Russian

MOSCOW TO THE END OF THE LINE BY VENEDIKT EROFEEV

Maria. Masha. Mashenka. We start out somewhere. Where? I don’t know. I’m English and can’t read the signs. Moscow. Moskva. Москва. We drink some, and suddenly we are on the underground. The stations are beautiful. Like Maria. But we soon leave and we find another place and we drink some more. My beer is flat. The waitress laughs at me for drinking Russian beer. She asks Masha: Doesn’t he want anything better? He’s English, he doesn’t know. They laugh together. We’re on the move again. Where are we and where are going? Honestly, I don’t know. Cтоп. We drink warm Irish milk which tastes like pond water and whiskey. I taste it on Masha’s lips for the rest of the evening. The milk sobers me up, or maybe it’s the walk in the cold air; but, in any case, now, there, I see St Basil’s, in the distance, like a witch’s gingerbread house. And I think to myself: Moscow, I love you.

Later, there are bras on the ceiling in the bar. No, really. There is a point of drunkenness when you go to such a place, or where you see such a thing even if it isn’t really there. I don’t know what I’m drinking. Outside, Maria orders a taxi. I trace her breath in the air with my fingers and then pull it into my lungs. We are travelling for only a short time. A policeman stops the car and shines a light into my eyes. He wants your passport. He shines the light and says: Что он взял? Кокаин? Masha points at me. He’s English, he doesn’t know. The officer laughs and turns off his torch. He is satisfied, or so amused by my demeanour that he becomes benevolent. Back in the car we move along wide roads towards another car that the driver doesn’t see until we hit it. And in the back seat, as we wait for assistance, or for inspiration, Maria says: you will write about this. Yes, Masha, I will. Because there, back home, without you, writing is all I have.

You are going nowhere, she says. This car doesn’t move. She thumps the back of the driver’s seat to prove her point. But one day it will, I say. No, no. We will stay in here, on this road. But it’s cold, Masha. So where shall we go? Driver! Driver! she shouts suddenly. Take us…where? To Petushki, I joke sadly. The car doesn’t move. To Petushki! You know it? I know nothing, I say, I’m English. She laughs and shines her light in my eyes. What are you talking about? Books, of course. Always books. Erofeev, to be precise. I’ll write about him, when I write about this, for I need to hide myself, to hide us, inside a book. It’s too scary otherwise. Tell me about him, about Erofeev. He’s a writer. I’m Russian, I know. I read him. The conversation does go something like this. Although, of course, not everything that I write here is exactly as it happened. You must allow me – an artist – some license.

Tell me about the book where you will hide us, she says. Ok, I will tell it, but not for you, Masha, because this is not real. Besides, I do not have a copy with me. So let’s kiss while we wait for the police, and instead I will tell it for my audience, my readers, who I do not love. But if this isn’t real how is it that I can hear you and see you? Anything is possible in a dream; I can be in Moscow, in a crashed car at 2am, and in England both at the same time, and, yes, you can see me and hear me, even though these words – these profound, forthcoming words and thoughts and ideas about Erofeev and Moscow to the End of the Line – are not for you. This is very confusing. You sound confused. I am, Masha, because my heart is there – in Moscow, in a crashed car at 2am – but my head is in England. And I know that this will make sense to no one but me, and perhaps my readers have even stopped reading because they too are confused, and really I have said nothing about Erofeev and his book. I have simply become entangled in this wonderful fantasy of you.

The ending is sad. For us? No, the book. Everything will be wonderful for us. Maria, I cannot begin at the end, that is not how this is done. Now, kiss me, please, and be quiet. Venedikt Erofeev…I know a man called Venya…Please, your tongue, hold it or give it to me. Erofeev. What about Erofeev? No, I cannot begin this way either. I know nothing about the man, except that he died of throat cancer and spoke with help from an electric-larynx during the latter stages of his life. But this does not at all relate to Moscow to the End of the Line, which is about someone travelling, or intending to travel, for he never actually arrives, from Moscow to Petushki. This someone – this man – is called Venya Erofeev, which suggests a certain level of autobiography. Yet this someone doesn’t once smoke a cigarette, if my memory serves me correctly, which is often the cause of throat cancer. He, on the other hand, drinks a lot, could be called an alcoholic even, but I do not know – because I am not a doctor, unlike you Masha – whether excessive alcohol consumption is linked to throat cancer. And so…

This Venya, this Erofeev, spends much of the book in conversation with himself, because, you suspect, he feels as though he can’t relate to anyone else. There is an awkwardness to him, just as, he says, there is an awkwardness to Russians in general. When he does interact with other people he is often unsuccessful, thrown out, fired, rejected. And all this isn’t simply because he is an alcoholic, you mustn’t think that, although it plays a part, it is because he is ‘placid, timorous and never sure about anything.’ But also – how could I forget? – because people see in him a superiority, which he himself doesn’t feel, because he is reserved, chaste and an intellectual. This is going badly. I know, Masha. I am proceeding in a terrible fashion, but proceeding nonetheless, and that is what is most important. Do you remember when I told you that Russians do not smile? Yes, I remember. It is our way; we have endured a lot, and so we do not smile, but we feel the smile inside, gently, to ourselves. Yes, I remember. This Venya is, all told, an emotional man, someone with a beautiful heart, a sensitive heart which is often critical of itself, that calls itself a ‘lightweight among idiots.’

But the drinking; I cannot overlook the drinking altogether. Let me tell about the drinking. I have so much time – days, weeks, months, years of time – in which to consider this topic, alone. Don’t come too close, don’t touch me or kiss me, Masha, don’t let me taste the Irish milk, for I need to concentrate. Venya is, it seems, in a permanent state of drunkenness, whereby being only a little drunk is a kind of sobriety. I hope you understand me. Erofeev writes about the ‘antihuman effect’ of coriander vodka, which, for him, strengthens the soul but weakens the physical members. Alcohol is, he writes, a way of stifling alarm. He sees in his drinking, therefore, not necessarily something negative or harmful. Yet we, the readers, for I am a reader too of course, understand that there is sadness in this drinking, and there is something pathetic or desperate about it also, for Venya’s relationship with booze is one of dependency. Remember the sherry? Yes, I remember. When he is told that the restaurant doesn’t have any sherry and yet he keeps repeating his order. It is funny and yet sad too. Yes, Masha, I remember.

