Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, literary fiction, Peirene Press, Publisher, Ricarda Huch, Russia, Setting

‘The Last Summer’ by Ricarda Huch (translated by Jamie Bulloch)

Fiction – paperback; Peirene; 122 pages; 2017. Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch.

First published in 1910, this German-language novella is a delightfully different — and completely compelling — twist on a psychological thriller.

The Last Summer was written by Ricarda Huch, a German intellectual who was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature seven times. It was translated into English by small press Peirene for the first time more than a century later.

Set in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century, it tells the story of Yegor von Rasimkara, the governor of St Petersburg, who closes the state university to quell student unrest. Beset by threats (real and imagined), he retreats to his summer residence, taking his wife Lusinya and their three adult children — Katya, Velya and Jessika — with him.

To protect them from would-be assassins and intruders, Lusinya hires a secretary-cum-bodyguard, Lyu, for her husband, unaware that Lyu, a clever and handsome young man, sides with the student revolutionaries and has a devious plan of his own.

An epistolary novella

Composed entirely of letters between a handful of characters, the novella charts the impact of Lyu on the close-knit family and their existing household.

He charms them all into believing he has the family’s best interests at heart, while he scribbles letters to an unseen Konstantin updating him on the situation and outlining his proposed method of attack.

I do not doubt that my plan will succeed: indeed, the circumstances appear even more favorable than might have been expected. The whole family seems well disposed towards me and I detect no hint of any suspicion, which is entirely natural, as only we in the know could fear the contrary. If the governor has made inquiries into my person, this cannot have done any harm, as all the way from elementary school to university my reports have been outstanding.

Jessika, the youngest daughter, is so charmed she falls in love with him. It’s really only the eldest daughter Katya who doubts Lyu’s loyalty and eventually, in a fit of pique, leaves the family home to avoid him.

As letters fly backward and forward between various family members — Jessika to her aunt Tatyana; Velya to Peter, a childhood friend who is expected to marry Katya; Lusinya to her sister-in-law; and Lyu to Konstantin — we see how events are unfolding, how suspicions are beginning to arise and how such doubts are also being dispelled.

One-sided correspondence

The correspondence is largely one-sided so we never hear directly from all the recipients. Tatyana, for instance, remains silent throughout, and we only hear from Yegor in a single short letter to his two eldest children (who have been sent away to Paris to continue their education) right at the very end.

This gives the reader room to interpret events and misunderstandings, to see how conversations are deliberately skewed or taken the wrong way, and allows one to put together the clues and to see the bigger picture that eludes all the main players in the story.

Admittedly, it takes some time to warm to the epistolary style, which feels disjointed and confusing to begin with, but once you understand who is who and work out their role in the narrative, it all comes together beautifully — and the final letter punches a particularly devastating blow.

I loved this wonderful multi-layered novella which explores family loyalty, betrayal, trust and ideology but does so in a completely understated way. It’s an unexpected treat that demands more than one reading.


I read this for Lizzie’s #GermanLitMonth. The book is also short enough to qualify for Novellas in November (#NovNov22) hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck. This is called killing two birds with one stone, or reading one book for two reading challenges!

 

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Nora Ikstena, Peirene Press, Publisher, Russia, Setting

‘Soviet Milk’ by Nora Ikstena

Soviet Milk

Fiction – paperback; Peirene Press; 190 pages; 2018. Translated from the Latvian by Margita Gailitis

Nora Ikstena’s Soviet Milk is a powerful novella that explores motherhood, the freedom to pursue your calling and life under Soviet rule.

I read it on a long train journey and finished it feeling as if my heart would break, for the story within its 190 pages is so unbearably sad. Not only does it show how an oppressive political regime thwarts an individual’s ability to fulfil their potential and stifles their intellectual freedom, it also shows the long-lasting repercussions on mothers and daughters when the bond between them is damaged.

Life in Latvia

Set over a 25-year period, the story is told in the first person in alternate unnamed chapters by the nameless mother, born in 1944, and her nameless daughter, born in 1969. (There is also a nameless grandmother, who plays a key role, but we never hear her side of the tale.)

