Sunday, June 29, 2014

"White Flowers" - Abdulrahman Absalyamov (Russia)

Rating: 2 out of 3

As per Wikipedia, Absalyamov (1911-1979) was one of the most significant and famed Tatarstani writers of the 20th century. He began his career as a blue collar worker, working in various factories in Moscow, but then, in 1936, changed course, entering the Maksim Gorky Literary Institute and subsequently devoting himself to literature.

"White Flowers" is the Russian translation of the original work «Ак чәчәкләр» written by Absalyamov in Tatarstani. Its the first book I've read by a Tatarstani author and I rather enjoyed it. "White Flowers" follows a group of Tatarstani Doctors in their daily lives, both at home and in the emergency room. A central theme in the novel was a Doctor's duty to selflessly serve the people and in this, find happiness. The novel provided many examples of Doctors in the hospital who met or did not meet this criteria. 

The bulk of the book's narrative was also concerned with love stories, and in particular, a love triangle consuming the novel's main characters, Doctors Gulshagida and Mansur. As we are advised very early in the novel, Doctors Gulshagida and Mansur were in love with each other from a very early age; they were more-or-less expected to marry...but then, some strange quirk in Dr. Mansur's character drew them apart. Much of the novel is dedicated to following the twists and turns of the pair's romantic lives. Into the mix comes a competitor for Dr. Gulshagida's attentions- the dashing Dr. Yanguar. So as to leave no doubt as to whose side the reader should be on, Dr. Yanguar was made out to be as evil as possible. However, he was still the most interesting and dynamic character of the novel (as villains often are, I suppose) and I spent most of the novel rooting for him to 'get the girl'. 

To be quite honest, I have to add that I didn't like Dr. Mansur much at all. The narrative itself described him as flighty, weak-willed and inconsistent, although a good surgeon...

"White Flowers" is by no means a serious novel. Its a light beach novel that will literally fly by, despite being over 500 pages in length. If you're looking for a not-too-serious, somewhat inspiring book about love and Doctors in mid-20th century Tatarstan, this is the book for you.

2 out of 3

Thursday, June 26, 2014

(RNL #39) "Vaska"- Sergey Antonov (Russia)

Review: 3 out of 3

I didn't think that I could like Vaska more than "The Tsarist Twenty Kopeck Piece", but I did. I was in fact so moved by this book that I couldn't quite do anything else after finishing it. In this short and truly touching novel, Antonov takes us back in time, once again- in this instance, we are transported to one of the greatest construction projects of modern times: the building of the Moscow Metropolitan subway system in the 1930s. Antonov has an engineering background and is well-placed to explain to us the grandeur and half-madness of the project, i.e. building a world-class mass transportation system with limited construction supplies, little to no pre-planning and within an unimaginable time frame! Such a project could have only been realised by the Russian 'narod'- that enigmatic power that triumphed over the Mongols, the French, the Germans with almost nothing but indomitable will, spirit and patriotism. This story was Antonov's tribute to the Russian people; and a very, very touching one at that.

The story follows two main characters, the first of which is Vaska, the title character (in actuality, a woman). Vaska is the daughter of a exiled wealthy peasant, who now lives a near-fugitive life as a blue collar worker on the Moscow subway system. Vaska is recognized and valued by her colleagues for being one of the hardest workers on the project; for doing the work of three men. However, deep down, Vaska is always in fear of being 'caught out' for her past. Antonov revisits, in Vaska's story, the theme already introduced in "The Tsarist Twenty Kopeck Piece", of the injustice of a person being branded for life simply due to the socio-economic background of his/her parents. It is unjust that a person like Vaska, who represents the ideals of a Soviet worker to the extent that she becomes a poster-child for the metro construction project, can never be freed of her black mark, while other 'wolves in sheep's clothing', pretending to be torch bearers of the revolution, are, in reality, nothing more than egoists, cowards and pretenders. 

