logical reason to be in the book business. Kids would rather play with their iPhones than read a book, you’ll never earn as much as you’re worth, and even when you feel like you’re doing something good for the world, a minimum of 25 people are right there ready to complain and tell you how much you suck at life.

Case Study Number One. I have no idea why no one reviewed Dubravka Ugresic’s Europe in Sepia. Her last book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award. I sent the new one to everyone. All the reviewers and booksellers were excited. It’s as good as Karaoke Culture and more timely. And yet? . . . Not enough. Every time I see that book on the shelf I feel like I let her down. I failed.

Case Study Number Two. We just finished editing one of our biggest books for the fall. As always, Kaija went through it, sent her edits to the translator (something that only a few presses do!), appreciated the translator’s kind response, inputted the changes, and proofed the book. Then, said translator emailed me to explain that, because Kaija switched three “as if I were” constructions to “like I was,” she was “concerned” and wondered if English was Kaija’s native language. (This translator also claimed Kaija wasn’t a “professional translator,” which is just untrue.) If I didn’t love the author, I would sabotage this book. Or just not publish it at all. Attacking my employees is crossing the line. Nevertheless, I feel like a failure because I can’t actually tell this person how pissed off I am—or how absolutely wrong they are—without seeming petty. Or anti-translator. And no matter how much I’ve done for translators over the past 15 years (just because I love international literature, I’m not a translator myself), I still get shit like this because I hired an editor who actually edits. FAILURE!

Case Study Number Three. The Best Translated Book Awards are up for the International Book Industry Excellence Awards presented by the London Book Fair and the UK Publishers Association. The other two finalists in the International Literary Translation Initiative category are Penguin India and Shanghai 99, two of the largest companies in the world. Two of the largest companies in India and China up against an idea originating from some guy who works in an office in the slowly imploding Rochester, NY . . . Guess who’s not going to be at the awards ceremony? The University of Rochester “doesn’t have $2,000” to send me to an awards ceremony with the publishing industry’s best and brightest. (Tuition plus room and board for the 2014-15 school year is $60,000.) Apparently, “they” don’t want to take advantage of the public relations opportunity or reward one of their employees for CREATING AN AWARD THAT’S A FINALIST FOR AN INTERNATIONAL AWARD. No money for failures?

It’s almost impossible to work in this industry and not feel like you’re being gamed on some cosmic level. The pay is moderate in comparison to other professions, and the hate mail way outnumbers the messages of appreciation. Great books never sell as well as they should. No one cares if you spent your weekend answering emails and reading hundreds of pages from a book that you don’t love, but want to promote in some way. (This is why all publishers are in New York. Not only because it’s the center of all media, but because if you work in books you can get invited to a bunch of scenester parties each weekend. And free booze and the company of other simpatico book people makes it all that much easier to swallow.)

I guess my point is as cheesy as it could be: Why don’t we all just calm the fuck down? It’s not like anyone’s intentionally trying to fuck anyone over—the game is just rigged. If the NPR reviewer doesn’t talk about how mindblowing your translation is, it’s not because he hates you; if an editor makes some suggestions to your book, it’s because they respect you and want your translation to be the best translation possible; if a bookstore can’t sell your book, it’s not because it’s bad, it’s because most people all want to read the same thing and that thing is banal; if Flavorwire won’t review your books, it’s because they receive . . . or, well, actually, that one’s because you, Chad W. Post, made fun of Jason Diamond on Twitter, and TWITTER NEVER FORGETS.

I didn’t have time to read shit this past month, so the April Previews are mostly of books I want to read, and I’ve highlighted them with stupid jokes. Enjoy my failures.

Talking to Ourselves by Andrés Neuman, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia (FSG)

This is, hands down, the best book I’ve read this year. It’s depressing as fuck, but so well written with its three voices and three timelines. I can’t wait to talk to my students about this novel, and am even more excited that Andrés will be in Rochester on April 22nd for an event with Carlos Labbé (see below). That will likely be one of the best Reading the World Conversation Series events ever, and will be followed by an epic afterparty.