The setting is Latvia, which is under Soviet rule.

From the very beginning the daughter has an unusual relationship with her mother, a young doctor who disappears for five days after giving birth. When she returns she refuses to breastfeed her child — a metaphor for sustenance and deprivation that keeps recurring throughout the story — because she feels she’s been poisoned by the State and doesn’t want to pass the poison on.

Ironically, the mother, who lacks maternal tendencies and has abdicated her parental responsibilities, letting her own mother raise her child, works in a maternity ward, where she delivers newborns. Later, through her ground-breaking but secretive scientific endeavours, she impregnates an infertile woman using what we now know to be IVF techniques and delivers her a healthy and much wanted baby.

But despite her steely will and gritty determination to succeed as a doctor, the mother’s intellectual pursuits are constantly thwarted by the State which dictates where she can study and what she can practise. Then, when she commits a hideous crime,  she is exiled to the countryside and it is here that she sinks into a deep and unshakeable depression that overshadows her fragile relationship with her daughter, the daughter who realises very early on that “the role of mother was to become mine”.

Yearning for freedom

Written in lovely, pared back language, translated from the Latvian by Margita Gailitis, Soviet Milk is very much a story about isolation and yearning for freedom, but it’s also filled with delicate moments, finding joy in simple endeavours, noting the passing of seasons and the beauty of nature, how these small things can help create a desire for life.

It works on an emotional level because it builds up, scene by scene, two sides of the same coin: a daughter, constantly seeking the good and optimistic in life; and a mother, forever caught up in a dark web of unhappiness, lost opportunities and unrealised dreams. In the life they build together it is hard not to see that while they are both trapped in a “cage” imposed by the State, they are living in emotional cages they have imposed on themselves, unable to move forward or to see a way out.

This quietly devastating book will be published in the UK next month. It has already been a bestseller in Latvia, where it was first published in 2015. (I obtained my copy early because I have an annual Peirene subscription and subscribers receive their books up to eight weeks before they are available in bookshops.)

1001 books, Alma Classics, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, literary fiction, Mikhail Bulgakov, Publisher, Russia, Setting

‘The Master & Margarita’ by Mikhail Bulgakov

Master-and-margarita

Fiction – paperback; Alma Classics; 432 pages; 2012. Translated from the Russian by Hugh Aplin.

When it comes to Russian literature, I’m woefully under-read. Indeed, I’ve only ever reviewed one great on this blog — Ivan Turgenev’s First Love — and that’s really a short story, not a novel. So when my book group chose Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita — billed as one of the masterpieces of 20th century literature — to read earlier this year I was rather excited by the prospect. But the excitement, I’m sad to say, soon gave way to other, less favourable, emotions…

Two stories in one book

The Master and Margarita is a satirical fantasy composed of two intertwined narrative threads. In the first, the devil, disguised as a shape-shifting stage magician called Woland, visits Soviet Moscow and wreaks havoc on the cultural elite, punishing sinners and throwing people into prison. In the second, the story of Pontius Pilate in the days immediately before and after Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, are described in the form of a book being written by a struggling Moscow writer.

These twin storylines are filled with a cast of strange and extraordinary characters, including “the master”, who is an unnamed writer befriended by Woland, and the master’s adulterous lover, Margarita.

The book is mostly composed of truly absurd scenes — including a black cat that walks on two legs and is capable of talking — prompting me to think, rather flippantly and with tongue planted firmly in my cheek, that Bulgakov wrote it when he was off his face on vodka. And yet, despite my aversion to magic realism, of which there is quite a bit in this hefty 400-plus page novel, I quite enjoyed some of the more fantastical elements, including the section in which Margarita transforms into a witch at Satan’s Ball and has an amazing time getting people to respect her.

But I struggled with the Pontius Pilate “novel”, which seemed to interrupt the flow of the (more interesting and mischievous) devil’s narrative.

