Friday, January 31, 2014

"Novel with Cocaine" by M. Ageyev

Rating: 1.5 out of 3

This review is of a strange little novel entitled "Роман С Кокаином" in Russian. This can either be translated as "Novel with Cocaine" or "Romance with Cocaine", as that first word in the title - 'roman' can mean either 'novel' or 'romance' in Russian. 

Ageyev is the pen name of whoever the author was; some conjecture that the author of this novel was the famous Nabokov, although I think I read somewhere that he thought the novel disgusting. Others believe the author to have been a Mr. Mark Lazervich Levi, who's life (according to Wikipedia) is said to 'have been shrouded in mystery and conjecture'.

"Novel with Cocaine" was published in 1934, and of course- with a 'sexy' title like that it was most definitely translated multiple times into English. The novel is about a young person (Vadim) whom we first meet as a highschool student. We follow him through various episodes of meanness, debauchery and ultimately witness his tragic transformation into a cocaine addict. Perhaps I'll start with what I liked about the book:

-The writing, I thought, was very good. 
-I really liked most of the minor characters. It was excellent how Ageyev was able to really bring these characters to life despite the fact that they weren't very much referred to in the book, just by giving us a vivid snippet of their personalities which was enough, just enough, for us to then flesh them out in our minds. I loved the reference to the stock phrases used by the schoolboys Shtein ("you need to be a European!") and Takadzhiyev ("what a coincidence!"). It was a brilliant and unique way to really bring these characters to life. Burkevits was also interestingly fleshed out, as was Vadim's Mother, whose downtroddenness and patheticness were brilliantly depicted in the process. SO it was a shame, a real shame, I believe that Ageyev did not make better use of these excellent characters in the plot!
-the book was oddly captivating. I don't know why, but I couldn't put it down; like some sort of guilty pleasure. I literally must have read the book in a few days.

And now the bad...

-This book, I believe rather oddly, has such glowing reviews from people who have read the English translation. Many compare it to Dostoevsky. My opinion diverges greatly with the opinion of these readers. I didn't think that the philosophical ruminations in this book were very interesting or deep at all. There was one 'aha' moment by Vadim about how women and men are not held to the same standards when it comes to promiscuity (well, duh!). There was the speech by Burkevits to the Father about how he felt that representatives of religious groups went against the very Christian values that they were preaching by not protesting against the First World War (okay, but not very revolutionary). There was Vadim's second 'aha' moment that if he loved someone spiritually he couldn't love her in a bodily (sensory) way. And then finally, the completely strange rumination of the cocaine-addicted Vadim that extreme goodness leads to extreme absurd and dangerous idea. This final rumination about extreme goodness would have been alright, I suppose, it there had been more of a context to it, but it seemed to have just been slapped in there and felt really out of place. Some reviewers also praised Vadim as a fantastic literary example of existentialism, however, in my opinion, Camus did it much more subtly and much better in L'Etranger. 
-The first part of this book, about the schoolboys, was very good. However, the book deteriorated from there in the sense that it seemed as if the author had planned to write a much longer, more ambitious book, but for whatever reason, decided to stop writing at some point and just slap pieces from chapters he planned to write later into some sort of mish-mashed ending. In fact, when I actually got to the end of the book, I was surprised that I had indeed reached the ending. Was this really it? I felt cheated of a proper denouement and couldn't understand what was the point of everything that I had just read; the windup, the creation of these vivid, interesting characters- was it all for this blunt, disjointed ending?
-particularly from the cocaine chapters onwards, the book felt really rushed and condensed. I wish the author had spent more time describing more of Vadim's life under the influence of cocaine; his relationships with his friends, etc. once they found out about his addiction.

So... all things considered, I give this book a 1.5 out of 3, because it was a rather interesting book to read because of the minor characters and the writing, regardless of all the flaws listed above.

Monday, January 27, 2014

(RNL #10) "The Chasteners" by Alexander (Ales) Abramovich (Belarus)

Rating: 2.5 out of 3

Perhaps you've just finished Alexander Adamovich's "The Khatyn Story" and, perhaps, like me you're wondering...what could compel someone to commit that sort of heinous mass murder and genocide?

"The Chasteners" is Alexander Adamovich's answer to that question. I can see now why the two novels are often sold together in one compendium. They compliment one another. "The Khatyn Story" sets things up: provides some background on what the Belorussian genocide was, as well as the partisan perspective, and "The Chasteners"...well "The Chasteners" takes things from there.

This book provides pretty much a global perspective of the Belorussian genocide, from the point of view of more-or-less everyone involved: men, women and child victims of the genocide, Hitler and other SS officers, including the infamous Dirlewanger, regular front-line SS troops, and a whole range of Russians, Ukrainians, other Europeans etc. who defected to the SS side.