Navidad & Matanza by Carlos Labbé, translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden (Open Letter)

If there’s one thing that the Internet has utterly ruined, it’s April Fools Day. Instead of spending months coming up with interesting, convoluted pranks to pull on family members and enemies, this “holiday” now consists of posting random lies online and seeing who’s willing to retweet it. Granted, NPR’s prank was pretty ingenious, but for every joke of this kind there’s a Flavorwire 10 Must-Read Books for April, which I didn’t even realize was an April Fools joke until I noticed that neither Talking to Ourselves nor Navidad & Matanza are on there. YOU GOT ME, FLAVORWIRE!

Nine Rabbits by Virginia Zaharieva, translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel (Black Balloon)

This Tuesday is the second annual Bulgarian Fiction Event at 192 Books in Manhattan. Kaija Straumanis will be representing Open Letter and talking with Virginia Zaharieva and Albena Stambolova about Nine Rabbits and Everything Happens As it Does. These are the only two novels by Bulgarian women available in English translation. Everyone participating in #ReadWomen2014 should be there.

And anyone participating in #ReadWomen2014 might also be interested in knowing that on Thursday, April 10th, Viriginia and Albena will be up in Rochester and will join Danish author Iben Mondrup and translator Kerri Pierce for a panel on “Women in Translation.”

Viviane by Julia Deck, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale (New Press)

Last night, trying to find some crappy TV to entertain me after Kentucky’s last-second win, I came across Amish Mafia. This is an absolutely terrible show—you must watch it!

Now, I’m sure this is common knowledge, but this “Pennsylvania German” language that the Amish speak is totally insane. It’s just a bunch of German words—pronounced as if you’re absolutely wasted—put into an English syntax. This is the least threatening language a “mafioso” could use.

And speaking of these “Amish mafiosos,” they sure do have a hankering for sledgehammers. In the episode I watched, anytime shit went wrong, one of the “toughs” would attack with a sledgehammer. I kept wanting this to devolve into the “Gun Fever” episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia featuring Mac trying to prove to Charlie that he could defeat a gunman with a samurai sword. “What if I zig-zagged like this?” BANG BANG BANG. Sledgehammers are stupid.

Finally, from what I could figure out, the “Amish Godfather” is a schlubby dude named Levi whose main criminal activity was SELLING BEER. Beer? That’s like the lemonade of mafia activities, buddy. Get yourself some hookers and a point-shaving scandal and we’ll talk.

Radio by Tõnu Õnnepalu, translated from the Estonian by Adam Cullen (Dalkey Archive)

Is that a concealed nipple on the cover of this book?

This summer, I’m going to be skipping BookExpo America this year to attend HeadRead, Estonia’s annual literary festival. I haven’t been to Talliinn in almost a decade, and this is a perfect opportunity to return, with Sjón, Ben Okri, John Banville, A.S. Byatt, Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, and many more authors on the docket. So if you’re looking for a reason to visit the Baltic States . . .

A Fairy Tale by Jonas T. Bengtsson, translated from the Danish by Charlotte Barslund (Other Press)

Recently, my ex-wife signed my kids up for a weekend “Kids CrossFit” class at someplace called “BoomTown.” I’m not a big fan of the crossfit cult (more on cults below!), but whatever, the kids love it because they get to run around and throw balls at walls and swing on hanging rings and pretend that they’re bad ass. So when I had them last weekend, I took them myself, and may well have stumbled upon some underground revolutionary party of Rochester.

The crossfit “gym” was just a small room tucked behind a half-abandoned strip mall. (I know, I know, what in Rochester isn’t half-abandoned?) If the tires waiting to be flipped weren’t enough to prove you were in the right place, there was a sales counter selling all sorts of gear with “CROSSFIT” written all over it. Because if you crossfit but don’t tell the world in every way possible that you’re a crossfitter, you’re just not doing it right.

All of the walls were scratched over with people’s names, as if this were one huge bathroom featuring the worst graffiti ever: “MUSCLE CLUB 2014! JENNI! ALEX! SHAUN!” I have the feeling that if you graduated from high school you’re not allowed to join.

The weirdest part had to be all of the kegs and beer for sale. Who crossfits and then does a keg stand?

Wait, no, check that, the weirdest part had to be this sign:

Yes, that is an axe and a AK-47. Thanks, but I’ll take my exercise without the advertisement for deadly weapons.