A challenging read

I read this book on and off over the course of the month (in between other reads) and found it was best to tackle it in large chunks — at least an hour at a time — instead of the usual 20-minute tube journey. Overall, I found it really hard work, certainly the first half which was “bitty” (and that second chapter, which switches from “modern” Moscow to ancient Jerusalem, really disoriented me), but I found the second half  much more enjoyable and easier to read.

That said, a lot of the biblical stuff went over my head: it’s a very ecclesiastical novel and I wasn’t raised in that tradition. I wonder if I might have identified with it more/made links if I knew the Bible much better?

All in all, it’s a novel full of surprising moments (I will never look at a black cat the same way again) and one that took me right out of my comfort zone into a crazy, inventive world the likes of which I’ve never experienced before.

Interestingly, The Master and Margarita was not published during Bulgakov’s lifetime — it was first published in 1966, almost 30 years after his death — because it satirised Soviet life and highlighted the ways in which Christianity was attacked during the communist period, or as 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die points out, it “blasted open ‘official truths’ with the force of a carnival out of control”.  You can read more about the author on his wikipedia page.

Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Russia, Sean Michaels, Setting, Tin House Books

‘Us Conductors’ by Sean Michaels

Us-Conductors

Fiction – paperback; Tin House Books; 459 pages; 2014.

Sean Michaels’ debut novel, Us Conductors, is a fictionalised account of the life of Russian engineer and physicist Lev Sergeyevich Termen (1896-1993) — later known as Leon Theremin — who invented the electronic musical instrument that takes his name: the theremin*. After living in the US for many years, he was repatriated to Russia and imprisoned in a gulag, where he worked in a secret laboratory inventing devices for Soviet espionage.

A book featuring a scientist as the lead character may sound like a strange concept, but it works extraordinarily well, probably because Michaels gives Dr Theremin such a compelling voice — part arrogant, part naive, often bewildered and constantly lovelorn — and adds a few fictionalised elements to his character — he practices kung fu, for instance — which gives the story an almost surreal quality.

I’m going to be completely up front and stake my colours to the mast, or the flag to the pole, or whatever that saying is and confess that this is my favourite novel on this year’s Giller Prize shortlist. It’s the kind of book that takes you on an adventure and is told in such a refreshingly intimate way that I felt slightly bereft when I finished the book (about a month ago) because I did not want the journey to end. And ever since, I’ve been thinking about Lev/Leon and marvelling at his extraordinary life.

A confession at sea

The book opens with Leon onboard a ship “plunging from New York back to Russia” .

But the door to my cabin is locked. I do not have the key.  Just a typewriter, just paper and ink, just this story to set down in solitude, as the distance widens between us.

This story is essentially a love letter to a young American musician called Clara —”the finest theremin player the world will ever know” — who has spurned Leon’s advances and married someone else.

His tale is divided into two main sections: his life in the US, where he pursues the idea of mass producing the theremin so that every home has one; and his life back in Russia, sent to a gulag for the rest of his life for a reason that is never quite made clear. But the one constant in his life is his unrequited love for Clara, which thrums like a theremin throughout.

Admittedly, the first section, set in glitzy Manhattan during Prohibition, is far more exciting than the second, but each informs the other, because it allows us to experience both Leon’s (almost spectacular) success followed by his dramatic fall from grace. Once courted by the rich and famous, showcasing his invention in Carnegie Hall and performing with the New York Philharmonic orchestra, and hanging out with the likes of Einstein, his life takes an unexpected twist when: (1) he finds out he hasn’t paid his taxes in six years and is going to become bankrupt; and (2) he’s coerced into becoming a Soviet spy, informing on people and institutions he appears to know little about.

A compelling voice

What makes this story so interesting is something I mentioned earlier: Leon’s voice.

It’s not that his voice is unreliable, but when he becomes a spy it’s hard to determine to what extent this is deliberate or accidental — we can never be 100 per cent certain that he is telling us everything he knows. Is he being economical with the truth, is he merely naive or has he become caught up in events his scientifically minded brain can’t comprehend?