The other main character of the story is Mitya Platonov. Mitya is one of the most loveable and endearing characters I have ever read about! In the beginning of the novel, we follow Mitya as he oversees his crackerjack team of subway workers. We also join him on his rendez-vous with his love-interest, Tata (the Professor's daughter). Mitya is essentially an ideal Soviet youth put to paper; young, brave, hardworking, and with a highly developed sense of conscience and righteousness... He is the only person who truly cares about Vaska's lot; doing whatever is in his power to free her of her black mark. Mitya's last attempt (in reaction to Stalin's speech in praise of the subway workers) was so moving that it almost brought me to tears!

The novel, which was, for the most, part a light-hearted, at times, comic romp, suddenly took a depressing turn by the last two chapters. The ending left me rather stunned, and unsure of what would happen to Mitya beyond the pages of the book. I was desperate to know the destiny of this bright, young individual, who to me, represented an entire 'lost' generation of Russian youth. Antonov never goes into detail about what happens to any of the characters, save Tata. Though we may never know, my feeling is that he most likely died heroically during the Second World War as so many of the best and brightest did. 

In brief, "Vaska" is, in my opinion, a truly excellent novel; one of the best-written, and most moving, I have read all year. A movie was shot based on the book (screenplay written by you-know-who), but sadly, neither the book nor the movie may reach a wider audience as "Vaska" was (to my knowledge) never translated into English. Is this novel doomed to become a forgotten classic? I hope not.

3 out of 3.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

"The Tsarist Twenty Kopeck Piece" - Sergey Antonov (Russia)

Rating: 2.5 out of 3

Sergey Antonov (1915-1995) was born in Petrograd. He was a veteran of both the Soviet Finnish war and World War II. Antonov also worked as an instructor at various institutes in Leningrad and later, from 1954 onwards, became a delegate of the Soviet government. 

One of Antonov's most famous works is a trilogy of short stories set during the implementation of the New Economic Plan, collectivisation and industrialisation within the Soviet Union.

"The Tsarist Twenty Kopeck Piece" is the first short story of the trilogy.

So picture this...the Reds are still fresh from their victory over the imperialist White guard of the old regime. Mary Pickford is in vogue, as is dove collecting and knucklebones. The bourgeoisie is out; blue collar workers are in. Yesterday's heroes are today's enemies. The whole world has been turned inside out. And caught in the middle of all of this swirling confusion is a young boy named Slavik. 

"The Tsarist Twenty Kopeck Piece" is in effect the story of Slavik and his neighbourhood friends who are growing up in this brave new world full of change. The overarching story arc is that the boys are desperate to get their hands on some money in order to buy a dove. However, their attempts to get the money to buy said dove result in a host of events and discoveries that result in significant consequences, not only for the children, but for the adults around them. 

You see, in this new world that Antonov describes for us, a tsarist 20 kopeck piece may look like money, but in reality, no longer has value. Similarly, people of this brave new world may look, on the surface, to be loyal to the revolution, but, in actuality may be 'anti-socialist bourgeois elements'. So while the boys focus their energies on their dove hunt, the adults in the story are spurred on a hunt with more nefarious implications; a hunt for White traitors and the upper class.

Now, don't get me wrong...this may sound like the description of a very grave, serious book, but in actuality, "The Tsarist Twenty Kopeck Piece" is rather light and self-deprecating; mostly as a result of the fact that the story is told through the eyes of children. Half of the time, young naive Slavik has no idea what's going on, or what a mess he's getting himself or his parents into. All he wants to do is be a dovekeeper-pioneer, bang on a drum and just be like everyone else. And he has no idea why his social-economic background and lineage are such a stickling point for the adults around him....

I think that Antonov was really successful here in creating an interesting, immersive world with lively, colorful characters. I would really recommend this book to those interested in the early years of Soviet Russia.

2.5 out of 3.

(RNL #37) The Cyprus Chest - Innokenty Annensky (Russia)

Rating: 1 out of 3

As I've mentioned before, I'm probably not the best person to provide an opinion on poetry. I do like some poetry (who doesn't adore Pushkin or some of the famous verses by Pasternak and Blok?) However, I am generally rather lost when it comes to most symbolist poetry. I did, however, for the sake of this project, try my best to slog through a collection of poetry by our next author, Innokenty Annensky.

