Thursday, December 11, 2014

2014 Best of the Best

I guess its that time of year when all of us make lists of the best books we've read all year. Here's mine, i.e., here are the books that touched me the most; that inspired me and lingered in my thoughts throughout the year- my personal best of the best:

Best Book about Nature
Queen Fish - by Viktor Astafyev
A wonderful short story cycle about nature, hunting and fishing in Russia's far north. I'm no hunting and fishing buff, but this book really won me over in a big way. The character Akim is one of my absolute favourites! Although I highly recommend this entire short story cycle, if you can only read one of the short stories, don't miss "Dream of the White Mountains"; an unforgettable short story that will stay with you long after its been read. 

Golden Ass

Best Comedic Works
The Golden Ass - by Apuleius
This was one of the year's most pleasant surprises. Those of you who think the classics are dull and boring are in for a real treat here. In fact, Ancient Rome which really didn't seem so 'ancient' and 'uncontemporary' to me anymore after reading this book

Carps and Pikes - by Arkady Averchenko
Sadly overlooked by contemporary readers, 19th century author Arkady Averchenko's short stories are good fun. My favourite is the Dobble's Galoshes story (a spoof on Sherlock Holmes)

Алексиевич Светлана - У войны — не женское лицо… скачать бесплатно

Best Books about War
War doesn't have a Woman's Face - Svetlana Alekseyevich
Not literature so much as a compilation of women's accounts of their wartime experiences; this book is a real eye-opener to the suffering and sacrifices of Soviet women during World War II. A must-read.

The Punishers - Ales Adamovich
This is one of those rare World War II books where you're invited into the heads of the Nazi officers. Why did they do what they did?

Абрамов Федор - ЦИКЛ: ПРЯСЛИНЫ (Весь)
The Pryaslin Tetrology - Fyodor Abramov
One of the best series about the effects of the war on the Russian countryside

Front Cover Jamilia front apge.jpg
Best Books about Love
Jamilia by Chingiz Aitmatov
Described as 'the best love story ever written', I might not go that far, but I will confidently say that this tale set in rural Kyrgyzstan was the best love story I read all year.

Best Childrens Stories
The Scarlet Flower - by Sergey Aksakov
"Beauty and the Beast", Russian style. 

Адамов Григорий - Тайна двух океанов скачать бесплатно
The Secret of Two Oceans - by Gregory Adamov
A great, educational, at times thrilling adventure novel with positive role-models for the children in all of us.

Волос Андрей. Возвращение в Панджруд
Best Historical Fiction
Return to Pandzhrud - Andrey Volos
My favourite contemporary novel of the year. A brilliant, and I mean brilliant biography of 8th-9th century Tajiko-Persian poet Rudaki and really...what "The Alchemist" ought to have been.

The Trilogy of Books - by Sergey Antonov
Another wonderful author who has unfortunately been too often overlooked. His at times funny, educational and ultimately touching series of historical novels about the NEP, collectivization and Moscow metro construction periods in Soviet history are well worth a read.

Алданов Марк - Святая Елена, маленький остров скачать бесплатно
The Thinker Tetrology - Mark Aldanov
An incredible masterpiece of historical fiction. Aldanov takes us on a fascinatingly educational trip around Europe. We learn indepth details about the great revolutions of the 17th-18th century and more about the mechanics of revolutions in general. Wished you had been able to lurk around in the backrooms of Napoleon, Robespierre and Tsar Pavel among others? Then read these books. Highly recommended.

Works that Completely Exceeded my Expectations
Short Stories - by Aleksandr Ampiteatrov
Yet another overlooked 19th century author who wrote some really wonderful, rather mystical short stories. 

бесплатно читать книгу Дата Туташхиа автора Чабуа Амирэджиби
The Best of the Best
Data Tutashkhia - Chabua Amiredzhebi
An epic masterpiece about a Georgian outlaw, morally compelled to do good, by Georgia's most renowned author. This book is huge, dense, thought-provoking and one that I would love to read again.

Capitães da Areia
Captains of the Sand - Jorge Amado
an immensely touching novel about the street children of 20th century Brazil

Russian Tragedy - Pyotr Alyoshkin
The second of two contemporary novels that really blew me away this year. I couldn't stop reading this extremely well-written, thriller of a novel. I devoured it in two hours. Incredibly clever; its rather unfortunate that this book was not translated into English.

Return to Pandzhrud - Andrey Volos

The Thinker Tetrology - Mark Aldanov

Spotted Dog Running Along the Seashore - Chingiz Aitmatov
A beautiful, almost fable-like short story by Kyrghizstan's most famous writer

A Day Lasts Longer than a Thousand Years - Chingiz Aitmatov
I first read this book 3 years ago and it has haunted me since. Complex, layered with legends and overlapping stories from the past, present and future, it is almost certainly like nothing else you have ever read.

