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.

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