Saturday, May 31, 2014

"The Governor" - Leonid Andreyev (Russia)

Manifestation of October 17, 1905 - Ilya Repin

Rating: 2 out of 3

"The Governor" was a short story written by Leonid Andreyev in 1905. The story has been characterised as Andreyev's response to the real-life murder of governor-general, Sergey Aleksandrovich in February of that same year.

The story is about well... a generally kindly and good governor who does something reprehensible: he orders his men to fire into a crowd of peaceful protesters. This results in the death of over 40 men, women and children. Although the governor was not at all reprimanded by the government for his actions, he grows increasingly haunted by the incident and becomes more and more certain of his impending assassination. His entourage also grows certain that his days are numbered and the story the countdown of a walking corpse.

Andreyev's description of the isolating impact the looming death has on the governor is rather interesting. Bit by bit, the governor grows detached from his professional life, his family and friends and even his own thoughts, till he is nothing more than a walking corpse waiting for the impending(?) end. 

The story was not too long and helped me pass the time on a lazy, Saturday afternoon. 2 out of 3.

(RNL #34) "The Biter" - Leonid Andreyev (Russia)

Man's best friend - Ilya Repin

Review: 2 out of 3

I'm very excited about June, as I will be focusing on one of Russia's greatest writers: Leonid Andreyev. Shamefully enough, I haven't (up till today) read a single piece of literature by Andreyev (This month should remedy that!) There are five works by Andreyev on the Russian National Library List of 1000 Best Works of Literature, however, I will take things a step farther and read a few extra works by Andreyev, including his play "To the Stars". I encourage anybody and everybody to join in and read some works by Andreyev this month. 

I'll start off with a few words about Andreyev himself. Andreyev (1871-1919) was born in the city of Orel, Russia. He had an early interest in reading, particularly the works of Shopenhauer and Gartman. Andreyev has been characterised as deeply impressionable with a highly-developed imagination (which led him to do all sorts of crazy things!) At the age of 17, Andreyev decided to test his will power by lying between the rails of an oncoming steam engine (he survived unharmed). 

Andreyev later studied law at the University of Saint Petersburg. After the death of his Father, the family's finances suffered; at one point, the family even went hungry and Andreyev took to drinking. Andreyev's first short stories were laughed at and returned to him by his prospective publishers. Because of the lack of money, Andreyev was forced to discontinue his education in St. Petersburg. He then transferred to a university in Moscow where he was assisted financially. 

In 1894, after a failed romance, Andreyev attempted to shoot himself. The ultimately failed attempt led to a heart problem that later resulted in his premature death at 48. At this point in time, Andreyev was also the sole bread winner for his starving family (mother and siblings). Andreyev took on a variety of odd-jobs, then finally graduated from law school, which opened the doors to a stable income for him. As of 1902, he also met some success in the literary world; his works now began to get published and he caught the eye of a certain Maksim Gorky who was a great help to his career.

Andreyev was an active supporter of revolutionary activities up until 1907, when he became disillusioned. Andreyev didn't accept the revolution of 1917 and subsequently immigrated to Finland where he remained until his death in 1919.

The following review is of one of Andreyev's earlier works, "The Biter". "The Biter" is a short story published in 1901. As you may have guessed from the title, it is about a dog, a homeless dog, to be exact. The short story is very short, simple, but touching. It recounts to us the life of a street dog who is hungry, neglected, beaten and unloved for most of her life (something which leads her to fear and 'bite back' at people).... until, a fateful encounter with a beautiful girl and her family at a summer cottage. Slowly, love and kindness begin to take root, once again, in the dog's scarred and barren heart. The dog grows to love the family and can hardly believe that her days of suffering are over. But are they?

Andreyev justified his choice of hero (a dog) by saying that in his opinion, all living beings have similar souls. They also all suffer the same torments under the same forces of life. Indeed, the story really humanized the dog. The reader can truly relate to the 'biter's' hardships (hunger, lack of love, lack of shelter) that are really universal to all life-forms.

I thought the story was short, sweet and poignant. 2 out of 3.

Friday, May 30, 2014

"Idiot of our Time" - Aleksandr Kuznetsov-Tulyanin (Russia) 2013 "Clear Glade" Shortlister

Rating: 2 out of 3

"It seems as if nowadays, things are only "as if": its as if you have friends; as if you have a house; as if you have a country; as if you have a life."

"Where else do you think that the prayers of the devil could be written down? They are written down on money and only on money. You need only be able to read them."

I've just finished "Idiot of our Time", another 2013 "Clear Glade" prize nominee. The novel was written by Aleksandr Kuznetsov-Tulyanin (1063-). Mr. K-T. was born in 1963. He graduated from Moscow State University's faculty of journalism and presently lives in the city of Tula. Mr. K-T first started publishing literary prose in the early nineties, however, he then took a break to dive into the 'brave new world' of post-Soviet business. Mr. K-T resumed his career as a writer in 1994, gaining success and recognition with his novels.

