Category: Russia Page 1 of 6

Corrado Alvaro: L’uomo è forte (Man Is Strong; later: Fear in the World)

The latest addition to my website is Corrado Alvaro‘s L’uomo è forte (Man Is Strong; later: Fear in the World). This novel, first published in 1938, tells of an unnamed country which is clearly, to a great extent, the Soviet Union, though neither the country nor any of the cities are named. Both Barbara and Dale are former citizens of this country but they had moved to the West. Barbara returns first and, later, Dale, tired of the decadent West. They have an affair but are clearly concerned that this is not allowed, particularly as Dale has recently returned from the West and is therefore highly suspect. We follow their anxieties about their relationship, the Inquisitor who follows them around and events in the country, such as people arrested and shot for being enemies of the people and a Stalin-like leader. Dale and Barbara must choose – end the relationship, turn themselves in or risk being also enemies of the people. It is not Nineteen Eighty-Four but the similarities are there.

Sergei Lebedev: Дебютант (Untraceable)

The latest addition to my website is Sergei Lebedev‘s Дебютант (Untraceable). This is a story inspired by but not based on the Salisbury poisonings when Russian agents used the nerve agent Novichok to try and kill a former Russian double agent and his daughter. This novel tells of a scientist who develops a similar agent, called Neophyte in this book and Debutant in the Russian original but finds that the failing Soviet Union and its Russian successor seem uninterested so he defects but finds to his horror that the West is not interested either. He is living in a small town in Austria but has plans to find a country that may be interested. At the same time we follow a pair of Russian agents who have been sent to kill him, but things go somewhat wrong for them. Lebedev gives us an excellent portrait of the obsessive scientist and of the dutiful Russian agent who will do whatever his bosses tell him to do.

Dmitri Lipskerov: О нём и о бабочках (The Tool and the Butterflies)

The latest addition to my website is Dmitri Lipskerov‘s О нём и о бабочках (The Tool and the Butterflies). This is a complex story, focusing on one Arseny Iratov who, at the beginning of the novel, is rich (money made from Soviet-era illegal currency speculation, and later dealing in precious stones and an architectural business he owns) with a much younger, loving girlfriend, Vera. One day he wakes up to find his genitals have disappeared (the tool of the title). Soon other men are in the same situation. Meanwhile we are following a series of people, mainly male, who seem to be connected to him (one is his grandson) who seem to be different, on the face of it ordinary people, but with strange powers and knowledge, particularly detailed knowledge of Arseny and his life and, in the case of the grandson, superior intelligence. While telling his complicated tale, Lipskerov is wittily satirising contemporary Russia – corruption, drunkenness and the like. It is a very clever and original book and well worth reading.

Alexander Grigorenko: Мэбэт (Mebet)

The latest addition to my website is Alexander Grigorenko‘s Мэбэт (Mebet). This book is set among Siberian tribes with no contact with or even mention of Russia and Russians. Mebet is known as God’s Favourite. Orphaned at a young age, he has has always lived alone. He is very strong and courageous. He ignores all tribal laws and customs, even abducting his wife, instead of paying a bridal price. Their son, Hadko, however, though strong, is more inclined to respect custom and tradition, even paying a bridal price. When this is refused, his father abducts a woman for him.His son, Sevser, becomes the apple of his grandfather’s eye. However, for Mebed, time is running out and to persuade the gods to allow him to live long enough to see Sevser reach adulthood, there is a heavy price to pay, an ordeal which even for Mebed is onerous. It is a fascinating book, particularly following the Siberian tribes without any Russians appearing.

Zakhar Prilepin: Обитель (The Monastery)

The latest addition to my website is Zakhar Prilepin‘s Обитель (The Monastery). This novel tells the story of Artiom Gorianov who is a prisoner in the 1920s in the remote Solovki prison camp. Initially we do not know why he is there but we later learn that he is not a political prisoner but has murdered his father. This very long novel tells his story as well as those of other inmates and how they survive or, in quite a few cases, do not survive. There is much cruelty, particularly from the inmates who are made guards. The prisoners have to work and the work can be hard and it can get very cold. However, there are also arbitrary punishments and even killings. Artiom manages to have an affair with the commandant’s girlfriend and she is able to protect him some of the time but his big mouth and cockiness often get him into trouble. It is a superb but very long novel and Prilepin does not hold back on any of the gory details.

