Sunday, April 27, 2014

"Russian Tragedy" - Pyotr Alyoshkin (Russia)

Rating: 3 out of 3

(This is why I love reading from lists. This is a book that I would had never picked up independently, which would have been a real shame, as it is one of the best books I have read all year.)

Wow is all I can say after reading "Russian Tragedy". This novel completely and utterly surpassed all of my expectations. I was honestly rather reluctant to read it; the novel was hard to find; didn't look very interesting; and I was initially turned off by the main character who seemed to be just a typical new Russian 'businessman'. But wow...

I guess I'll start by saying a few words about the author himself. Pyotr Alyoshkin (1949-) was born in the village of Maslovka and now lives in Moscow. He began life as a blue collar worker after graduating highschool, however, he later graduated with a degree in Russian literature from university and then devoted himself to the publishing business. Alyoshkin has a very impressive resume and currently works as the head director of the on-line journal

This book is one of a cycle of "Russian Tragedies" that Alyoshkin has written over the past few decades. The book is about Dmitry Anokhin, a 40-something year old director of a publishing house in Russia, who, due to a series of tragedies, journeys to the US to start his life anew. On a whim, he decides to invite a mysterious young girl to travel along with him for companionship. At the outset, it seems to be a simple enough story about a road trip, with perhaps some lewd romance scenes, and an 'I love America-the-land-of-the-free'-type ending... but no. The plot gets very, very interesting very quickly...

I would, in fact, describe this little novel as a Russian 'Rebecca'. It keeps the reader hooked and on the edge of his/her seat throughout the course of the narrative. There are so many mysteries in the novel; the author's past; What kind of person is he; good? bad? what about the mysterious young girl's past?; What kind of person is she?; What about all of the people close to them?

Alongside all of this, we get some wonderful accounts of the pair's road trip through the United States. Alyoshkin is a fantastic author. He really makes you feel as if you are right there with them; taking in the sights; enjoying a relaxing afternoon, etc. Everything in the story felt so real and perfectly described. In fact, having been to some of the places myself, I can soundly concur with the realism of what was narrated.

There were, as well, very interesting segments on Anokhin's past in the publishing industry. I suppose that a lot of this material might have been drawn from Alyoshkin's own past, and was very interesting to an industry outsider.

The novel finds time, on top of everything, to pose some big questions. Why is it that good people always fail? Can someone honest and straightforward ever succeed?

I challenge you to take a guess at the ending. I daresay you won't succeed as it was a shocker. This book was excellent, really excellent and I highly recommend it. (It was so unputdownable that I devoured the whole thing in an afternoon!) 3 out of 3.

(RNL #26) "War Doesn't Have a Woman's Face"- Svetlana Alekseyvich (Belarus)

Rating: 2.5 out of 3

"At the forefront is always how unbearable it is, and how you don't want to die. But even more unbearable is the unwillingness to kill, because women give life. They bestow it. They carry it for a long time within themselves; they nurse it. I understood that it is harder for women to kill..." - Svetlana Alekseyevich, "War Doesn't Have a Woman's Face"

Svetlana Alekseyevich was born in 1948, in Ivano Frankovsk, to Ukrainian and Belorussian parents. Her family later relocated to Belarus. From 2000 onwards, Alekseyevich has been living in Western Europe. She is a journalist and writer by profession; famous in Europe for her "Voices of Utopia" series of books. Each book in the series is a compilation of testimonials from real-life individuals who have undergone a major global crisis (i.e. WW2, the Soviet-Afghanistan war, Chernobyl). 

"War Doesn't Have a Woman's Face" is the first title in the "Voices of Utopia" series. It is a compilation of the accounts of Soviet women who served during WW2 in all sorts of different capacities (e.g. surgeon, cook, soldier, commanding officer).This book was a deliberate attempt by Alekseyvich to bring to light the heroic efforts of women during the war, as it seemed as if, after the war, the women, and their achievements, were forgotten; with only 'the male perspective' of war celebrated and glorified. 

