Sunday, January 14, 2018

Polyphony, Hermetic Settings, and Two Novels: Medvedev’s Zahhak and Buksha’s Detector

Some novels leave me with little to say. Sometimes that’s because I enjoyed the book so much that I just want to let my enjoyment be enjoyment, without any analysis, and just write “Read this.” Those feelings are often strongest if I read the book electronically: a virtual leafing through my electronic notes rarely feels very practical, satisfying, or edifying, as is the case with Vladimir Medvedev’s Заххок (Zahhak). I read Zahhak months ago but the book has stayed with me thanks to Medvedev’s vivid voices, settings, and plotlines. But. Then there are times when I have little to say because a book doesn’t affect me much and seems to fade as soon as I finish the last page. Unfortunately, that’s close to the case with Ksenia Buksha’s Рамка, which I’ll just call The Detector, though that only covers part of the meaning here. The Russian title refers to a walk-through detector used for security; the basic meaning of “рамка” is “frame” or “border.” In its plural form (which gets a separate entry in Oxford’s Russian dictionary though not in my beloved Russian-only Morkovkin dictionary) the word means “framework” or “limits”; I sometimes think of this as “guidelines.”


Both these books left me with little to say—one because I got so caught up in it, the other because it left me fairly indifferent after a promising start—but both novels’ characters had plenty to say because they’re polyphonic, albeit to varying degrees, allowing characters to tell their own first-person stories, generally in chapters labeled with their names. Medvedev presents seven characters who simply tell about events from their lives in turbulent Tajikistan in the early 1990s. Buksha offers a blend of monologues, dialogues, and description, an approach that often feels like verbatim—it’s almost as if the lines were taken from actual interviews or conversations. Some sections are written without capitalization or punctuation.

Zahhak succeeds beautifully because Medvedev focuses his narrators’ energies primarily on present-day actions, weaving in bits about their pasts. Though a few chapters felt a tiny bit long, the book had more than enough momentum to keep me up at night. Perhaps what’s most interesting is that his seven narrators who tell stories of their lives and what’s around them—teenaged twins Andrei and Zarina; their uncle Jorub; a Russian journalist; the Afghan war veteran Davron, a Sufi scholar, and a local boy from a village who’s a comic-turned-tragic figure—don’t include the title character, Zahhak (named for a figure from Persian mythology), a sort of paramilitary criminal who wants to cultivate poppies in a village. Another element of the book’s drama, though, revolves around Zahhak setting his eye on young Zarina. Medvedev’s ability to play on archetypes, recent and not-so-recent history, as well as the reader’s dread and sense of justice (not to mention indignation: Zarina’s so young!) make Zahhak painfully compelling. The varying voices were a joy to read—and translate, too, when I worked on brief excerpts. Two characters especially stood out for me. Journalist Oleg is a wonderfully useful creation thanks to his Central Asian experience, which lends him the ability to explain, organically, local history to clueless readers like me. And though every figure feels tragic, Davron, who has long been in mourning for his wife, especially interested for me for his complexity, loyalties, and psychic tics brought on by memories.

Buksha’s The Detector starts off well. Ten characters are tossed into a holding cell at a monastery on an island just before the coronation of the tsar; they’re being detained for not passing through a (metal?) detector successfully. It’s unclear what they have in common. The novel takes place in the not-so-distant future and there are futuristic elements like implanted chips (apparently for normalization), a delicious teleported meal (if only!), and the downfall of LiveJournal. The characters are suitably quirky, even somewhat interesting, and I enjoyed their monologic introductions. Among them are a journalist, a bureaucrat, an apologist, a wedding planner/emcee, a woman who understands what her dog says (shades of Gogol?), a foster mother, and a businessman. Shut in their cell, they tell about their lives and gather information from the outside world from the businessman’s family and the dog mom’s dog, all of whom show up just outside the cell window. One character attempts suicide.

Buksha does well combining tragedy and comedy—she incorporates life stories that are pretty naturalistic plus humorous moments like the dog barking in French—but the novel started falling apart for me when dreams took over. (Confession: this meant I skimmed/skipped several of the book’s brief 43 chapters.) Dreams are tricky in fiction and, despite the characters dreaming of one other, I suspect part of the point here is that each person is in his or her own sleepy world—and frame, too—meaning that despite often sympathizing and empathizing with one other during their waking hours, these people just aren’t going to stay up all night to, say, discuss favorite works of literature, play a game, or resolve the slippery and eternal question of how to make the best borsch. As Lev Oborin’s very astute review for Vedemosti points out, these characters are all essentially superfluous people (лишние люди). They’re descendents of good old Oblomov.

