Stuck on Repeat
By Olga Slavnikova (translated by Marian Schwartz) (Duckworth Overlook 414pp £9.99)
I met Marian Schwartz, translator of Olga Slavnikova's Russian Booker Prize-winning 2017, a couple of months ago at the International Tolstoy Conference in Yasnaya Polyana. She was a tiny, snappy, precise woman. She hitched a ride in the British Council limo back to Moscow and, when I tried to lift our early morning spirits with a singsong, pointedly drew out earplugs from her handbag. We didn't speak again.
I hadn't read 2017 then; if I had, her short temper might have been more easily forgiven. The linguistic salvoes and syntactical arabesques that Schwartz is forced to perform in order to render Slavnikova's densely lyrical prose in English are tortuous enough to cloud the sunniest disposition. This novel is full of scenes of hard physical labour; none is so impressive, nor leaves the reader with the same sense of exhausted admiration, as Schwartz's act of translation.
2017 will be a resonant year for Russians, as it is the centenary of the October Revolution. Rather than dwelling on the past, Slavnikova's novel enacts Marx on the repetition of history: if 1917 was the tragedy, then much of this is farce. Violence, exploitation, gritty urban life divorced from the natural world - all this we find in a thousand other near-future dystopias. On less familiar ground, 2017 sees Jean-Claude Van Damme - after significant plastic surgery - reincarnated as a major-general in the White Army; a revolution that starts as an elaborate historical re-enactment ('the popularity of Red Cavalry and White Guard uniforms emptied out the theatrical costume shops ... hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens wanted to dress up and join one of the participating sides'); and complex conspiracy theories and sub-plots that all point to Russia having reached the apogee of its oligarchical obsession with wealth as an end in itself. The novel moves sure-footedly between the playful and the profound, doing what the best speculative fiction does: using the (near) future to illuminate the present. Separate plot lines meet and part and meet again like helixes; the first shows us the forty-something Krylov, a native of the mythical Riphean Mountains (based on Slavnikova's native Urals), now living in an unnamed, unheimlich city. Seeing off his mentor, Anfilogov, at a train station, Krylov finds himself walking beside a beautiful woman who calls herself Tanya. Much of the story concerns the couple's itinerant, psychogeographical love affair, where they schedule their trysts according to an arcane system using maps of the city: street-haunting that causes Krylov's boots to 'fall to pieces like old bark ... gnawed by the earth's teeth'. A spy stalks their wandering footsteps - sent, perhaps, by Krylov's money-obsessed wife, Tamara, or by Tanya's husband, who may or may not be part of the mythical existence she has created for herself. Intertwined with the love story of Krylov and Tanya is another tale of obsession - that of Anfilogov for the corundum jewels of the Riphean wilds. It is in describing the unforgiving crags of the Ripheans that Slavnikova's prose is at its most ornate and impressionistic. Sometimes her flourishes fall flat. Hunger creeps upon Anfilogov and his henchman Kolyan 'like a long French kiss'. A page later, entranced by mystic apparitions, Anfilogov dreams of 'a woman, subtle and pale, with delicate bones that fit together into a perfect skeleton, with small teats, puffy, like children's tonsils'. Much of 2017 requires a strong stomach: this is not for the metaphor-intolerant.Some passages, however, attain an extraordinary majesty. An extended evocation of the beauty of a mountain river remains one of the most striking passages of poetic prose I've read, bringing to mind the sustained lushness of Lawrence Durrell and the virtuosity of Nabokov:
both banks were drowning in luxuriant white, and down the river, in its dropping rhythm, floated bands of stupefying bitter smells. Here the tiny-leafed birches, as transparent as dragonfly wings, threw out catkins, and luscious blobs of dust swallowed up by the channel bars slid over the water.
With its nimble leaping between genres (romance, spy thriller, sci-fi dystopia, war story), its ludic appropriations of popular culture, and its steam-punk peregrinations, 2017 is the postmodern incarnation of the tradition of Gogol and Bulgakov: a surreal, violently imagined dreamscape that is political without proselytising. Linguistically ambitious and extraordinarily gripping, this is a novel that rattles in the brain long after it is finished.
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Alex Preston is the author of two novels, This Bleeding City and The Revelations (Faber).