So, finally, I need to tell about the sadness, in detail. Yes, I need to say much more about the sadness, truly delve into the sadness, for I know it too myself. Yet this sadness, it is a Russian sadness. It is a sickness of soul, the Russian soul. Perhaps so. I am English, what do I know about that? I do, however, know a little, yes, more than a little about the ‘bared fangs of existence’, as he calls it. I know about feeling ‘sad and perplexed.’ Do you remember, Masha, readers, how Erofeev writes that ‘everything should take place slowly and incorrectly so that man doesn’t get a chance to start feeling proud?’ Yes, we remember. That’s the kind of sadness I’m talking about. A gentle sadness. A mournfulness…for something, for what? I don’t know. For hope, for encouragement. A ‘world sorrow’ that you carry within yourself. I’ve always carried it in the pit of my stomach, always felt it, at least to some degree, but over the last two years it has grown, ever bigger, like a tumour. Until now, until this, until you, Masha. In a crashed car, in Moscow, at 2am, I realise that I don’t feel it anymore.

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VOICES FROM CHERNOBYL BY SVETLANA ALEXIEVICH

Voices from Chernobyl has been sitting on my bedside table for months, and numerous times I have approached it cautiously as though it were a wild animal. There necessarily exists, between the reader and any given book, a one-sided relationship; I knew that if I were to read Voices I would be taking something from it, without giving anything back, except perhaps a review. It was, however, the something that concerned me. There are, for me at least, certain books that ask of you: do you need this? It is a genuine question. Do I need whatever I am going to take from this? I am aware that there is tremendous suffering in the world, and I can quite easily imagine what the contents of a book such as this will be, so why put myself through it? What, if you frame the question selfishly, is in it for me?

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[The ferris wheel is part of an amusement park that was scheduled to open on May 1 1986, in Pripya, near the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. Of course, it never did.]

On April 28th 1986, there were a series of explosions at a nuclear power plant in the city of Pripyat, Ukraine. As a result of this accident, the worst nuclear accident in history, a large part of Europe was contaminated by radiation. Voices from Chernobyl is not, however, a truncated history of the event, nor is it strictly a record of it. It is, instead, a collection of transcribed interviews, mostly monologues. These interviews were conducted by Svetlana Alexievich; the interviewees are people who were in some way affected by the disaster. Therefore, as one would expect, there are many disturbing, often gruesome, details or anecdotes. There are faces ‘all puffed up and swollen’; there are bodies covered in ‘black spots’; there are sheets covered in blood; there is cracking skin, flaking skin; and there are, of course, deaths, many, many deaths.

Yet, as hinted at in my introduction, this sort of thing holds little interest for me. I am not, to quote my own phrase, a literary ambulance chaser. I do not get my reading kicks gorging myself on death, distress and destruction; I don’t need the grisly particulars; I don’t want them in my head. That being exposed to radiation results in disfigurement and pain is not something of which I require proof. I get it; I already got it long before opening this book. This is not to say that I do not understand why the people involved want to share this information. They, as a number of interviewees themselves declare, ‘want to bear witness’; they want, I imagine, to put on record the truth, the unadulterated truth as they witnessed it and experienced it, especially as some of them believe that the Soviet government have tried to cover up the full horror of the event. Their loved ones didn’t just die, they suffered, and they – the government – ‘want us to forget about it.’ And so it is of course important to them that this suffering is acknowledged, in their own minds and memories, and by the world-at-large.

“Death is the fairest thing in the world. No one’s ever gotten out of it. The earth takes everyone – the kind, the cruel, the sinners. Aside from that, there’s no fairness on earth.”

Voices from Chernobyl‘s longest section, or interview, is the opener; told by Lyudmilla Ignatenko, it details the last days of one of the first-response fireman, Vasily. Yet the real focus is on Lyudmilla herself, and her dedication and bravery in refusing to be put off by the authorities from caring for and visiting her husband. It is, in essence, a love story. However, while I certainly do not wish to underplay how emotionally affecting her account is, her actions and her love for her husband are not what make it compelling. She says at the beginning that she doesn’t know what she ought to talk about – ‘about death or about love? Or are they the same?’ And then goes on to show how she came to believe in a connection between these two things.

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What I found fascinating about Lyudmilla’s account – and I write this with the utmost respect – is that it reads like fiction, not so much in terms of the content, but the structure. Perhaps it is a consequence of having thought so much about these events, or of having retold them so many times, but one gets the impression that the details have been worked, or moulded, into a narrative, a story, that most satisfies. This is something that I think about a lot, about how we – unintentionally or unconsciously – shape and refine our experiences, internally, i.e. in our own heads, and then often via our sharing them with others.

I have noticed myself doing this, as I have worked on my own life stories or memories, and how, over time, I have left bits out, have edited, rewritten etc, have streamlined, until they have maximum impact. I want to make it absolutely clear that I am not accusing Lyudmilla, or Alexievich, of cynical manipulation or untruths; I am merely stating that many of the stories in this book impressed me, moved me, by virtue of what they communicated to me about the way that we engage with our memories or experiences, which is to say that we perfect them.

“Chernobyl is like the war of all wars. There’s nowhere to hide. Not underground, not underwater, not in the air.”

Yet most moving, for me, was the realisation, or the continued proof, of the fact that ‘ordinary people’ are capable of such relentless compassionate wisdom and insight. Hardly a page went by without some line, or image, or idea that almost took my breath away. Pytor S. says: ‘the future is destroying me, not the past’; Nikolai Fomich Kalugin says: ‘Chernobyl is a signal. Everyone turns their head to look at you’; Nadezhda Petrovna Yygovskaya  says: ‘we didn’t understand then that the peaceful atom could kill, that man was helpless before the laws of physics.’ These are examples that I picked out by opening the book at random. When I selfishly asked at the beginning of this review: what is in it for me? Why, in other words, should I read Voices from Chernobyl? It is in these lines, these words, and others like them, that I found the answer.

