Omon Ra by Victor Pelevin

Read: February 26, 2017

A young Russian dreams of flight, but everything crashes and burns in the familiar Soviet style.

This novel has a lot going for it. I enjoyed the absurdist imagery of the criticism – the sham within a sham that so perfectly captures Soviet Russia. A few of these images (such as the one in which Kissinger kills the bear) are haunting, and will probably stay with me.

Overall, though, I can’t say that I enjoyed the book much. I’m not sure if I’ve just been tired lately and haven’t had the concentration to read it properly, or if the translation fell short, or if the writing itself is flawed… or maybe it’s a combination of all three. But I found the narrative to be a bit disjointed. Sometimes things would be happening and it would take me a while to figure out what and why.

I also never connected with the main character. Despite the fact that we’re in his head, his voice just isn’t that strong. We’re told the story of his life, but with a remove that prevents the emotional weight from really making itself felt. Even when his mind circles around particular images, and I could sense the significance (the little trapped pilot, the bear), I never knew why these images were significant to Omon. From my bird’s eye perspective, I know that the trapped pilot is foreshadowing, and I know that the bear represents the common people in the USSR, but Omon doesn’t seem to draw these conclusions. So why does he keep the pilot? Why does he think of the bear? It’s that lack of distinction between what the reader knows and what the character knows that made it difficult to connect with Omon’s humanity.

It’s a fine book, an interesting read, another example of absurdist social commentary. The “sham within a sham” aspect was particularly biting. But, overall, this one just didn’t do it for me.

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The Blizzard by Vladimir Sorokin (Jamey Gambrell, trans.)

Read: 13 February, 2017

How appropriate to be reading this as my home is slowly buried in snow…

This is a very Russian novel. It’s bleak, it’s unkind, and it’s fantastical. That 50 horse power sled? Powered by 50 miniature horses. Don’t bother with this book unless you’re a fan of depressing Russian absurdism.

As it happens, I am, and I enjoyed Blizzard. 

Spoiler talk ahead: The absurdisms don’t really add anything to the story. I picked this book up because of the promise of Russian zombies, but there are no Russian zombies. The zombie plague could have just as easily been whooping cough.

In a way, it reminded me of the movie Stalker, which builds up all the dangers of the Zone, describing how they kill, but then there’s no pay off. The goal is reached without incident, and the travellers decide they’d best not make use of it, and they go home.

That’s what happens here. The zombies are played up throughout the story. Again and again, we hear of their inhuman claws and the the way they burrow underground to pop up on the other side of barricades.

Do the zombies ever do this? Do they ever even appear? Of course not, because modern Russian story telling hates its audience, and hates Chekov’s gun.

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Roadside Picnic by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky

Read: 19 January, 2013

My first introduction to this story was watching the 1979 film Stalker, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. It’s a weird movie and distinctively Russian in its “let’s just give up and go home” mentality. I found it boring and silly the first time I watched it, but it stuck with me. Finally, I decided to watch it again and I fell in love. It’s an interesting movie and well worth watching if you come across it. Just be forewarned: Nothing happens. I mean that. Nothing happens. If you expect stuff to happen in movies, you’ll be disappointed.

Next, I played some of the games. Same world, same concepts, but totally different. For one thing, all those dangers that the stalker warns his guests about in the movie but that never amount to anything actually happen in the game. Between the three of them, there’s quite a bit of fun to be had. Gameplay is good (especially after the long-awaited patch for Clear Skies), storyline is interesting, environment design is amazing. Also worth it if you’re into FPS games.

All this is just to say that I’ve been familiar with the the Stalker setting for many years, so I was excited to see where it all began.

The book follows Redrick Schuhart, a stalker, over the course of about a decade. A stalker is an individual who goes into the Zone illegally to collect alien artefacts for black market sale. Through Schuhart, we get to see the threat and terror of the Zone, and of the people who seek to profit from it at all costs.

It’s a very short novel, but a slow read. The translation wasn’t particularly good, keeping idioms and word orders from the original Russian, but the story was very interesting and compelling. And, of course, the novel is sprinkled through with philosophical discussions, often about how absurd people are and how futile are their aspirations – it is a Russian novel, after all!

If you are into science fiction or Russian literature, I highly recommend giving this book a read!

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The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Read: June, 2004

The devil has arrived in Moscow, and he’s there to wreak havoc. Meanwhile, a writer obsesses over Pontius Pilate while a young woman obsesses over him.

I read Master and Margarita for a course I was taking in university, and it was one of my favourite books of the whole year. I found the obsession with Pontius Pilate to be rather contagious. I was taking another course on the New Testament, so I was able to get it out of my system by writing a rather lengthy essay on him.

