This is a lively account of the exploits of the Russian commander, Vasily Chapaev, a historical person who fought and was killed in the Russian Civil War, fighting against the Whites under Alexander Kolchak. The story is told by Furmanov, who appears in the book as Fyodor Klichkov, Chapaev’s political commissar during the campaign. Klichkov/Furmanov tells an exciting story, though naturally a very partisan one, as the brave Red soldiers drive the White army back. Chapaev is a hero, disobeying orders, always ready for a fight, politically incorrect, brave, adored by his men and careless about his own safety. He and Klichkov admire each other and are friends but clash on more than one occasion. Furmanov writes very well so this is a very readable account of a campaign in the Russian Civil War, not generally known about outside Russia.
The latest addition to my website is Benedict Erofeev‘s Москва — Петушки (UK: Moscow Circles; US: Moscow to the End of the Line). This is a hilarious satire about a man, called Benny Erofeev, who is trying to get to Petushki (about 70 kilometres from Moscow) to visit his girlfriend for their regular Friday visit. Benny’s problem – though he does not see it as a problem – is that he is a serious alcoholic and spends most of the book either drinking or passed out from too much drink. Though he regularly traverses Moscow, he has never yet found the Kremlin, but not for want of trying. He normally ends up at the Kursk railway station. He has just been sacked from his job of foreman of a team of cable layers at Sheremetevo International Airport, primarily because the men spend all their time drinking and playing poker. Benny had foolishly prepared charts of their drinking that had mistakenly been sent to headquarters. He has now managed to find the station, by chance, at least in part because he was still looking for the Kremlin. On the train we learn about the philosophy of hiccups and farting, how to make a cocktail using shampoo, nail varnish remover and insect repellent, how to avoid paying for a ticket and the finer points of Roman law and history. He does not make it to Petushki. Doubtless, the only way to survive the Soviet Union was to remain in a permanently drunken stupor and this was what not only Benny but pretty well everyone else in this book does. In doing so, he tells us a very funny story of a man and his drink.
The latest addition to my website is Elena Chizhova‘s Время женщин (The Time of Women). This is story set in Soviet-era Leningrad, telling the story of Suzanna, a child who does not speak till she is seven but is yet intelligent and educated. Her mother, Antonina, who works in a factory, had had a very brief affair with a man, who had now disappeared. She had been left pregnant with Suzanna. She pretends that her mother has come from the country to help her but, in fact, Suzanna is, to a great extent, brought up, by three elderly women who live in the building where she lives. Even though she does not speak, she learns to read and write both Russian and French and understands spoken French. The grannies, as the old women are called by both Suzanna and her mother, have her baptised (unknown to her mother) and they reminisce about the pre-revolutionary days and compare the Tsarist days to the Soviet system. However, when Suzanna becomes ill, there is a problem. It is a fine story about women banding together to help one another and about life in Soviet Leningrad.
The latest addition to my website is Fyodor Sologub‘s Творимая легенда (The Created Legend), a trilogy of novels which is concerned with both the upheavals in Russia at the time of the 1905 Revolution as well as having several fantasy elements. The first book (Капли крови (Drops of Blood)) tells of Trirodov, a somewhat larger than life man, who lives in a big house, where he runs a free school, where the children, often orphans, are allowed free expression. He meets his neighbours, Elisaveta and Elena, also somewhat free-spirited, and falls in love with Elisaveta. However, there is considerable social upheaval going on with social revolutionaries and democrats on the one hand, and the right-wing Black Hundreds and the authorities on the other. Trirodov is sympathetic to the left, particularly when the repression gets greater. Trirodov also communes with dead.
The second book (Королева Ортруда (Queen Ortruda)) is set in the United Isles, where Queen Ortruda reigns. There is social agitation there, for the same reason as in Russia. The Queen’s consort, Tankred, has started behaving badly, having numerous affairs, spending too much money and supporting the party that wants the United Isles to become a colonial power like the major European powers. The Queen holds mysterious ceremonies in a secret underground chamber, romps around in the wood alone and also communes with the dead, in this case the White Ghost. There is an offshore volcanic island and this volcano is starting to erupt. It is going to get serious
The final and shortest book (Дым и Пепел ) (Smoke and Ash)) sees Trirodov applying to to be king of the United Isles (despite the fact that he has no connection with the country or royalty) and increased upheaval in Russia. Fortunately, Trirodov has a Plan B – his greenhouse is really a spaceship that can take him and the children to the Moon. It really does not work as many Russian critics have said, even though it is an interesting experiment. Serious social issues mixing with communing with the dead in mystic ceremonies in underground chambers and greenhouse spaceships just jibe too much for my taste.