This book was riveting, although difficult to read due to the horrifying content. I had nightmares the nights when I was reading the book before bed and can not imagine how the women could have survived the horrendous conditions of the war. In fact, many of the personal stories in the novel seem so unbelievable; but, they were compiled by a journalist and are real! I was stunned by the valour of Soviet women; their unwavering determination; their faith in the war and in each other; their selflessness, which extended to the point of their sacrificing literally everything, including their families and personal health, for their country... I was stunned at how many women fought tooth and nail to be sent to the front alongside men! I was touched by the stories of the medical nurses and officers who literally brought men back to life through their love and caring; I was shocked by how much women suffered and were able to bear at the front- endless backbreaking work and combat, unbearable even for the men; horrendous living conditions; not sleeping- sometimes for three nights at a time - death, death, blood, blood...women leaving for the front at 17 and 18 and turning gray from the emotional shock. 

I have heard stories like this in Russia before. I can never forget the stories of war I was told by friends and relatives. How long ago it all happened, however, my Russian Professor was still in tears when she told me: "That generation was so much better than us. And they perished. We lost our best generation." 

I can't help but agree.

Thank you, Svetlana Alekseyvich, for this book; such an important book that should be read by every generation. I'm sometimes asked, why I read so many books about war; after all. they're dark and depressing....

I read them so as never to forget, least we even think about entering into war again. I read them to be inspired by people - yes- who were so much better. I read them so that whenever I think about 'how miserable' my own life is, that I be reminded of how fortunate I am that I have never known what they knew; that I have never had to sacrifice what they sacrificed for peace. They are so far from us that it almost seems as if I am reading about an alternate reality- but we must never forget...

2.5 out of 3. Svetlana Alekseyvich, coincidentally, was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2013. She, unfortunately, didn't win. Her latest book, the last in the "Voices of Utopia" series, is on this year's "Big Book" prize longlist. 

(NOTE: I'm not sure if "War doesn't have a Woman's Face" is available in English, but I know that others from the "Voices of Utopia" series are)

Thursday, April 24, 2014

(RNL #25) "Kuzka" by Tatyana Aleksandrova (Russia)

Rating: 2.5 of of 3

I have always been a huge fan of Russian children's literature (such a shame that more of it hasn't been translated into English!) I love Eduard Uspensky's work, and of course, my very favourite children's book is "Black Hen" by Antoniy Pogorelsky (you may even have noticed that the mychitalka avatar is the main character from this beloved children's masterpiece.)

Surprisingly, I hadn't read "Kuzka" before. This charming little book was written by Tatyana Aleksandrova (1929-1983). Ms. Aleksandrova was born in Kazan, but grew up in Moscow. She was raised by her nanny who always found time to spoil her with fairytales and folk proverbs. Aleksandrova later studied arts and animation. She worked for "Soyuz Multfilm", then as a teacher. "Kuzka" was published in 1977 and was later made into an animated film in 1983. 

"Kuzka" is about all of your favourite characters from Russian folktales; the house goblins, the wood goblins, the swamp goblins and of course- Baba Yaga. The book is split into several parts; the first part is when the book's hero, little house goblin Kuzka, meets his new friend Natasha in modern-day Moscow. The second part is about Kuzka's past; his former home and how he got lost, one fateful day, in a forest inhabited by kindly wood goblins. The next part of the novel is about Kuzka's encounters in the forest with the infamous Baba Yaga. Finally, there is a denouement and an all's-well-that-ends-well ending. 

Now I must say that I wasn't ecstatic about the first part of the novel. Thankfully, I continued reading as I really enjoyed later parts; particularly the portions of the story featuring Baba Yaga and her 'good' and 'bad' houses. And indeed, the portions with Baba Yaga included a surprisingly strong moral message about how easily children can be spoiled. (Grandpa wood goblin warned against the dangers of living in the Baba Yaga 'candy' house!) It was also good fun reading about the swamp goblins and the water goblins.

The book also includes a lot of rhyming verse and folk proverbs and expressions. The ending is rather heartwarming; about how much life has changed for little Kuzka given industrialization and whatnot. And we finally understand the mystery behind that 'mysterious little chest' that Kuzka protects so dearly throughout the course of the book.