The White Steamship - Chingiz Aitmatov
I have read this short story at least 4 times and will most likely read it many times over. A beautiful fairytale for adults that will reduce you to tears each time you read. Classic Chingiz. 

The Pryaslin Tetrology - Fyodor Abramov
What can I say? Its a tetrology about collective farming, of all things, yet its brilliant, with some of the best characterizations in fiction. Misha Pryaslin in particular, is one of my favourite characters in fiction.

(RNL #56) "Red Cavalry" by Isaac Babel (Ukraine)

Red Cavalry Isaac Babel

Rating: 1.5 out of 3

We are now moving along to the 'B's on the Russian National Library 1000 Greatest Works of Literature list. That means that in upcoming months, I'll be reading works by famous literary names such as Balzac, Blok, Bulgakov and... Babel'. 

Isaak Babel' (1894-1940, ne Bobel') was born in the Ukrainian city of Odessa; the third child in the family of Jewish merchant Manya Itskovich. Babel' was fluent in Russian, Hebrew and French (his first literary works were, in fact, written in French). He studied commerce and economics in Odessa and Kiev. In 1916, he moved to Petrograd, despite not having had the right to (at the time, in Tsarist Russia, Jews were not allowed to live in the capital). In Petrograd, he attended law school. 1916 was a notable year for Babel' as it was the year when he met a certain Maksim Gorkiy. Gorkiy published his stories "Mama, Rimma and Alla" and "Elya Isaakovich and Margarita Prokofievna" in his literary journal. These stories, unfortunately, garnered the wrong kind of attention for Babel' and almost got him tried on charges of blasphemy, pornography and attacks against the establishment(!) He was only really saved by the events of 1917. 

In 1918, Babel' served for a few months as a soldier on the Romanian front; deserted, then returned to Petrograd. In 1920, under the pseudonym Lyutov, Babel' enlisted in the Red Cavalry as a war correspondent. As such, Babel' subsequently participated in the Soviet Polish war of 1920. His notes taken during the war served as the basis for the cycle of short stories ("Red Cavalry") that would make him famous.

From the 1920s onwards, Babel' started publishing some of his most famous works: the aforementioned "Red Cavalry" stories and the even more renowned "Odessa Tales" (review to follow shortly).

In 1939, Babel' was arrested for anti soviet conspiratorial terrorist activity and spying. At the time of his arrest, several literary manuscripts were confiscated from him and lost forever. Babel' was convicted and shot on January 27, 1940 and from 1939 to 1955 he was removed from Soviet literature. In 1955, he was rehabilitated postmortem. 

There are two works by Babel' on the Russian National Library list. "Red Cavalry" is the first. As previously mentioned, "Red Cavalry" is a semi-autobiographical collection of short stories based on Babel's own experiences in the Soviet-Polish war. The stories are at times very short and jump quickly from one character and/or event to another.

Now, "Red Cavalry" is a bit of a difficult literary work for me to review. I concede that Babel is a talented writer with a unique style, i.e., sparse, but very vivid and original descriptions of persons, places and things (e.g. . 'The wind jumped between the branches like a crazed rabbit'), however, I found the tales and characters themselves to be, for the most part rather forgettable (this may have partially been due to the fact that I never felt I had the time to really get attached to any of the characters, as the stories were often very short and jumped often from one character to another). I also found Babel's writing style, a mix of fact and absurdism/humour to be a bit, well...almost inappropriate when speaking about war (e.g. a man riding out of nowhere on multiple occasions to steal captured Polish soldiers' clothes, a woman trying to get her horse pregnant in the middle of a war, a man who leaves the communist party because he didn't get the horse he wanted, etc.) I also found the stories to be rather one-sided (i.e. painting Red Cavalry officers in a negative light, whereas, I think that war atrocities and bad behavior are more often than not found on both sides). This could of course be due to the fact that Babel' had less knowledge of what the 'other side' was up to, so maybe I'm being a bit harsh (?)

I'm giving "Red Cavalry" a 1.5, but I'm sure I'll give "Odessa Tales", Babel's other famous work a much more favourable review. (I'm a third of the way through and really enjoying it!)

Sunday, November 16, 2014

(RNL #51) "Queen-Fish" - Viktor Astaf'yev (Russia)

Rating: 2.5 out of 3

Е-кэ-лэ-мэ-нэ!!!! (the signature expression of one of "Queen Fish's most endearing characters, Akim)

"Queen-Fish" (which can be more literally translated as "Tsar-Fish") is a short story cycle that was written by Viktor Astafyev in the 70s about life in the Siberian Taiga. What makes Astaf'yev such a brilliant author is the fact that in "Queen-Fish", he takes a seemingly uninteresting subject, i.e. fishing and hunting in the Siberian North, and makes it interesting and engaging for the average, main-stream reader. Yep, that's right- all of the short stories in the series are wholly about fishing and hunting. But please, don't let that turn you off, as this book is definitely worth reading: Through the stories we follow the intertwining lives of the author, his relatives and friends in the harsh, but beautiful, Siberian taiga:

Boie - the first short story in the cycle is named in honor of an extremely loyal Siberian dog. The story also recounts a very interesting and bordering-on-mystical hunting trip taken by the author's brother up in the far north. Now, I am not a hunting person by any means, but the descriptions of the hunting procedures and conditions up north were fascinating to me. 