Bernard Prou: Alexis Vassilkov ou la vie tumultueuse du fils de Maupassant [Alexis Vassilkov or the Tumultuous Life of the Son of Maupassant]

The latest addition to my website is Bernard Prou‘s Alexis Vassilkov ou la vie tumultueuse du fils de Maupassant [Alexis Vassilkov or the Tumultuous Life of the Son of Maupassant]. This is a complicated story involving the (fictitious) son of French writer Guy de Maupassant and his mother, a Russian woman who models for Renoir and becomes a painter. Alexis the son takes part in the Russian Revolution, becomes Stalin’s doctor, gets sent to a gulag, learns that Tsar Alexander I became the wandering monk Feodor Kuzmich, escapes (with his wife and young son), arriving two days before the Germans invade Paris in World War II and flees to the country (with a (real) French government minister), joins the Resistance and gets involved with collaborationists after the war. And that is just the highlights. Lots of adventure, lots of messing around with history and great fun.

Boris Poplavsky: Аполлон Безобразов (Apollon Bezobrazov)

The latest addition to my website is Boris Poplavsky‘s Аполлон Безобразов (Apollon Bezobrazov).
The book was written in the 1930s but only a few chapters were published in an émigré magazine, till 1992, when it was serialised in a Russian magazine and finally published in book form in 1993. It was intended to be part of a multi-volume work but only one other in the series was published (not translated), also in 1993.The narrator is Vasya,a young Russian exile living (badly) in Paris. He meets and becomes close to the decidedly strange Apollon Bezobrazov. Apollon Bezobrazov can spend his time doing absolutely nothing or he can be a whirlwind of activity. He seems indifferent to his poverty and enjoys his bohemian existence. They are joined by Tereza, daughter of a religious fanatic, who has left a monastery where it seemed she was having an affair with the abbot. The three, joined by a Siberian son of an Old Believer live first in a mansion on the outskirts of Paris and then in a castle in Switzerland. Tereza believes Apollon may well be the devil and there is some evidence for that, though he may just be the typical Russian holy fool/devilish character. It is certainly an unusual book and a fascinating one as Apollon is very unpredictable.

Bernard Chambaz: Vladimir Vladimirovitch

The latest addition to my website is Bernard Chambaz‘s Vladimir Vladimirovitch. This is a novel about Vladimir Vladimirovitch Putin, both of them. The narrator, called Vladimir Vladimirovitch Putin, is a former university professor, now a tram driver, a few months older than the Russian president, and similar in appearance. He has a dull life but one of his hobbies is maintaining notebooks about his namesake (whom he admires). We learn a lot about Putin the president but because our hero has such a dull life, vainly pursuing a neighbourhood woman, bemoaning the defeat of the Russian ice hockey team and dabbling in painting, the book does not really hit it off.

Konstantin Paustovsky: Кара-Бугаз (The Black Gulf)


The latest addition to my website is Konstantin Paustovsky‘s Кара-Бугаз (The Black Gulf). Paustovsky is best-known in English and in Russian for his six-volume autobiography Повестью о жизни (Story of a Life) but he did write several novels, two of which have been translated into English. This one is sadly long since out of print but is well worth reading. The hero, for want of a better word, is the eponymous gulf, called Kara-Bugaz in this book (which is a transliteration of the Russian title) and Garabogazköl by Wikipedia. It is a lagoon off the Caspian Sea, in a very inhospitable part of the world. The novel describes the various people (Russian) who explored and exploited the area. All, of course, are somewhat eccentric and all have their own views on what is appropriate for the area. Some of the visitors were unwilling, such as the Communists deposited there without food and water by the White Russians during the Civil War, and left to die. Most do but not all. While these novelised stories of real people are fascinating, we also follow the lagoon itself, which is like a malicious spirit, threatening, dangerous and unpredictable. This novel was recommended in an excellent article by translator Will Firth.

Sergio Chejfec: Los incompletos (The Incompletes)

The latest addition to my website is Sergio Chejfec‘s Los incompletos (The Incompletes). This is a decidedly strange novel. The unnamed narrator tells of his friend Felix, who has decided to leave Argentina and travel the world. Much of the book takes place in Moscow, where Felix stays in a hotel well away from the centre, with the building seemingly having a life of its own. The book is about his relationship with Masha, daughter of the owner and receptionist, though they essentially have no relationship, except watching one another. Felix does not leave the hotel till later in the book, when he discovers a huge, mysterious crater. Meanwhile the narrator (Chefjec himself?) muses on the whys and wherefores of Felix, Masha and their non-relationship, which may (or may not) help each of them make the other more complete.

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