I think there’s a technical issue at work here. In my reading experience, novels with hermetically sealed settings seem to click along best when authors keep their characters stuck in their surroundings and maintain emotional tension by not letting the characters’ minds wander from their physical setting too far and/or too long. I came to that realization when The Detector—like Yana Vagner’s Кто не спрятался (The Accomplices), which I recently began but abandoned after 200 pages—mentioned Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (known by other titles through the years).

The Accomplices is about a murder at an iced-in vacation house in the mountains and it works beautifully as long as the Russian characters and their local host are together, whether they’re cooking, arguing, drinking, trying to sleep, or discovering and (heavens!) moving the body. It’s filled with wonderfully unappealing characters but the book lost all its verve and tension for me as soon as flashbacks started taking me out of that damn house with no electricity, cell phone coverage, or hope for a quick visit from the police. Vagner’s Vongozero (previous post) and Truly Human (previous post) work because the characters are so utterly stuck with their immediate problems, whether they’re trapped in cars or a tiny house. The same goes for The Detector, as long as the characters are interacting and awake. Unfortunately, the ending, which takes place during waking hours, offers little in the way of a conclusion, though I agree with Oborin that the clicking of a metronome does not bode well for anyone’s future. (The metronome clicks for you?) So as not to end this mammoth and meandering mess of a post on a complete downer of a note, I’ll add that, despite my misgivings, I’m glad I read The Detector—the characters are generally vivid and Buksha can be very funny—and I’m still looking forward to reading Buksha’s polyphonic ЗаводСвобода”, (The Freedom Factory), which won the National Bestseller Award a few years ago and which my colleague and friend Anne Fisher translated into English for Phoneme Media. Anne read some very funny excerpts from her translation at a conference last fall, something that does bode well for enjoying the book.

Up next: A book I just started and am thoroughly enjoying but don’t want to name, lest I jinx anything. Some English-language titles, including Paul Goldberg’s The Château, which includes a fair bit of Russian.

Disclaimers: The usual. As mentioned, I translated excerpts from Zahhak for Medvedev’s literary agency.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Happy New Year! & 2017 Highlights

Happy New Year! С Новым годом! I hope you are enjoying the holiday and staying warm, wherever you are!

In terms of the year in books, 2017 seems (logically enough, I suppose) to fit the pattern of the last couple of years: lots of work on translations plus a quality-not-quantity situation with my reading. This year, however, brought some unexpected travel and more books than I ever thought I’d receive in a year. A few highlights… 

Two favorite books by authors new to me: Vladimir Medvedev’s Заххок (Zahhak), which I’ll be writing about soon, is the polyphonic novel set in Tajikistan that I’d been rooting for to win either the Yasnaya Polyana or Booker award. And then there’s Anna Kozlova’s F20 (previous post), which won the National Bestseller Award: F20 is harsh and graphic in depicting mental illness and societal problems. Its feels even more necessary to me a couple months after reading; it has really stuck with me.

Favorite book nobody else seems to like by an author I’d already read: Vladimir Sorokin’s Manaraga (previous post) may not be his best book—it’s tough to beast (ha!) his Oprichnik—but that doesn’t mean it’s not a smart, entertaining book that I loved zipping through. I feel a special gratitude to Sorokin for creating a body of work that lets the reader find common themes (sometimes, admittedly, too familiar) in his books and make connections that enhance the reading.

Favorite book other readers like by an author I’d already read: Sergei Kuznetsov’s Kaleidoscope (previous post), which is my favorite of the year, though I think of it as a 2016 book because that’s when I started it: in fact, I vividly remember reading it as I greeted 2017. Not many 800-page books work for me (see below) but this one’s so nicely structured and rooted in the canon and, hmm, human sentiments and reality, too, that I didn’t want it to end.

