Monday 20 May 2013


Olga Slavnikova, 2006 [Marian Schwartz, 2010]
(May 2013)

“Tanya wasn’t late yet, but from her mounting absence Krylov realized she certainly would be.”

Based on my previous extensive experience with Russian Novels (three), allow me to make some wild and unsupportable generalizations about them.

They’re strongly written and have a distinctively philosophical bent. The words and ideas are crafted and sculpted as though those long Siberian nights mean Russian authors have no choice but to explore the very depths of their souls, vocabularies, and vodka bottles. Wonderfully constructed things, but a little on the heavy side. Not exactly page-turners.

In that if no other respect they have a lot in common with the sort of books that tend to win the Booker Prize: lots of middle-class angst; well formed characters and sentences; sod all in the way of plot.

The cover proclaims that 2017 was a ‘winner of the Russian Booker’, and so I really should have considered myself warned. I started reading it in February. The language and imagery are genuinely breathtaking, bordering on the smothering at times. You get immersed in it; face down, pulling yourself slowly through its viscous luxury. But when you bring your head up for air you realize that you’re knackered and have just read a five-page description of a puddle. So you take a break and read a book about the history of the atomic bomb for some light relief instead.

It’s tempting to label this as Magical Realism but that doesn’t really fit, for all that the appearance of mountain spirits and forest nymphs are taken for granted in the fictional Riphean province where this is set. It’s not SF really either, despite the near-future setting and the odd token attempt at futurology (computers project holograms instead of having screens, and nanotechnology appears to be more involved in plastic surgery) it’s far from central and seems to be there just to reinforce the setting of the book on the centenary of the Russian revolution.

I don’t really know what it is, to be honest. All that time I spent getting lost in the language, for all that it was immensely gratifying whilst doing so, means that by the end I didn’t really know where I was or what journey I was supposed to have been on. Disorientating, to say the least.

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