Annensky was born in 1855 in the city of Omsk. His Father was a civil servant The Annenskys later moved to St. Petersburg where Annensky went to school. In his adult life, Annensky worked as an instructor of classic languages and Russian literature at various educational institutions. He published literary criticism and studied and translated greek tragedies. He also wrote some of his own original greek-style tragedies(!) Annensky passed away in 1909 on the steps of a train station in St. Petersburg. The work I am about to discuss, "The Cyprus Chest" was published post-humously.

And so..."The Cyprus Chest"... to be quite honest, my opinion here would not be as useful to the discerning reader as a sample of his work, so here is a sample of a poem from the book:

"Fall Romance" (non-professional translation)

I look at you with indifference
but I can't stop the despair in my heart...
Its exhaustingly humid today,
but the sun hides within the smoke

I know that I foster dreams
But I am at least faithful to my dreams- and you?
Leaves, falling, die;
unnecessary victims in the alley...

Blind fate has brought us together
God knows if we'll see each other there...
But you know, don't laugh walking in the Spring
on the dead leaves!

This was one of a handful of poems from the book that I preferred. I generally preferred his poems about love, as well as a rather interesting one about a buddhist monk!

1 out of 3.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Auntie Motya - Maya Kucherskaya (Russia) 2013 "Clear Glade" Shortlister

Rating: 1.5 out of 3

"Auntie Motya" is the 5th 2013 "Clear Glade" prize nominee that I have read to date. The book was written by Maya Kucherskaya (1970-), a famous Russian writer, literature Professor and literary critic who has already won the "Clear Glade Prize" for her 2007 book "God of Rain". A few quick autobiographical notes about Ms. Kucherskaya: she was born in Moscow; studied Russian literature at Moscow State University then, later, at UCLA. Ms. Kucherskaya currently teaches and critiques literature in her hometown.

Now I must say that I was very eager to read "AM" as, in addition to having been nominated for "Clear Glade", "AM" was the 2013 Big Book award "Reader's Choice". It even beat out the 2013 juggernaut "Laurus" in the eyes of Russia's reading public! So what was all the hullabaloo about? 

For all its 500 odd pages, "Auntie Motya", is in fact, only about a handful of main characters split between two families, that is: "Auntie Motya's family (husband, son and AM herself) and the family of a rural history teacher that Auntie Motya becomes acquainted with due to a chance work assignment. The key issue for Auntie Motya's family is estrangement and despair amongst family members due to a lack of understanding of mutual responsibilities, interests, needs and motivations; and even, the purpose of life (i.e. hedonism or perhaps something more elevated?) Both Auntie Motya and her husband feel that the foundation to their lives and marriage is falling apart, and each take their own unique path during the narrative in search for some happiness and sense in their lives. Auntie Motya searches for happiness and meaning in life in her 'ahem' friendship with the mysterious and dashing travel writer Lanin. Her husband, on the other hand, turns to aqua sports, computer games and even... Taoist philosophy. 

The story of this family was often interrupted (rather pleasantly, I might add), with the life and history of the other (more interesting, I might add) family of a history teacher. Primarily through written correspondence, we learn of the history teacher's family roots and his ancestors' lives, loves and ambitions. The story of the teacher's family, as well as the teacher's own passion for preserving Russia's past (as the teacher noted, the past is sometimes the sole possession of a sleepy rural town!) was very interesting and a welcome diversion from the other major plot. I still don't particularly understand how the stories of Auntie Motya's and the history teacher's families really fit together, however, it didn't particularly matter to me, as I enjoyed the history teacher's chronicle and thought it to be the better portion of the novel.

In terms of the good, for the most part "AM" was a very light, enjoyable read. The book has been described as a 'woman's novel', and a 'beach book' and perhaps rightly so. "AM" is definitely not too heavy a book, and won't leave you in a sobbing 'the-world-is-a-dark-and-desolate-place' mood that would completely destroy the vacation atmosphere. 

