‘A hard-hitting satire about the near future, the past and about now, concerning Russia’s division into an urban elite and an impoverished mass’ – Living Souls by Dmitry Bykov

“Rage — Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses, hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls, great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion, feasts for the dogs and birds, and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.” So opens Robert Fagles 1996 translation of the Iliad, one of the earliest texts in the Western canon and one that uses war as its focal point and structure. Now think of all the great war novels – Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of Night. Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead.

In David Lodge’s wickedly accurate campus novel Small World, academics play a game of literary chicken in which they have to admit to works they have not read; the winner, a Shakespeare scholar, admits to never having read Hamlet. As my speciality is post-war American literature, I have to admit to never having finished Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. I get about 50 pages in and – realizing I’ve yet to crack a grin and this being, apparently, one of the funniest novels ever written – give up, reach for a DeLillo, an Auster, or an Ellroy. And here, finally, we get to Dmitry Bykov’s Living Souls: A Novel (a wink to Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls: A Novel), although both Bykov and Gogol claim their narratives to be poems like their epic-poem progenitor – The Iliad.

I imagine reviewers will compare Living Souls to Catch-22. I can’t do that. So, here goes. It’s an ambitious novel with a huge cast of characters set in Russia’s near future, yet looking back to Russian history, myth, and genesis. Full of earthy humour, sex, and violence, the narrative sometimes collapses into the chaos it tries to portray but mostly succeeds in showing a country divided by civil war, racism, and the confusion of identity.

This is a review not a synopsis but I’ll try to break the story down. It’s the near future, two factions divide Russia – the Varingians descended from people of Aryan and Norse tribes, who occupy the northern European part of Russia; and the Khazars, a mixture of southern and eastern Russian tribes that converted to Judaism in the 9th century AD now joined by liberal Jews fleeing the near-fascist cities of Moscow and St Petersburg. The story revolves around binary characters – General Gromov and his lover; a teenage girl Anka and a homeless man Vasily Ivanovich who has autistic, almost prophetic powers; Borozdin a Varingian governor and Asha a Khazar local girl; and Volokhov a war hero sleeping with Zhenka a Khazar guerrilla leader. These binary relationships emphasize the absurdity of a war between peoples no longer sure of the purity of their race, let alone their identity. The remaining Russians live in increasing fear, slipping into a dependence on magic and superstition. The action is mostly centred in two villages: Degunino and Zhadrunovo – one with a wealth of food and available women and the other squalid and dark. A loop railway signifying the circularity of history and war joins the villages.

Living Souls – originally titled ZhD in Russian – either Zh(adruvnovo) D(egunino) or more controversially Zhydy (Jews) – is far from politically correct, full of racist characters and torturers who say what they think about mixed marriages, Jews (Yds), and peasants. If this were a Martin Amis novel, the national press would have a field day. Bykov’s novel is a hard-hitting satire about the near future, the past and about now, concerning Russia’s division into an urban elite and an impoverished mass, a Russia of greedy and treacherous tycoons, an ultra-nationalist government, a nation in which precarious reserves of oil and gas fuel the economy, a nation made fragile by its immense size.

If we revisit the list of classic war fiction, then we must include Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Isaac Babel’s The Red Cavalry, and Vasily Grossman’s masterpiece Life and Fate. Take these and throw in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and you get an idea of the scope of Bykov’s ambitious novel.

As an addendum, I’d like to praise the translator Cathy Porter. Wearing my reviewer’s hat, I have to read shedloads of translated works. I realize how difficult a translator’s task is but on a number of occasions over the past year, I have had to throw a book across the room, mostly because the translator has transformed the original language into some weird 19th century machine speak with all the humour, rhythm, poetry, and vigour of Stephen Hawking’s voice box. Cathy Porter – like Jay Rubin who translates from Japanese – has made this raucous novel highly readable. To quote another Russian writer, translators “(f)irst of all… must have as much talent, or at least the same kind of talent, as the author (s)he chooses… Second, (s)he must know thoroughly the two nations and the two languages involved and be perfectly acquainted with all details relating to his author’s manner and methods; also, with the social background of words, their fashions, history and period associations. This leads to the third point: while having genius and knowledge (s)he must possess the gift of mimicry and be able to act, as it were, the real author’s part by impersonating his tricks of demeanor and speech, his ways and his mind, with the utmost degree of verisimilitude.” Exactly.

Any Cop?: Satire and magic realism rolled into one huge Russian novel. Brave. Bravo.

Steve Finbow

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