SOUL BY ANDREY PLATONOV

The heating has never worked in my apartment. I’ve flipped switches, I’ve read manuals, I’ve turned dials, I’ve struck out petulantly at inanimate objects…nothing. Have you ever experienced the callous winters of northern England? Occasionally, I’ll sit on the sofa in the living room, attempting to behave like a civilised human being. And I’ll fantasise about chipping the frozen skin off my face, like restructuring an ice sculpture. I never do it, of course, because my fingers are so cold I can’t move them. So most of the time I hide away in my bedroom. I’ll wrap a thick quilt around myself, smoke warm cigarettes, and survive in relative comfort. However, a few days ago I became ill. I have a good immune system, but it failed me this time. Something got in, and it hated me. It started in the evening, when I realised I could stand, but I couldn’t walk. No big loss, I thought. But then thin water started to pour ceaselessly from my eyes and my nose. And I shook, rattling my teeth like a tin can full of coins.

The following day I found it difficult to remain conscious. I’d open my eyes and immediately they’d start to close again, despite my will. In the one or two periods when I was awake, I found that people were attempting to communicate with me. My phone lit up. My brother entered my room. I watched it all impassively. Nothing mattered to me – not food, not human beings – except heat. I glared at the radiator. It ignored me. In the midst of the demoralising cold and the illness, my consciousness had been reduced to some kind of Neanderthal state, whereby I was only dimly aware of myself as myself. I was no longer complex. I was basic. I was mentally rubbing two sticks together. The cat must have sensed something. He would prowl around the bed, making horrible mewling sounds, before jumping on my chest and laying down. I was sure he was going to eat me, or suck what little life I had left out of me. If I shooed him off he would skulk away, only to return mere moments later, in the hope that I was now too weak to resist or defend myself.

By the third day I had started to come back to myself. The most compelling sign of recovery is that I picked up a book from the bedside table. It was Soul by Andrey Platonov. I usually choose meticulously, but this choice was about what was closest to hand. In any case, as I read a strange thing happened. I started to enjoy myself. Joy had crept back into my heart, like a teenager stealing home long after curfew. It was only with strength or health that I could experience joy, or interest in anything outside of warmth. I did not forget about the cold completely, but it stepped off, and hid away at the back of my mind as I focussed on Nazar Chagataev, and the trials of the Dzhan nation somewhere in the desert. Indeed, the further I penetrated into the story, the more I realised that, while I had been laying in bed, ignorant of the world, a novel had laid beside me, so to speak, that was itself about overcoming suffering [albeit a much greater suffering than mine, of course] and embracing life. And being happy again, I could smile at one of the little miracles of coincidence that life throws up every now and again.

“Everything in the existing world seemed strange to him; it was as if the world had been created for some brief, mocking game. But this game of make-believe had dragged on for a long time,for eternity, and nobody felt like laughing anymore.”

The novel begins in Russia, with Chagataev attending a party, having finished his studies at the local university. The tone is melancholic, with the emphasis being on leaving familiar things behind. Nazar is a melancholy sort himself; he is, we’re told, a young man with ‘pure eyes,’ which communicate a kind of ‘gloomy kindness.’ This kindness, this sensitivity, leads him to approaching and attempting to comfort a middle aged woman called Vera, whom no one else is paying attention to. One sees in this one of the defining aspects of his character, and one of the novel’s major themes, which is an interest in ‘unneeded’ or neglected things. For example, as a child, Chagataev’s mother left him to fend for himself, which led to him being given refuge in Russia; Vera also has a daughter, Ksenya, whose father has taken off; and once Chagataev returns to his home land, in the desert, he comes across all manner of  abandoned things, including a camel, flocks of sheep, and the Dzhan people, of course.

It is Chagataev’s aim to ‘build happiness,’ to, as noted in my melodramatic introduction, make the nomadic Dzhan tribe, to which he belongs, embrace life. The only problem with this is that they are, I would say, the most wretched group of people I have ever encountered in a novel. And I’ve read almost the entirety of Samuel Beckett’s oeuvre. Drawn from runaways, exhausted slaves and orphans; fed and given employment for only a few weeks of the year; and, the rest of the time, left to wander in extreme poverty. I say wander, but most are too sick to move. They are thoroughly destitute, having nothing, not even madness, because madness requires energy, as does happiness. At one point Chagataev comes across his worn-out mother, who is doubled up, her face almost to the ground. She doesn’t recognise her son, and doesn’t experience love or relief, or even shock or surprise, when he introduces himself. She, like the rest of the Dzhan, has entered a state of being that is almost animalistic. Just like me[!] hibernating in my fever, they have no internal life. They exist, and that is it; they, to paraphrase Platonov, are not living, they just haven’t died yet.

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The word Dzhan means, we’re told, soul or dear life. As with many Russian novels, the state and importance of the human soul, and what indeed constitutes the soul, plays a central role in Platonov’s work. Chagataev is eager for his people to accept life, to begin to live a meaningful existence, and he is dismayed that the Dzhan can’t or won’t do this. Indeed, he all but charges them with laziness. Sorrow is easy, he thinks. But he comes to realise that the body needs nourishment, so that the soul can function and happiness blossom. The middle section of the book is, therefore, given over to his attempts to feed the tribe, resulting in one of the most extraordinary passages in literature, where he lays on the ground, encouraging vicious birds to peck at and try and kill him, so that he can shoot them for food. Once nourished, however, the Dhzan scatter. Renewed strength and vitality has given them optimism, hopes and dreams and desires, but these dreams etc do not fit in with Chagataev’s vision for the people. They have embraced life, certainly, but they have done so in a kind of selfish, in some ways hedonistic manner.