We have already read samples of the victims' testimony in "The Khatyn Story", so I won't dwell on it here. Obviously, Hitler and SS Officers such as Dirlewanger are portrayed as fanatical madmen who seem to have taken Nietzsche's writings about 'supermen' a bit too closely to heart. Since "The Chasteners" focuses on Dirlewanger's forces in Belorussia, I'll provide some background on Dirlewanger from his Wikipedia page:

"Dr. Oskar Paul Dirlewanger (26 September 1895 – 7 June 1945 (certificate of death)) was a German military officer and the founder and commander of the infamous Nazi SS penal unit "Dirlewanger" during World War II. Dirlewanger's name is closely linked to some of the worst crimes of the war. He also fought in World War I as well as in the post-World War I conflicts, and in the Spanish Civil War. He died after World War II while in Allied custody, apparently beaten to death by his guards.
He was invariably described as an extremely notorious figure by historians and researchers, including as "a psychopathic killer and child molester" by Steven Zaloga,[1] as "violently sadistic" by Richard Rhodes,[2] as "an expert in extermination and a devotee of sadism and necrophilia" by J. Bowyer Bell,[3] and as "a sadist and necrophiliac" by Bryan Mark Rigg.[4] World War II historian Chris Bishop called him the "most evil man in the SS."[5] According to Timothy Snyder, "in all the theaters of the Second World War, few could compete in cruelty with Oskar Dirlewanger."[6]

In February (of 1942), (Dirlewanger's) unit was promptly reassigned for anti-partisan duties in German-occupied Belarus, "with a speciality of 'pacifying' an area by slaughtering every man, woman and child."[5] Himmler was well aware of Dirlewanger's reputation and record, but awarded him the German Cross in Gold on 5 December 1943,[24] in recognition of his regiment's successes during this time, such as Operation Cottbus. In Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, Timothy Snyder wrote that "Dirlewanger's preferred method was to herd the local population inside a barn, set the barn on fire, and then shoot with machine guns anyone who tried to escape."[6] Rounded-up civilians were also repeatedly used as human shields and marched over minefields.[7] In Masters of Death, Richard Rhodes wrote that Dirlewanger and his force also "raped and tortured young women and slaughtered Jews Einsatzgruppen-style in Byelorussia beginning in 1942."[2] Snyder cautiously estimated that the Sonderkommando, by then regiment-sized, killed at least 30,000 Belarusian civilians.[6] Some other estimates are much higher, such as 120,000 people killed in 200 villages.[13]"

THe most interesting perspectives, and what the book truly focuses on, are the perspectives of the 'foreigners', the defectors to the German side. After all, we can sort of understand why the Germans are fighting against the Allied troops- but why, what would turn a Russian or a Ukrainian against his own people?

There are several 'foreigners' from Dirlewanger's unit that are highlighted in the book. I believe that all of the characters are based on real people. There are the brutes like Sirotka (the Orphan) who is so devoid of moral fibre that he doesn't have any qualms about burning his former mistress or betraying a partisan who placed his trust in him. There are those like Tupiga and Melnichenko, who are so embittered by their own past (i.e. hunger, deprivation) and use this stocked-up hatred to resist feeling compassion towards the suffering of others. Tupiga expresses his bitter envy at how the Belarussian villagers he is about to kill have been living well- they had bread, bread...when he had none! Tupiga also suffers from misplaced pride- he wants to do everything 'well' and scoffs at the shoddy work of others...never-so-mind that the work is the murder of 1000s of innocent people. Tupiga still wants to do the 'job' right and works tirelessly to make sure that every last villager is killed, even the children. It is difficult to understand or empathise at all with these people, who seem more like animals then men.

Moving up the ranks, we have former Soviet officers Beliy and Surov. They 'went along with all of this', with disgust and against their own convictions in order to escape starvation and death in prison camps. I believe it was Beliy who recalled how he was so hungry in the prison camps that he even took to cannibalism. Serving as a 'volunteer' for the SS meant food and life. Beliy and Surov honestly did not know what tasks would await them. They hoped initially (and naively) to escape into partisan ranks, but soon realised that that would be impossible, given how stained in blood their hands had become.

Finally, the most interesting portrait in the book was of Muravyev- another Russian officer turncoat. He also never imagined serving on the enemy's side, but the 'desire to live' trumped everything. He began to justify his existence by 'trying to show the Germans that Russians were people through his high standards of service'. He also consoled himself with the fact that he only gave orders, that he never personally killed.

It was interesting to read how all of these characters, from Hitler, to Tupiga to Muravyev justified the terrible crimes they were committing- some served feeling that they were performing the valiant task of removing the 'refuse' of humanity so as to ensure the ascendance of the pure, 'supreme' Aryan race. Others served out of envy and bitterness over what they personally had suffered. Still others served simply to survive, the desire to live trumping all matters of conscience.

