Tag Archives: Russia

Review: Compartment No. 6 by Rosa Liksom

I received an advance review copy of this title from Graywolf Press.  This title was published in the original Finnish in 2011 and this English version has been translated by Lola Rogers.  This is my first contribution to Women in Translation Month which is taking place all during the month of August.

My Review:
Compartment No. 6As I first started reading this book I kept wondering why a young Finnish girl would choose to attend university in the Soviet Union during the decade of the 1980’s.  But as the plot progresses it is revealed that the girl, who is never given a name, falls in love with Moscow on a trip with her family.  But the Moscow she sees on her trip as a young high school student is the pristine and official one, created and controlled by the government, and is very different than the one the girl encounters as a university student on her trip across the Soviet Union via the Trans-Siberian railway.  When the girl boards the train she chooses compartment No. 6 because it is quiet and empty but her solitude is soon disrupted by a gruff and garrulous ex-soldier named Vadim.

When the girl boards the train on her way to Mongolia she seems emotionally numb and the sexually explicit and crass stories of her traveling companion don’t appear to penetrate her malaise.  The author cleverly emphasizes the girl’s mental aloofness by blurring certain details that we would expect from a main character.  As I have already mentioned, she is never given a name and is simply referred to as “the girl” and her speech is never directly quoted anywhere in the text.  When Vadim and other characters are speaking, traditional quotations and direct speech are used, but the girl’s thoughts and words are always summed up in the third person.  Vadim tells one tale after another of his sexual conquests, fights and outrageous behavior but the girl is too lost in her own world to have the strong reaction to him that one would expect.

As the bleak landscape of the taiga passes her by, the girl reflects back on her time in Moscow as a student where she lived with her boyfriend, Mitka.  Her memories are scattered and disjointed and it felt as though I was looking through an old photograph album with her and getting the barest details about her relationship.  As she describes her life in Moscow, it appears that she is remembering Mitka with a feeling of bitter sweetness and there is something that has happened with Mitka and his mother that has made her flee Moscow and get as far away from them as possible.  There are vague descriptions of Mitka having a severe breakdown and being in a mental institution and the girl’s subsequent relationship with Mitka’s mother.  There is also an intriguing story of a violent encounter that the girl and Mitka suffer one night in Moscow.  This is another example of the details of the text being blurred and leaving the reader to speculate about the girl’s life in Moscow.

As the girl and Vadim get farther along on their journey, they form an unusual bond of what I would loosely call friendship.  Vadim is a man who likes to be the center of attention and tell outrageous stories and the girl listens to him.  She does flee their compartment when he suggests that they have sex, but she always comes back.  Vadim performs small tasks for the girl like brewing her tea and sharing his meals and arranging for places to stay when the train stops overnight.  Even though Vadim has had a rough life and has a proclivity towards violence, even with his own wife, he is patient and protective of this strange Finnish girl.  The culminating moment in their relationship is when they reach Mongolia and she is having a hard time dealing with her government appointed tour guide.  She seeks out Vadim, cries on his shoulder and he sets about making everything right for her.

The two most interesting aspects of this book are the relationship that develops between the girl and Vadim and the amazingly detailed descriptions of the Soviet landscape from one end of that country to another during the late 1980’s.  Even though it is spring, the forests and landscapes which the train passes are empty, untouched,  snow-covered and bleak.  By contrast, the Soviet towns at which the train makes stops are industrial, dirty, and crowded and in shambles.  The people of these towns are trying to squeeze out an existence in whatever ways they are able.  The shelves of department stores are bare and the people are forced to bargain for their vodka on the black market.  One of the most peculiar descriptions are those of the restaurants they visit which have “closed” signs on the doors but are crowded with people and the girl enters anyway.  This brings us back to the conclusion that nothing is as it seems in this brutal, cold and bizarre place that is the Soviet Union.  The author must have visited this place at some point in order to capture such vivid details in her writing.

For those interested in post-Soviet literature then Liksom’s book is a must-read.  Looking at this strange place through the eyes of a foreigner provides a unique lens for us to get another glimpse at the last days of the Soviet Union before it dissolves into oblivion.