Drop (of water) - In this story, the author goes on a fishing trip with his son, brother and my favourite character from the book, Akim (Е-кэ-лэ-мэ-нэ!!!!). Akim is an utterly adorable Taiga native who has the cutest, most adorable Russian accent (I'm interested to know how translators reproduced it in English!). Akim's most endearing character traits are his innate sense of goodness and humanity. He is a man who selflessly takes care of people, but often himself gets the short end of the stick (as the book's later stories reveal). Digression aside, in this particular story, the focus is on nature and Siberian fishing. Be prepared for copious descriptions of nature (more-or-less a hallmark of Astaf'yev fiction). The copious descriptions of nature can be a bit much for those not so interested in nature, but Astaf'yev is worth it. Keep reading!!

Damka - A nice little character study of a Siberian villager nicknamed 'Damka'. An interesting feature in this story is that it makes a passing, almost unnoticeable reference to characters that we will meet in later stories (i.e. the librarian Lyuda, Gertsev and Elya). The most interesting part of this story was the description of the usage of the infamous 'samolov'(self-fishing tool, perhaps in English); an ecologically devastating piece of illegal fishing equipment used by Siberian fisherman to increase their haul. 

By the Golden Karga - another well-written character study of a Siberian villager nicknamed 'Komandor'. We learn more about illegal fishing operations in the far North. 

Grokhotalo the Fisherman - a third character study. This time the author introduces us to Grokhotalo, a Ukrainian immigrant, famous for his tasty 'salo' and aloofness. 

Queen-Fish - Perhaps, the most famous story of the book. We follow yet another fisherman, Ignat'ich, who manages to hook a 'Queen Fish', that is, an enormous fish of epic proportions (really a once-in-a-lifetime event for a far-North fisherman). Local superstition, however, maintains that once a fisherman has found his 'Queen-Fish', he needs to let it go or face grave consequences. Our brave fisherman decides not to heed superstition, and risks everything in a life-and-death battle with the fish...

Ukha (Fish Soup) at Boganida - The narrative returns to the life of my favourite Akim (Е-кэ-лэ-мэ-нэ!!!!). In this story, we learn about Akim's childhood; about his childishly eccentric mother, and the fish soup that nourished Akim and all of his siblings.

Funeral - Another story about Akim. This time we learn of a tragic hunting accident that befalls Akim and his colleague, Petrunya. We also are re-introduced to Gertsev, a character that plays a key role in Akim's life in a later story.

The Turkhansk Lily - I don't recall much about what this story was about. Nature, I believe, and about this remarkable lily that the author was surprised to see in the harsh northern climate.

Dream of the White Mountains - My favourite story in the book and the story that inspired the famous "Taiga Story" movie. (Remember that famous line repeated again and again at the end of the movie - "Akimaaaaa!!! Akimaaaaa!!!" This is a remarkably touching story about humanity, embodied by the gentle caring Akim, and raw egoism (as represented by the two other main characters in the story, Gertsev and Elya). These three characters, who had previously crossed paths in earlier stories, meet up again under harsh and unforgiving circumstances. In life and death circumstances, when each person is forced to show their true colors, who truly is wise, civilized and compassionate? The worldy Gertsev? The cosmopolitain Muscuvite Elya? Or the lone Siberian hunter, Akim?

There's no Answer- On a flight home from Siberia, the author reflects on his life and on his birthplace. He reflects on how much everything has changed, and how everything will likely continue to do so.

Now this is a very unique set of short stories that I really recommend. My only complaint? I wish there was more about Akim! Would it be too much to ask for Akim to have a happy ending?? 2.5 out of 3.

I hope that this post and the ones preceding it have inspired you to discover a new Russian author (i.e. not one of the big three, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov). Astaf'yev is part of the Russian school reading list to this day, and rightfully so. Happy reading!

Monday, September 29, 2014

"Description of a City" - Dmitry Danilov (2013 "Big Book Prize" Finalist

Rating: 0.5 out of 3

("Description of a City" was written by Dmitry Danilov (b. 1969 in Moscow))

This novel didn't win any major awards in 2013, and hence, should not have qualified for my contemporary Russian literature reading list. However, the premise of the book seemed so intriguing, that I had to give it a read. As per the synopsis: "Description of a City" was born out of an experiment: can you make another city your "own"? Can you familiarize yourself with it, can you love it? Would it be enough just to visit it every month over the course of a year, observe its residents, look at the buildings and walk along the streets?..."