At times he seems alarmingly trusting  — for instance, he leaves all his business decisions to a man he knows little about and then seems unfazed when he’s barely got a dime to rub together. But just when you have Leon pegged as being a passive character, he does something completely left of field (I can’t reveal it here, because it’s a bit of a plot spoiler) and you realise you should never under-estimate him.

This is what makes Us Conductors such an intriguing read. But it’s also an intriguing read because it’s so ambitious in scope and theme. It’s a story about music, invention, emigration, science, love, espionage, money, fame, crime and punishment. It’s part New York novel, part prison memoir, part espionage tale, part romance. But, most of all, it’s epic, life-affirming — and fun.

UPDATE — SUNDAY 9 NOVEMBER 2014 : The Shadow Giller Prize jury has chosen Us Conductors as our winner. You can find out more via the official announcement on KevinfromCanada’s blog.

Giller_Winner

UPDATE — TUESDAY 11 NOVEMBER 2014: The REAL Giller Prize has also chosen Us Conductors as its winner! How wonderful! You can find out more via the official announcement on the Giller Prize website.

* You can see a clip of  Leon Theremin playing the theremin on YouTube. Brits of a certain age may be more familiar with musician John Otway playing the instrument.

Author, Book review, David Bezmozgis, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Russia, Setting, Viking

‘The Betrayers’ by David Bezmozgis

The Betrayers

Fiction – Kindle edition; Viking; 240 pages; 2014.

David Bezmozgis’ The Betrayers has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize. It’s not the first time he’s made the cut — his first novel, The Free World, was shortlisted in 2011.

This new book is also focussed on Russian Jews but is vastly different. Set in current times, and spanning just 24 hours, it focuses on two aged men — a Russian dissident turned Israeli politician, who is embroiled in a sex scandal, and a 70-year-old Soviet exile, who is in poor health and struggling to make ends meet — whose paths cross in Yalta, a holiday resort on the Crimean peninsula.

The book is divided into four main parts — the first focuses on the politician, Baruch Kotler; the second on Vladimir Tankilevich, the Jew who informed on Kotler 40 years earlier; the third on their reunion;  and the fourth on the outfall of their meeting.

Soviet dissident meets Soviet informer

In a nutshell, the story goes something like this: in his role as a cabinet minister, Kotler has taken a stand against the destruction of West Bank settlements and has refused to be blackmailed into keeping quiet. As a result, photographs of him in a compromising position with his young assistant, Leora, have been published in the papers. Kotler and Leora decide to lay low by taking a short vacation in the Crimea, where they rent a room from a Russian woman. By coincidence, it turns out that the Russian woman is married to Tankilevich. The two men meet, have a long conversation about their past, and then Kotler and Leora return home to face the consequences of their actions.

Of course, it would spoil things to outline the detail of the conversation between Kotler and Tankilevich, which makes up the bulk of the book, but suffice to say it largely fleshes out the novel’s theme, which — as the title would suggest — is very much focussed on betrayal and its long-lasting repercussions. This betrayal is not only between the two men at the heart of the story, but also on other characters, including Kotler’s betrayal of his longstanding wife Miriam (by taking up with Leora) and Leora’s betrayal of  Kotler’s daughter, Dafna, with whom she is very good friends ( by taking up with her father).

It could even be argued that it is the fear of betrayal that forces Kotler’s son, a solider in the Israeli Army, to ignore his superiors by refusing to take part in the destruction of the Jewish settlements — even if he has to injure himself so that he is unable to do so.

Politics and humour

While The Betrayers deals with many heavy themes — including political oppression and the ways in which Soviet Russia manipulated its own citizens to turn against one another — Bezmozgis uses wry humour to lighten the load. For instance, early on in the novel, Kotler is very much aware that his relationship with Leora is preposterous given the difference in their age — and he knows this fact hasn’t been lost on the hotel receptionist who turns them away on the basis she can’t find their booking:

Perhaps someone could think, considering them, that here was a dutiful daughter vacationing with her father. But wasn’t that yet another of the changes, the increased number of daughters and fathers who seemed to be vacationing together?

