Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Oblivion and Immortality

Preserved from the passage of time, unaware of changing epochs, facing traumatic re-entry into a profoundly altered world - no, it's not the story of my life as an extinct vertebrate, it's a trope of post-Communist culture. The book that inspired this post, Olga Slavnikova's 2001 Bessmertnyi (or The Immortal), was released this year in Columbia University Press' Russian Library series as The Man Who Couldn't Die, translated by Marian Schwartz.

The Man Who Couldn't Die begins as the story of a decorated World War II veteran, Alexei Kharitonov, now ancient, speechless and almost completely paralyzed, whose pension is all that keeps his family above the poverty line in post-Soviet Russia. His lonely wife and ambitious stepdaughter (a TV journalist) connive to maintain an artificial "Red Corner" in their apartment to delude the sick man that the Soviet era never ended, complete down to a framed picture of Brezhnev on the wall; for fourteen years, they read aloud to him from heavily edited newspapers and present doctored videos as real-time television news. Only the doctor and the "benefits rep", an energetically dreadful woman whose job it is to check that invalids and pensioners are still eligible for government payments, ever visit the Kharitonovs' flat, so the illusion survives indefinitely. Until one afternoon, Kharitonov's wife discovers that her husband, who in wartime expertly deployed a silken noose to kill fascists, is now indefatigably, stubbornly using his one mobile hand to steal and stockpile strings, ties, belts and anything else he can filch, hide, and gradually twitch and knot into a noose to throttle himself.

"It turned out that Alexei Afanasievich had always been the creator and center of Soviet reality, which he'd managed to hold onto a little longer; and now this reality, squeezed to the size of their standard-issue living space, retained its permanence, inasmuch as its pillar had not disappeared; on the contrary, it was trapped along with all its medals glowing in their boxes [...]. Now, though, the veteran, who had turned into a body, into the horizontal content if a high trophy bed, had suddenly declared war on his own immortality."

Alexei's wife respects him even more for the dignity and fixity of purpose he brings to his sustained, if ineffectual, suicide attempts; after all, he has no idea that in killing himself, he would also destroy his family's only reliable source of income. The Man Who Couldn't Die is intense, claustrophobic, bitterly funny, and of course ironic: the bodily claustrophobia of Alexei's existence is echoed most closely not by the Soviet era or its afterlife in the family's Red Corner, but by the corruption and chaos of New Russia - which eventually spills over into the Kharitonovs' apartment.

The conceit of an elderly person trapped in an artificial chronotope (like Alexei Kharitonov surrounded by his medals) reminds most people of the film Goodbye, Lenin (2003), where a sick woman's children try to protect her from a potentially fatal shock by pretending that the Berlin Wall never came down. Indeed, according to Mark Lipovetsky's Introduction to The Man Who Couldn't Die, Slavnikova felt that the makers of the film had plagiarized her idea. Another post-Communist author to use a similar trope is José Eduardo Agualusa, whose 2013 novel about an Angolan woman who walls herself up on the roof of an apartment building was published in Daniel Hahn's translation (from the Portuguese) in 2015 as A General Theory of Oblivion. (The book famously won the 2017 Dublin IMPAC prize, at the time the most lucrative award in literary translation).  Having bricked herself up on the roof terrace at the first sign of civil unrest, Portuguese expat Ludo survives for twenty-eight years on a diet of tinned food, captured birds, and frankly inappropriate substances, overlooking civil war and family tragedy in Angola's capital - until an orphan boy discovers her refuge and gradually brings her back to the world, and her surviving family. The story has a surprisingly happy ending - even if The Man Who Couldn't Die has the edge on catharsis. Can any of my readers recommend similar books on individuals brought back to real life after a long period of trance, delusion, or hibernation? No Jurassic Park jokes, please.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Dostoevsky: a ridiculous thing

My fellow (non-saurian) blogger Languagehat wrote an interesting but critical post about Dostoevsky's The Adolescent (1875) earlier this week. Here he calls it 'one of the most annoying novels I’ve ever read', drawing attention to its 'unreliable narrator' and 'ridiculous' adolescent style, including 'endless coincidences, overhearings, [and] surprise encounters'.
One of my avatars has penned a much more sympathetic review of Dora O'Brien's recent translation of The Adolescent which, if you are a TLS subscriber, you can read here. (If you're not, you can be tantalized by the first paragraph). Clearly, Languagehat and I have divergent views on the book that I call 'understandably, if undeservedly, the least read of Dostoevsky's mature novels'. His blog post concludes meditatively, 'I can’t help but wonder what Dostoevsky’s reputation would have been if he had died just after publishing this, never having written the Writer’s Diary or The Brothers Karamazov — I suspect he’d be remembered as a very fine writer like Turgenev rather than Tolstoy’s equal and rival. Fortunately, he survived and triumphed.'
This notion of the incomplete obituary – what we might say about great writers if they had died before writing their legacy works – returned to my mind the following day when I opened a volume of the Argentine author Ernesto Sabato’s essays. I was chasing a particular essay by Sabato, “La Resistencia” (“Resistance”), which is quoted by contemporary novelist Julian Fuks as the epigram to his novel Resistance, which in turn, as a narrative of troubled metafictional fraternity, can be traced back to Dostoevsky through Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight and The Brothers Karamazov. I couldn’t find Sabato’s “Resistance” but I did find, in a charming anthology of tiny essays from 1971 called El Escritor i sus fantasmas, a piece called “Dostoievsky juzgado por contemporaneous” (“Dostoevsky judged by his contemporaries”). Here, Sabato picks up Dostoevsky’s career in the late 1840s, around the time of publication of The Double. Having briefly been the toast of St Petersburg literary society for Poor Folk, Dostoevsky's star has fallen. His peers mock his appearance, his style, his pride. Turgenev and Nekrasov cruelly co-write a stinging stanza, which I give in Sabato’s witty Spanish version (the original knight, after all, was also Spanish):

Caballero de la triste figura
Dostoievsky, mi querido fanfarrón,
Sobre la nariz de la literatura,
No eres más que una leve erupción.
Sabato goes on:
'The addressee of these lines lost confidence in his genius; many of the pages of The Double, which he was writing, seemed to him ridiculous, superficial, useless. He was living in a kind of hell (un infierno). He had lost the euphoria of that time so near and so far away when Belinsky had lauded him to the skies. He heard laughter all around him; he mistrusted the smiles of his circle (capilla). Three years after the memorable night when Belinsky and Nekrasov had wept at the reading of Poor Folk, he was a broken man (un hombre terminado). He was saved from either madness or suicide by (paradoxically) prison. Buried alive (Enterrado en vida), he found the opportunity to reflect on the vanity of all things. While he was still sealed up in Siberia, forgotten, one of the individuals who had been part of his circle, a certain Panaev, remarked: “We were on the point of being besotted with one of the little idols of the day. We showed him off in the streets of the capital, we trumpeted his glory everywhere. Eventually he lost his way. He was immediately abandoned by all of us. Poor man! We destroyed him (Lo hemos aniquilado), we turned him into a ridiculous thing.'"

Imagine if Dostoevsky really had stopped with Poor Folk and The Double, stifled by Siberia, suicide, or both. Would we remember him today as a footnote to Gogol, a minor literary figure (like Ivan Panaev himself), a “ridiculous thing”?

Thankfully, Dostoevsky returned and rebuilt his life and reputation, writing The Adolescent… and one or two other novels.