The latest addition to my website is Fyodor Sologub‘s Мелкий бес (The Petty Demon). This is a social satire on the inhabitants of a small Russian town, but focussing on a teacher, Ardalyon Borisych Peredonov. Peredonov is lazy, incompetent, a bully, racist, sexist, petty self-centred and full of himself. He lives with his second cousin, Varvara Dmitrievna Maloshina, who works as his cook and housekeeper but she is hoping to marry him. She has one hold over him. She used to work for the Princess Volchanskaya and the princess has, apparently, promised to help Varvara’s husband (but only if they are married) get a position as schools inspector, a position that Peredonov eagerly covets. However, Peredonov is an eligible bachelor and there are lots of eligible young unmarried women in the town and their various relatives are always trying to push them onto Peredonov. He considers several but seems unable to make up his mind. His friend, Volodin, who is not paid nearly as much, however, is rejected by every woman he proposes to. Peredonov’s behaviour is becoming increasingly erratic and he shows signs of neurosis, paranoia and having hallucinations. His headmaster is worried enough to call in medical advice, which is not readily forthcoming. Sologub pulls no punches in his mockery of Peredonov (he himself was a teacher), the eligible young women and their relatives and the pompous town officials, so much so that this book had considerable success in Russia. It is still an enjoyable read.
The latest addition to my website Yuri Mamleyev‘s Шатуны (The Sublimes). This one of the most unpleasant books I have read for a long time. Mamleyev is clearly aiming to show the dark side of life and deal with issues of mortality and immortality, life and death and the (very) dark side of life under the Soviets. However, random serial killing (and then talking to the corpse), sadistic killing of animals, sex with goslings (really!) and drinking cat’s blood do not make for an enjoyable novel. We start with Fyodor Sonnov, the serial killer, whose mass killings are an attempt by him, it would seem, to gain some sort of immortality for himself. We move on to his sister, Klavdia (the one with the goslings) her neighbours (sex on the rubbish tip, eating body scabs) before moving onto the more intellectual side of things, with a group of people who still practise a certain amount of sadistic killing but prefer to talk about it and think about it. Fyodor wants to kill all the intellectuals and, frankly, I can sympathise with him. This novel was only published after the Soviet era and, for once, I can understand Soviet censorship. If you like novels about a man deliberately having sex with his wife to cause her to have a miscarriage or a man who wants to have sex with a woman as she dies, then this is the novel for you. For the rest, I would say, give it a miss.
The latest addition to my website is Georgi Vladimov‘s Генерал и его армия [The General and His Army]. This is a fictionalised account of the Soviet capture of Kiev from the retreating Nazis in 1943 and the Battle of Moscow in 1941. The eponymous general is General Kobrisov, based on General Chibisov. Vladimov came in for a lot of criticism for this book, despite the fact that it won the Russian Booker, primarily because of what critics saw as historical inaccuracies. However, Vladimov is not writing a historical account but a fictionalised account and various actions involving General Kobrisov, as well as place names, various characters and various events are fiction. Much of the action follows events outside Kiev (called Predslavl’ in this book) as the Soviet army is held up by German resistance. General Kobrisov persuades his superior that he needs to attack the town of Miriatin (real-life Liutezh) but, once he has affected a clever crossing of the Dnieper heads for Predslavl’/Kiev, instead of Miriatin. However, the army council, including the very real life Zhukov and Khrushchev, hold him back, not least because it is felt that a Ukrainian general should have the honour of capturing Kiev. During the earlier Battle of Moscow, he sets out for a party with a general friend but ends up in the wrong town, one occupied by the Germans, and nearly gets himself killed. As an indirect result, two regiments looking for him, find another general by mistake. This general steals the regiments, pushes back the Germans and saves Moscow. Indeed, General Kobrisov is so impetuous that a SMERSH is sent to spy on him. It is a very fine book about military manoeuvres, military politics and things that go on during a war. Sadly, it is not available in English.