A fine children's book, well worth reading if you are a child. I give it a 2.5 out of 3.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

(RNL #24) "Saint Helena, Little Island" - Mark Aldanov (Ukraine)


Rating: 2.5 out of 3

At first, by recreating the past in his thoughts, he counted on finding an answer to the question of where, by what means and when he allowed the fateful error. But little by little, it became clear to him that there was was no point seeking the answer to this question. Deep within his soul, he came to the conclusion that what ruined him wasn't some individual political failure or military error, or even a thousand mistakes and failures. He was ruined by the fact that he, one man, wanted to rule the world; and that was impossible, even with his fortune and genius." 

And so I come to the end of Aldanov's famous "Thinker" tetrology. "Saint Helena, Little Island" is Aldanov's epilogue to the massive work. It is much shorter than the previous "Thinker" novels and is more-or-less a chronicle of Napoleon's last days as an exile on Saint Helena. As always, Aldanov's depiction of historical personages (in this case, Napoleon) is interesting and poignant. In reading the novel, I really felt for Napoleon; a man who's brilliance literally wasted away on a near-deserted island. As for his deeds; his military campaigns that had resulted in the deaths of so many people around the world- they would eventually be forgotten, as were forgotten 'the great conquests' of Raja Siri-Tri-Buvana', referenced a few times in the novel by an old Malaysian servant. It is sort of a depressing epilogue, but as mentioned previously, poignant and touching.

There were also some other main characters in this novel; notably, Suzy Johnson, the British governor of Saint Helena's daughter, and Count De Balmen, who had a bit part in "The Conspiracy". These characters were really not that interesting- not when compared to Ivanchuk and Shtaal of the previous books. This was, however, really a book about Napoleon, so it seemed quite fitting that he took center stage.

I give this book, as well as "The Thinker" tetrology as a whole, a 2.5 out of 3. I highly recommend "The Thinker" to any his-fic fans or really anyone who enjoys good literature.

Monday, April 21, 2014

"The Conspiracy" by Mark Aldanov (Ukraine)

Rating: 2.5 out of 3

I've just finished reading this, third volume of Mark Aldanov's renowned "Thinker" trilogy. While in previous volumes, we were acquainted with the French and Italian Revolutions; this volume takes us back to Russia, to witness the fateful coup d'etat that deposed Tsar Pavel. We are once again, reacquainted with our old friends from previous volumes: Shtaal (who I am beginning to be quite fond of), Nastenka, Ivanchuk, Barataev and of course, Pierre Lamour). I really like the fact that the same characters are brought back into the narrative, as it brings continuity to the tetralogy; we grow more emotionally attached to the characters; and we can see the changes that take place to their fortunes and personalities over the course of "The Thinker". I grew to like Shtaal more and more during the course of the tetralogy (the same can't be said for Ivanchuk!), and really got quite distressed over his various misfortunes in the novel (many, a result of his own doing!). 

Aldanov, once again, introduces us to some key historic personages- Palen, Panin, Orlov, the Zubovs, Tsar Pavel himself, and even Napoleon. However, in contrast to previous books, these characters weren't as memorable and captivating as the fictional ones, as by this point, Shtaal and co. had really become much more dear, and of interest to me. 

In keeping with tradition, Aldanov sweeps us off to an 'exotic' locale during the course of the narrative (the Ukraine). This novel also continued to urge us to reflect on coup d'etats and revolutions, in general. I was actually quite frightened by this novel and by its conclusion. The French Revolution was a sort of Pandora's Box. It made the 'impossible' possible (i.e. the idea that a ruler could simply be deposed by its people in a coup d'etat). Such a premise opened up the possibility for numerous, successive terrors and coup d'etats (i.e. Louis XVI - Robespierre - the Directorate - Napoleon; or Peter III - Catherine the Great - Tsar Pavel - Tsar Aleksandr....leading to the Russian Revolution). The point was emphasized that the most beautiful, humanistic philosophies championed by revolutionaries, nevertheless, often led (perhaps inevitably) to great bloodshed needed to establish the new regime's power over the state. As well, it seemed that, regardless of the country involved, the same sort of unscrupulous people came to power (i.e. Palen, Fouchet, Talleyrand). 

