02 novembro 2009

(still reading) The Russians

The Sacred Book of the Werewolf
By Victor Pelevin
Trans by Andrew Bromfield

The Good Angel of Death
By Andrey Kurkov
Trans by A Bromfield
One More Year
By Sana Krasikov
She Lover of Death
By Boris Akunin
Trans by A Bromfield

The death of Russian literature has been declared many times. Russian poetry was supposed to have perished tragically early, interred with the body of Alexander Pushkin in 1837 following his fateful duel. Then along came Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, Osip Mandelstam and Marina Tsvetaeva, an astonishing quartet of poets who revived and reinvented the genre in an explosion of creativity in the early 20th century.

Epic Russian novels, meanwhile, were pronounced dead after Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy. But in describing the brutalities of the second world war and the gulag, Vasily Grossman and Alexander Solzhenitsyn proved worthy heirs of those 19th-century masters.
Once again it has become fashionable to argue that Russian fiction is over, buried under the rubble of the former Soviet Union. Critics have decreed that no classic works of Russian literature have emerged in the past 18 years.

That may be true, but green shoots are now pushing through the fallen masonry. Four new Russian novels reveal flashes of fabulous writing, at times reminiscent of the wild imaginings of Mikhail Bulgakov, the dystopic visions of Yevgeny Zamyatin or the gentle humanity of Anton Chekhov. Russian literature has long ago left Socialist Realism panting behind – now it is striding out in the company of Capitalist Surrealism.

But modern-day Russia poses particular challenges to the fiction writer: everyday life appears so outlandish, at times, that it would be near-impossible to imagine it if it did not already exist. In a country that can elect to parliament a former KGB officer accused by the British police of murdering a British citizen by slipping radioactive poison into his tea, it must be a hard job for a fiction writer to know where reality ends and fantasy begins. Even the most mundane event can seemingly be explained only by convoluted conspiracy theory. Even the most fantastical event appears commonplace. Truth is so enmeshed in fiction that fiction has had to accelerate to outstrip it.

Such is the case with Victor Pelevin, perhaps the most brilliant of a new generation of Russian satirists. His Sacred Book of the Werewolf tests the outer limits of his – and our – imagination while brutally exposing the ills of contemporary Russian society. Vladimir Putin, Russia’s former president and current prime minister, has proclaimed that life is getting better and that order is being restored. But judging by the works of some of these writers, at least, the foundations of a civilised society have collapsed, leaving Russia wallowing in a morass of amorality. Once again, writers are assuming their traditional role as the Kremlin’s most disbelieving critics.

On one level, Pelevin’s book records the life and times of a modern-day Muscovite “werefox” masquerading as a pretty young prostitute called A Hu-Li. A night with her is less dangerous than a flight in a Russian helicopter in average visibility, as she puts it – only she can take you higher. With this theme he twists a 21st-century Russian scene of conspicuous indulgence that would have been impossible in the former Soviet Union.

As in the best satire, Pelevin’s novel operates on several levels and he boasts a genius for self-parody. His gross, but bizarrely engrossing tale is prefaced by a commentary from a group of experts who condemn the ravings of this “clumsy literary forgery”. “The text is not, of course, deserving of any serious literary or critical analysis,” the commentators write. “It is interesting purely as a symptom of the profound spiritual decline through which our society is currently passing.”

As she recounts her adventures, A Hu-Li (a Chinese name that becomes an obscenity when transliterated into Russian) is a merciless chronicler of that spiritual decline. She sees the licentiousness of modern Russia but observes – though she is never distracted by – the city’s ceaseless glitter.

The book also comments directly on the state of modern Russia. In Pelevin’s bleak world, human values have all but disappeared and men (as well as werefoxes and werewolves) prey on their fellow men. In one of her many metaphysical digressions, A Hu-Li argues that communal Russia’s fall began when its Christian peasant commune was destroyed and replaced by a godless criminal commune. Liberalism and democracy never stood a chance. As one of Pelevin’s character explains, democracy in Russia has amounted to 20 years of being “shafted in every orifice by various beneficiary owners with double chins and triple citizenships”.
“Salvation” arrives in the unlikely form of a handsome werewolf, who seduces and enchants her. He introduces her to the redemptive powers of love and helps explain some of life’s many mysteries. Have you ever wondered why so many of the world’s most influential men are called Wolf – or variations of that name: Martin Wolf of the FT; James Wolfensohn of the World Bank; Paul Wolfowitz of the US defence department. The Sacred Book of the Werewolf provides an improbable answer.

The alienation of the individual from society is also the theme of Andrey Kurkov’s book, The Good Angel of Death. Born in St Petersburg in 1961, a year before Pelevin, Kurkov is a former journalist, prison warder and film cameraman. He shares a similarly hair-raising view of life in the former USSR and is equally adept at skewering its absurdities and cruelties.