In terms of "AM" being a quote-and-quote 'women's novel', I'd say that most every woman is sure to know a 'Lanin-type' person and a 'Auntie Motya-type' person in their lives. Lanin's treatment of Auntie Motya during their 'ahem' friendship was so true-to-life that I was slapping myself over the head thinking - OMG, she's describing ****! This of course makes the book more personal and engaging and is probably what won "AM" its accolades amongst readers.

This having been said, in terms of the bad...well... I think, in all honestly, "AM" lacks the depth to be considered for a serious book prize. As well, I just...well, didn't get the ending. I was waiting, anticipating the lead up of this novel to a great finish- a serious, well thought out answer to the very contemporary and commonplace issues Kucherskaya raises in this novel regarding spousal relationships, roles and responsibilities. However, I felt that I, as a reader (who by the way quite enjoyed the first 450 or so pages of the book), was by the end left holding the bag.

Pity, because Kucherskaya is, one can tell from the writing, a good author. It just seems, though, like the book rather deflated towards the end.

1.5 out of 3.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

(RNL #31) "Fairytales" - Hans Christian Andersen (Denmark)

Rating: 2 out of 3

Next on the Russian National Library's 1000 Best Works of Literature list is one of the world's most loved children's authors, H.C.C.:

Hans Christian Andersen was born in 1805 in the town of Odense, Denmark. He received basic schooling at a school for poor children and then worked as an apprentice. At the age of 14, he moved to Copenhagen and was accepted into the Royal Danish Theatre on the merit of his excellent soprano voice. Once his voice changed, Anderson began his career in writing. Andersen's former Director at the Royal Danish Theatre helped Andersen into a grammar school and King Frederick VI even paid for some of his education! 

Andersen wrote poetry and travel sketches but was most famous for his fairytales. His initial publications in the fairytale genre were retellings of Scandinavian stories he had heard as a child. Andersen died in August, 1875. By this time, he was already recognized as a Danish national treasure. 

The particular collection of Andersen fairytales that I read included a lot of fairytales that were familiar to me from childhood (albeit in a rather edited form). In fact, I had no idea, prior to reading these original stories by Andersen, that he was so religious! Almost every one of his stories contains some sort of reference to God and Christianity. 

My favourites from this collection were in fact the very ones I loved most as a child: "The Tinderbox" (my childhood favourite- I love the dogs with the saucer eyes!), "The Emperor's New Clothes" (very original and edifying), "Thumbelina"; and "The Ugly Duckling".

2 out of 3.

Friday, June 13, 2014

"The Red Laugh" - Leonid Andreyev (Russia)

Rating: 2.5 out of 3

Our Leonid Andreyev marathon comes, at last, to an end with "The Red Laugh", a compilation of Andreyev short stories. Its worth mentioning that this collection includes some excellent short stories by Andreyev that I've already reviewed in previous posts: "Judas Iscariot", "Seven who were Hanged", "Bargamot and Garaska" and "Petka at the Cottage". These are excellent 2.5 to 3 star stories that any great admirer of Russian literature should definitely read. 

My other favourites from this collection were:

"The Life of Vasily Fiveiskiy"- a very unique, rather frightening story about a clergyman who does everything he can to rise above his horrible destiny. Unfortunately, he keeps getting crushed, crushed and crushed by one tragedy after another. Despite all of this, Father Vasily keeps on desperately believing; holding on to whatever scraps of residual faith in God he possesses. The ending to this short story is utterly out-of-this-world. This story was unforgettable and quite possibly one of the strangest tales I have ever read!

"He"- This story was elegantly written and absolutely unputdownable. "He" is an utterly gripping tale about a poor student who ends up in a mysterious seaside manor full of ghostly secrets. The student (and the reader, for that matter) become obsessed with uncovering the mystery to this 'haunted' (both literally and figuratively) house. However, during the student's search for the truth, he unwittingly turns, himself, from observer to actor, from pursuer to pursued. The grand finish to this story, which was deeply suspenseful till the very last pages, is thought-provoking in a good and satisfying way. I'm still trying to figure out the entire message behind this story.  I'm hoping that the answers eventually come to me, but even if they don't, I still greatly enjoyed this short story.

