Monday, September 29, 2014

"Description of a City" - Dmitry Danilov (2013 "Big Book Prize" Finalist

Rating: 0.5 out of 3

("Description of a City" was written by Dmitry Danilov (b. 1969 in Moscow))

This novel didn't win any major awards in 2013, and hence, should not have qualified for my contemporary Russian literature reading list. However, the premise of the book seemed so intriguing, that I had to give it a read. As per the synopsis: "Description of a City" was born out of an experiment: can you make another city your "own"? Can you familiarize yourself with it, can you love it? Would it be enough just to visit it every month over the course of a year, observe its residents, look at the buildings and walk along the streets?..."

Given that the book was advertised as a work of literature, I expected it to be a descriptive literary study of a city, its residents, and the whole, complex process of 'adopting' a city as your own. Unfortunately, I was very sorely disappointed. To me, the novel was absolutely flat; both in content and style. While I expected Danilov to provide interesting, insightful description of the city; he offers only sparse snippets of his trips up and down the city on various forms of transport- oh, and of course - the results of local sporting events. There is also no real attempt by Danilov to connect, or befriend any of the residents of this city. And given that he limits his short monthly travels to the city to a number of major transportation routes, airports and sporting arenas, how could he even venture to assert that he had made any real attempt to make the city his own? 

Now, perhaps the novel might even have had some redeeming qualities, had Danilov actually written about what he observed in an engaging, literary style. But oh no- Danilov's prose is incredibly sparse and...basically...reads like the shorthand notes of 'any-person-Russia' who simply jotted down a few impressions of trips here and there. There are incredibly limited descriptions of nature (shocking for a book that is 80% about the author's trips up and down municipal transportation routes). The descriptions of sporting events were as well, ruthlessly sparse and devoid of life (e.g. so and so attempted to score, so and so attempted to score again, goal).

Danilov's refusal to actually name anything in the book by its name, simply referring to almost everything as, for example, 'The-Hotel-in-the-Region-of-the-City-that-is-Being-Described' grows progressively more and more irritating with each turn of the page, as does Danilov's rants about certain communist figures that he quite obviously - and jarringly- takes issues with.

Perhaps the real experiment associated with this book is not, whether or not the author came to make another city his own- but rather, what sort of dull, utterly un-literary writing can pass off for literature these days in Russia. On that score, I would give Danilov a gold star.