Category: Russia Page 1 of 7

Eugene Vodolazkin: Брисбен (Brisbane)

The latest addition to my website is Eugene Vodolazkin‘s Брисбен (Brisbane). The story is told in alternating chapters, the first telling of the early life of our hero Gleb Yanovsky, till he becomes famous as a musician, and the second from, 2012 when three key events change his life. He is born and bred in Kyiv (like Vodolazkin) where, under the influence of his father, he takes up music. He eventually studies guitar but his dream is to go to Leningrad, where he studies language rather than music. He meets and marries Katya, a German woman, and they both become teachers. He is attracted by a generous offer to play music, so they go to Berlin, where the offer does not work out. However, he gets his chance and we gradually see his career take off. However,in the later story, we learn early on that he has Parkinson’s disease and the second half is, in part, how he copes with that, as well as political events. Vodolazkin is clearly concerned with the issue of how Gleb’s music and his life are interconnected and, to a lesser degree, his language(s) as he speaks Russian as a child to most people but but his father speaks Ukrainian. This is another complex and fine book from Vodolazkin.

Vladimir Sorokin: Сердца Четырех (Their Four Hearts)

The latest addition to my website is Vladimir Sorokin‘s Сердца Четырех (Their Four Hearts). This is the first of apparently eight Sorokin novels that will come out in English translation over the the next couple of years or so. This is the most brutal and transgressive, written by Sorokin as the Soviet Union was breaking up and his ultimate nail in the coffin to the Soviet Union. He takes a standard Soviet trope – four “typical” Soviet people (Stakhanovite worker, war victim, female Olympic athlete, teenage boy) and instead of showing them as model Soviets, we see then as depraved, brutal cruel and violent. They engage in a series of brutal activities (such as murdering the parents of two of the group) and also a series of, to us, incomprehensible rituals. Sorokin spares no-one as he shows, in massive exaggeration, the dark side of the Soviet Union. But beware! It is not for the squeamish.

Vladimir Sorokin: День опричника (Day of the Oprichnik)

The latest addition to my website is Vladimir Sorokin‘s День опричника (Day of the Oprichnik). This novel is set a few years in the future. Russia now has a Tsar again and, as with Ivan the Terrible, he is protected by an armed force called the Oprichniks. The story tells a day in the life of Andrei Danilovich Komiaga, the fourth highest ranking Oprichnik and an exciting and busy day it is. He and his colleagues start off by attacking the the house of a nobleman, who has run foul of the Tsar. The nobleman is hanged, his wife gang-raped and his children sent to an orphanage. While killing and other brutalities happen later, we also see bribery and corruption, book burning, flogging, drug use, alcohol and wine, special privileges, outwitting the Chinese and, I might mention, glowing genitals. We see it all through the eyes of Komiaga who is firmly committed to the cause and works hard to protect sacred Russia (yes, Russia is Christian). It is clearly an attack on both Ivan the Terrible and Putin, but an indirect one with no direct satire, sarcasm and humour and, as such, works very well.

Ismail Kadare: Muzgu i perendive te stepes (Twilight of the Eastern Gods)

The latest addition to my website is Ismail Kadare‘s Muzgu i perendive te stepes (Twilight of the Eastern Gods). Kadare spent some time in the 1950s in the Soviet Union, primarily at the Gorky Institute and this is an account of that period. While he loved the big city, it was not all sweetness and light. He has various women troubles. Most of his colleagues are from various regions of the Soviet Union or, like him, from other countries and they are often stereotyped by the Russians. Moreover, he is not terribly enthusiastic about the Soviet view of literature. He does discover a manuscript left in a room about a doctor called Zhivago and, later, the big event will the award of the Nobel Prize to Boris Pasternak, which brings down a furore on Pasternak, supported by many of Kadare’s colleagues (but not Kadare himself). Towards the end, we learn that Soviet-Albanian relations are deteriorating (Albania will move away from the Soviet Union and ally more closely to China) and the embassy warns Albanian nationals to keep away from Russian women, an instruction Kadare ignores. While not of the standard of his novels set in Albania, it is certainly an interesting account.