There were a few dark themes repeated throughout the first three novels of "The Thinker", including the devil and death. 

Like its predecessors, "The Conspiracy" was a very interesting, educational read. I am certainly looking forwarded to the last book in the "Thinker" series, "Saint Helena. Little Island."

Rating: 2.5 out of 3

Saturday, April 19, 2014

"Autumn in Taman" by Viktor Likhonosov (Russia) - 2003 "Clear Glade" Prize Winner

Rating: 1.5 out of 3

This short story won the 2003 inaugural "Clear Glade" prize for "Excellence in Russian Literature". 

"The Clear Glade Prize" is one of Russia's most prestigious literary awards, and the prize that I follow most closely. It is a prize awarded by the Museum-Estate of Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (the chairman of the "Clear Glade Prize" jury is in fact Vladimir Ilyich Tolstoy!) to works that contain the ideals of love for humanity, compassion and morality. Prior to 2006, there were two "Clear Glade" award categories: "Excellence in Russian Literature" and "Excellence in Debut Russian Literature". 

Viktor Likhonosov is a writer who was born on April 30, 1936. He is perhaps most famous for his novel, "Unwritten Recollections. Our Little Paris", which I plan to read in the far off future. 

Likhonosov is known in literary circles for his elegiac, lyrical, prose, full of romanticism. I would certainly agree with the critics that "Autumn in Taman" is very lyrical and full of romanticism. The story is, on the surface, about two young men who take a trip to Taman, in the south of Russia. Taman is famous. among other things, for having been the subject of a Lermontov story which, unfortunately, I haven't read! 

The story's narrator (one of the two travelling men), often shares with us his thoughts and fears regarding time and the brevity of human life. He thinks back to the chroniclers of Russia's past, to Nikon, to Lermontov; to the famous (or not so famous) historical personnages who could well be buried right underfoot. Would any of them be remembered 100 years from now? Would he be remembered? What of those bright talents with so much of value to say, who will simply disappear from the face of the earth without having left any chronicles? What a terrifying thought that he, himself, would, at some point, no longer exist? Or the thought that he may never have existed at all?

There is also space accorded in the story to the (awe-) inspiring beauty of nature and the narrator's pining for the songs, chronicles, and (open, simple, etc.) manner of Russians in the past, which is now being forgotten.

A short read that wouldn't take you more than an hour to finish. 1.5 out of 3.

Friday, April 18, 2014

"The Devil's Bridge" by Mark Aldanov (Ukraine)

Rating: 2.5 out of 3

"The Devil's Bridge" is the 2nd of 4 books that comprise Mark Aldanov's famous "Thinker" tetrology. While the first novel, "The Ninth Thermidor", acquainted us with the French Revolution up to the death of Robespierre, "The Devil's Bridge" provides readers with an overview of the Italian revolution and the legendary Russian commander Suvorov's campaign in Italy and Switzerland.

The novel is divided into four parts. In the first part of the novel, we rejoin our old friend Shtaal in Saint Petersburg right before the death of Catherine the Great. The novel continues in the tradition of "The Ninth Themidor" by introducing (or in some cases, reintroducing) us to key historical personnages such as Tsar Pavel, the Lopukhins and Borodko. We are also reintroduced to some of our old friends from the "Ninth Thermidor" such as Ivanchuk, Shtaal's 'best friend'/adversary and, my favourite, Pierre Lamour. The novel subsequently takes the reader back to France for a spell, and then to Italy. Shtaal is initially in Italy on a sort of mysterious 'business trip' with his equally mysterious employer, Barataev. This is the part of the novel where we find Shtaal in love and this initial Italian section, as well as his romance end in a very interesting and unexpected manner.

Shtaal subsequently returns to Italy, but this time, as an officer who participates in some of Suvorov's great campaigns. The novel provides an interesting history lesson on the Italian Revolution and some of its key players (we meet with Lord Nelson, King Ferdinand and Suvorov, among others). The portrait of Lord Nelson and his 'ungentlemanly behaviour' in the dispensing of the Italian revolutionaries was very well done and enlightening. Nelson is viewed so unequivocally as a hero in the English-speaking world, that it is interesting to have this other perspective that is well founded on historical evidence. 