And so, this brings us back to the novel at hand and what it is about. I must admit that "Idiot of our Time" was one of the contemporary novels that I was most looking forward to reading this year; after all, it had the most seductive title - most certainly a reference to Dostoyevsky's "The Idiot", one of the best novels ever written (in my humble opinion).

"Idiot of our Time" turns out to be about three main characters: 

1) Soshnikov:, let's just say that he's a mish-mash of a number of Dostoyevskian characters: Raskolnikov (in the beginning of the novel); Dmitry Karamazov (at the end), etc. 

2) Zemsky: an extremely materialistic, extremely dislikeable character whose actually a bit one-dimensional, to be honest. 

3) Nina: a 'saintly' woman who repeatedly allows herself to be trod all over by the men in the novel

The story is set during Russia's 'Wild Wild West' (late 90s-early 2000s) when life was so dangerous and dreadful for good, honest people that you would never believe how things were had you not lived through it yourself. K-T obviously lived through this epoch in its 'full glory' and describes it very accurately: from the 'Bush chicken-legs' to the horrible acts of banditism that were, as K-T rightly noted, so common that they barely raised any eyebrows. 

The main characters are journalists (no, not again!!! I made a silent oath to myself while reading this novel not to read anything for the next few months that had journalist protagonists with alcoholic Fathers) who try to find their way in the post-Soviet Wild West. I believe that its a story about how money corrupts everyone; how its able to turn a person from an intelligent human being into a beast.

There were some very interesting pieces to this novel. In particular:

1) The parts of the novel when Soshnikov rants about the moral depravity of the nouveau-riche and how they don't even feel guilty for their misdeeds: "A person can only differentiated from an animal by the amount of his shame and conscience." .

2) The interesting monologues by Soshnikov about big business and what it takes to 'succeed'

3) The lunch scene between Zemsky and his Father-in-law (more because the Father-in-law character was so well-described and perfectly reminded me of someone of my acquaintance)

4) The brilliant first part of the novel when Soshnikov decides to become a modern-day Raskolnikov. I wished that the novel had been written entirely based on this sub-plot alone as I think something really brilliant could have come out of it! 

5) An excellent section of the novel for me was the part when Soshnikov began to obsessively study his family tree and came to this powerful conclusion: "...over the past thousand years, and even more so, over the past two thousand yeas, the entire earth's population must have fully intermingled in complicated, but inevitable webs of direct kinship not once, and not twice - the quantity of such complete interminglings must have reached insane lengths. And if thats the case, then Socrates, Moses, Confucious, and all of the other greats, who promulgated humanity with their reason, were direct ancestors of Soshnikov from many generations back."

There is also this idea throughout the novel of fate and events happening not-so-much-by -coincidence, but because they were almost inevitably meant to be. Characters cross paths at fateful moments and in fateful places and there is this interesting sense of 'deja-vu'. The main characters almost seem to know that something terrible is going to happen to them; and they're almost always right.

For me, the novel featured some great writing and great ideas. However, I was frustrated by the fact that although the overarching plot linking the three main characters was completed (i.e. the malefic/devilish effect of money on people), other characters/subplots were left undeveloped. It also seemed to me as if K-T decided to write a modern-day "Crime and Punishment", "Idiot" and "Brothers Karamazov" all in one book. In my opinion, K-T could have just chosen one Dostoyevsky theme, one character (just Soshnikov, instead of spending so much time on the biographies of Nina and Zemsky) and really captivated the reader's attention. Not to say that this is a bad book at all, but I keep feeling as if, had K-T closely followed character/one theme and really fleshed it out, he could have delivered something truly incredible.

I give it a 2 out of 3.

Monday, May 26, 2014

(RNL #27) "Le Grand Meaulnes"- Alain-Fournier (France)

Rating: 2.5 out of 3

Since last year, I've read over 50 books; some the size of small dictionaries(!) Regardless, I would say that this small tome was the most intimidating to date, and my having read it, marks a great achievement. You see, "Le Grand Meaulnes" is the first book I've read in French since highschool- and by Jove, I did it!

But let's talk first for a bit about the book's author, Alain-Fournier. M. Fournier (1886-1927) was born in central France to a school-teacher Father. In 1907, he interrupted his studies and began his career as a writer.

"Le Grand Meaulnes" was his first and only novel; a novel inspired by a young woman named Yvonne Marie Elise Toussaint de Quievrecourt whom he met during a stroll along the Seine. A.F. was immediately captivated by the young mademoiselle; however, he did not manage to win her favours and only saw her again, eight years later, when she was married with two children. 

"Le Grand Meaulnes" was first published in 1913 and even nominated for France's most prestigious book prize, Le Prix Goncourt. It did not win but has since, become a classic of French literature. In 1914, Alain-Fournier started work on a second novel, which, sadly, was never finished, as Alain-Fournier joined the army that same year and was killed in combat at the young age of 27.