And later:

What a picture they made, he thought. This voluptuous, serious, dark-haired girl with her head on the shoulder of a pot-bellied little man still wearing his sunglasses and Borsalino hat. Fodder for comedy.

Fast-paced “spy novel”

Admittedly, I have an aversion to novels that are focused on political betrayal (I’m not a fan of Cold War novels, for instance), but there was a lot I liked about this one. It’s fast-paced, too, and can be easily read in a day or two.

The male characters are well drawn (the females less so) and the dialogue is very good — short, sharp and punchy — enough to suggest it would make a terrific screenplay. That’s not to say Bezmozgis is light on detail, because he’s not — his descriptions of Yalta are particularly vivid and even the way he describes the inner life of Tankilevich, forced to beg the Jewish charity in Simferopol to extend his 10-year stipend, has a ring of authenticity to it.

But, on the whole, The Betrayers feels very much a “male book”, which may not bode well for winning a major literary prize like the 2014 Giller Prize, which will be announced in a week’s time (10 November).

For another take on this novel, please see KevinfromCanada’s review.

Author, Book review, John Vaillant, nature, Non-fiction, Publisher, Russia, Sceptre, Setting, travel, true crime

‘The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival’ by John Vaillant

Tiger

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Sceptre; 353 pages; 2010.

John Vaillant’s The Tiger is a gripping account of the hunt to find a man-eating tiger in Russia’s Far East — a place known as Primorye, which was once considered part of Outer Manchuria, on the border with China.

The book takes one particular incident — the death of Vladimir Markov, a poacher killed by the tiger in 1997 — and spins it out into a fascinating account of the Siberian tiger (also known as the Amur tiger), its biology and behaviour, and the conservation efforts that have been made to protect the species, which is endangered, in Russia.

Part crime scene investigation, part natural history, part travelogue, it reads like a thriller with all the authority of a respected journal, and has earned Vaillant, a Vancouver-based journalist, a bevy of awards, including British Columbia’s National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction for 2010, and Globe and Mail Best Book for Science 2010.

Tiger-croppedAn Amur tiger, in captivity. Image via wikipedia reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

What makes the book so extraordinarily readable is that Vaillant turns a conservation issue into a human interest story in which good men and bad men do battle over a beautiful but enigmatic animal. He charts in painstaking detail the way in which Markov’s death was investigated by the authorities and reveals how it sparked terror in surrounding communities.

And while he shies away from demonising Markov — the man, after all, met a particularly cruel fate — he does turn Yuri Trush, the lead tracker and head of (Russian governmental anti-poaching body) Operation Tiger, into a bit of a hero for whom it is difficult not to admire.

A love letter to the tiger

But mostly Vaillant writes a kind of love letter to the tiger, peppering his adrenalin-fuelled narrative with so many tiger facts it is difficult to keep track of them all. For instance, did you know that “the tiger is, literally, tattooed: if you were to shave one bald, its stripes would still be visible, integral to its skin”? Or that a tiger’s claw is “needle-sharp at the end, and bladed along a portion of its inside length […] about as close to a surgical tool as one can find in nature”?

There are other, more surreal, aspects, including the belief that tigers are vengeful creatures and will hunt down those who do them wrong — and that includes poachers who mess with their territory or steal their kills. I thought this sounded a bit far-fetched, until Vaillant reveals evidence to suggest that the tiger who killed Markov went out of his way to track him down.

Amongst other issues, The Tiger shows how perestroika and the reopening of the border between Russia and China resulted in a surge in tiger poaching during the early 1990s.

A dangerous game

It also shows how the authorities which protect the tiger are caught up in a dangerous game — not just with the wild tigers but with the poachers who will resort to almost anything to catch their prey. Because Primorye is so remote it is true frontier country, a kind of wild west, where enforcing law and order is difficult if not impossible. And yet, Russia, the first country in the world to recognise the tiger as a protected species (it did this in 1947), has achieved some amazing results in tiger conservation.