About the Author:
R LiksomRosa Liksom was born in a village of eight houses in Lapland, Finland, where her parents were reindeer breeders and farmers. She spent her youth traveling Europe, living as a squatter and in communes. She paints, makes films, and writes in Helsinki.

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Filed under Literature in Translation, Scandanavian Literature, Travel Writing

Review: The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

I have been recovering from eye surgery for the past few weeks and this is the reason for my lack of posts.  I am slowly getting better and am eager to share reviews of a few fantastic books I have read over the course of the summer.  First up is my review of The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes which, I believe, was eligible for the Man Booker Prize this year.  I am disappointed that it did not make the longlist because it is, in my humble opinion, a true work of literary genius.  The edition I read was published in the U.S. by Knopf.

My Review:
Noise of TimeThis skillfully written and poetic novel, which serves as a fictional biography of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, is divided into three parts.  The author cleverly chose what, on the surface, appear to be trivial occurrences in the life of the world-renown composer, but on closer examination reveal the soul crushing hold that Despotism and absolute Power had on this creative genius.  The first part of the book is centered around Shostakovich’s nightly ritual of getting dressed and standing by the lift outside his apartment.  While his wife and daughter are safely tucked in bed, the composer stands in the hallway, smoking cigarettes and trying to stay awake for his unusual, nocturnal routine.

It is revealed throughout the course of the first part that Lenin attended a performance of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and hated it.  The next day a bad review which labeled the performance as “muddle instead of music” appeared in Pravda and the composer became terrified that this would not only be the end of his music career but also the end of his existence.  He did not want to be dragged out of bed in the middle of the night and suffer the indignity of being taken to prison in his pajamas.  So he waits for Stalin’s henchmen fully clothed because this was the one and only aspect of the situation he could control.  The first part of the book is absolutely riveting because we never know if or when Shostakovich will be snatched away by Stalin’s thugs and the great composer has a couple of strokes of good luck which factor into the suspense.

The second part of the book is devoted to a conference that Shostakovich is required to attend in the United States.  By this time in his life he is a world famous composer and his music is well-known beyond the borders of the Soviet Union.  But Shostakovich is not only going to the United States to discuss his music but he is also being used as a tool by the Soviet government to promote Communism.  The indignity of delivering speeches which he has not written that extol and praise the virtues of Communism and condemn his beloved Stravinsky make him embarrassed and depressed.  Whenever Shostakovich talks about Power, always written with a capital “P,” and the hold it has over his art and his life my heart broke for the anxiety and mental anguish that this man suffered.  It is nothing short of astonishing that this artist was able to compose beautiful music and keep his family safe while under such intense scrutiny from the highest officials in the Soviet regime.

In the final part of the book Shostakovich suffers towards the end of his life from what he feels is the greatest and deepest blow to his dignity and his self-worth.  Up to this point in his life and career the composer has miraculously been able to avoid becoming a member of the Party.  But those in a position of Power want to exploit Shostakovich’s success once more and make him the Chairman of the Russian Confederation of Composers.  He does everything he can to avoid accepting the title and becoming a member of the party, but in the end Power is too strong for any man to resist, even one who is a famous artist.  Shostakovich tells his son that he only cried twice in his adult life: once when his first wife died and once when he joined The Party.  The last third of the book was the saddest and most difficult to read because Shostakovich is a broken man whose soul has been crushed by Power.

Barnes gives us a glimpse into the internal dialogue and turmoil of this artist and the result is a deeper understanding of the composer’s life under Stalin’s regime.  Even though he had a nice apartment, a car and driver, and world-wide fame, he pays a dear price for all of these things.  Many criticize Shostakovich for not standing up to Power but Barnes, by reconstructing the composer’s innermost thoughts, shows us that dealing with totalitarianism is a complicated matter.   Whenever the composer contemplates refusing the “requests” of government officials, he thinks of his family, “If you saved yourself, you might also save those around you, those you loved.  And since you would do anything in the world to save those you loved, you did anything in the world to save yourself.  And because there was no choice, equally there was no possibility of avoiding moral corruption.”