"The Red Laugh"- This story was apparently written by Andreyev as a response to the Russo-Japanese war. It is a tale of two brothers; one who served in the war and one who did not (but was highly impressionable), who both go mad due to the insanity and atrocities of war. 

This collection of short stories was rather diverse: from a story criticizing the treacherous morals of the Imperial police as compared to the revolutionaries ("There's no Forgiveness"), to a story about a famous Italian opera singer who organises a concert for donkeys ("The Asses"), to a tale about a devil who tries desperately to learn how to do good, only to find out, to his despair, that the laws of religion are full of contradictions ("The Rules of Goodness") to a story about a Doctor who either pretends to be mad so that he can get away with murder, or is mad which is why he thinks he's pretending to be mad so that he can get away with murder ("Thought)...or something to that effect ;)

Its almost always difficult to rate a compilation of short stories, as there are always a few that are average, a few that are very good and a few that are quite simply excellent. However, all-in-all, I felt that the sheer number of excellent works in this compilation merit "The Red Laugh" a 2.5 out of 3.

I hope that you enjoy reading Leonid Andreyev this month as much as I did, and enjoy looking at the paintings of the great realist painter, Ilya Repin.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

(RNL #35) "Petka at the Cottage" - Leonid Andreyev (Russia)

Boys on the Grass - Ilya Repin

3 out of 3

I loved this short, sweet, touching little tale about the travesties of poverty and child labour. Little Petya is only 10 years old, but lives in the harsh, brutal, very adult conditions of an apprenticeship in a seedy part of town. He has no playmates, is physically abused and berated by his master and is forced to listen to foul language and the sounds of debauchery from the surrounding neighbourhood. This dehumanizing, monotonous atmosphere prematurely ages Petya and takes all the life and spark out of him. He wants to get away from here, but he doesn't even know where to- that is, until his Mother takes him, one fateful day, to a cottage in the country...

It is Petya's first time ever in the countryside and its effects on the boy are simply miraculous: he gains a spark, he regains his childish youthfulness, and he is happy as never before. But as this is an Andreyev short story, one can't help but think- will this happiness actually last?

This is a simple, but beautiful tale and very moving- the best I have read so far of Andreyev's, alongside "Judas Iscariot" and "Seven who were Hanged." Highly recommended. 3 out of 3.

(RNL #32) "Bergamot and Geraska"- Leonid Andreyev (Russia)

A shy man - Ilya Repin 

2 out of 3

"Bergamot and Geraska" (published in 1898) was apparently the story that got Andreyev 'noticed' by Maksim Gorky, which then led to the blossoming of Andreyev's literary career. Its a simple story about a not-too bright but methodical policeman who meets up with the local drunk on the eve of the feast to celebrate the breaking of the Easter fast. The policeman (Bargamot) is in a hurry to get home and eat (he's hungry!), and here there comes along that old Geraska (the drunk), who's already looking sozzled and must be up to trouble again. Or is he?

I think this is a story that teaches us to not always look at things at face value and to realise the humanity that can be drawn out of anyone, even the most hopeless of individuals, through a simple act of kindness. Most interesting was the key 'aha' moment for Bergamot; Can it really be possible not to hit someone like Geraska? To treat him as a human being, instead?

2 out of 3

Friday, June 6, 2014

(RNL #36) "The Seven who were Hanged" - Leonid Andreyev (Russia)

The arrest of a propagandist - Ilya Repin

Rating: 2.5 out of 3

I am almost midway though a collection of short stories written by Andreyev, and I must say- Mr. Andreyev's prose is some of the most frightening that I have ever read! To date, every story has been tragic (i.e. about the madness of the Russo-Japanese war; how a person can be crushed by cruel fate; assassination attempts and death, etc. etc.) The Seven who were Hanged (1908) is perhaps the most frightening story to date: it is about 7 (more accurately, 9) people who are sentenced to death by hanging, and whose sentence is carried out on the very same day.