It seems like the choice would be black and white, but after reading this book, I must ask myself- would we all really choose to die rather than turn traitorous, given the potency of our desire to live at all costs?

The book concludes with a continuation of the theme introduced in "The Khatyn Story"- that the Belarussian genocide isn't the last...that others, amazingly enough, have come to pass, some even eclipsing Hitler's. The book includes excerpts describing the Genocide of the PolPot, as well as the invasion of Palestine by the Israeli government.

This book is very dark, but very provides lots of material for thought into human motivations and our human capacity for the worst kind of evil. Its unfortunate that this novel has not been translated into English (as far as I know) as its definitely the sort of book on war every person should read. (2.5 out of 3 - highly recommended)

Monday, January 20, 2014

(RNL #64) "Khatyn" by Alexander Adamovich (Belarus)

Alexander (Ales) Adamovich was born in 1927 in the Minsk region of Belorussia. I believe this book to be a semi-autobiographical account of his time as a partisan during the Second World War. The book highlights the unbelievable monstrosity that was the Second World War. Because of a madman on one side of Europe who 'believed that children ate more bread than adults', young men were ordered to kill children on the other side of Europe.

I did not know this prior to reading the book, but fully one in four Belorussians were killed during the Second World War. Entire villages were systematically razed; their inhabitants burnt or shot to death. In fact, the book's title references Khatyn, one of the most famous villages to have been completely destroyed.

Some noteworthy points:

1) The book was written from the perspective of a blind former partisan. The accounts of his blindness; how they affected his day-to-day life, as well as his service during the war, were very interesting. It is rare to read any first-person perspective of blindness in literature, so I found this to be very interesting

2) It was understandably very difficult to read the accounts of how villagers were systematically burned to death. The whole story made you ponder the absurdity and monstrosity of war for everyone. When you think about it, millions of people died for no good reason; due to some crazy ideology thought up by  maniacs who are hardly representative of the world's population

3) The book got progressively darker (to the point of being almost unreadable towards the end), but there was a rather poignant love story-triangle in the beginning of the book between the narrator, the sole woman in the partisan group, and the partisan commander.

It was difficult for me to understand the philosophical messaging that was scattered throughout the story in the form of intellectual debate between the narrator and his friend. However, as I think I understood it, the point the author is trying to make is that this type of monstrous war, that we hardly believe could even have happened, has happened before and could well happen again, with even more monstrous, and perhaps deadly results for the whole of humanity, given the invention of nuclear weapons and whatnot.

It is difficult to rate this book. As a historical account, I do feel that it is a must read for everyone. Everyone should understand what a monstrous affair war really is (something we young people don't get enough of in the West!) However, I found the book to be very dark, disturbing, and towards the end - rather unpleasant to read.

(RNL #8) "A Secret of Two Oceans" by Grigory Adamov (Soviet Union)

Rating: 2.5 out of 3

Grigory Adamov (real name Abram-Gersh Gibs) was born in Herson in 1886. He died in 1945. He was primarily renowned for being a sci-fi fantasy novelist, and most famous for this work, "The Secret of Two Oceans", which was later adapted for film in 1956.

This was another book that I would never have picked up on my own, were it not on my reading list. The plot of the book, deep-sea submarine exploration, a la Jules Verne, didn't really catch my fancy. I am more a fan of realist works. However, I decided to cast aside my prejudices, once again, and take a stab at completing the book. I do not regret my decision. The book was interesting, educational, and most importantly - morally uplifting.

The book follows a highly-skilled, Soviet submarine crew as they navigate a state-of-the-art Soviet submarine across two oceans for the glory of the Soviet Union. The submarine is constantly pursued by their capitalist enemies, as well as a traitorous enemy from within. The brave crew, however, heroically overcomes all obstacles and proves to us, once again, that there is no country greater than the USSR. The book has a number of strong points; one of which is the amount of educational information about the functioning of a submarine, oceanic flora and fauna, climatography and oceanography, and even a very interesting history lesson on Easter Island. Though I initially found the science lessons contained throughout the book rather boring and difficult to get through, they were very important to the understanding of the story, and, after finishing the book, I found that I actually learnt quite a bit while reading an interesting and engaging tale.

The second strong point of the book is the characters. After five hundred odd pages with the entire crew, you grow to love them and appreciate their bravery, heroism and general all-around goodness. This book was written in a different time (Russia in the pre-war '30s) for a different group of people who were seemingly far less cynical and much more selfless and devoted to one another. This shines through in the book. Initially, reading the book with my cynical 21st century mindset, I could hardly believe that people could actually be so selfless, patriotic and pure. It seemed as if I was reading a fairy tale! But as I dove further and further into the novel, I too, began to accept the characters portrayed in the novel as plausible and even normal, for a healthy, functioning society, and grew increasingly inspired by them.

