Tag Archives: Russian fiction

Pushkin Hills by Sergei Dovlatov

“And that,” I said, “is how it always happens. First they drive the man into the ground and then begin looking for his personal effects. That’s how it was with Dostoevsky, that’s how it was with Yesenin, and that’s how it’ll be with Pasternak. When they come to their senses, they’ll start looking for Solzhenitsyn’s personal effects.”

I read and thoroughly enjoyed The Suitcase from Sergei Dovlatov, and so when I saw a new release from the same author, Pushkin Hills, translated by the author’s daughter, Katherine Dovlatov, I knew I had to read it. The premise sounded excellent–this is the story of a divorced, alcoholic writer, Boris Alikhanov who takes a job as a tour guide at the rural estate of Mikhaylovskoye, the Pushkin “preserve” even as his  ex-wife considers emigrating abroad. The possibilities of such a scenario were intriguing. At 116 pages, this is a slim book that at times seems more anecdotal than straight narrative, or perhaps it’s just that the characters appear and then disappear, and I frequently wanted them to return.

Pushkin HillsPushkin Hills was first published in Russia in 1983, and the novella slips in observations and criticisms of Soviet life, so when our narrator arrives at his destination, he notices that the walls of the town square are plastered with “warped plywood billboards. The drawings promised mountains of meat, wool, eggs and various unmentionables in the not-too-distant future.” These observations are prevalent in late Soviet literature, and yes they appear in early Soviet literature and post Soviet literature too, but there’s something about that late Soviet period. I’m not a historian, and I’m not a Russian literature expert–I’m a reader, so I’ll throw a mental dart at 20th century, and say post Stalin. Yes, Soviet writers were still being exiled but Soviet culture was defanged without Stalin, and what seems to be left, in late Soviet Culture (60s, 70s, & 80s) as evidenced by Pushkin Hills is a broken society in which conformity is still valued. We hear the slow, creaky wheels of indifferent, incompetent bureaucracy at every turn, and here at Mikhaylovskoye, it’s no different except tour guides are bombarded with the question: “do you love Pushkin?” which is supposed to generate an enthusiastic, gushing response. Here’s Boris being grilled in an interview conducted by the methodologist about his devotion to Pushkin:

I explained my reason for being there. With a skeptical smile, she invited me to follow her to the office.

“Do you love Pushkin?”

I felt a muffled irritation.

“I do.”

At this rate, I thought, it won’t be long before I don’t.

“And may I ask why?”

I caught her ironic glance. Evidently the love of Pushkin was the most widely circulated currency in these parts. What if I were a counterfeiter, god forbid.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Why do you love Pushkin?”

“Let’s stop this idiotic test,” I burst out. “I graduated from school. And from university.” (Here I exaggerated a bit; I was expelled in my third year.) “I’ve read a few books. In short, I have a basic understanding… Besides, I’m only seeking a job as a tour guide.”

But Boris has failed to give the correct answer which is “Pushkin is our pride and joy” and “He is not only a great poet, but he is also Russia’s greatest citizen.” In spite of failing to give the standard answer, Boris is given the job of being one of the many tour guides. He rents a room from Mikhail Ivanych:

A sloping antenna shone black against the white clouds. Sections of the roof had caved in, revealing black uneven beams. The walls were carelessly covered in plywood. The cracked window panes were held together with newspaper. Filthy oakum poked out from countless gaps. The stench of rotten food hung in the owner’s room. Over the table I noticed a coloured portrait of General Mao, torn from a magazine.

Mikhail Ivanych lives alone in squalor since his wife left. The beds are covered with “putrid sheepskins,” and Boris’s new landlord charges rent calculated by how many bottles of booze he can buy.

To be honest, I was at a bit of a loss. If only I could have simply said: “I’m afraid this won’t work…” But it appears I am genteel after all. And so I said something lyrical:

“The windows face south?”

“The very, very south,” Tolik affirmed.

Through the windows I could see a dilapidated bathhouse.

“The main thing,” I said, “is that there’s a private entrance.”

“The entrance is private,” agreed Mikhail Ivanych, “only it’s nailed shut.”

“Oh that’s too bad,” I said.

“Ein moment,” said the owner, took a few steps back, and charged the door.

Mikhail Ivanych, one of the book’s more bizarre characters, is perpetually drunk, and has some extreme, distasteful views regarding the German occupation and the fact that they “did no harm.” Apparently to Mikhail Ivanych, who at one point hangs two cats with fishing line, the Germans “fix[ed] the Yids and the gypsies.” This character, repulsive as he is, seems a study in contrast to the high-minded worship of Pushkin which is fostered just a few miles away.

Boris’s life as a tour guide at Mikhaylovskoye is the best parts of the book. We see bus loads of tourists disgorge, and Boris learns which nationalities are the best-behaved, along with the sorts of questions they will ask. Boris sometimes fabricates the facts, but most people don’t notice. The tour guides are essentially a bunch of misfits: failed writer Stasik Pototsky & the brilliant Mitrofanov who suffers “a rare clinical condition … total atrophy of will.”  Pototsky, who indulges in week long drinking binges, develops a lucrative sideline in showing tourists Pushkin’s secret “true grave.”

For this reader, the best parts of the book are found in the details of life at Mikhaylovskoye, and the juxtaposition of the worship of all-things Pushkin with the reality of how the tour guides are heartily sick of the manipulation of the subject. The book’s narrator finds parallels between his life and Pushkin’s. After all, they both had “an uneasy relationship with the government,” and Boris acknowledges that they both had ‘problems’ with their wives. Beneath the dark, sardonic jokes, and the twisting of the absurd into humour, the book raises questions about the writer’s life, censorship, the writer and the state, and the role of an émigré writer.

Pushkin Hills contains some colloquial language and the occasional swear word, and this brings up the issue of exactly how does one translate this sort of language?Apparently Alma Classics searched for a translator for some time, and I can guess that this book wasn’t easy to translate.  The translation of colloquialism is the aspect of the novel I liked the least.  I’ll add that I find it wearing to read much colloquialism in any book–not that I object to swearing. Here there’s “gimme,” “kinda,” “scrud,” “Fuck them and the horse they rode in on,”fuckin,” “fuck, my pecker’s dripping,”  “booze-up,” “wino,”have ya heard,” “outta,” “snuff ‘er,”  Well you get the point. I have no solutions for how to translate colloquialism, but for this reader, the book became less Russian when I read Americanisms. Perhaps other readers will feel differently. Yes, I could always learn Russian, but that’s not going to happen.

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Petroleum Venus by Alexander Snegirev

“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.

petroleum venusThe 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.

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Filed under Fiction, Snegirev Alexander