Andrei Bely: Симфонии (Symphonies)

The latest addition to my website is Andrei Bely‘s Симфонии (Symphonies). These are four works – prose poems is the not entirely satisfactory term I would use – written in Bely’s youth, very much under the influence of Symbolism. All were written well before the Russian Revolution and are full of colourful imagery, drawn from nature, mysticism and the Symbolist love of doom and gloom. While they all have a sort of plot, Bely is far more interested in the imagery and they are clearly written by a poet. They are interesting in their own right but also to show us the early writing of the man who would go on to write one of the great 20th century novels Петербург (Petersburg).

Vladimir Sharov: Будьте как дети (Be As Children)

The latest addition to my website is Vladimir Sharov‘s Будьте как дети (Be As Children) . This is the third of Sharov’s novels to be translated into English and, in my view, the best. There are three main stories (and several sub-stories): the story of a noble woman who becomes a a Holy Fool, a bandit who sees the light and becomes the religious guide to a Siberian tribe and the story of Lenin’s last days when, following two strokes, he becomes more childlike and more interested in the role of children and starts to consider them as the only true proletariat. These and other stories all link and go off on tangents as we follow the idea of sin and innocence, innocence being represented by children, and the deeper and more fascinating byways of Russian history, including its Christianity, its non-Slavonic tribes and its wilderness. It is a wonderfully long, complex and thoroughly original novel and a first-class read.

Sasha Filipenko: Красный крест (Red Crosses)

The latest addition to my website is Sasha Filipenko‘s Красный крест (Red Crosses). Sasha, a recently widowed young man moves to Minsk, where he buys a flat. He has one neighbour on the same floor – Tatyana Alexeyevna. Though she has Alzheimer’s, she tells him her story. She had worked in the Soviet Union during the war for the NKID. Her husband was captured by the Romanians, making both him and her a traitor. She is sent to a gulag and her daughter is sent to an orphanage. When she finally gets out, she spends her time looking for her daughter, her husband and one other man. Above all the books is about the horrors of the Soviet system – a system, Filipenko claims – is still, to a certain extent still in existence in Belarus.

Emilio Fraia: Sevastopol (Sevastopol)

The latest addition to my website is Emilio Fraia‘s Sevastopol (Sevastopol). This consists of three linked stories inspired by Tolstoy’s Sevastopol Sketches, though only one is actually set (in part) in Sevastopol. All three, however, are about people struggling with relationships and struggling to find meaning in their life. The first is about a Brazilian woman who wants to be the first Brazilian woman to climb the Seven Summits but an accident puts paid to that ambition and her relationship. The second is about a man running a remote hotel which he has had to close and who loses his last guest. The third is about two Brazilian men trying to stage a play about a painter during the Crimean War who does not want to paint battles. Neither their relationship nor the play go well. Fraia tells excellent stories of lost souls struggling to find meaning.

Maria Stepanova: Памяти памяти (In Memory of Memory)

The latest addition to my website is Maria Stepanova‘s Памяти памяти (In Memory of Memory). This is a superb documentary novel, narrated by the author but written, in some respects, like a novel. She deals with the many aspects of memory, the past and history as well as delving into her own past and the past of her family, a family which, she admits, is not terribly interesting. Indeed, she quotes Anna Akhmatova who says that the histories of other peoples families, like others people’s dreams and fornication, are boring. However, as she is a good story-teller, her stories are interesting though what makes this book so worthwhile is the examination of the many aspects of memory, history and the past, quoting numerous authors, both the obvious and less obvious ones. For her it has been a life work – she started work on the book when she was still a child – and it has taken many years of research and detailed thought to produce what is clearly a first-class work.

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.

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