The Amur tiger population has rebounded to a sustainable level over the past sixty years, a recovery unmatched by any other subspecies of tiger. Even with the upsurge in poaching over the past fifteen years, the Amur tiger has, for now, been able to hold its own.

I won’t lie and say this book kept me on the edge of my seat throughout: it does wane a little in places as Vaillant gets bogged down in facts and figures. The narrative works best when he concentrates on the cat-and-mouse game between the three characters that are central to the story — the tiger, the poacher and the law enforcer — although that is occasionally repetitive in places.

A frightening read

But for something a little different, it’s a terrific — and often frightening — read. And while it’s a sad and sobering thought that there are less than 400 Siberian tigers left in the wild, it’s pleasing to know that “a portion of the proceeds from the book are being donated to several organizations working on the front lines of the tiger pro­tection effort in Primorye”. Such organizations will need all the help they can get…

Finally, if you read this book in Kindle format there are a lot of rogue hyphens littering the text. These tend to appear in the middle of lines, rather than at the end, which is quite distracting. And fiddling around with the text size makes absolutely no difference.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Ivan Turgenev, literary fiction, Penguin Classic, pre-20th Century classic, Publisher, Russia, Setting

‘First Love’ by Ivan Turgenev

FirstLove

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Classics; 102 pages; 2007. Translated from the Russian by Isaiah Berlin.

First Love is Russian writer Ivan Turgenev’s most famous novella. First published in 1860, it has been beautifully repackaged and republished as part of Penguin’s Great Love series.

At just over 100 pages, this is a book that can quickly be read in one sitting (I achieved it via two 20-minute train journeys), although its brevity should not be mistaken for shallowness. First Love is exactly what the title suggests: a man looks back on his first love. “I was sixteen at the time,” he writes. “It happened in the summer of 1833.”

His name is Vladimir Petrovich. He is 40 now, but he recalls the time he stayed in a holiday house – “a wooden building with pillars and two small, low lodges” — in the country with his parents. He would spend his days studying, horse riding and strolling through the Neskootchny Park, but when he notices a “tall, slender girl in a striped pink dress with a white kerchief on her head” in the garden next door he is immediately smitten.

[…] there was in the girl’s movements (I saw her in profile) something so enchanting, imperious and caressing, so mocking and charming, that I nearly cried out with wonder and delight. […] My rifle slipped to the grass; I forgot everything: my eyes devoured the graceful figure, the lovely neck, the beautiful arms, the slightly dishevelled fair hair under the white kerchief –- and the half-closed perceptive eyes, the lashes, the soft cheek beneath them…

Eventually he gets to meet the young woman, Princess Zasyekin, who is five years his senior, and
falls into her circle of friends –- a quintet of suitors comprising a count, doctor, poet, captain and soldier. The suitors belittle him, but he is too in love with the princess to care.

For whole days I did nothing but think intensely about her. I pined away, but her presence brought me no relief. I was jealous and felt conscious of my worthlessness. I was stupidly sulky, and stupidly abject; yet an irrestible force drew me towards her, and it was always with an involuntary shiver of happiness that I went through the door of her room.

Despite the princess’s almost penniless existence — her father had gambled all their property away and then scandalously married the daughter of a minor official — Vladimir continues to fawn at her feet, knowing full well she is in love with someone else.

As a reader I found it almost unbearable to follow Vladimir as he tries to figure out who the princess has given her heart to, because, for me at least, it was painfully obvious. But, in many ways, this is what makes this book tick so beautifully: as much as you want to protect the youthful, inexperienced narrator from having his heart broken, you want to see how he will react when the penny finally drops and so you keep turning the pages.

While First Love seems strangely naive in this day and age, it has a quiet, restrained beauty that makes it a delightful read. But be warned: this story is not just about falling in love for the first time, it’s also about betrayal and cruelty of the finest order.