The first book that I read from New Vessel Press was Guys Like Me and ever since then I have sought out their books again and again. I received an advanced review copy of this title through Edelweiss. This title was published in the original Russian in 2015 and this English version has been translated by Antonina W. Buois.
I have been captivated by the plethora of post-Soviet literature that has been published just in the last year alone. The theme that is the most haunting to me is the one of waste: all of those wasted lives, all of that wasted time, and for what purpose? I remember the attitude towards the Soviets in the 1980’s with the “us”, the free American democracy, versus “them”, the oppressive Soviet totalitarian regime, propaganda. It seemed that the Soviet Union wanted everyone to believe that, not only was their system the best in the world, but their people were happy and thrived under that system. But recent post-Soviet books, like Oblivion, have proven that this ideal that their leaders put forth could not be further from the truth.
When Oblivion opens, the narrator is middle-aged and living in Greece. He is reminiscing about his childhood back in a dacha in the Soviet Union. The one character from his childhood that looms over and dominates every memory he has is a man he calls Grandfather II. He begins with an ominous sentence that states it was Grandfather II who decided his fate and the course of his entire life. Grandfather II was an old, blind man who moved into the dacha and about whom no one asked any questions.
There are hints in the text that Grandfather II has a shady past that somehow involved the horrible gulag system. He is adopted by his neighbors, especially the narrator’s family, as a sort of kindly and innocuous grandfather figure, and thus his nickname. But the narrator has a very different view and opinion of this man which is chilling and frightening. There is nothing that Grandfather II specifically does that is cruel to the boy or his family. But Grandfather II has a presence and a demeanor that evokes feelings of fear and dread.
The narrator is further haunted by Grandfather II when, as a boy of about nine, he is attacked by a wild dog and Grandfather II comes to his rescue by crushing the dog’s spine. The narrator is brought to the hospital on the brink of death because he has lost so much blood. Grandfather II, despite being an old man, insists that he give his own blood to save the boy’s life. Grandfather II’s heroic act saves the boy but in the end his own life is sacrificed because he was too old and weak to give up his blood.
The narrator is haunted for the rest of his like that he has this old man’s blood pulsing through his veins. He decides that he must go on a quest to find out more about his mysterious man’s past and this leads him to a mining town near the Arctic Circle. The mining town is a pathetic waste and shell of a town that was once home to a prison camp where its inhabitants worked in the mine. When the narrator arrives in this northern town the prisoners are long gone, but the remains of the camp are still an eerie reminder of this wretched and miserable part of Soviet history. The narrator confirms that Grandfather II was a founder of this mining town and in charge of the prison camps. The most disturbing part of this this journey, however, is when the narrator realizes what a cruel and inhuman person Grandfather II really was. The saddest part of the narrative, for me, was learning about Grandfather II’s seven year-old son was also subjected to this man’s insistence on dominating and controlling everyone and everything in his life.
Finally, I have to say a few words about the densely poetic language that the author uses for his tale. It took me longer than it normally would to read a 300-page book because the sentences were so masterfully created that I oftentimes found myself reading entire sections more than once. There is a dream sequence in the middle of the book during which the narrator has a series of three dreams just before he is about to embark on his journey to the north. This section could almost stand on its own as a poetic and metaphorical reconstruction of the oppression and unjust treatment that so many suffered under this totalitarian regime.
Oblivion is a haunting, intense, descriptive literary Odyssey that you will not soon forgot. The language that Lebedev employs and the detailed stories he tells ensures that the experiences of life under Soviet rule will indeed not fade into Oblivion.
About the Author:
Sergei Lebedev was born in Moscow in 1981 and worked for seven years on geological expeditions in northern Russia and Central Asia. Lebedev is a poet, essayist and journalist. Oblivion, his first novel, has been translated into many languages. Lebedev’s second novel, Year of the Comet, is coming out from New Vessel Press in 2017.