Returning to the novel, as alluded to above, pretty much every French speaking person knows of "Le Grand Meaulnes". It was part of my highschool French literature curriculum, although sadly, I did not read it at the time. Many years later, I've made up for my oversight, stubbornly reading the book in the original. I must say though, that this is a good book to try reading in the original. Armed with a good electronic dictionary, you can read the novel chapter by chapter over several weeks (as I did). Each chapter is short enough not to exhaust the reader and the story is simple enough not to be forgotten over weeks of slow reading.

As compelling as "Le Grand Meaulnes" itself were the works and the people that "Le Grand Meaulnes" inspired. Apparently, "Le Grand Meaulnes" was an inspiration for Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby"; a novel which I adored!! 

"Le Grand Meaulnes" is essentially the story of two schoolmates in rural France; one sort of good, plain and ordinary (the narrator), and the other, (Meaulnes), the tall, silent, dreamy adventurer type. One fine day, Meaulnes, up to trouble as usual, accidentally finds a hidden country estate where this marvelous sort of holiday is being celebrated, right out of a fairytale. And in this magical place, Meaulnes encounters the most beautiful girl he has ever seen; the princess of the great estate....

The title of the novel "The Grand Meaulnes"; which literally means "The Great Meaulnes" in French, is often translated as "The Wanderer" or "The Lost Estate (Domain)" in English. And in essence, the latter half of the book is all about Meaulnes' vain attempts to retrace his steps; to find that beautiful estate and that unforgettable girl....

In the middle of this, the two friends meet a third, mysterious companion who has a fateful effect on the course of the boys' lives...

Now there was a dash of mystery to this novel, although, for me, it wasn't, in that sense, equal to the mysterious atmosphere of "Rebecca", "The Great Gatsby" or "The Secret Garden". I actually wasn't too pleased with the denouement as well which I just didn't like. I really felt as if the novel should have ended in a more satisfactory manner for the reader. 

UPDATE: After a night of...well...being rather haunted by the book, I've gone back and upgraded my rating to 2.5 You see, I think that the ending did achieve its purpose.. **spoilers**

It didn't at all end the way that I wanted it to and I now am accepting that that was part of the point. The first part of the book led up to a happily ever after ending that went unexpectedly topsy-turvy (to our dismay) with a full 'hero reversal' that was unique and interesting. The heroes from the first half of the novel (Meaulnes and Frantz) turned out to be the novels true 'villains', while the initial 'villain' (Jasmin) turned out to be the only one with sense who confided to the narrator that it would have been best had they never met Frantz, as all that he had brought into their lives was trouble.


The novel, for me, was also about childhood; how, to a child, things so prosaic and simple can assume grandiose, mysterious proportions, as well, as the fatality of getting swept away in childish dreams in adult life. Overgrown dreams can not just ravage one's own life, but the lives of many others. Its like the famous French song by Joe Dassin:

"At times, like children, we build sand castles
Sandcastles of sand and wind...
But the waves come, and the child that returns
finds nothing but sand..."

Its funny that had Meaulnes been a bit more rational; done the common-sense thing and just asked his schoolmates if they knew where the lost estate was, he would have found it in a few days...but then, we wouldn't have this novel, right?

2.5 out of 3 for me.

(RNL #29) "Captains of the Sand" by Jorge Amado (Brazil)

Review:3 out of 3

Jorge Amado (1912-2001) was born in the southern Brazilian state of Bahia. Growing up, he witnessed firsthand the suffering of his countrymen in the slave-like conditions of Brazilian cocoa plantations. These experiences inspired him to write some prominent socialist-realist works about the lives and struggles of Brazil's poor.

Amado soon ran into some political trouble because of his leftist views/works. In 1935, he was arrested by the then-regime of Getuilio Vargas. Two years later, his books were publicly burned. As he was a communist militant, Amado was forced to go into exile in the 40s to Argentina and Uraguay. He later joined the Communist Party of Brazil which he left in 1954. Amado subsequently devoted himself exclusively to literature.

Hard to believe, but "Captains of the Sands" (1937) was written by Amado when he was in his twenties! Its part of a series of six books the author wrote about his native Bahia. To my knowledge, "Captains of the Sands" is not very famous in the West (other works by Amado, such as "Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon seem to be more popular). However, the book is probably Amado's most famous work in the Russian-speaking world. (Amado even won the Stalin Peace Prize in 1951).

Why, there is even a song about this book in Russian. You may remember the song "The Generals of Sand":

"I started off my life in city slums
and I never heard any kind words.
When you caressed your children
I asked for food, I was freezing.
You're not hiding your glances after having seen me.
You know, I'm not guilty, I'm not guilty of anything.