Pybrac by Pierre Louÿs, translated from the French by Geoffrey Longnecker (Wakefield Press)

A new translation from the author of The Young Girl’s Handbook of Good Manners! If by chance you haven’t see the Handbook, it’s the filthiest book I’ve ever read in my life. It’s not something you should give your niece. Ever.

And Pybrac, a collection of Louÿs’s poems, is equally as “erotic.” I just spent way too long trying to find a verse that I can quote on here that won’t get me in too much trouble, and this was the safest thing I came across:

I do not like to see the immortal mother
Jerk her son off in bed, get him stiff as a tree
Then encunt him and say: “Now fuck me, you duffer!
You don’t have to ask twice, just stick it to me.”

Wakefield Press is the most daring publisher of the present moment. And their books are amazing—not just for the sheer vulgarity, but for the quality, range, and uniqueness or all that they bring out. Kudos.

With My Dog-Eyes by Hilda Hilst, translated from the Portuguese by Adam Morris (Melville House)

I love Hilda Hilst, and feel like she’s the frontrunner for the 2015 BTBA. Multiple books, loved by everyone literary . . . this may be her year. Also, she was from Brazil and Brazil is hosting the World Cup this year. That’s a clear advantage.

Sankya by Zakhar Prilepin, translated from the Russian by Jeff Parker (DISQUIET)

We have a review of this book posting in the next few days. And any book that comes recommended from both Bromance Will and Jeff Parker HAS to be good.

So, this “Happy” song? It can fuck itself. Total propaganda. Most people, unfortunately, aren’t happy. Why? Incredible wealth disparity, the fact that douches like Sean Hannity hate anyone who can think, winter is never going away ever, it seems like earthquakes are about to rip apart half the hemisphere—a million reasons.

But this song is all about feeling good. Take a old timey musical arrangement—one our brains all recognize and feel is “safe”—add nonsensical lyrics and create a trend. That way you have a swarm of people ready to berate the handful of people who fail to get the message and aren’t quite sure if they should be clapping their hands because they “feel happy.” Also, what the fuck?

Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
Because I’m happy

“If you feel like a room without a roof”? My seven-year-old son thinks this is a bullshit lyric. What does that even mean? A house has a roof, a room has a ceiling. “A room without a ceiling” makes more sense. And “If you feel like happiness is the truth”? These lyrics make no sense at all, and every time you sing along, a G.W. Bush supporter gets his wings.

Selected Stories by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, translated from the Portuguese by Rhett McNeil (Dalkey Archive)

I love Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, and Brazil, and football. Also, I met Rhett McNeil at Penn State before it became “Sandusky State” and for those reasons you should buy this book.

Last week I finished reading/listening to Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief, and I really hope this sold more than 2,000 copies. It’s an amazing book—I bought the audiobook of Wright’s Looming Tower because of how good this is—and something everyone should read. Not because Scientology is awful—it is, and man am I never watching a Tom Cruise movie again, because, asshole—but because this book lays out the way power structures work in a way that’s incredibly useful. Scientology is even weirder than the Amish. I mean, I get the Amish—just not their mafia—but Scientology? What’s the point? It’s clear that the “church” has a handful of hippie ideals, but the claim that this is bettering the planet is totally batshit given the preponderance of evidence in this book. Yet, Tommy Davis, the Church’s spokesperson, had this to say:

The real question is who would produce the kind of material we produce and do the kind of things we do, set up the organizational structure that we set up? [. . .] Or what kind of man, like L. Ron Hubbard, would spend an entire lifetime researching, putting together the kind of material, suffer all the trials and tribulations and go through all the things he went through in his life . . . or even with the things that we, as individuals, have to go through, as part of the new religion? Work seven days a week, three hundred sixty-five days a year, fourteen-, fifteen-, eighteen-hour days sometimes, out of sheer total complete dedication to our faith. And do it all, for what? As some sort of sham? Just to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes? [. . .] It’s ridiculous. Nobody works that hard to cheat people. Nobody gets that little sleep to screw over their fellow man.”

That comes after 348 carefully documented pages of abuses and should-be-illegal-if-they-aren’t-already behaviors. I mean, shit, the FBI was going to raid Scientology because of human trafficking violations involving slavery. That’s not good.

Also, the only published book I’ve ever burnt was Dianetics. It took forever. That book is way too thick to catch on fire. Should’ve used more lighter fluid. I suppose I failed.

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.

....
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