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.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Thank you so much for your comment and well wishes. Japan is the country I second most admire after Russia! I'm not reading much contemporary fiction these days, however, who knows what the future will bring. Best regards! It's great to know that there are many who read Russian literature in the original all over the world!