Yet eventually the tribe return, and it is here that I think the reader comes to understand what Platonov, or Chagataev at least, means by soul. There is a lot of stuff in the novel about displacement and exile – most notably the central character being forced to leave his home country  – which all, of course, fits in with the aforementioned abandonment theme, but which also suggests the importance of human interaction, family and community. Chagataev enjoyed the benefits of community in Russia, he was allowed to live and study and work; alone, in the desert, these things would have been impossible. Moreover, one sees in his desire to marry Vera, who is pregnant with another man’s child when he meets her, how much significance he places upon building relationships, looking out for each other, working together, making sacrifices for each other, and so on. This is, then, a healthy soul, one that looks outside of itself, one that wants to live and engage and work with other people. This is happiness…a, if you will, communistic happiness. [One could, in fact, see Soul as a kind of parable about right and wrong, healthy and unhealthy ways of living, whereby the suffering that Platonov is referring to isn’t literal or physical, but, so to speak, spiritual]. Indeed, the novel ends: Chagataev knew that help could come to him only from another human being.

You will, I’m sure, have paid special attention to a particular word in the preceding paragraph. A dirty word. Communism. I’m always surprised when Platonov’s work is called pro-Stalin. If you have read The Foundation Pit, which is concerned with collectivisation and the starvation of the Russian peasantry, you will understand how ridiculous that claim is. But that is not to say that the author wasn’t pro-Communism. The two – Stalinism and Communism – are not the same thing. I may be wrong, but Soul did strike me as advocating Communistic principles, i.e. the sharing of labour, the ownership of one’s own labour, the importance of the community over the individual, etc. Yet what is quite clear is that Platonov did not advocate brutality or dictatorship. Indeed, there is a tyrant in the novel, the Khan of Khiva, who the Dzhan rise up against, and who struck me as perhaps a stand-in for Stalin. Moreover, Stalin once said that death is the solution to all problems, and I don’t think it is a coincidence that the most villainous character in the novel, Nur Mohammed, appears to live by that principle, gleefully counting off the Dzhan as they die, hoping for their death, because it would mean more for him. So, yes, Joseph Stalin is frequently referred to by name in Soul and is described as a loving father, as the father of all abandoned people, but I would suggest that there is more than a hint of irony about all that, especially when you consider that the Russian leader had such a low opinion of Platonov. Scum, is what he called him.

HADJI MURAT BY LEO TOLSTOY

As I made my way through this short book I told myself that I wasn’t going to review it, that I just didn’t have the mental or emotional energy. This is partly due to having written a lot of reviews this month, and partly due to what has happened recently in the world. I am not asking anyone to take pity on me, of course, but I feel horribly deflated right now, and I was wary of this filtering into my approach to Tolstoy’s work. But then I came towards the end of Hadji Murat, and I read about how “the militiamen gathered over the bodies/like hunters over a dead beast, standing among the bushes in the gunsmoke, gaily chatting and celebrating their victory.” And I heard Marya Dmitrievna’s cry, actually heard it, filling my room: ‘What’s war? You are butchers, and that’s all there is to it.” And I changed my mind. I decided that I had to write something, even though I worry that it will be confusing, ill-thought out, and, at times, completely off the point.

I’m sure I’ll have to take some flak for this, but as far as I am concerned there is no victory in war, there are no heroes. I refuse to celebrate the taking of life, any life. Immediately after the Paris attacks, in fact while they were still ongoing, I started coming across comments such as ‘kill them all, no trial necessary.’ All? Terrorists? Muslims?! You may say I am being dramatic, and yet thousands of people want borders closing, immigrants thrown out. They are, let’s face it, itching for war; they are, I can’t shake the feeling, enjoying this. Don’t get me wrong, what happened in Paris is a tragedy, a disgrace; my thoughts, as they always are, are with the victims, with all innocent, oppressed people around the world, but there is no blood lust in me, there is no hate, only sadness. Yes, those responsible for the Paris attacks are butchers. I just don’t want to be a butcher too.

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The story of Hadji Murat is, Tolstoy [or his narrator] claims, one that he part saw, part heard, and part imagined. Murat is a Muslim, and a Chechen rebel commander, famous for his exploits. He presents Murat as a well-mannered, generous, friendly man with ‘kindly eyes’, who charms almost everyone he meets. Having made an enemy of another powerful Chechen, Shamil, he has defected over to the Russians, with whom the Chechens are at war. In contrast to Shamil, and the Russian soldiers, leaders, etc, Murat’s goals are honourable. He does not desire glory, riches, awards, or power, rather he wants to avenge himself and his family, and he wants his wife and children to be rescued. The idea appears to be that he has to fight, not that he wants to, but one must not forget, as I sometimes felt the author did, that he is a murderer too. In any case, it is clear that Tolstoy admired the man, for his humility, his independent spirit [he rejects both the Russians and Shamil], but perhaps most of all for his commitment to his religion and religious principles.

So, of course, one feels as though Tolstoy is holding Murat up as a kind of example, but it is equally apparent that he was also using him in order to take shots at his own people.* Indeed, he sees them as Murat sees them. Once the rebel has put himself into Russian hands, he is given access to their homes, and their activities. In one scene he attends the theatre, but, obviously not having enjoyed the experience, leaves early; in another he attends a ball, and again haughtily takes off at the earliest opportunity. This isn’t, as he himself says, about acceptable cultural differences, as he negatively judges these people [as one imagines the author does too] for their frivolous pastimes and revealing dresses. In fact, the most positive thing you could say about any Russian in the novel [aside from Marya Dmitrievna who all but falls in love with Murat, and Avdeev, who I will return to] is that they are, like Butler, affable buffoons. Yet, for the most part, Russians are shown to be gamblers, drinkers; they are idle, lascivious, and dishonourable.

“War presented itself to him as consisting only in his exposing himself to danger and to possible death, thereby gaining rewards and the respect of his comrades here, as well as of his friends in Russia. Strange to say, his imagination never pictured the other aspect of war: the death and wounds of the soldiers, officers, and mountaineers. To retain his poetic conception he even unconsciously avoided looking at the dead and wounded.”

