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.
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