This book was, in fact, incredibly inspiring and uplifting. It teaches you such important life lessons such as: 1) never giving up; 2) positive thinking; 3) faith in oneself, one's abilities and one's team; 4) teamwork; 5) friendship; and 6) patriotism and heroism. I was inspired, particularly, by the final calamity that the crew was affronted by. The the crew never gave up hope and achieved what would have seemed impossible. By the end of the book, I too felt positively charged, and ready to take on life's obstacles with the same unswerving optimism and determination.

This sort of positive, inspiring literature is really important for the current generation of young people. For this reason, I give the book 2.5/3 - a true classic and highly recommended for all children!

(RNL #7) "Bustling Nation" by Arkady Averchenko (Russian Empire)


Review: 1.5 out of 3

I read another compilation of short stories by Arkady Averchenko that included a famous story of his that I wanted to read called "Young Guys".

I must say that while I really enjoyed Averchenko's "Carps and Pikes", I was less amused by this compilation. Who knows- it might have been the fault of the publishing house that created the compilation. Many of the stories seemed very similar; smart-aleck writer, countless stories of spousal infidelity, visits to the local café, etc. etc... was life in the big cities of the Russian Empire really this shallow and one-dimensional?

There were a few original gems in the book; one of them being the absolutely hilarious "Dobbles' Missing Galosh" (a spoof on Sherlock Holmes). Another really funny story was one where there was a comparison of how guests were welcomed with open arms in the past, and how now, guests are treated rudely, as total nuisances. Not all of the stories in this compilation were funny. There were some (mostly) un-interesting stories criticizing the Soviet regime; a really uninteresting story on occultism and some stories based on Averchenko's life in emigration. (Averchenko fled the Russian Empire during the civil war). Of the serious stories, I liked "The Young Guys" and another story where Averchenko wrote of his yearning to turn back the (film) reel of time so that he could go back to life before the Revolution.

I'm giving this compilation a 1.5 out of 3. Its light reading, sort of interesting, but tiresome after a while (perhaps the fault lies with the publishing house who compiled the volume I read!)

(RNL #6) "Carps and Pikes" by Arkady Averchenko (Russian Empire)

Rating: 2 out of 3

Arkady Timofeevich Averchenko was born on March 27, 1881. He was a Russian playwright and satirist who published his stories in the journal Satyricon. After the Russian Civil War, he emigrated to Central Europe and died in Prague on March 12, 1925.

"Carps and Pikes" is a collection of Averchenko's satirical stories. I must admit that I wasn't expecting much when I first dove in, but I found the stories to be very funny, and oddly- though they are written about people who lived over a hundred years ago- the stories could almost be about contemporary people. Averchenko writes, with admirable wit, about bribery, the 'materialistic' culture of 'new-monied Russians', lazy and useless government officials, speculators, resorts and taxi drivers that cheat and rip off tourists, sensationalistic (and silly) art nouveau- all in all, he could well be writing about the 21st century. What this sort of shows us is that people don't really change- that events do seem to repeat themselves over time.

I liked a lot of the stories: particularly "The Fight Against Luxury"; a hilarious and unique story about a member of the "League Against Luxury and Prodigality", who visits an unwitting household and makes absurd recommendations as to how they should lead less 'extravagant lives' (e.g. by combining their kitchen, washroom, study and living room into one room; by putting the wife's toiletry table on top of the husband's writing desk, etc.)

A little challenge was reading this book in original (pre-revolutionary) Russian, but I managed it - hurray- with a bit of deciphering! I'm giving this book a 2- its a fun read and remains amusingly relevant to our times.

(RNL #5) "The Live of Arch Priest Avvakum Written by He, Himself" by Avvakum Petrov (Russian Empire)

Rating: 1.5 out of 3

This work of literature is in fact an autobiography of sorts written by Avvakum Petrov, a Russian protopope (archpriest) born on November 20, 1620 in Nizhny Novgorod. He is famous for having led the opposition to Patriarch Nikon's reforms of the Russian Orthodox Church (the ones having do to with the number of fingers one should use when crossing oneself). To add some context to this review, I am including below some passages from the Archpriest's Wikipedia page:

"Starting in 1652, Nikon, as Patriarch of the Russian Church, initiated a wide range of reforms in Russian liturgy and theology. These reforms were mostly intended to bring the Russian Church into line with the other Orthodox Churches of Eastern Europe and Middle East.
Avvakum and others strongly rejected these changes. They saw them as a corruption of the Russian Church, which they considered to be the "true" Church of God. The other Churches were more closely related to Constantinople in their liturgies and Avvakum argued that Constantinople fell to the Turks because of these heretical beliefs and practices.
For his opposition to the reforms, Avvakum was repeatedly imprisoned. For the last fourteen years of his life he was imprisoned in a pit or dugout (a sunken, log-framed hut) at Pustozyorsk above the Arctic Circle before finally being burned at the stake."