Least favorite trend & most favorite way to react: I won’t list titles but I ran across far too many books that felt unjustifiably long because of lack of structure and/or editing. On the positive side, I’ve been reading short stories as an antidote. Sergei Nosov gave me his collection Полтора кролика (A Rabbit and a Half) when I was in St. Petersburg and the first story, “Морозилка” (“The Freezer”), is, appropriately enough, set at New Year’s and involves the retelling of a scary story. It has a nice combination of tenderness, humor, and suspense: I read the beginning in the Metro in Petersburg and was sorry I didn’t have enough time to finish because my ride was too short. Another story from the collection, “Шестое июня” (“The Sixth of June”) was a favorite in the Petersburg Noir collection (previous post). I also got started on Elena Dolgopyat’s Родина (Motherland), which starts off with an updated, transplanted “Overcoat”-themed story… short stories feel like the perfect counterbalance to untrimmed novels that just don’t warrant 500 or more pages.

Favorite unexpected developments: My trips to Frankfurt for the Buchmesse and St. Petersburg, for the Cultural Forum, were both almost painfully wonderful (previous post), for the opportunity to see so many friends and colleagues from all over. And I was thrilled that my translation of Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina, for Oneworld Publications, was shortlisted for the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize.

Saddest moment: The death of Vladimir Makanin. I’m not sure I would have started writing this blog if it hadn’t been for the dearth of English-language information about his books. They deserve more attention.

PEN book pile, with cat ear in foreground.
Happiest things: There were some almost transcendental moments during travel—a dance party in a glass cylinder of a club, a wee-small-hours-of-the-morning tour of St. Peterburg thanks to a quirky taxi driver who wanted me to see more—and now there’s the ongoing happiness of reading dozens of books I received over the year. Authors and organizations gave me lots of books in Russian during the year, and, as a judge for the PEN Translation Prize, I received over 125 books in English translation. Reading them is a serious treat, particularly because so many of them are books I might never have heard of or picked up otherwise.

What’s coming up in 2018: There are lots of books on the shelves that I just didn’t get to in 2017: Sergei Kuznetsov’s Учитель Дымов (The Teacher Dymov, I think), Olga Slavnikova’s Прыжок в длину (Long Jump), and Dmitrii Novikov’s Голомяное пламя, the Booker finalist I’m not quite sure what to call, maybe Flame Over the Open Sea. There are also a few books in English I’m hoping/planning to get to sooner rather than later, including Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M., which I haven’t even bought yet, lest it distract me from the rest of my PEN reading; and City Folk and Country Folk, by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, translated by Nora Seligman Favorov, which Columbia University Press already sent to me. I’m also excited to have some translations coming out in 2018, starting with Eugene Vodolazkin’s The Aviator, for Oneworld in May. I’m reading proofs and making final edits now… I can’t think about much beyond that for now!

Thank you! Finally, a very hearty thank you to everybody who visits the blog, whether regularly or occasionally. I’m glad something drew you to Russian literature and brought you here! Special thanks to the numerous organizations and individuals who did so many nice things for me in 2017, whether that was treating me to coffee, borscht, advice, or books, or making my travel possible, as the Institute of Translation and the Yeltsin Center did. Here’s wishing all of you a very happy 2018 filled with fun books (structured to your taste, though emphatically not “taste” in the Manaraga sense…) and good health. Happy New Year!

Up next: Sukhbat Aflatuni’s lovely Tashkent Novel and Vladimir Medvedev’s polyphonic Zahhak

Disclaimers: The usual, with, as mentioned above, special thanks to many people and organizations for books and travel.

Image credit: Fireworks in Bratislava, New Year 2005, from Ondrejk, via Wikipedia.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Yakovleva’s Atmospheric & Art-Filled Leningrad Detective Novel

Yulia Yakovleva’s Вдруг охотник выбегает, known in English as Tinker, Tailor, is a wonderfully atmospheric detective novel set in 1930 Leningrad: detective Vasily Zaitsev and his colleagues investigate some rather staged-looking murders. What made Tinker, Tailor tick for me was Yakovleva’s ability to blend dark details – nasty weather, dark streets, violent crime, and the start of the purges – with almost (I said “almost”!) cozy elements of Soviet life, things like train etiquette, a special delivery of potatoes (what says “love” like potatoes, anyway?), and an affection for the arts. Ballet, fine art, and the Hermitage all play large roles. Floating along with these and other period details, of course, is the Petersburg myth, something that seemed to follow around me like the Bronze Horseman both as I read and as I hurried down many of the same streets as Zaitsev when I was in Petersburg last month.

