What can be better in summer than a day off and a good book? Russian Art +Culture have prepared a selection of 5 contemporary novels (and authors) than you cannot miss. We can’t offer you and easy read, but we can definitely promise the eye-opening and fascinating books, which will make you understand Russia, its history and culture even better.
Into the Thickening Fog often feels like a quintessential Russian novel: it starts with a bout of heavy drinking, is set in a frozen northern city, and features dogs, demons and existential angst. Andrei Gelasimov’s novels have earned him numerous awards, and this 2015 offering, out in English, has many hallmarks of his prize-winning playful style.
The novel tells a story of Eduard Filippov, a fashionable Moscow director, who finds himself, impossibly hungover, on the floor of an airplane toilet with a misspelled boarding pass in his pocket. He is flying home to the “strange frozen city” where he grew up and where his young wife is buried.
The original title in Russian is Cold. Cold id both symbol and central character in Gelasimov’s sometimes baffling tale. The translator, whoever, has called the English version Into the Thickening Fog, underlining Filippov’s confused adventure into the murky past.
In December 2002, the Siberian city of Yakutsk, where Gelasimov went to University, had a real-life emergency similar to the one in the novel, leaving the city in danger of freezing. Gelasimov uses this extreme cold as an extended metaphor for human alienation, rather than the basis for an apocalyptic scenario (although one character observes “our situation is more of a disaster novel”).
Ludmila Ulitskaya’s novel, The Big Green Tent, is as grand, solid and impressively all-encompassing as its title implies. Yet the fact that it covers the Soviet dissident movement with such force shouldn’t be surprising. After all, Ulitskaya has an intimate knowledge of the subject. One of 21st-century Russia’s most prominent writers, she was among the dissidents of the Soviet era and she opposes Vladimir Putin now.
Ulitskaya’s novel, ably translated by Polly Gannon, takes us back to the 1950s, to the beginnings of the postwar dissident movement, which reached its peak in the late 1960s and 1970s and met its natural demise in the early 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Ulitskaya perfectly captures the joy, misery and danger of dissident life, showing the diversity of people it united and their varying hopes, aspirations and goals for adopting a dissident lifestyle.
Eugene Vodolazkin’s The Aviator explores the questions of history and memory through the experiences of Innokenty Platonov, who emerges from nearly a century of cryogenic slumber in post-Soviet 1999. Born into the 19th-century Russian intelligentsia, Platonov survives the Bolshevik Revolution and Civil War, only to be swept up in the arrests attending Stalin’s consolidation of power in the late 1920s. When given a choice between death and “voluntary” participation in an immortality experiment involving medical-grade full-body freezing, he selects latter and spends the rest of Soviet history in anabiosis. When he finally awakens, he must confront not only the vicissitudes of life in post-Soviet Russia, but also his own status as an overnight celebrity — a piece of living history in an eclectic and mnemonically oversaturated time.
Reminiscent of the great works of twentieth-century Russian literature, with nods to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Bulgakov’s The White Guard, The Aviator cements Vodolazkin’s position as the rising star of Russia’s literary scene.
Mikhail Shishkin is arguably Russia’s greatest living novelist and the only writer so far to win all three major Russian book prizes. The kind of contemporary literature in Russia that wins awards often favours postmodern style over plot and Shishkin’s work is no exception, but his writing is richly textured and innovative and his themes are universal: love and death, pain and happiness, war and peace.
The Light and the Dark, translated by Andrew Bromfield, is, superficially, a series of letters between a man and a woman. The man, Vovka, Volodya or Volodenka, is fighting a distant, brutal war; the woman, Sasha or Sashenka, writes from the home front. Her engaging tales of childhood, love and work give the novel what narrative drive it has, a series of poignant snapshots of life in a Soviet city that are anything but random.
Their alternative perspectives are threaded through the narrative; both sets of letters converge on the legends of Prester John, the mythical, eastern king. His fantastical kingdom of “mute cicadas and imperishable people” was part of the medieval tradition of a mirror in which the whole world was reflected. Shishkin’s novels are an extension of this tradition; The Light and the Dark, like his previous novel Maidenhair, is about everything.
A day in that near future, as imagined in Day of the Oprichnik by the bad-boy novelist Vladimir Sorokin, opens with “always the same dream” of a white stallion, “the stallion of all stallions, dazzling, a sorcerer,” a dream that’s ever receding. This vision is interrupted by a whip cracking — in fact the ring of a “mobilov,” or mobile phone with holographs. (We later learn the year is 2028.) Andrei Danilovich Komiaga, our protagonist, snaps a fresh dog’s head onto the hood of his red “Mercedov” and is off on state business: putting down “sedition,” enriching himself and getting high.
Russia’s monarchy has been restored. And thanks be to God! Flogging is back, and the Kremlin has been repainted its original white. Sublime national self-isolation has been rediscovered: a Great Wall of Russia extends from Europe through the Caucasus to the edge of China. The Red Troubles are long past. The White Troubles, which followed the collapse of the Reds, are a memory, too. It is a purer Ivan-the-Terrible age of pillaging and flag waving.