Given that the book was advertised as a work of literature, I expected it to be a descriptive literary study of a city, its residents, and the whole, complex process of 'adopting' a city as your own. Unfortunately, I was very sorely disappointed. To me, the novel was absolutely flat; both in content and style. While I expected Danilov to provide interesting, insightful description of the city; he offers only sparse snippets of his trips up and down the city on various forms of transport- oh, and of course - the results of local sporting events. There is also no real attempt by Danilov to connect, or befriend any of the residents of this city. And given that he limits his short monthly travels to the city to a number of major transportation routes, airports and sporting arenas, how could he even venture to assert that he had made any real attempt to make the city his own? 

Now, perhaps the novel might even have had some redeeming qualities, had Danilov actually written about what he observed in an engaging, literary style. But oh no- Danilov's prose is incredibly sparse and...basically...reads like the shorthand notes of 'any-person-Russia' who simply jotted down a few impressions of trips here and there. There are incredibly limited descriptions of nature (shocking for a book that is 80% about the author's trips up and down municipal transportation routes). The descriptions of sporting events were as well, ruthlessly sparse and devoid of life (e.g. so and so attempted to score, so and so attempted to score again, goal).

Danilov's refusal to actually name anything in the book by its name, simply referring to almost everything as, for example, 'The-Hotel-in-the-Region-of-the-City-that-is-Being-Described' grows progressively more and more irritating with each turn of the page, as does Danilov's rants about certain communist figures that he quite obviously - and jarringly- takes issues with.

Perhaps the real experiment associated with this book is not, whether or not the author came to make another city his own- but rather, what sort of dull, utterly un-literary writing can pass off for literature these days in Russia. On that score, I would give Danilov a gold star.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

"Red Light" - Maksim Kantor (Russia) 2013 "Big Book" Shortlister

Rating: 3 out of 3

"And if I will at some point have enough strength, I will once again defend equality. I will build a world of equality. I will work for all people. I'll write and live so that everyone is equal to their comrade and so no one will wish for a speck more than his equal share. This is the only thing worth living for. Now I know that its a very dangerous path. But I don't want anything else. To be equal to another is very dangerous. I want to see the red light of danger in front of me and walk towards the red light." 

As much as I would love to read all of the books nominated for 2013 major Russian literary awards this year, given the time constraints, I have to limit myself to only a number of selections. "Red Light" by Maksim Kantor was one of the first books that immediately went on my "To-Read" list. Nominated for the 2013 "Big Book Prize": 

'the author...writes about the great war of the last century and discusses our time, as history is unified. Hitler, Stalin, the conspiracy of the Generals of the Wehrmacht, the struggle between today's government and opposition leaders, the intrigues of politicians, romantic escapades, collectivization and privatization, the swamps of Rzhev in 1942 and Bolotnaya Square in 2012 - all of these threads form a living tapestry which our destinies are also woven into."

For a political/his-fic fan like myself, this sounded like required reading(!) But first things first...let's introduce the novel's author! Maksim Karlovich Kantor (1957-present) is a Russian writer, poet, lecturer and political commentator, but is probably most famous in the West for his artwork. Take a look at this:

and this...

There's something very riveting about the man's artwork, no? :) Speaking of which, here's a picture of the artist himself...

Kantor's Father was a famous philosopher and art historian, his Grandfather was a minerologist and Spanish playwright, his Mother was a geneticist. "Red Light" is Kantor's second novel (the first, which came out in 2005-2006, also came out to rave reviews). 

Now, going back to my thoughts on the novel. I'd first like to say that if you don't like politics or history, and if you were that person who hated all of the 'lecturing' in "War and Peace" and just wanted Tolstoy to 'get on with the story, already', then this book is really not for you. Run away from it at all costs. For everyone else, this is really a must-must read. Now, you'll see reviews of this book all over the blogosphere, and most people, even if they don't at all agree with Kantor's view on history and politics, still insist that this is a book that you should most definitely read. And you should. What Kantor has assembled here is an alternate view of 20th century European history. The book is incredibly dense: filled with historical accounts of the Russian Revolution, WWII, the repressions within the Soviet government in the '30's, as well as modern-day political events in Russia. You will learn A LOT reading this book. Then, of course, there's Kantor's political take on all of this; his arguments that all of these events are linked and that history has been repeating himself. Kantor stretches our perception of the world, nay- provokes us, to look at the history in a very different way from the version outlined in our highschool textbooks, with his comparisons of Hitler to Putin, Stalin to Hitler, Trotsky to Hitler; his theories on, ex/: why democracy needs war; war versus revolutions; that humanity has always striven towards equality, but that governments have always done their inmost to perpetuate inequality (often with the help of war), etc. etc. etc.