There are many descriptions of the sufferings the Arch Priest and his family went through for their beliefs. They were often exiled, starved, beaten, etc. The Arch Priest also recounts how many of his 'spiritual brothers' were tortured and killed as well. One particularly gruesome section of the book relates how a number of spiritual brothers had their tongues cut off. (Its hard, and rather amazing, to imagine how this, is in actuality, a true story!)

The Arch Priest speaks a great deal about the number of miracles that he had performed, with God's grace. He was able to catch fish where no one else could, cure people of illnesses and cast demons out of people on many occasions.

The best parts of the book, for me, were when the Arch Priest talked candidly and, with humility, about the greatness of God; that it is God who is the miracle worker, and that if one is humble and trusts in him, that one can work miracles. It is also of note how honest the Archpriest tried to be in the book. He constantly refers to himself as an insignificant 'sinner' and does not shy away from revealing the less than admirable stories from his life history (e.g. the time when he released circus bears into the wild').

I give this book a 1.5 Its rather hard to read, having been written in old Russian (I had to read a contemporary Russian version of the book side by side with an approximate English translation, as I had too hard a time with the original!), but is worth reading for the historical perspective on the Old Believers. 

(RNL #3) "Wooden Horses" by Fyodor Abramov (Soviet Union)

Rating: 1.5 out of 3

This was not so much a book as a simple short story, about a man - I guess, for lack of a better term- hanging about in an old, likely soon-to-be-extinct little village which has almost been abandoned by men, but is full of these beautiful and imposing 'wooden horses'(in honor of which the short story has been entitled). The man is content to wander around the village idly shooting and fishing, until a chance meeting changes his entire perspective on life. He meets a simple old woman named Milenteevna who's intrinsic kindness, meekness, selflessness and hard-work ethic leads him to realise that his lifestyle has been meaningless and self-indulgent.

The entire book, more or less, is a chronicling of Milenteevna's good deeds over the course of her life; how she graciously forgave and defended her husband after he almost shot her to death; how she would spend hours in wretched conditions picking mushrooms for her family; how she lifted her husband's family out of poverty by teaching them about agriculture, etc...

The short story did well, in such a short span of time, to paint the picture of Milenteevna and to endear her to us. I don't know if its fair to judge this on the same level as Fyodor Abramov's Pryaslin series, as those books were far longer and were able to afford more time to plot and character development- at any rate, I give this book a 1.5 out of 3, for being a good read.

"Home" by Fyodor Abramov (Soviet Union)

Rating: 2 out of 3
Rating for Entire "Pryaslini" series: 3 out of 3

Today I read the final book in the four part "Brothers and Sisters" or "Pryaslini" series. This was a chronicle of the Sovkhoz era of the Pryaslin family's life. This Sovkhoz area marks a distinct change in people's mentality. We see now how individualism, materialism, apathy and laziness have crept in, replacing the previous wartime and post-war values of togetherness, selflessness and hard work. It is a strange world where the workhorses are seen as 'the people's enemies', 'agitating the masses', and 'not letting people live and work in peace', while thieves and those who are fake and artificial are society's leaders. Of all of the books, this was the most depressing and hardest to read. There were points when I felt as if I couldn't read any further as tragedies kept being heaped one onto the other.

This book, once again, reminded me of what a master of literature Abramov is. He is so skillful at crafting characters that are rich and alive. And he, the master puppeteer, is able, with a flick of the wrist, to make you go from despising a character (such as Egorsha), to feeling pity, or even liking him.
This book, on its own, is probably a 2/3. But its not meant to be read on its own. While books #1 and #2 could well be stand-alones, this is indeed, part of a series, and should not be read apart from others.

The entire series, in my opinion, is completely deserving of the title 'classic' and merits the full 3/3. Its a series that sadly, has not been translated into English, but should be, as it deserves to be read and better known.

"Roads and Crossroads" by Fyodor Abramov (Soviet Union)

Rating: 2 out of 3

This is the third book in the Pryaslin ("Brothers and Sisters") 4 book series. The first book in the series was about the entire Pekashin community, with slightly more focus on Anfisa Petrovna. The second book focused more on the Pryaslins. This, third book, centres more around those in power in the Pekashin community: the collective farm and communist party bigwigs holding formal power and the social groups that hold informal power (i.e. the group of men led by Pyotr Zhitov). Surprisingly the first book (set during the war) was the most uplifting of the three books. Although Abramov never shies away from painting the 'full portraits' of his characters, in the first novel, the Pekashin community was cast more positively; as a group of 'brothers and sisters' who toiled together in unimaginable conditions, for the good of their country. The second book was a realist novel that painted both the good and bad sides of each main character. This third novel however is much darker and really overturns all of your preconceived notions about the characters and their eventual destinies. There is 'trouble in paradise' amongst the Lukashins- the only really successful couple described in the book. There is also trouble for the people whom we thought were untouchable, rock-solid community figures, i.e. Nadrezov and Lukashin. In fact, everybody in the novel seems to do something we would have never conceived them doing.