The latest addition to my website is Georgi Vladimov‘s Верный Руслан (Faithful Ruslan). This is a classic of Soviet-era gulag literature though, unlike other gulag novels, such as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, it is set in 1956-1957, after Khrushchev released most of those imprisoned under Stalin. Indeed, this novel opens the day after the prisoners in the specific camp described in this book have been released. Faithful Ruslan is a Caucasian sheep dog, a dog specially trained for prison and frontier work, and he is a loyal and obedient dog. The novel is told from his perspective (presumably in an attempt (unsuccessful) to evade censorship.) It rather looks as if his master will shoot him but, in the end, he is sent away but is at a loss to know what to do, as is the case with the other dogs released. Some of them go to the station to await prisoner trains that will never arrive. Others scrounge or steal or fawn to the local townspeople in order to get fed. Ruslan will not sell his soul and awaits the return of his master, though eventually takes up hunting to feed himself. However, his master does not want him and, at his master’s urging, he moves in with a former prisoner known only as The Shabby Man. All the while, we follow Ruslan’s life as a prison guard dog, as he reminisces about it from his point of view though, of course, we see the hard life of the prisoners. But Ruslan has been trained for one thing only – to guard prisoners – and he cannot adapt. The former prisoners and former guards also find it hard to adapt. Ruslan finds it impossible, and this has devastating consequences for him. Vladimov gives us a grim picture of life in a gulag and life after the gulag and it is not surprising that this has now become a classic.
The latest addition to my website is Kazuo Ishiguro‘s The Buried Giant. This book has received a lot of criticism, not least because it is major departure for Ishiguro as it is, to all intents and purposes, a Lord of the Rings/Arthurian legend-style fantasy. Set in the fifth/sixth century, it tells of the quest of an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, a Saxon warrior, Wistan, and a twelve-year old Saxon orphan, Edwin, who is destined to be a warrior, all of whom are on a quest. Axl and Beatrice are looking for their son but keep getting sidetracked, Wistan is looking to kill a dragon whose breath is causing people to forget things and Edwin wants to find his biological mother and become a warrior. They have various adventures, meeting ogres, pixies and the like, as well as a now aged Sir Gawain, from the Arthurian legends, wicked monks and the knights of British warlord, Lord Brennus, who has a personal vendetta against Wistan. It is all very much sub-Lord of the Rings/Mary Stewart. If you enjoy that sort of thing you may well enjoy it. I did not really take to Lord of the Rings but found it a far superior work to this which I found very disappointing, after a ten year wait.
It was my plan to read around twenty Russian novels one after the other but, in the meantime, a few books arrived that I really wanted to read, so there is now a brief interruption to the Russian reading, which will be resumed shortly. The latest addition to my website is Máirtín Ó Cadhain‘s Cré na Cille (The Dirty Dust). This is the classic novel written in Irish and one I have long been wanting to read. I even tried reading it in the original Irish but it was too much of my struggle for my basic Irish, so I was really glad when Yale University Press decided to publish it in English. This is a very funny but very blunt satire, in the Irish tradition of satire, against the country people, their obsession with status and money and land. All the characters in it are dead, as it is set in a graveyard, where the dead are buried and their spirits live on beneath the ground, carrying on their gossiping, story-telling and oneupmanship, in the way they did when they were alive.
The main character is Caitriona Paudeen. (Sadly, the translator anglicises the names; in the original she is called Caitríona Phaidín.) She has just died, aged seventy-one, as the novel starts. She is highly critical of everyone but, in particular, she hates her younger sister, Nell, and her daughter-in-law, known only as Nora Johnny’s daughter. She is always trying to do better than her sister but the real enmity started when Jack the Lad married Nell instead of Caitriona. In the long run, she feels that she has done better but is disappointed that Nell is now likely to inherit the estate of their unmarried sister and the land of their cousin Fireside Tom. We follow her story, told through gossip and backbiting, as well as the stories of the other residents of the village who are now dead. Most of them have little good to say about any of their friends, relations and neighbours and clearly take death as an opportunity to air their grievances (how the publican cheated them, how Caitriona did not pay back the money she owed, how the postmistress opened their letters). But they also talk about sport, politics, agriculture, going to England and, occasionally, the war. There is a rich array of colourful characters in the graveyard, who are not afraid to use colorful language and air their views. All of them await the arrival of news from the new arrivals, but, in particular, Caitriona, who cannot wait to hear bad news about her sister and daughter-in-law. It is a wonderful, lively and satirical work, which is long overdue an English translation and we must be grateful that it is now available at last.