Why did you abandon me? Why?
Where's my hearth? Where's my place to sleep at night?
You don't recognize our kinship
But I'm your brother; I'm a person.
You constantly pray to your Gods
and your Gods forgive you of all your sins..."

Pardon the digression...I just really loved that song. Anyhow, back to the book at hand. The book, as you may now expect after having read the above lyrics, is about a group of slum dwellers who have organised themselves into a criminal group known as "The Captains of the Sand". The group is notorious and feared all over Brazil; they are the greatest of thieves; fierce in combat; and almost impossible to catch. However, the most shocking detail is that the group is entirely made up of orphaned boys...

The leader of the group is a mysterious blond named Pedro with a scar on his face. The gang is also populated by an entire cast of memorable, and loveable characters; the Professor (the intellectual of the group); Legless (the physical and emotional cripple); Cat (the swindler); Lollipop (the religious one), etc. etc. Throughout the novel, Amado narrates to us the sad details of these boys lives; how they were very much forced into a life of crime as a result of poverty. There is little that is done by larger society to help the boys or even to show them some kindness. The few that want to help, such as Father Jose, often have their hands tied by cruel and insensitive social laws and prejudice. 

Each of the boys wants to escape from the cruelty of their street existence, and indeed, each of the main characters in the gang chooses his own path. Some are able to break free from the cycle of poverty and to even help and uplift other poor people. Others, unfortunately, are doomed to a fate all too common to streetdwellers.

The novel is an interesting portrait of early 20th century Brazil; a fascinatingly multiethnic place. There is also a surprisingly poignant love story in the novel, unexpected, given the amount of violence and prostitution in the novel (and even one very unfortunate incident of rape that I really felt it would have been better to not have included). 

Yes, its strange to say this, given some of the R rated content in this novel, but this novel really reminded me of a fairytale, particularly towards the end. There is a very strong message in the novel to heed the call to fight for social justice, which in our jaded, capitalist times, seems very much like a fairytale... 

I like fairytales. And I liked this novel with its bright, loveable characters. 3/3.

Friday, May 23, 2014

"Short Stories" - Aleksandr Amphiteatrov (Russia)

Rating:2.5 out of 3

This review is of 7 short stories by Russian writer Aleksandr Amphiteatrov (1862-1938); a writer that I had not previously heard of (that is, till I found his name on my reading list...)

Amphiteatrov was born to parents with an ecclesiastical background. Some interesting facts from his biography: Amphiteatrov graduated from law school; was an opera singer and later became a mason. From 1902 to 1903 he was sent into exile. Amphiteatrov worked for/contributed to a variety of Russian newspapers and journals throughout his life. After the Russian revolution, Amphiteatrov fled Russia for Finland, Prague, and later Italy. An 'Italian' influence can be noted in a number of the following short stories of his, which I read.

The Devil
Resort Husband
Dead Gods (a Tuscan Legend)
St Petersburg Contrabandists
Travelling Companion

Here are my thoughts on each story:

The Devil A dark and bizarrely unique tale which (in my opinion) is about how people possessed by the devil can commit utterly devilish deeds. Believe it or not, this story is about a love triangle between a sadistic Polish girl, her hunchback neighbour and her noble Count husband. I found the story the least, interesting, given the bizarre subject matter.

Resort Husband A rather interesting, and again, out-of-the-ordinary story (set in Italy, of course) about a cuckolded husband, whose aging wife just can't let go of the fact that her glory days (party days?) are over. 

Dream My 2nd favourite out of all the short stories, "Dream" is about a hopelessly idealistic girl, a dreamer- who gives up all of her materialistic comforts and pleasures in the name of 'good'. Aside from being, again, a very unique and interesting story, "Dream" poses an interesting question to its readers: was the heroine a lunatic idealist who ruined her life in order to fulfill some naive dreams of charity? Or did her suffering make her happier than all of materialists in her social class?

St. Petersburg Contrabandists About the trade in illegal luxury goods in St. Petersburg. Also interesting and unique subject matter.

Travelling Companion Of all of the short stories, this was the only one that I would call humorous (although you may wonder why after reading a synopsis of the story...which I won't provide here so as not to ruin the suspense). All that I'll say is that the story is a supernatural and out of the ordinary tale about a mysterious travelling companion who is ever so pleased to hear that his train car mate is not of the same bureaucratic rank as he is.

Dead Gods My favourite story (again wonderfully unusual and supernatural). A story based on a real Tuscan legend, Once again, I won't ruin the suspense by revealing the plot. The story was highly interesting and I loved the unique subject matter. 

Zoe A lyrical tale where a man realises (when rather too late!) his love for a woman he didn't seem that crazy about in life.

