“I recently sold a German bronze chandelier, a war trophy, to an antique shop. There were a lot of military awards in the window: Red Stars, Orders of Lenin, Iron crosses with oak leaves, insignia for the advance in the Kuban. After just sixty years, these pretty pieces of metal, which lured so many young men into the next world, are jumbled together in an antique shop. medals awarded to mortal enemies now lie peacefully side by side with Soviet medals in a collector’s case.”
Petroleum Venus by Russian author Alexander Snegirev arrived unexpectedly on my doorstep, and it came, apparently as a bit of a prize winner–nominated for the Russian Booker, winning, according to the blurb on the back cover, the “Debut Prize” and also shortlisted for the National Bestseller Prize. I’m not that much into prize winners to be honest, but it was the book’s original sounding title that attracted me, so I took a chance, and even though the book wasn’t what I expected, I was not disappointed. Petroleum Venus is a rather poignant, tender tale of reluctant parenthood, and how one man matures through his relationship with his Down Syndrome son.
The story is told by Fyodor, a man in his 30s whose successful career as an architect seemed guaranteed in a New Russia full of freshly-made millionaires and wealthy gangsters. Fyodor practically has his bag packs to begin a commission building a home in Miami, when all of his dreams and plans come to a screeching halt, and he is forced to take over care of his teenage son, Vanya, who has Down Syndrome. Up until this point, Fyodor has successfully skirted his responsibilities, and Vanya, the result of a relationship Fyodor had in his teens can no longer be shifted onto someone else. By taking on Vanya–a 24 hour job, Fyodor has had to let go of the idea of any sort of career. When the novel begins, Fyodor is rather poor, not sure what lies ahead, but he’s inherited his parents’ Moscow apartment and their dacha.
The tale takes us back into Fyodor’s past and his decision to abandon Vanya when he was born with obvious problems. Vanya’s teenage mother successfully fled, but it’s Fyodor’s peculiar, superstitious and determined mother who takes over Vanya’s care until Fyodor finds himself reluctantly stepping into the caretaker role. Fyodor, once slated for wealth and success, is now, by extension, relegated to a lower echelon of society–that of the disabled. As Vanya’s caretaker, Fyodor is unable to keep commitments, and he first loses his girlfriend, his commissions and then his friends. Fyodor goes through various stages before realizing that in his embarrassment and shame, he’s in a “prison which carers construct for themselves.” At that point, Fyodor accepts his role and no longer caring what people think of him and Vanya, he steps out into society ready to protect his son against those who cannot accept them. We see glimpses of Russian society through Fyodor and Vanya’s interactions with those they meet.
At the heart of the story is a tacky painting Vanya finds when he goes scavenging at the dacha and discovers a treasure in a wrecked car:
The picture frame he had brought in from the road was propped up against our pot-bellied fridge,. It had a picture in it. I flicked the switch and warm light flooded from our tumbler-like lampshades. a naked blonde, her upturned face registering delight, was squirming erotically while pouring a black liquid, evidently oil, over herself from a red plastic canister. the oil was running over her half-parted lips, sumptuous breasts, and belly button, and dripping from her delta. It streamed down long legs to red stiletto heels. behind the nude were birch trees and oil rigs, and above Petroleum Venus’s head hovered a halo of golded barbed wire. Her eyes gazed heavenwards, the halo reminiscent of a crown of thorns.
As it turns out, Petroleum Venus is the work of “fashionable artist,” and a series of spooky coincidences sets Fyodor and Vanya into a collision course with the artist’s two daughters: Sonya and Masha. Up until this point, Fyodor who feels that he is “a hostage of [his] parents’ virtue” is mostly rejected by mainstream Moscow society. Circumstances bring Masha and Sonya into Fyodor’s world, and at one point he invites these trendy, well-dressed young society women into the tatty flat he inherited from his parents. Here Vanya, who is oblivious to the shame of poverty, innocently offers their guests a traditional Soviet drink made from a mushroom kept in a large jar which produces a “fizzy sweet-and-sour beverage.”
Soviet housewives loved this fungus. They propagated it, invented new additives, divided it and shared it with their friends, fed it sugar, washed and pampered it in every way possible, like an old, wise, respected member of the family.
In the 1990s, the mushroom lost its status. Fickle Soviet wives were immediately unfaithful and took up with Coca-Cola and Sprite, forgetting all about its antiquity and medicinal properties. First they started neglecting the mushroom in its three-litre jar, drinking what remained of the liquid for old times’ sake, but then they just threw the fungus in the trash. Yesterday’s star lay there in rubbish bins among the eggshells, chicken bones, and soggy newspapers, which people at the time used for lining waste bins. The mushrooms looked like beached jellyfish.
Petroleum Venus is a surprisingly funny and touching story, and this tale works so well thanks mainly to the character of Vanya whose innocence and stubbornness help create his strong moral compass in a corrupt society where everything seems to be for sale. To Vanya, life is black and white; there are no ambiguities, no grey spaces for moral quibbling, and while everyone else seems to have discovered morally questionable ways to get ahead, Vanya is a refreshing alternative. Petroleum Venus is the story of one man’s growth through his initially forced relationship with his son, and this is set against the backdrop of a troubled society whose denizens have difficulty accepting the disabled–even though they accept corruption, bribery and the appalling excesses and bad taste of the nouveau riche.
Translated by Arch Tait. Review copy.