Now if you're going to read this book, I sincerely recommend that you read all the way to the end. There have been comments by readers that the book could almost have been made into several separate books, e.g. a detective novel, the unpublished confessions of one of Hitler's confidantes, a chronicle of a Russian soldier's experience prior to and during WWII, etc. There are also a huge number of characters in the novel which might initially frustrate, but believe me when I say that there is method in Kantor's madness! The first part of the book is absolutely brilliant (though you'll only know why towards the very end!) My advice- write down the name of every new Russian yuppy that you come across in the book's first pages as well as what their profession happens to be, and have it handy for the rest of the book, as you'll meet these same people (and perhaps, their predecessors) in very unexpected places throughout the course of the novel. This is a very dense, heavy book, with lots of moving parts, but everything comes nicely together if you stay with it! 

Furthermore, what I've just said shouldn't at all be interpreted as reference to the book being boring. No, no...this is a riveting book that can be read very quickly and with great interest. Just have a highlighter ready to highlight innumerable paragraphs with interesting historical/political facts and theories, e.g.:

"If you were to rely on the facts" I said "then it turns out that Adolf Hitler killed less people then the enlightened democratic turns out that after the war, more people died. Stalin and Adolf were just a general rehearsal."

"Civilization assimilated the lessons of Hitler, but is ashamed of itself. Hitler broke up Czechoslovakia, and this is exactly what the liberal world has repeated today- simply and precisely...Ukraine against Russia was the brilliant plan of the Furor....Hitler armed the Albanians by creating the Kosovo Legion of the SS which manifested itself solely in the shootings of the Serbian population, but its exactly this that has happened right now, thanks to the motioning of democratic hands."

"Freedom doesn't signify your own personal gratification but the fulfillment of your societal duty, your duty towards all of the people on earth....Your duty is your freedom. It all comes part and parcel. Its impossible to be free without fulfilling your duty."

"You can only constrain a country of such dimensions and with such a climate (Russia) through the creation of internal dissension."

"Society needs inequality- otherwise, its impossible to control people."

"The airplanes of the Luftwaffe that bombed the USSR and England, that killed English, Russian and American soldiers used oil produced by American corporations."

"Franklin Roosevelt's decree of December 13, 1941 allowed business deals with companies under Nazi control...Ford's factories on the territory of occupied France operated regularly. Volkswagen belonged 100% to General Motors and Opel, which belonged to Ford, produced nothing but tanks...Every year on Adolf's birthday, dear Mr. Henry Ford transferred fifty thousand dollars into our account, starting from the day of the founding of the Nazi Party. You ask why? Well, because the book by Henry Ford "The International Jew" was published three years before Adolf's book and Ford was the only American that my Adolf made reference to....and you can be sure, my friend, that Henry Ford supplies his cars to us completely free of charge...and what about the help which was provided to the Reich by Mister Prescott Bush, a Texan millionare, the director of "Union Bank?"

"At some point, industry in Europe will vanish, the population of Africa will labour and white men will start to print money."

"World wars are the struggles between magnates."

"Practically not one of the Generals of the Wehrmacht served his sentence....By 1955, everyone who had received 25 years was released, but as a rule, people were freed in 1947."

"As has become the tradition in Russia, emigrees start with revelations and end up collaborating with secret services."

"Democracy has officially been recognized as the model of societal order, however, its long been clear to everyone, that in Western countries, the form of rule the world over is by oligarchs."

"Revolution is the war of a poor man. War is the revolution of a rich man."

"The death toll amongst Soviet prisonners of war was without precedent and comparable to the Jewish Holocaust."

"During the 30 years of the existence of the Gulags, 3.3 million prisoners died; that is, exactly as many as the number of Russian soldiers who died in German internment camps over four years."

"The middle class is the only possible form of equality within capitalism....the middle class will be done away with when the time comes to act. Its just a matter of devaluing shares. While the middle class justifies local wars, its needed; when the time comes for a big war- the middle class will be done away with."

"Have you really not understood that freedom is provided on credit?"

Etc. etc... this is just a sampling of the many many passages I have highlighted from this book. In summary, "Red Light" is a great book, and one of the best of 2013 for sure. (I'm really not sure how it managed not to win any major book prizes- where's the justice??) 

There's plenty here in "Red Light" to agree or disagree over. A perfect book to debate with your politically savvy friends. 3 out of 3.

Coming up next: A look at epic "Queen-Fish" by Viktor Astafiev and 2013 Booker Prize Finalist "The Harbin Moths" by Andrey Ivanov.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

(RNL #50) "The Theft" - Viktor Astafyev (Russia)

Rating: 2.5 out of 3

"Life truly begins for a person when the person starts to think about his actions and takes responsibility for them."