Although the plot of Tinker, Tailor felt rather lumpy – a little slow to gain momentum, then barreling to a conclusion – Yakovleva worked in plenty of historic and cultural details to hold my interest even when I was waiting for the book’s pieces to come together. Although I never quite felt I could distinguish Zaitsev’s entire supporting cast of colleagues, that’s often a problem for me, particularly with detective novels (in both Russian and English) where I seem to focus so/too much attention on clues and other details. In Tinker, Tailor it was especially fun to see historical, cultural, and political elements that came up in other books, among them Anastasia Vyaltseva’s song “Хризантемы” (“Chrysanthemums”), which comes up in Eugene Vodolazkin’s The Aviator (previous post) as well as the film adaptation (maybe the novel, too; I don’t know) of Sergei Lukyanenko’s Night Watch. And then there’s the fact that one of the deceased in Tinker, Tailor is an African-American communist, a detail that recalled Paul Goldberg’s The Yid (previous post).

And then there’s uneasiness and mistrust among the collective after an arrest. And political conclusions to criminal investigations. And generational clashes of values: toward the end, for example, the killer accuses Zaitsev, who’s younger and an orphan besides, of being a “дикарь” (“barbarian”) for his lack of cultural knowledge. Apparently it’s nicer to be a murderer than a police detective who’s willing to do plenty of remedial work that involves research requiring books as well as shoe leather. Zaitsev’s an appealing enough character that I’m very much looking forward to reading Yakovleva’s next book, Укрощение красного коня (Taming the Red Horse), which I bought, appropriately enough, last month in Petersburg. Even if Zaitsev isn’t quite as irresistible a figure as Boris Akunin’s Erast Petrovich Fandorin, he’s far more down-to-earth than Erast Petrovich (who can get a bit fussy) and has more than enough presence and smarts to make Tinker, Tailor an enjoyable novel.

I think that’s plenty, both to avoid spoilers and because it’s a lazy, snowy Christmas Day here. Merry Christmas!

Disclaimers: The usual. I first heard about Yakovleva’s books from Banke, Goumen & Smirnova Literary Agency; BGS represents Yakovleva and quite a few of my authors, and I often collaborate with them. I received the book from one of the organizers of the Russian stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair, thank you very much!

Up Next: Sukhbat Aflatuni’s lovely Tashkent Novel, Vladimir Medvedev’s polyphonic Zahhak, an end-of-year post, and something else…I have some appealing-looking books in English waiting for me!



Saturday, December 16, 2017

Big Book Winners for 2017

The Big Book Award announced its winners on Tuesday. This year’s results were nearly identical for the jury and reader awards.

The jury’s choices: 

First prize went to Lev Danilkin’s Ленин. Пантократор солнечных пылинок (Lenin. Pantocrator of Dust Motes, I believe, since Lenin refers to dust motes in Aristotle’s De Anima). A biography of V.I. Lenin, Ulyanov. A heavyweight checking in at 784 pages. This is an almost ludicrously lively biography; it was my top pick.

Sergei Shargunov won second prize for Катаев: «Погоня за вечной весной» (Kataev: “The Pursuit of Eternal Spring”) about author Valentin Kataev. This one’s 704 pages long; I have enjoyed reading Kataev so was disappointed that this biography just didn’t grab me.

Third prize was awarded to Shamil Idiatullin’s Город Брежнев (Brezhnev City, at least sort of: Naberezhnye Chelny was called “Brezhnev” during 1982-1988), which looks at adolescence in an automobile industry city during the late Soviet period… I read a very large chunk of this book (it’s also 700 or so pages) before reluctantly giving up. Though there’s lots of great material, it felt unsorted, like there was just too much book.

Readers chose the same three books but in a slightly different order: Shargunov, Danilkin, Idiatullin.

In other Big Book news, Viktoriia Tokareva, a novelist and screenwriter whose work I have barely read, won a special award for her contributions to literature. 

For a summary of the 2017 finalists, here is an article by Elena Makeenko, aptly titled Брежнев против Ленин (Brezhnev Against Lenin).

Up Next: Sukhbat Aflatuni’s lovely Tashkent Novel; Vladimir Medvedev’s polyphonic Zahhak; and Yulia Yakovleva’s thoroughly entertaining Tinker, Tailor (Вдруг охотник выбегает), an atmospheric detective novel that really plays on its setting in Leningrad. Yana Vagner’s Кто не спрятался (Accomplices), which I have barely started but which also seems pretty atmospheric and entertaining...

Disclaimers: The usual. I’m a member of the Big Book’s jury, the Literary Academy.