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.

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