To reference the book's title, its seems as if every character in the novel reached some crossroad during the narrative and lost their way...and it seems as if the entire collective farm has also reached a crossroad and lost its way. There is great confusion as to where to turn: Towards mechanized progress? Towards staying the course of the 'war-time mentality' and the squeezing of workers to achieve the unachievable?
Or will the farms, disillusioned by years of hunger and broken promises, veer towards apathy, hopelessness, debauchery and the abandonment of work altogether?

I give this book 2 stars for being an interesting read. 

(RNL #2) "Two Winters and Three Summers" by Fyodor Abramov (Soviet Union)

Rating: 3 out of 3

This book is the sequel to "Brothers and Sisters".  I feel that it is important to read the first book in order to gain a full appreciation of all of the characters and subplots in this book. Although I agree, this book could be read individually, characters like Anfisa Petrovna and Lukashin, who were central to the first book, are almost absent in this book and in order to appreciate some of the references to them in the book, one would need to have read the prequel. As well, the character development of this book's main characters, the Pryaslin family, began in the first book.

I began the book with the full expectation that the sentimentality and romance of the first novel would be continued and expanded upon in this novel. I expected that there would be many chapters devoted to the Lukashin-Anfisa Petrovna romance in particular, and perhaps, the romances of other main characters such as Misha and Lizka Pryaslin. However, what was surprising was that this novel was almost totally bereft of any romance and sentimentality, despite it being a post-war novel. One would expect that post-war, things would turn out just as in the Lyube song: 'The time for love is after the war'. However, the three couples that do get together in this novel do so in the most matter-of-fact and prosaic way. In fact, the romance between Anfisa and Lukashin, which was so sentimentalized and at the forefront during the first novel, is not even spoken of in this novel. They are simply referred to matter-of-factly as husband and wife in this novel. I state this, however, not to put down this novel in anyway, but to simply note how different the focus of the novel is from what I expected.

What is most impressive about this novel is the realism of its characters. Each and every character is likeable and fully fleshed out, with both his/her pluses and minuses. As in real life, there is no perfect hero or villain. Each person has his own merits and flaws, which Abramov masterfully casts light upon. I think he is the only novelist I have read who has done this so skillfully. By exposing the merits and flaws of each character, he does not make us like a character like Misha Pryaslin less, but actually makes us appreciate each character more for his humanity, and ability to make mistakes from time to time. As regularly as Misha is praised for his having sacrificed himself to save his family and village from rack and ruin; for his hard-work ethic and good conscience; he is exposed for his bad temper, inclination towards envy and towards raging unjustly against others such as Anfisa Petrovna and Timofey Trofimovich, when angered. Similarly, even the 'villains' such as Nadrezov and Egorsha are allowed their day in the sun. Nadrezov is portrayed in a villainous light for his relentless 'squeezing' of the villagers, however, he is quick to put himself on the line to save the village 'Pope' from prison after he realises, following Lukashin's prodding, that the 'Pope' is not guilty of writing anti-revolutionary religious literature. Similarly, Egorsha is shown to be a lazy show-off and braggard, however, he is also portrayed as a good friend, who is always quick to help his friend Misha when he is in need.

Some sad points fleshed-out in the novel are the broken hopes of the villagers. The men they lost during the war never actually returned. The few men that actually returned 'in-person' were either crippled, close to death or subsequently broken-spirited (Ilya Netesov). As such, the village is still worse-for-wear, even after the war, with the old, crippled and infirm holding up the village - 'everything topsy-turvy and not as it should be', as noted by Misha. Additionally, the bright future hotly anticipated by the villagers during the war never came; no romance, as previously mentioned and women still being married off for goods. As well, all of the promises of more food post-war were cruelly broken. We encounter descriptions again and again in the novel of the dinner tables at various houses being bare of anything besides salt and potatoes. The villagers don't eat bread, let alone meat! Any harvest surplus is immediately syphoned off, we are told, to other regions of Russia to support the post-war regeneration effort.