I was pleasantly surprised and impressed by the quality and entertainment value of Amphiteatrov's works. Almost all of the stories were very interesting and I guess Amphiteatrov's marquee is bizarrely unique subject matter (often the supernatural). I give this compilation of stories 2.5 stars.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

"Masha Regina" - Vadim Levental (Russia) 2013 "Big Book" Shortlister

Rating: 2 out of 3

Vadim Levental doesn't yet have his own Wikipedia page (sadly, my primary information source for author biographies). From what little I've read of him on the Internet, he's a young writer from Saint Petersburg who works for a publishing house. I believe that "Masha Regina" may be his first novel and that he, himself, was pleasantly surprised to see it shortlisted for the "Big Book" prize in 2013.

The book is about a girl named (you guessed it) Masha Regina from provincial Russia. She's a bit of an oddball from the outset; from childhood, rather infamous for her 'non-conformist' artwork. At any rate, Masha feels oppressed by the ghosts of her ancestors; by the pathetic lives of her family which seem to have amounted to nothing...and thus, inspired to escape from the 'ever narrowing' circle of mediocrity and destitution, she hops onto a train Westward and enrolls in a boarding school in St. Petersburg. Soon afterwards, she begins a career in screenplay writing/film direction that quickly makes her a star. Masha's movies are deeply autobiographical; they explore issues that are impacting/have impacted her; issues, such as pre-destiny and the fact that we are doomed to repeat the lives of those that came before us, whether we want to or not. Along the way, Masha lives, and is influenced, by three men; 'the intellectual'; the 'Ken doll'; and 'the nice foreign guy'. 

In the end...well, you can pretty much guess the ending, so no need to mention it here.... 

As regards my opinion of the book; well, "Masha Regina" felt a lot longer than 380 odd pages. I wasn't, as well, all that won over by the 'text splicing' device used so ubiquitously by Levental. If you don't like page long paragraphs interspliced with thoughts and dialogue that often had me backtracking to figure out what the main idea of the paragraph was, then you won't like this book. 

I also really didn't like MR. I'm not sure if the author even intended for anyone to sympathise with her. To me, she simply represented the worst of the post-Soviet generation; hard-core whiskey guzzling, foreign word-dropping individualists with no regard for their past or for anyone else. I also didn't think that Levental was that successful in creating a believable female character here. Unlike Vera of Aleshkoviy's "Fish", I really felt, during my reading of the novel, that Masha Regina was a character written by a man who didn't have a deep understanding of women.

I thought the best parts of the book were the early parts, about Masha's family, their slow decline, and Masha' own perception that she was being haunted by them/and that she was doomed to repeat their fate. The segments about her schooldays and life with A.A. were also better, to me, than the European sections that would follow. 

I do think, however, that there were some interesting ideas in this novel (i.e. that we're not masters of our own destinies; we realise too late that we're just following some pre-programmed path, etc.). I'm leaning towards a 1.5 to 2 rating on this book, but I'll give it a low 2.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

(RNL #30) "Data Tutashkhia" - Chabua Amiredzhebi (Georgia)

Rating: 3 out of 3

This book is available in English!

Consciously or unconsciously, I tend to place higher expectations on novels over 500 pages in length. After all, reading a 'monster-sized' novel is a significant time commitment; one to two weeks of your life spent in 'conversation' with one author. I'd like to come out of the experience feeling as if I hadn't wasted my time...

I certainly had my expectations and trepidation when I first began Amiredzhebi's magnum opus, "Data Tutashkia". But I must say, almost from the very beginning, I sensed that I was immersing myself in something special...

Before, however, we get to the novel, I'd like to spend a few moments speaking about Amiredzhebi himself. Chabua Amiredzhebi (1921-2013) was born in Tblisi, Georgia. He was a descendant of the ancient Amiredzhebi line of Georgian aristocracy. In 1938, his Father was repressed and sentenced to 10 years in prison camps. Amiredzhebi had, understandably, a negative view of bolshevism from youth. He said that:

"the 'changeover from one social system to another is, for the most part, unjustified. This is of course well known to the individuals or groups of people who take upon themselves the mission of prophets or organizers of the new way of life. Their objectives stipulate self-interest.'."

In 1944, Amiredzhebi was himself sentenced to 25 years imprisonment for anti-state political activity. Remarkably enough, Amiredzhebi escaped from prison not one, not twice, but three times! After the third escape, he obtained some fake documents, moved to Belorussia and became a director of a factory. Later on, Amiredzhebi was to be given an award by the state; while his documents were being reviewed during the award allocation process, Amiredzhebi's past was uncovered and he was sent back to prison with an additional sentence for his jailbreak. Amiredzhebi then participated in a prison revolt..eventually, however, he was released in 1959. From 1960 onwards, Amiredzhebi started writing. "Data Tutashkia" is the author's magnum opus. It was originally written in Georgian, but then, self-translated by the author himself in 1976. A movie was later made based by on the book (guess who wrote the screenplay?) Interestingly enough, towards the end of his life, Amiredzhebi received permission to become a monk from the Georgian Orthodox Church. One of Georgia's greatest modern writers died in December, 2013.