About the Author:
J BarnesJulian Patrick Barnes is a contemporary English writer of postmodernism in literature. He has been shortlisted three times for the Man Booker Prize— Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), England, England (1998), and Arthur & George (2005), and won the prize for The Sense of an Ending (2011). He has written crime fiction under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh.

Following an education at the City of London School and Merton College, Oxford, he worked as a lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary. Subsequently, he worked as a literary editor and film critic. He now writes full-time. His brother, Jonathan Barnes, is a philosopher specialized in Ancient Philosophy.

He lived in London with his wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, until her death on 20 October 2008.

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Filed under British Literature, Literary Fiction

Review: Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin

I have become very interested in reading Russian Literature lately and I decided that I have neglected this classic for too long.  The English translation I got was the one offered for free on Kindle and translated by Henry Spalding.

My Review:

OneginThis is a beautiful poem that contains so many layers of meaning and allusions that I am sure each time I read it I will discover something new.  This poem, more than anything else I have read, makes me want to learn Russian so I can experience the poem in its original language.  The entire poem is made up of 389 stanzas of iambic tetrameter.

At the heart of the story is the eponymous hero, Eugene Onegin, who is a spoiled, upper class, Russian youth who spends his time attending balls, drinking and flirting with pretty girls.  He has no ambitions in life except to satisfy his own pleasures.  When, one day, his uncle dies and leaves him an estate in the country, Eugene decides that he is tired of his vapid lifestyle and decides to retire to the country.  While in the county he becomes withdrawn and takes on a cynical view of society; his only close friend is an emotional, young poet named Vladimir Lensky.

Lensky is engaged to a woman named Olga who is a vain and shameless flirt.  Her sister, Tatiana, who is sensitive, intelligent and kind, is a sharp contrast to Olga.  When Tatiana meets Eugene she falls hopelessly in love with him and cannot stop thinking about him.  She writes Eugene a beautiful love letter that declares her undying love.  When Eugene receives it he treats her with cold indifference and even mocks poor Tatiana for not being able to keep her emotions in check.

Through a series of unfortunate circumstances, Eugene kills his friend Lensky in a dual and as a result Eugene flees from his home in horror and remorse.  When he finally returns to St. Petersburg years later, he meets a beautiful woman who is the wife of an elderly count.  He realizes that this confidant and enchanting princess who has captivated him is none other than the once naïve woman, Tatiana, whom he had met years earlier while living in the country.  This time their roles are greatly reversed–Eugene cannot get Tatiana out of his mind and he sends her several desperate letters declaring his love.  But how will Tatiana receive Eugene’s advances?  Will she bestow him an answer with the grace and kindness he lacked when he rejected her years earlier?  You will have to read this beautiful poem to find out for yourself.

Some other interesting aspects of the poem deserve mention. Pushkin oftentimes inserts his own voice into the narrative and cleverly addresses his audience and writes about his intentions for the story.  The author was also adept at literary allusions and jokes which he inserts throughout the narrative.  This particular translation I read had fantastic notes, without which I would not have understood the depth or cleverness of the allusions.  The themes that Pushkin weaves throughout his narrative are timeless, a few of which include pride and selfishness and the ultimate consequences of such vices, the cruelty of the world and fate and our lack of appreciation for someone until it is too late.

I am eager to reread this poem and to read different translations of it.  If you want to explore more Russian Literature in translation but do not want to tackle something as monstrous as War and Peace or Crime and Punishment, then I highly recommend beginning with Pushkin’s brilliant poem.

About The Author:
PushkinAlexander Sergeevich Pushkin was a Russian Romantic author who is considered to be the greatest Russian poet and the founder of modern Russian literature Pushkin pioneered the use of vernacular speech in his poems and plays, creating a style of storytelling—mixing drama, romance, and satire—associated with Russian literature ever since and greatly influencing later Russian writers.