Finally and most heart-achingly, those who toiled and sacrificed the hardest during the war do not receive the awards they expected for their labour. The novel ends with Misha in despair, wondering, like many of us do at the meaning of life. During the war they had lived for a bright future post-war, but now what, when their situation was just as bad and even worse, there was little hope that things might improve?:

For providing much fodder to think about, for the brilliant, realist characterizations, for the ability to wind so many subplots into one (about agricultural farming, no less!) and still keep the book interesting, I give the book 3 stars (very much recommended)

"Brothers and Sisters" by Fyodor Abramov (Soviet Union)

Rating: 2.5 out of 3

*I read that this book was based on what Mr. Abramov witnessed, in real life, after he was medically released from the war at 22 years of age. During his convalescence, he observed (and never forgot) the trials and tribulations of villagers in the North of Russia who laboured to grow food for their country. He later wrote of what he had witnessed, in this book, over a period of six years.

This book is part of a 4 part Pryaslin saga that the author is most famous for in Russia. This first volume focuses on the 'brothers and sisters' who worked behind the scenes to feed the great Soviet Red Army machine during World War II. It recounts the story of how the bedraggled, starving villagers of Pekashin (the old, the young and women) replaced, literally overnight, all of the healthy (deployed) men in their communities in the fields. Despite their frailness and weak numbers, they managed, through sheer force of will and determination, to provide much needed food for the troops in unbelievably harsh conditions.

The book covers the whole planting and harvest cycle in the north of Russia, not sparing a bit of the brutal truth and detail of the labour involved in growing the army's rations. The story also paints a full portrait of the sufferings of the village families: we read of families' grief at the death of loved ones; the hunger and poverty experienced by the children, the sacrifices families must make to survive, thievery and corruption, loveless marriages- there is even space accorded to unrequited, war-time love.

What is so unbelievable about this story is that it is a piece of realism- it seems unfathomable, but all of this actually happened. A mere 70-odd years ago, an entire generation of women, elderly and children were subjected to this terrible, nightmarish existence. Reading about what an average woman had to suffer through during this time-period is utterly sobering, and will make you think twice about complaining about your 'job', and your 'life'.

There is an interesting passage in the book about the 'force', the 'sheer force' of the Russian people that enables them to do these incredible things- fight fires, plant crop with almost no healthy hands, in brutal, inhospitable territory... The people don't give up. They fight, they stand their ground till the very end, and they stand together. This book underlines the fact that the Veterans of the Great Patriotic War are not only those who served at the Front. No less important were the Veterans of the interior who fed the war machine. Without them, the Soviet Union would have never emerged victorious.

Some of the most interesting parts of the book involved nostalgic flashbacks (Abramov seems the master of the 'nostalgic flashback'). These include: Stepan Adrianovich's reminiscences of his dead son Vanya, as well as Mishka and Anna's memories of Ivan Dmitryich. Some of the most interesting snippets of the book are the scenes involving Lukashin and Anfisa Petrovna. Any 30+ woman will identify with Anfisa's feelings- the desire to 'live again', the hope that she is not too old to be loved! The pair's budding romance was beautifully written. A more innocent and beautiful romance I have not read. It is also contrasted wonderfully with the base and vulgar passion between the village floozy Varvara and Lukashin. The contrast between Anfisa's modesty (shame at having her hair or her shoulders exposed) with Varvara's readiness to flaunt her 'assets' at every turn (she's really the Al'ka of "Brothers and Sisters") makes one truly understand and appreciate the finer femininity of Anfisa Petrovna.

All in all, I give the book 2.5 stars for providing a detailed and interesting account of the true-life conditions of the Veterans of Russia's Interior.

(RNL #11) "Watership Down" by Richard Adams (UK)

Rating: 2 out of 3

Now my initial assumption as to what this book was about was completely wrong. I had imagined it to be a piece of naval military fiction. Little did I know that the 'Watership' in the book's title referred to a place in the countryside, and that the book was actually about rabbits. Rabbits! Well that's the beauty of this literary challenge. I would never have even given this book a chance had I known that it was a book about rabbits (or naval military exploits, for that matter!). But since it was on the list, I did tackle it, and I must say, I don't regret having done so.

The book is unique and entertaining. Its a good book for older children- imaginative, action-packed and rather dreamy and mystical. It recounts the journey of a rag-tag band of rabbits to a new home. Along the way, they meet many other rabbit tribes and have many mystical adventures. The author did a very good job in endowing each and every rabbit (and there are many of them!) with its own unique character. You begin, slowly but surely, to feel for the rabbits, love them and root for them in their perilous journeys.

The author also did well in creating a mystical rabbit world, with its own rules, customs and legends. A little known fact, as we learn from the book, is that rabbits believe in God (his name is Frith), and they have a Herculean-type folk hero called El-hrair-rah. Many of the book's chapters recount legends of this great El-hrair-rah which are engaging and add to the book's dreaminess and mystique. The descriptions of life in the three different warrens the rabbits encounter during the book (e.g. administration, population, customs) are also very interesting.

