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.