Born in Moscow, Pushkin published his first poem at the age of fifteen, and was widely recognized by the literary establishment by the time of his graduation from the Imperial Lyceum in Tsarskoe Selo. Pushkin gradually became committed to social reform and emerged as a spokesman for literary radicals; in the early 1820s he clashed with the government, which sent him into exile in southern Russia. While under the strict surveillance of government censors and unable to travel or publish at will, he wrote his most famous play, the drama Boris Godunov, but could not publish it until years later. His novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, was published serially from 1825 to 1832.

Pushkin and his wife Natalya Goncharova, whom he married in 1831, later became regulars of court society. In 1837, while falling into greater and greater debt amidst rumors that his wife had started conducting a scandalous affair, Pushkin challenged her alleged lover, Georges d’Anthès, to a duel. Pushkin was mortally wounded and died two days later.

Because of his liberal political views and influence on generations of Russian rebels, Pushkin was portrayed by Bolsheviks as an opponent to bourgeois literature and culture and a predecessor of Soviet literature and poetry. Tsarskoe Selo was renamed after him

 

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Filed under Classics, Literature in Translation, Russian Literature

Review: The Librarian by Mikhail Elizarov

I received an advanced review copy of this title from publisher through NetGalley.  The original book was written and published in Russian in 2007 and this English version has been published by Pushkin Press.

My Review:
The LibrarianI recently read an article in The New York Review of Books by Ian Frazier in which he describes Russian satire and humor and the ways in which it differs from the rest of Europe and the United States.  Frazier writes, “Given the disaster Russian history has been more or less continuously for the last five centuries, its humor is of the darkest, most extreme kind. Russian humor is to ordinary humor what backwoods fundamentalist poisonous snake handling is to a petting zoo. Russian humor is slapstick, only you actually die.”  Elizarov’s The Librarian is a perfect literary example of  Frazier’s description of Russian humor.

The book opens with a description of a fictional Soviet-era writer named Gormov whose books were mass-produced but were of such poor quality that they were relegated to the bargain bin in used bookstores almost immediately.  After the fall of the Soviet Union, Gormov’s books are rediscovered and are also found to have magical effects on their readers.  The Book of Joy, for instance, puts readers into a temporary state of euphoria that is reminiscent of a drug high.  There are seven such magical books in the Gormov collection.  As groups acquire copies of these powerful books, they are called “Libraries.”  These libraries then engage in ridiculous, epic battles to fight for ownership of Gormov’s books.

The most absurd “library” of the bunch is a group of frail and senile old women living in a nursing home to whom the Book of Endurance is read.  All of a sudden their newly acquired strength turns these geriatrics into a fierce and bizarre army of warrior-like Amazons who kill people by the hundreds in order to protect their precious library.  There is an excessive amount of stabbing with knitting needles and pounding heads with hammers which ridiculous and droll scenes present us with the “slapstick” humor that Frazer describes but where characters “actually die.”

The main character of the book is a meek young man named Alexei whose only concern in life is to be an actor.  Of course, his acting career has never taken off so he finds himself divorced and living at home with his parents.  When his uncle dies he is asked to put his things in order and sell his uncle’s apartment.  The contents of the apartment contain one of Gormov’s books so naturally Alexei is drawn into the world of the libraries.  His lack of reaction as people are stabbed and killed around him in order to protect the book is ridiculous and comical.  He eventually dons his own armour, which consists of old truck tires, and launches himself headlong into the bloody fray.

The problems with Alexei’s own library and its inevitable clash with other libraries is the topic of the second half of the book.  There are many battle scenes where the rival libraries have more and more comical battles in which the clash of these book warriors resemble video games.  In the end, Alexei is saved by the brigade of geriatric warriors who lock him up and want to use him as their guinea pig to test out the effects of reading all seven books at once.  The ending has a more serious tone then the rest of the book and provides and interesting commentary on worshipping and overvaluing objects, blindly following leaders without questioning their motives and the sacrificing of one person for the safety of the whole community.  For a sampling of Russian humor and satire THE LIBRARIAN is a perfect choice, but I will warn you to be prepared for a wild ride.

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Filed under Humor, Literature in Translation, Russian Literature