"The Theft" is one of Astafyev's earlier novels. I actually started reading this novel three years ago, but for some reason stopped, forgot the title of the book/author, and only re-discovered it now. The novel centres around an orphanage in Russia's cold and inhospitable North. As mentioned previously, Astafyev lived, for a time, in an orphanage, and this book is likely, at least in some part, based on his own childhood experiences.

Some of the main characters in the novel are: Tolya, a young, brave, bookwormish lad who is the orphan children's unofficial leader; the orphanage's director, a former Russian aristocrat and White Army Officer, who now 'serves the children' as selflessly as he once served his Tsar; Zina Kondakova, a.k.a. Tolya's love interest; and the nameless Paralitik; an orphan, whom, as you might probably guess from his nickname, is an embittered child cripple with paralyzed limbs (sort of reminiscent in character of Legless from "Captains in the Sand"). 

As can be expected from a work by Astafyev, the novel featured sweeping, lyrical descriptions of its setting; a small town in Russia's North. There are copious descriptions of the locale's flora, fauna and the local logging and port industries. 

The plot of "The Theft" primarily focuses on a robbery undertaken by a gang of children from the orphanage that results in tragic consequences: an adult is wrongly jailed for the crime and her children are sent to the orphanage where the true criminals reside. The theft, and its consequences, serve as a huge moral lesson for many of the children who are now forced to grapple with conscience and responsibility for their actions.

More broadly, the novel is about growing up; about the struggles each and every person faces as he/she transitions from childhood to adulthood. What kind of person would we each like to be? What can we do to ensure that our lives turn towards the positive and not, towards a life of crime?

"The Theft" ultimately turned out to be a rather sad, dreamy novel that I really recommend. 2.5 out of 3.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

(RNL #49) "The Horse with a Pink Mane" - Viktor Astafyev (Russia)

Rating: 1.5 out of 3

As promised in my previous post, I will spend the month of August reading works by famed Soviet/Russian author, Viktor Astafyev. Astafyev (1924-2001) was born in the village of Ovsyanka. Now, If you want to read more about Astafyev's life, I recommend reading his cycle of autobiographical sketches, "The Last Bow". However, just very briefly here: Astafyev's Father was imprisoned for being a harmful element. His Mother drowned in an tragic boat accident in 1931. Astafyev was then raised by his grandparents until his Father's release from prison. Tragedy struck Astafyev again when his Father was hospitalized, leaving Astafyev homeless. After several months on the streets, Astafyev eventually ended up in an orphanage. As was the case with almost all Soviet youth of his age, Astafyev served during World War II. Astafyev started publishing his literary works in the 50's and met with notable success. 

The first work by Astafyev that I'm going to discuss is "The Horse with a Pink Mane". This short story comes from the aforementioned "Last Bow" short story cycle. Its about one of the most memorable episodes in Astafyev's childhood; the events surrounding Astafyev's receipt of a much-beloved treat; a gingerbread horse with a pink mane. Now, if you like lyrical works say, for example, "Autumn in Taman" by Viktor Likhonosov, or even Aksakov's "The Childhood of Bagrov's Grandson", you'll love this tale. The story is predominantly a lyrical description of nature and country life in the village of Ovsyanka. I'm not that much of a fan of lyricism, so I found the bits of narrative about the 'wild' Levontyevsky family to be the most interesting parts of the tale.

I'm not going to say that I adored this short story, as it wasn't my cup of tea, but it could be interesting to readers who enjoy lyrical works about 20th century country life in Russia.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

(RNL #47) "The Royal Rabbits"- Peter Asbjornsen (Norway)

Rating: 1.5 out 3

We leave the former Soviet Union for a brief detour into Norway...
"The Royal Rabbits" is a short story by famous Norwegian writer and scholar, Peter Christen Asbjornsen (1812-1885). Okay, you may never, ever have heard of him, but you've read "The Three Billy Goats Gruff", right? That was by Asbjornsen!

And now, a few biographical details: Asbjornsen was born in Oslo. A zoologist by profession, he began to collect and write down fairytales from all around Norway at the age of 20. 

Although I've probably read hundreds of fairytales, this was my first time reading "The Royal Rabbits". Its the story of three lazy brothers, out to make an easy living by herding 'royal' rabbits. They are, however, thwarted in this enterprise by a rather sadistic King and his family. At the end of the day, however,- as can be expected- one of the lazy brothers prevails thanks to the help of good fortune and magic.

Admittedly, this was not my favourite fairytale (I prefer the Russian Ivan-Durachok stories, which are much more fun and imaginative); however this was a light and easy read all the same. 1.5 out of 3.

Coming soon (in August): A month of Viktor Astafeyev and, on the contemporary Russian literature front, a look at Maksim Kantor's (in?)famous "Red Light". 

(RNL #45) "My Poor Marat" - Aleksey Arbuzov (Russia)

Rating: 2 out of 3

"Marat: Why do you call me poor Marat?
Lika: Because you believe in the impossible.
Marat: Maybe they just didn't come back from the war - those who thought the same way I do?"