Now back to the story at hand...
Glancing at the cover, one might think that "Data Tutashkina" (DT) a rather simplistic novel about a Georgian outlaw (Data Tutashkina) and his remarkable ability to escape capture from the Russian Imperalist gendarmes. But no, DT is a big, huge novel with big ideas. And what's more, it is a tale of two cousins, both almost identically blessed with the same physical and intellectual traits, but travelling two morally different paths. 

The novel is divided into 4 parts chronicling its hero's, DT's, moral evolution, interestingly enough, always narrated from the perspective of a multitude of characters from DT's past. DT is a man who from birth, can not stand injustice and wrongdoing. At the very beginning of the novel, we learn that he was convicted of an accidental killing that even the victim absolved him of! This then began his life as a fugitive, constantly running from police desperate to catch him. Throughout the novel, DT goes from place to place, sees evil and struggles with how to overcome it. In the first part of the novel, DT attempts to help those wronged with little result, as either the individual wronged (strangely enough) continues to allow him/herself to be wronged (as in the case of the loser at cards continuing to allow himself to be cheated by card sharks); or the injured and insulted, once rescued by DT, start, themselves, to injure and insult (as was the case with the married pair whom DT assisted to purchase a cow). An excellent, memorable tale in this section of the novel was that of the hospital patients, whom DT likened to the cannibal rats bred by one of the residents. 

In the second part of the novel DT, saddened by his previous experiences, decides not to intervene at all in societal issues unless absolutely certain that his actions would bring good. His new stance had the result of people forgetting all of his past good deeds, and turning on him for his 'indifference'. 

In the third (and my favourite) part of the novel, DT, who has by this point lost his way, attempts to mingle in society in order to determine for himself a meaning and way forward in life. He joins the company of a lawyer and a mysterious woman and their little group engages in various philosophical debates over drinks (which it seems was/is a national pastime in Georgia!). This portion of the story was both interesting, in terms of the philosophical debates, and suspenseful (i.e. what are the relationships between each party? How do they truly regard each other?) The segment's climax, the dinner at the lawyer's home (with its 'mystery' guest), was particularly suspenseful and well-written.

In the next section of the novel, DT decides that evil can only be overcome by force. Here, we learn more about DT's cousin, who by this time, is one of the Russian imperial gendarme's 'best and brightest'. Completely -ahem- 'devoted' to his job and - ahem- ahem- 'unbiased', he zealously oversees a program to rid the region of 'dangerous' outlaws such as his cousin. It is in this section that we truly gain an understanding of which of the brothers really is the danger to society and the regime.

In the final part of the book, DT finally decides for himself, based on all of his past experiences, that the best way to rid the world of evil is to do good. This section of the novel features a gripping ending, as well as the final confrontation between Data and his family. 

The character of DT was wonderfully written by Amiredzhebi, and I fell in love with his innate goodness and humanity. The other main characters, the Russian Count and Data's Cousin, were also well-fleshed out. I despised DT's cousin just about as much as I loved DT!

As mentioned previously, there were some very thought-provoking philosophical discussions in the novel, as well as some interesting background on prison conditions, secret police operations and daily life in pre-revolutionary Georgia. 

DT is not a novel that will leave you feeling indifferent towards any of the main characters. I loved some and thoroughly despised others. The novel's ending left me in tears and well- I'm still thinking about all the philosophical ideas raised in the novel! Its not light reading, but its excellent reading that will keep you thinking and thinking. 

I thoroughly recommend this wonderful novel, which definitely deserves its place among the world's 'big' books. 3 out of 3.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The 2013 "Clear Glade" Prize

I'm sure its no secret by now that I am a huge fan of the "Clear Glade Literary Prize". "Clear Glade" may not have the largest prize fund attached to it, but (aside from the 'cool-factor' of being run by Lev Tolstoy's great grandson!) "Clear Glade" celebrates works that contain ideals of love for humanity, compassion and morality.I've already read all of the 2003 "Clear Glade" shortlisted works. I'm also currently working on the following list of works shortlisted in 2013(I will add links to reviews as I finish each book): 

As well, Yury Bondarev received a modern classic nomination for his works: "The Battalions are Asking for Fire" and "The Last Shots".

Sunday, May 4, 2014

2003 "Clear Glade Prize" Wrapup

I've just finished reading all of the works shortlisted for the 2003 inaugural "Clear Glade" prize (yes, all two of them!).I suppose there's not all that much to discuss or debate, as there were only two works nominated for the prize in 2003 and they were both, by default, winners:

"The Courtyard of Great Grandfather Grisha" - Vladislav Otroshenko
"Autumn in Taman" - Viktor Likhonosov

I guess what I can say is that of the two, I preferred "The Courtyard of Great Grandfather Grisha" for its 'diabolical uniqueness'.

Over the next two months, I aim to read the 2004 "Clear Glade" prize nominees (yes, all two of them!)