I don’t want to give the impression that Hadji Murat is a bad book, or even that it is overtly mean-spirited, or preachy. It seems that way when you write all this down, but, and I am aware of the contradiction here, it doesn’t really read like that [except in the case of the Tsar who is – rightly or wrongly – torn to shreds]. This is Tolstoy, which means that any complaints one might have about elements of his work are rendered petty by his great genius. Butler, for example, is a nincompoop, but one can’t help but be charmed by him regardless. It always strikes me, when I read him, that Tolstoy often started out with rather pompous, unpleasant ideas, and yet could never quite see them through, that his love of humanity always took over or compromised his initial vision. And so we get someone like Avdeev, the soldier who agreed to go to war in his brother’s place, a man who, at home, was hardworking, and who feels, in his current predicament, ‘heartsick.’ He is the one Russian soldier in the novel with a conscience, who feels as though this isn’t a right or good life. He, predictably, is killed in battle, just as his mother is sending him a touching, emotional letter, with a Ruble enclosed. Hadji Murat is full of wonderful minor portraits like this, and memorable scenes, such as the servant Vavilo, or the pipe smoking in the forest, or Murat’s dreams merging with the sounds of the jackals….or the head. My God, the head. That will stay with me for years. And, finally, there is Marya Dmitrievna’s cry, a cry not for one man, not just for Murat, but for all men who have fallen, and continue to fall, in these senseless power games.

*it is worth noting that Tolstoy was, of course, writing with the Russian public in mind, one that, you’d assume, wasn’t entirely positively disposed towards Chechens. If you bear that in mind, then Hadji Murat might be interpreted as a call for compassion, or tolerance, towards those you perceive as your enemies, or simply those who are different from you. There is always a temptation to demonise other cultures – you might think they look weird, smell weird, eat weird, that their customs are barbaric, that they are prone to violence, etc. – without truly understanding them, or even taking account of what is under your own nose i.e. your own culture or practices, which may be just as baffling or appalling to the people you criticise. Therefore, that the author shows Murat – the other – to be caring, and considerate, and so on, was, and still is, an important message. My one issue with this would be that Tolstoy takes it too far, so that he comes across as a prince among swine.

HARD TO BE A GOD BY ARKADY & BORIS STRUGATSKY

One of the things that makes alien contact attractive is the possibility of interacting with a species more advanced than our own. Outside of films, whenever we think of aliens we tend to see them as superior beings, with great knowledge to impart, more sophisticated technology, etc. In the Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic the Russian brothers cleverly played on this idea, with the visitors being completely disinterested in human beings, suggesting, you might argue, a kind of haughtiness in their attitude towards us. But what if it is not the case? What if contact was made and it turned out that we are actually the more advanced species? Looking around me, that strikes me as really quite a depressing thought.

In any case, this is the situation in Hard to be a God, only the alien planet is not simply primitive, relative to earth, but is essentially earth with the clock turned back thousands of years to the middle ages. Upon discovery of this planet human beings have taken to sending observers to live amongst the natives. The reason for this never seems particularly clear, but it is stressed to these people that their task is limited to observation, that they must not interfere or intervene, and they certainly should not reveal their purpose or real identity. Most of the agents find these rules easy enough to stick to, with the notable exception being Rumata [earth name Anton].

For me, this is one of the great existential novels, with Rumata’s emotional and intellectual crisis being as intense, and unrelenting, as any of Dostoevsky’s antiheroes. His role, or part, is as a womanising nobleman and dangerous, expert swordsman. In this he fails, not only because he isn’t allowed to kill anyone, but also because he cannot bear to sleep with any of the native women, who are not prone to bathing. More interestingly, he is a superior, more evolved being, who every day is forced to live amongst, to confront, the barbarous, drunken, and primitive. Moreover, the city is run by the tyrannical Don Reba, who plots and kills, and generally brutalises the locals, paying particular attention to the literate, who are captured and hung. It is in relation to this that one begins to understand the significance of the title.

Hard-to-Be-A-God

[From Aleksei German’s film adaptation of the book]

Rumata is the God [in fact numerous characters believe him to be divine] who has the power and knowledge to alter what is happening, even put a stop to it altogether. The dilemma that he faces is a theological one, is one that is generally thought to be God’s. Think about how often you hear people cussing God, criticising Him for not doing something to prevent or put a stop to certain tragedies. When bad things happen He is charged with not caring, with abandoning his children. The counter argument is that if you force people to be good, then goodness essentially becomes meaningless, and if you stop all disasters, if only positive things ever happen, you prevent people from learning through adversity. God, it is said, created free will, and created the world, and then left us all to it, come what may, and this is the best thing for us. These are some of the issues Hard to be a God asks you to consider.

Furthermore, Rumata is aware that he cannot make people enlightened. He could remove Don Reba, he could save individual lives [and he does], but this will actually change nothing, or very little, because the people will still be primitive. On this, I was put in mind of certain conflicts, which are deemed humanitarian, whereby the UK and/or US government has invaded countries and sought to remove a tyrannical regime, with Iraq being the most obvious example. I’m not, I ought to point out, calling Iraqis primitive, but there are parallels between that situation and Hard to be a God, as both raise questions about how much of a responsibility do we have to protect other nations, and how worthwhile is it if you cannot guarantee that the people will accept the new conditions and way of living? There is, moreover, something of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness about the Strugatsky’s book, in that there is a certain arrogance in going into another country [or planet, in this instance] and negatively judging it against your own. In fact, Hard to be a God could be interpreted as a comment on colonial arrogance, because it suggests that perhaps ‘uncivilised’ countries ought to be left alone, be allowed to develop and work things out on their own.

“And no matter how much the gray people in power despise knowledge, they can’t do anything about historical objectivity; they can slow it down, but they can’t stop it.”