The story acquaints us personally with each sentenced individual (7 terrorists and two 'regular old' murders) on the eve of their death. Each of the condemned suffers the impending execution in his/her unique way; some accept their death as martyrdom; others go almost mad; still others are unable to comprehend that their lives will soon come to an end. As always, Andreyev is a master at descriptive pose; he sets very chilling scenes and a tense, frightening atmosphere throughout the course of this short story. It is very frightening, uncomfortable and unpleasant to read about the fact that these 9 young people are soon going to die. It seems so unfathomable that anyone has the right to take away a person's life. I'm against capital punishment, and this short story made it even more apparent to me, how terrible it is to kill. I felt sorry for literally everyone in the story. Each and every person, even the brigand and murderer was masterfully humanized by Andreyev. The very last chapter of the story was especially touching; when the accused became a sort of loving family; providing love and support to each other during their very last moments... 

This was an excellently written short story, but almost painful to read due to the subject matter. Reader discretion is advised. 2.5 out of 3.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

(RNL #33) "Judas Iscariot" - Leonid Andreyev (Russia)

Judas by Ilya Repin

2.5 out of 3

The Leonid Andreyev marathon continues with one of Andreyev's most famous works, "Judas Iscariot". This short story was written by Andreyev in 1907, and as you may have guessed, it is about the world' most famous traitor- Judas Iscariot.

Now the story is very interesting and immediately drew me in. It is more-or-less an account of Judas and his travels with the apostles up until Jesus' death. Andreyev's description of Iscariot with his 'two-halved' head and 'creepy' eye is very vivid, shudder-inspiring, and really set the mood for the story.

We learn that Judas is no saint; constantly lying, stealing and debauching- however, he does not have a good opinion of anyone else either. He is not convinced, from the very beginning, of the apostles' integrity and true love for Jesus if put to the test. 

Interestingly enough however, Judas does seem to genuinely love Jesus and see him as divine and better than anyone else. He is saddened, in the novel, by Jesus' silent detachment from him, as he longs to prove that he loves Jesus best. During the story, Judas attempts to serve Jesus- however, all of his attempts are poorly understand and underappreciated.

And then, we arrive at the infamous betrayal and Iscariot's rationale for doing it. In Andreyev's version, and this is, of course, my own, interpretation of the story(!), Iscariot betrays Jesus as a sort of test, to see who actually is in the right, i.e.: 1) is Judas right that all people, and the apostles are liars and don't actually love and cherish Jesus as much as they profess to? 2) Will Jesus be saved at the last moment because of his divinity? 

Judas proved correct regarding the betrayal of Jesus by the apostles. He raised an interesting point that there can be no truth to their preaching, as they allowed the truth (Jesus) to be killed without lifting a finger. Indeed, it was only Judas who followed Jesus to the very end and died with him. 

This story was Andreyev at his best. Very well-written and unputdownable. 2.5 out of 3.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

"To the Stars" - Leonid Andreyev (Russia)

On the embankment. The beginning of the 1900s - Ilya Repin

2 out of 3 stars

"Every second, a person dies, but in the whole universe, probably every second, an entire world is destroyed. How can I then cry and fall into despair over the death of one person?"

The Leonid Andreyev marathon continues with "To the Stars", Andreyev's first play. "To the Stars" was published in 1906, during Andreyev's 'revolutionary phase', It is about a family caught up in the events of the 20th century revolution in Russia, despite their living in isolation in a mountainous outpost in Europe. The head of the family, an astronomer, is more concerned with celestial events, that are on a more cosmic scale, as opposed to the day-to-day trifles of life, such as 'revolutions' and 'wars'. The rest of the family is fully absorbed in the events of the revolution: the family's model, elder son is being held in a political prison for his revolutionary activity; a son-in-law has been seriously wounded in fighting; and the youngest son is restless and anxious to play his role. 

All are waiting nervously for any news of the revolution, as well as for news of that missing, elder son....but will the news be something that brings them happiness or deep regret? Hope and inspiration or the greatest of suffering?

2 out of 3 stars.