"The Courtyard of Great Grandfather Grisha" - Vladislav Otroshenko (Russia) 2003 "Clear Glade Prize" Winner

Review: 2.5 out of 3

Vladislav Otroshenko (1959-) is a Russian writer and essayist. Otroshenko was born in Novocherkassk, graduated from the faculty of journalism at Moscow State University and has,to this date, published a significant body of prose, some of which has been translated into foreign languages. "The Courtyard of Great Grandfather Grisha" was the winner of the 2003 "Clear Glade Prize" for Excellence in a Debut Literary Work of Russian Literature. 

Honestly, "The Courtyard of Great Grandfather Grisha" was much better than I expected it to be. I expected the book to be a lyrical novella extolling the virtues of country life. However, though the novella was set in the country it was, if I may say so, 'diabolically unique'. 

The novella is in effect comprised of 10 short stories and an epilogue, all centred around the cast of characters residing in GGG's courtyard. There's the really, really old GGG himself, his cantankerous spouse, and even some fantastical (and completely unexpected!) characters, such as the Crab King, little devils and house goblins. The book is teeming with black humour and pokes a lot of fun at country-life/fantastical characters from old Russian folktales. The novel only steps slightly out of line, for me, when it pokes too much fun at the deaths of some of the elderly characters. Call me old-fashioned, but I think that joking about the death of elderly people is rather 'mauvais ton'. The book is at its best, however, when it plays around with the fantastical characters. My favourite stories were: "Treasures" (about the Crab-King and his secret 'treasure' chest); "Music" (about the eyeless General-organ grinder); "Kikimora" (about the housegoblin who succeeds in evacuating a bee-killing auntie); and "That Other World" (about a near-death-experience with devils). 

Notably, "GGG's Courtyard" also manages to conclude with a poignant epilogue about how young people are the light in the lives of old country people, who often are faced with so much day-to-day hardship and suffering.

2.5 out 3 stars for an original set of stories.

(RNL #28) "Zoya. A Poem. 0" - Margarita Aliger (Soviet Union)

Rating: 2.5 out of 3

I managed to make time for one more WW2 classic before Victory Day...

Margarita Aliger (1915-1992) was a child of the Soviet Union. She was born in Odessa to a family of humble means. In her youth, she studied chemistry and worked for a time at a factory. However, in the early thirties, she left Odessa for Moscow and started to write. During the 2nd World War, Aliger was a war correspondent in Leningrad. In later years, she was also a rather renowned translator. 

What Aliger is perhaps most famous for are her literary works in support of the revolution and Soviet Communism. She, in fact, won the Stalin Prize for the work I am about to review, the poem, "Zoya".

I am not sure if "Zoya" has been translated into English, or if it ever will be. The poem narrates the true story of Zoya Kozmodemyanskaya; a teenage girl who enlisted in the Second World War, and who was captured, tortured and executed by the Nazis. It is a poem written in the spirit of the times; published in 1942, and meant to inspire the Soviets to keep on fighting until victory. 

To be quite honest, poetry is not my favourite genre and I'm not the best at judging it. However, this was a poem I appreciated, as it offered a window into the literature and spirit of the time. I won't soon forget the most famous lines from "Zoya", when a Nazi soldier barks to a very-soon-to-be-executed girl: "Where's your Stalin (now)?", to which Zoya replies: "He's at his post (standing guard/on the job...hard to translate!)". 

2.5 out of 3 for me

Saturday, May 3, 2014

"Four Odd Years: A War Journal" by Oleg Ryabov (Russia) - 2013 "Clear Glade Prize" Shortlister

Rating: 2 out of 3

Oleg Ryabov was born in 1948 in the city of Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod). He had a rather interesting scientific career (he worked in an institute that researched problems related to extraterrestrial civilizations!). Now, however, he's the director of a publishing company and a rather well known author. Ryabov was longlisted for the "Clear Glade" literary prize in 2011, and in 2013, his novel "Four Odd Years: A War Journal" was shortlisted.

For, me, though Oleg Ryabov is listed on the cover as the sole author of this novel, the book really has two authors: Oleg Ryabov (Ryabov junior) and Aleksey Ryabov (Ryabov senior). The first part, and in my opinion, best part of the novel was written by Ryabov senior, and is a compilation of letters Ryabov senior wrote to his family during his service in WW2. Ryabov senior enlisted almost immediately in 1941, when the war broke out, and miraculously survived to tell the tale after four odd years of danger, deprivation and intense wartime experiences. Ryabov senior was a radio/communications engineer, and as such, (as he himself often admitted in his letters), was not in the sort of perilous danger that a regular frontline soldier was in on a day-to-day basis. Nevertheless, I felt, in reading Ryabov senior's letters, that he must have had a guardian angel watching over him, as he was saved from near-death so many times! 