It ought to be clear by now that this is a weighty, complex book. I have in this review really only tentatively jabbed at all the fascinating themes and ideas contained within it [I haven’t, for example, discussed the cyclical nature of history]. However, one thing that does demand some attention is the theory that Hard to be a God is political allegory, that the world it describes is really Russia in the 1960’s, the decade in which it was written. This is given weight by the Strugatsky’s themselves, who claimed to have started the book as a kind of Three Musketeers in Space historical romp, only to change their minds. They did so, it is said, due to fears that the death of Stalin, and the thaw that followed, had done little to change the climate of the country, that artists and their art were still under attack, would be suppressed etc. Yet while there is clearly some of this in the book – specifically Don Reba’s hatred for writers and the literate –  I feel it is reaching somewhat to suggest that this is the real or primary focus.

Before finishing I want to briefly touch upon a couple of negatives, one more serious than the other. The first is that Hard to be a God is essentially plotless, and pretty repetitive. You will, I’m sure, have your own tolerance levels where this sort of thing is concerned, but it didn’t particularly bother me. More of an issue was the ending, which felt rushed to me. It was as though the Strugatsky’s had simply taken on too much, too many big questions, and couldn’t figure out how to neatly tie up their narrative, and so it ends at an arbitrary point. Yet while this is a criticism it is, in a way, also a kind of compliment too, because I wanted the book to be longer, I wanted another couple of hundred pages so that we [the reader and the authors] could really, fully ride this engrossing and challenging story out and so achieve a more natural and rewarding conclusion.

WE BY ZEVGENY ZAMYATIN

I realised some time ago that I need freedom in all aspects of my life, that without it I become surly and depressed. My commitment fears; my intense, relentless fantasies about escape; my interest in creative subjects or activities; even the animals I admire [foxes, wolves, hares]: it all comes back to the same thing. Moreover, when I think back to my schooldays or any job I have had I’m immediately struck by how resistant I am to authority, so that if anyone tries to tell me what to do, or if it is demanded that I behave like everyone else, I immediately [childishly, perhaps] rebel. For example, whenever I was set a task in class, specifically in English or Art or Philosophy, subjects that I associated with a lack of rules, I would disregard it and do my own thing. Most of the time my teachers and lecturers accepted my work, welcomed it even, but there were occasions when I clearly pissed them off. I remember one time we were asked to write a story, and I made a suggestion about what I wanted to do, and this was rejected. And so I wrote something about murder and sodomy instead, and ended up getting dragged in front of the headmaster.

In this way, I am the opposite of D-503, the narrator of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s influential dystopian novel We, at least in the beginning anyway. When we meet D-503 he is a happy and productive drone, a mathematician [of course!] and engineer who is helping to build the Integral, which is a sort of space-rocket that is part of a plan to bring the One State’s ‘mathematically infallible happiness’ to other planets and civilisations [by force if necessary!]. Everything in the One State is regulated, is by appointment. You wake up, go to work, have your leisure time, etc when you are told to, at the prescribed hour; indeed, there is a Table of Hours, in which the greater part of your life is mapped out.

In Zamyatin’s future world, the focus is not on the I, but on the we. The One State is like a machine, and while people do have a defined function or role within it, it is the machine that takes precedence. Individuality is a threat to the perfect running of the machine, because individuals, with their own unique hopes and dreams and desires, are unpredictable. However, as noted, D-503 is not only happy to accept the prevailing conditions, the restricted or unfree mode of living, but is, in fact, convinced of its rightness and logicality. He also frequently scoffs at the Ancients [i.e. us] whose lives were defined by chaos, at one point dismissing our love of clouds, which for him spoil the perfect sterile blue of the sky.

We_7

[From a series of images based on Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We by Eda Akaltun]

Bearing all this in mind, one can see why We is often thought to be a comment upon, a critique of, Communism, or at least a warning or prediction of what Communism might lead to. Communism, on the most basic level, advocates a classless society, whereby everyone has the same status, and what is produced by the collective or community is shared equally or according to one’s needs. Therefore, We, and specifically the One State, where everyone dresses the same, has a number for a name, etc, could be considered to be a Communist state taken to its logical conclusion. Yet, for me, the One State utopia ought not to be compared to a specific political movement. If it is the model for anything it is a number of dictatorial regimes, most of which are/were not Communistic [although there is, of course, something of a connection between Communism and tyranny]. The inhabitants of the One State are dictated to by a supreme leader called the Benefactor, who cannot be voted out of power; and those who rebel, or do not do as they are told, are publicly liquidated. Yet, even this interpretation is unsatisfactory, because there is no sense that the people, the cyphers or drones, are being exploited or generally mistreated.

Perhaps the most interesting interpretation of what is going on in We is that it is a kind of retelling of the Adam and Eve story. The heart of that story is the question of whether it is better to live free and have the potential to be unhappy, or to have no free will but guaranteed happiness [i.e. to never feel pain etc], and this is also what Zamyatin asks you to consider. In the beginning of the book, D-503 [Adam] is living in a state of blissful ignorance. He then meets I-330 [Eve], and together they taste the forbidden fruit of freedom by doing things that are against the rules. In doing so, they cause trouble in Paradise [the One State] and piss off God [the Benefactor]. Was D-503 better off not knowing 1-330? Was he happier having never experienced obsession, jealousy, rage etc? Possibly, but I’m personally an advocate of letting your soul get a little dirty from time to time.

However, I must confess that if all that was all the novel had to offer, if it was simply a political or religious allegory or satire, I might not have made it to the end. I’m on record regarding my dissatisfaction with satire and allegory, and I don’t want to go over that again, except to say that, for me, satirical or allegorical dystopian novels are often not nearly as inventive, clever or funny as they think they are. So, for example, when we are told that D-503 finds it odd that the results of our [the Ancients] elections aren’t known beforehand like theirs are, where there is only one candidate [the Benefactor], I might smile slightly to myself, and think ‘yeah, I see what you’ve done there,’ but I’m hardly knocked out by how profound this observation is. Moreover, for a book that is credited with such foresight and prescience, We also suffers from feeling rather dated or too familiar, mostly owing to the writers [Orwell, Huxley etc] who were heavily influenced by the Russian’s work and used it for the basis of their own.