Like Pelevin’s, Kurkov’s literary world is dominated by greed, deception and violence and populated by crooks, charlatans, and secret service officers. In The Good Angel of Death, Kurkov’s hero Kolya discovers in his Kiev apartment an annotated book hidden inside a volume of War and Peace. Intrigued by the philosophical musings, Kolya attempts to track down the anonymous author and sets off on a journey of discovery through Kazakhstan.

Kurkov’s touch is lighter than that of Pelevin, almost whimsical. His sparsely written tale flits between dark and light exploring the twilight zone between fantasy and reality. Truth seems as illusory as a mirage in the shimmering Kazakh desert. Kolya meets and marries Gulya, a staggeringly beautiful Kazakh girl. But is she for real, or is she the good angel of death who protects the traveller on his journey? The reader may feel that the book never quite reaches its destination, but the journey is certainly diverting.

The most literal rendering of Russian life among these four books is provided by an émigré writer who now lives in the US. Sana Krasikov was born in Ukraine and grew up in the former Soviet republic of Georgia before settling in New York. She is a sharp critic of many aspects of contemporary America, but also retains a ruthless eye for Russia’s failings.

One More Year, her book of eight short stories, focuses mainly on the disconnected lives of émigrés as they try to establish coherent identities for themselves in the US. She is an author of wry, and at times dazzling, talent. But despite their promise and charm, her early stories fail to crystallise. It is only in her final two tales, “The Repatriates” and “There Will Be No Fourth Rome”, when her subjects return to Moscow, that the book bursts into authentic life.

Again, this book depicts the riches on offer in the modern Russia. “The Repatriates” is the story of Grisha, an immigrant Russian who seeks his fortune on Wall Street only to discover that he could make more money back home. “The enthusiasm with which Grisha spoke of the ‘opportunities’ in Russia would begin to remind his listener of the sort of miscalculation made by those who marry for money and invariably realise they didn’t marry for enough.” So Grisha returns to Russia accompanied by his bemused, increasingly estranged wife.

Viewing Russia with the eyes of an outsider and the comprehension of an insider, Krasikov’s judgments are harsh, succumbing herself at times to what one of her characters calls the “snobbery of distance”. Her Moscow is a heartless city in which a smile is a form a weakness, everyone seems to permanently suffer from toothache, and – as one character laments – “there’s no decency any more”.
Krasikov’s Russia is a country where “everything is backward” and everyone feels compelled to break the law even if it’s a million times easier to follow it. She indirectly questions why Russia has ended up in such a state, citing an old proverb: “Look not where you fell but where you slipped.” Krasikov, though, never attempts to answer that.

Not everyone chooses to use fiction as a contemporary social critique, of course. The most conventional and self-indulgently enjoyable of the four books is She Lover of Death, the latest detective story from the pen of prolific Boris Akunin, pseudonym of Moscow-based writer Grigory Chkhartishvili. In spite of the deranged happenings in the book, Akunin’s work appears to be a throw-back to a seemingly more innocent pre-revolutionary era.

Once again, Akunin’s foppish yet resolute hero, Fandorin, is intent on resolving a murder mystery at the dawn of 20th-century Moscow, this time centred on a secret society called The Lovers of Death. Steeped in the classics of Russian literature, Akunin toys with the styles and conventions of Russia’s illustrious late-19th-century writers. But his artfully constructed novel also nods in the direction of Arthur Conan Doyle – Fandorin assumes the role of a Russian Sherlock Holmes. With his wholesome manners and determination to do the right thing, Fandorin appears to be the embodiment of Russian decency so absent in the tales of the other three authors.

The pre-revolutionary Russia that Akunin presents is imbued with a naïve faith in reason and scientific progress. In an attempt to dissuade a young woman from suicide, Fandorin evokes a miraculous country; in 50 years’ time, he says, all Russians will be literate, tolerant and culturally aware. Electric trams, flying machines and modern medicine will have transformed expectations of life. “Sheer curiosity should be enough to compensate for all the ordeals that the start of the new century apparently has in store for us,” Fandorin insists. “We must negotiate the narrows and rapids of history in order later to enjoy its smooth, even flow.”

Akunin is too subtle a writer to lecture his readers, who are well aware of the bloody revolutions, massacres and wars that traumatised Russia during those 50 years. His unspoken message would seem to be: how could anyone have messed up the country so disastrously?
As all the authors make clear in their different ways, Russia is still being buffeted by multiple misfortunes as it navigates the tumultuous narrows and rapids of history. Calmer waters remain a distant prospect. Yet as generations of brilliant Russian writers have illustrated, it is often the times of greatest upheaval that throw up the works of most lasting value. Russian fiction is still worth reading.

From Pelevin I read this, by Canongate