The novel ends with an account of the Devil's Bridge campaign through the eyes of Shtaal. When describing the campaigns, Aldanov spends little time describing the actual fighting, devoting instead, more time to psychological portraits of the main characters. This suits me just fine, as I feel it is often difficult for someone who has not actually witnessed a battle to write about it well. 

As was the case with "The Ninth Thermidor", this book was well-written, interesting, educational and a real treat to read. I look forward to the next book in this tetrology, "The Conspiracy".

I give this book 2.5 out of 3.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

"The Ninth Thermidor" by Mark Aldanov (Ukraine)


Rating: 2.5 out of 3

Mark Aldanov (real name Landau) was born in Kiev in the family of a wealthy industrialist. He was a Russian writer, critic and chemist; most famous for his historical novels (e.g. his debut about Lenin and a triology of novels about the roots of the Russian Revolution) Aldanov emigrated out of the Russian Empire during the Russian Civil war and ultimately died abroad in Nice France in 1957.

"The Ninth Thermidor" is the first of four novels in Aldanov's "The Thinker" tetralogy. The series of books are a historical fiction of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars seem mostly through the eyes of a young, naive Russian adventurist named Shtaal. It is said that Aldanov was a great admirer of Tolstoy, and to be sure- if you liked "War and Peace", you will most likely enjoy this novel, as it is narrated in a similar manner (e.g. fictional characters observing true-to-life historical personages and events). While the character of Shtaal is not all that interesting, what really does captivate the readers' interest are all those major historical figures from the French Revolution that we are introduced to, up-close-and-personal. We obtain a window into the thoughts and actions of Catherine the Great, Prime Minister Pitt, Talleyrand, Emmanuel Kant and Robespierre, among others. This was extremely educational and fascinating. We also joined Shtaal in observing some of the greatest events of the French Revolution, such as the wounding of Robespierre and the execution of the Girondistes. I understand from various reviews that Aldanov did his best to maintain the historic integrity of the persons and events depicted in his novels, so you will learn a lot as well from the novel about the French Revolution and its various players.

Of equal interest are the philosophical debates between various characters throughout the novel on, among other questions: what caused the revolution?; was the revolution something noble or something ignoble?; was it inevitable or preventable?; do the ends justify the means in a revolution, i.e. can the evil of murdering 1000s of people be justified by the lofty ideals of the Revolution?

The novel just keeps one thinking and thinking and thinking, not only about the French revolution, but about revolutions in general and whether or not they all follow the same path; e.g. from lofty ideals; to evil in the name of lofty ideals; to a state no better or worse than the previous regime.

"Are they really revolutionaries? They are the same sort of politicians, the same sort of ministers as the ones that presided before them, during the reign of the late King Louis. They're a little bit better, or, perhaps more likely, a little bit worse, and they do almost the same thing and want almost the same thing; and their souls are almost the same. They're a little bit worse, or, perhaps more likely, a little bit better...they're no revolutionaries!"

"Its a very widespread misunderstanding that, seemingly, there's a revolution going on in France..."I'll admit to you that I myself thought so for some time and was captivated by the events in France. But now the lie is utterly clear to me and I've lost any interest in it. In France, one group of people came and replaced another group and took away its power. Of course, you could call such a change a revolution..."

"Why don't these people start the revolution with themselves?"

"Can it really be that that ditch, where they're all lying together; that ditch swarming with corpse flies, from which wafts that unbearable smell of carrion- can this really be the Great French Revolution? It can't be!" 

There were some standout supporting characters in the novel such as the aforementioned historical personnages, but as well, the mysterious Pierre Lamour who was a real scene-stealer. Its amazing how masterfully Aldanov depicted and even humanized some of the most infamous tyrants of the France Revolution. This book actually made me feel sorry for Robespierre!