“You are afraid of it because it is stronger than you; you hate it because you are afraid of it; you love it because you cannot subdue it to your will. Only the unsubduable can be loved.”

What I did find engaging, and what, for me, ensures that We is still worth reading, that it will always be worth reading, is the prose style and what Zamyatin had to say about love. When we meet D-503 he is involved in a pseudo-relationship with O-90, a rather chubby and cheery non-entity. D-503 doesn’t love her, but, rather, there is a kind of mindless acceptance of the situation, as though it is a duty fulfilled. Yet when D-503 meets I-330 his world [literally] changes. Crucially, I-330 is different to O-90; O-90 is comfortable, safe, obliging. I-330, on the other hand, is mysterious and maddening. Throughout the text there are frequent references to lips and mouths, and it is telling that O-90’s is described as ‘inviting’ D-503’s words, while’s I-330’s contains sharp teeth.

So, while we may be dealing with future worlds and all that, D-503’s initial situation is the age-old human predicament of being caught between two women, of having a nice but dull girlfriend, but feeling drawn to someone more challenging. Ah, yes, we’ve all been there D. Yet just when you think that We is going to be a sci-fi Age of Innocence, it actually morphs into something else altogether, something more unsettling and, well, ultimately unhinged. As is often the case with these threesomes, D casts aside the safe-option, and goes all in with the woman who is clearly going to be hard work. It was possible that one would lose sympathy for D at this stage, that one would see him as callous or selfish, but that is not the case. In fact, the process of D falling in love for the first time happens to be really quite moving. First love is, of course, invariably a bitch. I’m sure you can remember yours as well as I can remember mine. The confusion, the despair…feeling as though something has entered you, and not being sure whether it is wonderful or toxic. One minute you were absolutely carefree, and now suddenly you feel plagued, discomforted. Zamyatin describes this disturbance of one’s equilibrium as like having a fine eyelash in your eye. I was really very taken with that.

As a consequence of being in love, D starts to act rashly, to make poor decisions, to lie. He is, in fact, prepared to do whatever it takes to please I-300 and get close to her, even if it means participating in the destruction of the One State he admires so much. Sounds familiar, right? Oh, of course, our love-lives do not, as a rule, have serious socio-political consequences, but what Zamyatin seems to be suggesting is that love is a dangerous business, and I happen to agree with him on that point. Love is chaos, it is illogicality, it is, well, yeah, it is freedom. Great, isn’t it? When one considers all this one comes to realise that the title of the book has a significance beyond the political, that it refers to a couple, a relationship. We, us, me and my true love.

“Now I no longer live in our clear, rational world; I live in the ancient nightmare world, the world of square roots of minus one.”

There is so much more that I want to say about D and I, about how one can interpret their relationship, about how even though I-300 just isn’t, y’know, as into it as he is, what matters is that he took a chance, that he opened himself up to the possibility of heartache, and how, for me, that is life at its best, that is what freedom truly is, but I am conscious of how long this review is already. I do, however, before I finish, want to briefly touch upon how intense a reading experience, and how unrelentingly psychological, We is, because I wasn’t prepared for that at all. One must remember that D is a man in crisis, a man who totally buys into the One State idea, and so as he follows I, as he rebels against it, one witnesses the entire fabric of his existence coming apart; this is a man, a mind, crumbling before your eyes. At times it is torturous to read in a way that only Dostoevsky’s work can match.

I haven’t yet said a great deal about the prose style, and I ought to to, because it is fantastic. I have never been accomplished at maths. My mind just isn’t wired that way. I knew enough to pass my GCSE, but I’ve always found numbers, equations, formulas, strangely alien and alienating, cold and restrictive. It is entirely apt then that We is strewn with mathematical references, language and symbols. Indeed, D-503 often uses mathematical imagery to describe people and things, which may sound gimmicky but is actually incredibly impressive. Less successful is the plot, which is episodic, repetitive, and never really goes anywhere, but I can forgive all that when the sentences are so beautiful, so idiosyncratic. More than anything, We reads like a delirious poem, a love poem for I-330, and for you too, you flawed but sometimes marvellous creatures.

ROADSIDE PICNIC BY ARKADY & BORIS STRUGATSKY

His career as a master criminal was short-lived. He was twelve or thirteen, and bored, bored with his life, with being poor, with having no prospects or anything to look forward to except the day when he could leave the stinking shithole where violence and misery stalked his heels like a pair of dark dogs. He had walked to Meadowhall, a large shopping centre that resembled a hellish doll’s house, and was kicking his heels. He had no money, but didn’t really want anything anyway. He just wanted to be somewhere away from what he knew, where, to his immature mind, people were living differently. He took a turn around a bookshop, lifting books from the shelves, and, without making any kind of conscious decision, put one of them under his t-shirt, tucked it down his jeans. He expected to be caught, to be nabbed at the entrance as he walked out, but he wasn’t.

He was more scared when he got outside, when he had got away with it, than he was in the act of stealing. He knew he had done something wrong, that it should not have played out like that, and that is why he went back. He realised afterwards, that he wanted to be caught, that being caught was part of it. Something had to happen, of that he was adamant; he wanted something important to happen to him, something momentous, to give his day some sort of meaning. So he went back in, and he came back out again. Another book. No one batted an eyelid. Three, four more times. Nothing. The situation had become absurd. He was untouchable, or so he felt. Why will no one acknowledge me? Am I really this insignificant? And then, eventually, they did notice him. He had become more and more reckless; he made no effort to conceal what he was doing, and, in fact, could barely walk for all the books he had hidden on his person.