"My Poor Marat" is the second of the two plays I've just read by famed Russian playwright, Aleksey Arbuzov. This is the story of three young people (Marat, Lika and Leonidik) who are joined in some strange, and seemingly eternal bond, after their paths cross during World War 2. The youth meet as teenagers in wartime Leningrad; each with idealistic hopes and dreams for the future. The heroic and dashing Marat longs to build bridges that will connect people; the past and the present; Lika dreams of becoming a medical researcher, who will rid the world of illnesses; and Leonidik hopes to become a great poet. The teens are also involved in a strange love triangle that plays out in a very strange and unexpected manner...

But nevermind the wierd and rather creepy(?) love triangle; nevermind Leonidik's utterly annoying habit of referring to himself in the 3rd person; and let's even ignore that irrestible urge to hit Lika over the head for burning all of Marat's possessions and not being able to come to a simple, independent conclusion as to who she prefers...

This a play about the gap between childhood dreams and reality; the fact that so often, our lofty, adolescent ideals make way for mediocrity. But here, Arbuzov poses to us a question: at that crucial turning point, our 30's, when we fully realise that we have strayed so far from our ideals and ambitions. Is it now too late? Are we too late to connect the ambitions and ideals of the past with our future? Is it too late to start afresh and pursue our dreams?

"Marat: Well, let's think- when is a person finished? When he suddenly understands that everything in his life has already been decided and he will never become anything more elevated than what he already is. I'm not talking about work, I'm talking about something bigger..."

"Marat:...I had a strange dream tonight... I'm standing on an enormous bridge; it hasn't been finished yet - do you understand? - and I should finish the job. But all around, there's this reckless wind...I look around and I see two shores; on one shore is my childhood- 1st of May parades, the battleship "Marat" and my Father and his friends...and on the other- the world after the war, my new life...And I'm standing on this unfinished bridge, the waves are getting stronger and stronger, and higher- and I can't, I can't connect the two shores...." 

2 out of 3

Sunday, July 20, 2014

(RNL #46) "Tanya" - Aleksey Arbuzov (Russia)

Rating: 2 out of 3

"Tanya" is the first of two plays I'll be discussing by famed Russian playwright, Aleksey Nikolayevich Arbuzov (1908-1986). But first, a few biographical notes: Arbuzov was born in Moscow, but moved with his family to Petrograd in 1914. In 1917, following the death of his parents due to illness, famine and civil war, Arbuzov became an orphan and was forced to wander the streets. He eventually ended up in a colony for problem children. Arbuzov's salvation was theatre. From 14 years of age, Arbuzov started working in theatre (e.g. acting, starting his own troupes and writing plays). "Tanya" was his most successful play; running more-or-less continuously during the Soviet era.

"Tanya" (1947) is the story of a young woman who loves her first husband too much; so much, that she abandons her own aspirations to fully devote herself to his. In brief, I think this play is about how abandoning your own life in order to live the life of another is an unnecessary sacrifice; injuring both yourself and the one you love. It is also about how we never know what the future may hold. In the beginning of the novel, the two main characters, Tanya and Grisha, picture their lives in upcoming years, however, can one's perception of what the future will be ever match up to what the future actually holds?

2 out of 3 for this quick, fairly interesting read.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

(RNL #43) "The Golden Ass" - Apuleius (Rome)

Rating: 2.5 out of 3

Next up on the "The National Russian Library List" is "The Golden Ass", which Wikipedia informs us is the only Ancient Roman novel in Latin to have survived to modern times in its entirety.

"The Golden Ass" was written by Lucius Apuleius Madaurensis (125-180 CE). Apuleius was born in what is now Algeria. He studied Latin rhetoric and was apparently a renowned public speechmaker. Interestingly enough, Apuleius was an initiate into several cults or mysteries and apparently was once accused of using marriage to attract a wealthy widow. 

The novel "The Golden Ass" is not at all what I expected from a 'classic' work. It recounts the lighthearted and mystical misadventures of the main character, a man named ('what-a-coincidence') Lucius, in Greece. Lucius is a very comical and endearing character; a young, gluttonous, hedonistic and gossipy young man who, in his curiosity to learn more about magic, ends up getting accidentally turned into an ass. Lucius spends most of the novel trying to turn back into a human being, however, being in ass-form does not prevent Lucius from continuing to gorge, eavesdrop and make trouble for himself and everyone around him.

Throughout the novel, Lucius-turned-ass eagerly provides the reader with the 'latest gossip' wherever he is stationed. Through Lucius we learn some interesting mythology (the story of Psyche and Cupid); as well as the lurid details of the most scandalous local goings-on. 