I really enjoyed reading Ryabov senior's letters. Not only were they of historical interest (they recounted Ryabov's senior's entire wartime journey from Kazakstan to Germany), but Ryabov senior seemed like a wonderful person; friendly, open, optimistic and dedicated to his family.. Despite the horrendous wartime circumstances, his letters were hopeful, positive and even focused on cheering up others in the homefront! Ryabov senior referenced classic literature and poetry in his letters and seemed to be a very well-educated, wellbred sort of person. Midway through the letters, I began to feel as if I was reading letters from a friend. I wish I could shower the second half of the novel, written by Ryabov junior, with as much praise...

I found the switch from part 1 to part 2 (from Ryabov senior's story to Ryabov junior's) to have been very jarring. I had no idea why all of a sudden I was reading about Ryabov's juniors travels in India, Sri Lanka, Austria, Tunesia, Italy, the Czech Republic and France. At first, I thought it was because Ryabov junior wanted to retrace the steps his Father took during the war. But then why the narration about India and Sri Lanka? It may just be me, but I really didn't get it. Furthermore, I didn't find the stories of Ryabov junior's travels to be very interesting. In fact, I found the story about India just plain bizarre and almost unbelievable. (Can you really meet the same person 4 times in a place as crowded as India? Really?)

Since to me, "Four Odd Years: A War Journal" really felt like two novels by two different authors that were fused into one, I give 2.5 out of 3 to part one by Ryabov senior, and 1.5 out of 3 to part two by Ryabov junior. That gives the entire volume a cumulative score of 2 out of 3. I recommend only reading the Ryabov senior portion of the book. Another excellent (but much, much darker!) book to read as we come close to Victory day is "War Doesn't Have a Woman's Face", which was previously reviewed.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

"Fish: A History of One Migration" - Pyotr Aleshkovsky (Russia)

Rating: 2.5 out of 3

"I didn't argue with her, but I'm not able to swim with the current. Fish sleep and go to spawn upstream; Such is their way of life."

Peter Aleshkovsky (1957-) is a renowned Russian author, historian, radio/tv-host and journalist. He was born in Moscow to a historian Father (Aleshkovsky himself later studied history at Moscow State University). Aleshkovsky spent six years restoring historic monuments in the North of Russia. He also wrote, and was nominated thrice for the Russian Booker Prize, considered to be one of Russia's most prestigious literary awards. His novel "Fish: A History of One Migration" was nominated for the 2006 Russian Booker Prize as well as for the 2006 "Big Book Prize".

"Fish: A History of One Migration" is a sweeping novel set in several exotic (at least for me!) locales (most notably, Soviet Tajikistan). Despite some time and attention taken to the description of the people and places in these exotic places, I would say that this novel is, in essence, simply about one woman i.e. Vera, the novel's heroine. "Fish" is a novel devoted to Vera's reminiscences of her past; of the obstacles and hardships that she faced, and how she found the will to go on 'swimming upstream, like a fish', mostly as a result of her deep compassion and caring for the people around her.

Its rather hard to describe and I'm not sure if this at all carried over to the English translation, but this novel definitely had its own ambiance. Reading it was like listening to softly playing classical music on a cool summer's evening. The narrative doesn't excite or grip you persay, but it truly does draw your attention and carry you away through the waves of Vera's recollections. 

The author also made a very interesting and much-noted choice; narrating the entire book from the 1st person perspective of his heroine. What's most remarkable is that Aleshkovsky did this so very well, despite his being male. 

The book is divided into several parts. I liked the Tajikistan portions, as well as the portion about the 'last Estonian' best. The very last part was, for me, the weakest, but still fairly good 

Fish, donkeys and horses play a big role in this book, which I found to be rather interesting and thought provoking. Vera is often compared; and sometimes compares herself to a fish (i.e. cold, uncaring, swimming upstream); donkeys are often compared to the men in the narrative, maddened by their lusts; and then there is Vera's great (and at one point truly fateful) affinity towards horses.

Throughout the novel, we learn of the horrors of drug and alcohol abuse. The novel does not say much about organised religion; but quietly praises the simple, homeschooled faith of Vera and the last Estonian.

I wish the novel could have provided me more of a window into the culture and customs of the Tajik people, however, as explained above, since this was a story centred on Vera, it seems more natural that more detail on Tajikistan was not part of the narrative.

There is a point later on in the book when a character tells Vera: "Believe me, it is better to be alone, void of passions. I said the same thing to Oksanka, but she didn't listen and the flames of passion consumed her." The question this novel raised for me was, indeed, whether it is not perhaps better at times, to be 'a fish'? Throughout the book we see instances of people ruined by their passions: the religious zealot; the drug addicts; the rapist, whereas the simple, passionless people, i.e. the Estonian, and 'cold fish', are able to survive. 

I give this novel a 2.5 out of 3. I wouldn't say that this novel is for everyone; some may find it slow-moving and lacking a 'real ending'. However, I found its narrative and ambiance unique and special.