He was relieved when the security guard touched him on the shoulder. He wasn’t rough, he simply requested that he turn around and accompany him. He took him ‘in the back’ and the police were called. Only he didn’t think they were really the police. They didn’t have on uniforms and they don’t send out non-uniformed officers to deal with teenage shoplifters. It was a ruse, a way of scaring him straight. He was already straight, they didn’t get it. He wasn’t going to steal again. He had done it and had got what he wanted, which was their attention, and a new experience. Something different. No matter how negative. The policemen drove him home. He sat in the back of the car swearing to myself. They threatened to arrest him. He smiled.

Redrick ‘Red’ Schuhart is a stalker, a criminal. He stalks the Zone at night, without permission. The Zone is what the aliens left behind, after the Visit; it is a dangerous place, full of alien litter, which can kill or mutate the people stupid enough or greedy enough to enter. However, this litter is valuable, and that is why Red is important. Schuhart is an average kind of guy, street-smart, but relatively poor. He has spent time in prison for stalking, which is illegal. He drinks a lot, swears a lot, and smokes a lot; he delivers wise-cracks like a hard-boiled, tough-talking PI; he is an irascible, but likeable anti-hero. On the most basic level, Roadside Picnic is a pulp novel, a noir, about an ex-con trying to go straight. Red frequently alludes to wanting to get out of the game, to become a normal citizen, and yet he never does.

stalker

[A still from Stalker, Andrei Tarkovsky’s film adaptation of the book]

It is suggested that Red became a stalker, i.e. someone who enters the Zone and steals and sells objects from it, for money; he says himself that he requires money so as to be able to live without having to count every penny. Therefore, sure, you could see Roadside Picnic as being about what people feel forced to do in order to survive, in order to live comfortably, but for me that is too simplistic. It struck me that Red is just like the kid I wrote about in my introduction, that he continues to be a stalker, even after being arrested and doing time in prison, even after the birth of his daughter, when he has so much more to lose, because he needs the excitement, he needs to feel like someone. The Strugatsky’s write about the ‘surrounding, indifferent chaos,’ Red himself talks about life being ‘gray,’ and this is, I think, most telling, most significant. Some people don’t want to go straight because that would mean they are just like everyone else, working for a cunt of a boss [Red is antagonised by authority and frequently rebels against it], plodding towards extinction.

“I lock myself in the stall, take out the flask, unscrew it, and attach myself to it like a leech. I’m sitting on the bench, my heart is empty, my head is empty, my soul is empty, gulping down the hard stuff like water. Alive. I got out. The Zone let me out. The damned hag. My lifeblood. Traitorous bitch. Alive. The novices can’t understand this. No one but a stalker can understand. And tears are pouring down my face—maybe from the booze, maybe from something else. I suck the flask dry; I’m wet, the flask is dry. As usual, I need just one more sip. Oh well, we’ll fix that. We can fix anything now. Alive. I light a cigarette and stay seated. I can feel it—I’m coming around.”

Roadside Picnic is not, however, simply a character study. While it isn’t as relentlessly philosophical, or thought-provoking, as, say, Solaris, there are many points of interest outside of the protagonist. The objects, for example, that are smuggled out of the Zone are, as previously noted, valuable to humans, both scientifically and criminally. However, one character, Doctor Pillman, states that as these objects are alien, we therefore cannot truly understand them or utilise them properly, not yet anyway. Stanislaw Lem makes a similar point in many of his novels, which is that if you can only bring human reasoning, understanding etc to an alien life-form or object or message then you cannot fail but to misunderstand it. Humans and aliens are, to all intents and purposes, incompatible; and contact, genuine contact is, therefore, impossible. Like in His Master’s Voice, the Strugatsky’s show humans misusing and misinterpreting the alien. The aliens are far more advanced than we are, and so when we try to interact with their litter, when we try to utilise it, we are, essentially, like monkeys using an ipad as a dinner plate.

There is also something darkly funny about the nature of the alien visits. I’ve long thought that we are interested in aliens coming to earth, in alien-human contact, not because we want to study the creatures or learn from them, but because, in our arrogance, we think that we are worthy of their attention. The Strugatsky’s brilliantly burst this bubble, by having their aliens visit earth, only to make a mess of it, then skidaddle without ever saying a word or doing anything of note or paying humans any attention at all. The upshot of their visit is that the aliens couldn’t give a monkeys about us, and why should they? They are, as I wrote in the previous paragraph, far more advanced then we are, so why would they want to hang around with the likes of us? This is, of course, where the title of the book comes from, which is to say that the aliens came to earth almost as a kind of stopover to somewhere more exciting, almost by accident, as though they had a brief picnic and then carried on on their way.

“A picnic. Picture a forest, a country road, a meadow. Cars drive off the country road into the meadow, a group of young people get out carrying bottles, baskets of food, transistor radios, and cameras. They light fires, pitch tents, turn on the music. In the morning they leave. The animals, birds, and insects that watched in horror through the long night creep out from their hiding places. And what do they see? Old spark plugs and old filters strewn around… Rags, burnt-out bulbs, and a monkey wrench left behind… And of course, the usual mess—apple cores, candy wrappers, charred remains of the campfire, cans, bottles, somebody’s handkerchief, somebody’s penknife, torn newspapers, coins, faded flowers picked in another meadow.”

I wrote in my review of Solaris that Sci-Fi doesn’t really do it for me, and maybe I ought to revise that opinion, because I enjoyed this novel very much. However, the Strugatsky’s, again like Lem, are more concerned with us than they are aliens. There are no intergalactic battles, no spaceships, we don’t even see the creatures that created the Zones. Roadside Picnic is a [broadly pessimistic] study of human nature. Think about how what is discovered in, or retrieved from, the Zones creates a black market and an industry whereby people are trying to snaffle up the stuff for themselves to serve their own ends. The message here seems to be that whatever man comes into contact with he will seek to exploit it, corrupt it, make money out of it. Furthermore, one could also point to the picnic idea as being a hint at environmentalism, as being a critique of the way that we treat our planet, and the animals that share it with us. The truth is that we are pretty disgusting, and we are making a big fucking mess of this eternally spinning globe. So, sure, there may be something out there, but is it any wonder that they have turned their backs on us?