By the end of the book, I was completely engaged in the rabbit world and was almost rendered to tears at the book's touching ending.

I give this book a 2. Entertaining and recommended for children.

(RNL #4) "The Woman in the Dunes" by Kobo Abe (Japan)

Rating: 2 out of 3

I have just finished "The Woman in the Dunes" by Kobo Abe. Not knowing Japanese, I read this work in English. As this work is by a Japanese author, I am sure that it is full of symbolism, metaphors and hidden meanings that I have not been able to decipher. The plot of the book is itself, rather strange. An insect collector gets lost midst the sand dunes in Japan and ends up being held captive against his will by the local villagers. He is ultimately forced to spend his existence paired with a local woman in a futile battle against the elements; digging the sand out from around their squalid abode.

Initially, the man has a strong will and drive to escape the monotony and futility of this existence. He is pained deeply by the senselessness of the work and does whatever he can to escape. However, he is slowly conditioned to accept the labour; its monotonous rhythm keeps him busy and occupied. He also diverts himself by creating elaborate inventions. At first, these inventions are purposed solely to aid in his escape; however, eventually the man loses interest in liberation from his situation.

The novel demonstrates how easily humans can become conditioned and habituated to even the worst of circumstances. They say that prisoners are often ill at ease once they are released from their prisons, as they have become so used to the life behind bars. The novel also draws parallels between the monotonous life in the dunes and our lives. What, in effect, differentiates our lives from the sand dune life so greatly? We too, in the real world, waste our days in monotonous, futile activity and, in order to distract ourselves from this distressing truth, invent all sorts of diversions. But then, if we were ever given the opportunity to escape our monotonous lives, few of us might actually accept it. In this way, we are no better than the hero of this story, or caged animals, for that matter.

I gave this book a rating of 2/3, given that I haven't been able to stop thinking of the novel; particularly the hero's final, trifling invention christened "Hope". This invention was what allowed the hero to calmly abandon all immediate plans of leaving the dunes. He was able to accept the drudgery, the misery of his new life because of his 'hope', and his conviction, due to his possession of 'hope', that he now had a 'round-trip ticket'; that he was not a prisoner, and that he could, at any time, leave his situation. I couldn't help but draw parallels between his 'hope' and mine. Isn't some flicker of hope (hope for a better future, for a partner, for future riches) what drives us on, what allows us to tolerate the often monotonous and hopeless life situations that we find ourselves in? Even if the hope is an unrealistic fantasy, it is what we need to keep ourselves going.

(RNL #1) "Al`ka" by Fyodor Abramov (Soviet Union)

Rating: 2 out of 3

My Great Read begins with Fyodor Abramov's "Al'ka". I read this short story in the original, in Russian. I doubt if the book has even been translated into English.

As I fear Mr. Abramov is not a very well-known author outside of Russia, I feel it necessary to offer a few words of introduction. Mr. Fyodor Aleksandrovich Abramov was born on February 29, 1920 in a small village in the northern Russian region of Arkhangelsk. He passed away on May 14, 1983 in the city of Leningrad (USSR). He was born and bred in a humble peasant family and his experiences of Soviet country life in the harsh north, not doubt, influenced his creative work.

It is a fact that the plot of "Al'ka" centres just around rural life in the North of Russia, experienced through the eyes of a young woman named Alevtina (Al'ka).

One of the joys of reading is that it transports you to a place and time that you might never have the opportunity to arrive at alternatively. This book certainly transported me to an entirely different, and in its own way, very exotic locale. It was interesting to read about the everyday trials and tribulations of a Northern collective farm: the backbreaking labour, struggles with drunkenness, the gossip, and the ever-looming fear of being judged and looked down upon by others...

The book frequently contrasted the conservatism of the country with the 'wild ways' and loose morals of the city. The first few pages of the book are, indeed, dedicated to the scene Al'ka has created by wearing a pair of red trousers in the countryside. The funniest line in the book was when a man, without compunction, asked if it was now in fashion to wrap the Soviet flag around your behind.

In the country, there is pride and status accorded to working hard; getting the hay raked as efficiently as possible, milking the cows as productively as possible; plowing the fields; keeping a good home...whereas in the city, a loose lifestyle, provocative manners, parties and money are valued.

The book climaxes with the young and beautiful Al'ka being put before a choice: living a pure and more moralistic life in the country, in the tradition of her parents, or abandoning herself to the heady excitement of loose city ways?

I thought the book was interesting as a window into the world of Northern Soviet country life and give it a 2 out of 3 (recommended).

Blog Purpose

This blog will aim to popularize the reading of classics, with focus on Russian classics that are not widely known outside of the former Soviet Union. I will mostly be reading off the Russian National Library's List of 1000 Best Works of World Literature. I will also be reading recent literary prize winners on an on-going basis.