This was all a couple years ago, so my memory of the book is a little hazy, but I remember finding it very funny and interesting, mixed in with that depressingly lethargic outlook on life, society, and government so common to Russian writing.

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Night Watch #2: The Day Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

Read: 19 December, 2010

During a battle with a powerful witch, Day Watch witch Alisa is drained of all her power. She is sent to a children’s summer camp to work as a councillor while she recovers and, there, falls in love with a young man. Everything seems to be going well until her powers start to return and she realizes that her lover is a witch with the Night Watch!

In Night Watch, we got to see how the Others on the side of the light operate. Now, we get a glimpse into their enemy organization, the Day Watch.

This was a great addition to the series! I really enjoyed how the Dark Others were presented. They aren’t evil, per se, they are just approaching life and relationships differently. In fact, I think that many people would agree with their individualistic philosophy. Lukyanenko did a great job of making the two sides distinct, with thoughts and motives that are diametrically opposed, while at the same time making them eerily similar. I think it’s a mark of a master writer to be able to convincingly write about a feud between two enemies while convincing the reader that both are entirely justified.

As with Night Watch, the book is composed of several short stories that don’t seem to have a whole lot to do with each other. But by the end, it becomes apparent that each has actually been building up towards a particular climax, that every seemingly unrelated event has actually been part of the leaders’ strategies. Again, it’s truly impressive how Lukyanenko is able to pull this off without it ever feeling contrived. The climactic reveals are truly revealing, and not in a cheaty way.

The setting is wonderful. It’s a magical world laid over our own modern day one, and this is done very creatively. But most impressive is how very Russian the magic system is! There is little natural limit to what the witches can do, something that would be a recipe for Mary Sues in the hands of most other authors. But here, the use of magic is restricted by a complex hierarchical bureaucracy. It’s like something straight out of Brazil!

And, as a fan of Russian music, I’ve been having a great time trying to match up the translated lyrics with the original songs.

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Night Watch #1: The Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

Read: 12 May, 2009

Anton Gorodetski is an Other, a person with magical abilities. In his world, Others come in two types: those who belong to the Light and those who belong to the Dark. These two sides are in a sort of cold war against each other, each polices the other and ensures that neither breaks the terms of their uneasy truce.

Night Watch is arranged in three parts, each an independent story in which Anton must solve a mystery and encounter the Dark Ones. The great twist of the third story is, of course, that the events of all three are actually all related, part of a great plot, and Anton must make an impossible choice that could either save the world or destroy it.

The novel is unmistakably Russian. The magic system, not to mention the model of the truce between the two factions of Others, is ruled primarily by bureaucracy. The sense of humour, too, is fundamentally Russian – as are the character personalities, the descriptions, and even Anton’s final decision at the climax of the novel. All are so adorably Russian.

The bureaucracy makes the magic system interesting. While the magic system itself could allow for limitless power (something generally considered a no-no in the Fantasy genre), the bureaucracy keeps the amount of power any one individual can hold in check. It’s a very unique (and uniquely Russian) solution to a common problem in Fantasy stories.

I found Night Watch to be a delightful novel. It was funny, it was interesting, it was suspenseful, clever, and so very very Russian (can I say this enough?). I highly recommend it for fans of the Fantasy genre (especially the subgenre of Urban Fantasy), as well as any Russia-aficionados.

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Kashtanka by Anton Chekhov

This is a children’s book illustrated by Gennady Spirin. The ISBN is 0-15-200539-0. The reason I mention this is that I want to talk about the presentation of the book – something that is obviously very important in a children’s book.

Spirin’s illustrations are absolutely beautiful. The are detailed and have a great amount of depth and character. Unfortunately, they are also very dark. This wouldn’t be a bad thing except that the pages are very glossy, meaning that I had to struggle and essentially read in the dark just so that I could see them at all. It was such a shame and obviously a huge downside if this book is to be shared with kids.

The other big issue I took with the presentation of the book is that the text boxes looked too simplistic. There was no relationship between the illustrations at the text. Rather, half the page would just be white with text or, at best, there would be a thin and undecorated yellow border.

The story itself was so-so. As far as Russian classical authors go, I might be least familiar with with Chekhov. Because of this, it’s rather difficult to judge what the story might have been like in the original language. That being said, I think it would have taken more than just changing the choice of wording to save the story. It was just very superficial. For example, when Kashtanka’s masters find her again, the man who had taken her in is never mentioned again – despite the fact that he had spent a lot of energy to train her, may well have grown to like her, and would be left without an act once the dog left. In that sense, the story is very much incomplete.

I wouldn’t bother buying this book.