What's charming about the story is that almost everything is recounted in a very light-hearted and self-deprecating manner. I must say, that I enjoyed this book well beyond my own expectations, and recommend it as a light, enjoyable read.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Return to Pandzhrud - Andrey Volos (Russia) 2013 Russian Booker Prize Laureat

Rating: 3 out of 3

Its difficult to know where to start with this novel. Shall I start by saying a few words about the novel's author? 

Andrey Volos (1955-) was born in Stalinabad (Dushanbe) Tajikistan. He studied geophysics in Moscow, but then returned to Dushanbe, where he engaged in the translation of Tajikistani poetry into Russian, and then, the writing of his own prose. (Volos moved to Moscow in the 1990s.) 

Volos has been quoted as saying that he really loves Tajiks and Tajikistan. Therefore, its not surprising that many of his books are set in Tajikistan. In fact, Volos said this very beautiful thing about his relationship to Tajikistan: "Its in vain that I left Tajikistan, because Tajikistan came for me."

I noted (with some trepedition!) that the synopsis for Volos' latest, and most acclaimed work, "Return to Pandzhurd", reads like a promotional blurb for a Coehlo novel:

"It is a long road from Bukhara to Pandzhrud, especially if a blind old man is to traverse it. He is fortunate that he will be led by a boy who will be his guide. Where could you find a better escort? Step by step they will overcome the journey appointed to them. And with each step it will become clear, that it is not the boy who is seeing, but the old man, and it is not the guide who is leading the blind man..." Yes, yes...but the blind man is leading the boy!

In fact, however, if "The Return to Pandzhrud" is anything like Coelho's "The Alchemist", its what "The Alchemist" shouldhave been, rather that what it is. "The Return to Pandzhrud" is the story of the famous 8th-9th century Tajiko-Persian poet Rudaki; a man who apparently is greatly revered to this day in Tajikistan as the founding Father of Tajik poetry. Rudaki was universally known and venerated in his time as "The Tsar of Poets", however, we are first acquainted with the man in a dank, prison hole. The entire book is the story of the 'circle' of Rudaki's life; from the rural village of Pandzhrud, to fame in the court of the Emir, to shame and disgrace and well... his eventual "Return to Panzdhrud".

The story of 'how Rudaki ended up in the prison hole' is riveting enough, but there is a lot more in this book of real interest. Volos is a specialist in Tajik poetry; and his knowledge was put to fine application in this novel. The passages in the novel about the art of poetry (the creation of harmonious sound, image and word combinations were very interesting and gave me new insight into the appreciation of poetry). Volos' innate love for Tajikistan and its people also shone through; there were a myriad of details in the novel about the daily lives of the Tajik people, their customs, their religious observances, etc. It really immersed you in a world that is very 'exotic' and inaccessible to foreigners.

There was also plenty of food for thought in the novel and I bookmarked many passages, e.g.

"You know, the greed of a simple person can be explained by at least the fact that, understanding how weak and powerless he is in the world, he covets a pittance, hoping that money will give him some foothold."

"Wise men say: "If you want to find out who loves you and who hates you, who is your enemy and who you can consider a friend, look into your heart, as within it, as in a mirror, is reflected enmity and love."

"But you know, having money can't be more important that having the ability to forget about it?"

"If you are capable of thinking, feeling, being generous and not falling pray to anger, then you are already in heaven, and the future shouldn't frighten you. But if not, then you won't be fearful of hell because, notwithstanding, you're already in it."

"The past was at some point the future. And the future will at some point become the past."

The chapter which recounted a conversation between the Vizir and Rudaki was especially interesting in terms of philosophic dialogue(!)

And...most importantly the end - the end of this book- was so beautiful and touching. It recounted the end of a circle...the past becomes the future, the future becomes the past... 

"That pearly, enticing fog that he pictured his own life as being has already completely dispersed. He had already managed to pass it by, to go through it entirely, and what's left? Only little beads of moisture on his shoulders."

The King of Poets, robbed of his crown, with no money and no titles, is still revered more than any King with money and titles. Rudaki made a full circle in life; gained and lost, but still remained... (and for this he is destined to the fame and reverence that a fly-by-night King could only dream of!)... the only man who is able to understand the language of the nightingales...

Regardless of his enemies' attempts to destroy him, the book demonstrates again and again, how this great man could never be dishonored by the people, could never be impoverished for he is a man of reason, with a soul and a voice that touches at the very souls of his people...

Im not sure if my ramblings are making any sense here, but I hope what does come across is that this is a fantastic book, one that SHOULD be read and one that...for the life of me I can't understand why...wasn't nominated for "The Clear Glade Prize". And how could anyone think that "Thief, Murderer and Spy" was better than this exceptional novel??? Volos apparently wrote this novel over the span of 25 years, at the urging of his Mother. The craftmanship shows. I'm excited to read more novels by this author. This one is highly recommended; one of the best I've read all year and my best of 2013 thus far.