In sum, "The Ninth Thermidor" was incredibly interesting and engaging...this was the 2nd time I've read it but I found it just as interesting as the first time around. There's a great educational and entertainment value to this novel, as well as lots of food for thought. I greatly enjoyed the book and am looking forward to the next book in the series, "The Devil's Bridge".

I give this book a 2.5 out of 3.

Monday, April 7, 2014

(RNL #23) "Rashomon and 17 Other Stories" - Ryonosuke Akutagawa (Japan)

Rating: 2 out of 3

Ryunosuke Akutagawa is one of Japan's greatest modern-era writers. He was born on March 1, 1892 in the Kyobashi district of Tokyo. His Mother went insane shortly after his birth and he was subsequently adopted and raised by his maternal adult. Akutagawa himself suffered from severe mental illness in his adult life and eventually committed suicide at the young age of 35. 

Akutagawa wrote around 150 short stories in his lifetime. The book I chose to read, ("Novellas" from the RNL list being unavailable) contained 17 selected tales. Some of these stories were modern retellings of classic works from the Edo or early Meiji periods of Japan. Others were humorous, Gogol-esque type stories. Still others were dark and deeply autobiographical.

I believe that it is very difficult to judge Japanese literature in translation as so much is lost in translation. I shall never know how beautifully Akutagawa constructed his sentences; I have missed many of the subtle nuances, plays on words, etc. I can only imagine how much more I would have appreciated this book were I only able to read it in the original! That having been said, I found Akutagawa's stories to be interesting; at times comic (i.e. "Green Onions"); at times dark (i.e. "Fool's Life"); and at times dramatic and unforgettable (i.e. "Hell Screen). There were also many memorable lines that I copied from the various stories, i.e.:

"Born stupid, I can never understand anything that isn't perfectly obvious, and so I had no idea what to say to her."

"He did not observe people on the street to learn about life but rather sought to learn about life in books in order to observe people on the streets. This might have been a roundabout way of doing it, but to him, passersby on the street were nothing but passersby. In order to learn about them - their loves, their hatred, their vanities- he had no choice but to read books, and in particular, the novels and dramas of fin-de-siecle Europe.

"...a Raskolnikov in clown's costume."

"Life is not worth a single line of Baudelaire."

"I was especially bothered by the way people were casually strolling along as if they had never known the existence of sin."

"He too was walking through darkness, but he believed that if there is darkness, there must be light. His logic and mine differed on this one point alone."

The true masterpiece among all of these stories was the absolutely brilliant "Hell screen". This story, about a painter's murderous obsession with his craft, was truly haunting and unforgettable. It is not a surprise to me at all that the story later served as the inspiration for a ballet production. 

I would have given "Hellscreen" alone a three, but I give the entire compendium as a whole a 2/3. Had I been able to read the stories in the original, I might well have given the book a 2.5 or 3.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

"Holiday Mountain" by Alisa Ganieva (Russia) - 2013 "Clear Glade Prize" Shortlister

Rating: 2 out of 3

Alisa Ganieva is one of Russia's young and promising new authors. She was born in Moscow in 1985, but is ethnically Avar. According to Wikipedia, she is currently employed as a literary critic for an independent Russian newspaper, but also writes her own work. She won the "Debut" Literary prize in 2009 for "Salaam Dalgat". This, her latest work, "Holiday Mountain", was shortlisted for a number of prestigious Russian awards such as "National Bestseller", "Big Book" and "Clear Glade".

"Holiday Mountain" is essentially about ethnic and religious conflicts and confusion in post-Soviet Dagestan that eventually lead to the radical Islamitization of the republic and, tragic consequences for our novels' heroes. I say the novel's heroes, because the novel follows the lives of many, many characters. To me, this almost seems to be some new post-modernist style of narration that I have already encountered in Aksyonov's "The Island of Crimea", as well as Bouida's "Thief, Murderer and Spy". I can't say that I'm really a fan of this style of narration. I believe its difficult to pull off well, i.e. without utterly confusing the reader with a plethora of poorly-developed, utterly forgettable characters and/or without breaking a story's momentum....I must admit that Aksyonov did pull off this style of narration, and in "Holiday Mountain", the narration wasn't badly done either. 

"Holiday Mountain"'s subject matter was very interesting, i.e. the exotic (at least for me) locale of Dagestan and all of its people. Prior to reading this novel, I had no idea that Dagestan was so very multi-ethnic. I also do recommend, should you not have any prior knowledge of Dagestan, to read up a bit on the peoples of Dagestan as this will help you out significantly in understanding some of the plot! I enjoyed reading about the culture and customs of modern (and ancient Dagestan). There were also some clever and interesting snippets Ganieva threw in from literary works about Soviet and pre-Soviet Dagestan. I really liked how we were introduced to these by a disinterested reader, who flipped back and forth through the pages of the books. There was also a very interesting chapter in the book about the "Holiday Mountain" which is a central concept to the novel...

Having just finished this book, I'm still trying to process what it is all about... in my opinion, the central theme is that the people of Dagestan just want to eventually get to their 'holiday' mountain, where they can feast and be merry, as one, without the dangers of war. This is what they aspired to during Communism; this is what they hoped to achieve through their ousting of the post-Soviet government, in favour of the radical Islamists. However, each attempt seemed doomed to failure... Perhaps the idea of this 'holiday' mountain is just so much of an unattainable mirage as the 'holiday mountain' of legend?

I give this book a 2/3. Entertaining. Educational. A great debut, that has made me excited to read upcoming works by this obviously talented young writer.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

(RNL #22) "The Island of Crimea" by Vasily Aksyonov (Russia)


Rating: 1.5 out of 3

Vasily Aksyonov was born on August 20th, 1932 in Kazan. Both of his parents were sent to hard labour camps and young Vasily was himself sent to live in an orphanage for the children of inmates. He is described by the all-knowing Wikipedia, as someone who was fiercely pro-American; who wrote about characters that embraced jazz, rock n'roll, consumerism and pre-marital sex. In fact, in 1980, Aksyonov emigrated to the United States and only returned to Russia in 1989...

Now back to the book at hand...

It seems as if everyone has been talking about "The Island of Crimea" as of late, given recent political events... This is a book in which we are offered by Aksyonov an alternate reality- that Crimea somehow escaped Soviet occupation and instead, became an America-like 'model' of consumerism, liberalism, hedonism and decadence. The island is more or less controlled by an elite group of aristocratic 'schoolmates'; super rich, super powerful men who control the island's media, politics and military. These foolishly idealistic men, bored with the excesses of their free-and-easy millionaire lifestyles decide to risk their lives and positions on a campaign to have Crimea join the USSR. And that is where everything takes a tumble for the worst...

First of all, kudos to Aksyonov for creating this very believable and realistic capitalist Crimean world. Not only was the island's geography/architecture, etc. well described; Aksyonov created a plausible alternate history of the island as well as a plausible, very international Crimean population, with its own sub-cultures (including the creole 'Yak' sub-culture that was very believable). Some of the eccentricities and slang of the islanders was very amusing, i.e.: The island is sometimes referred to as island 'OK' (a play on ostrov krimand the English word ok). 

Secondly, the band of millionaire 'schoolmates' were fun characters whose adventures and antics were interesting to read about. I really liked the fact that Aksyonov balanced the deceptive idea that the island and its population were living in a sort of 'millionaire's paradise' with a glimpse into the moral bankruptcy of the island that eventually turned its key stakeholders to a fateful attempt to merge with the USSR.

In terms of minuses, you may wince, at times, while reading this book if, like me, you are not a fan of excessive decadence and foul language. This book is most assuredly R-rated. It is filled with obscenities and descriptions of sex, etc. This book is also not kind to women...

As well, my personal opinion is that the book is not balanced enough in its depiction of the Soviet Union. I can understand that the book was, without a doubt, a product of its times, as well as the tragic experiences of Aksyonov himself. However, I think that the book would have been stronger, had it shown some of the good within the Soviet Union, compared then to some of the moral bankruptcies within both Crimea, capitalist poster child, and Moscow, the seat of communism. 

On the whole, the book held my attention rather well and was not a chore to read. I give it 1.5 out of 3.