A Russian fairytale

The Year of Miracle and Grief by Leonid Borodin, translated by Jennifer Bradshaw


Leonid Borodin was a writer, Soviet dissident and Christian. He was born in Irkutsk – one of those areas of Russia only familiar to me through the board-game Risk! He was imprisoned twice, the second time after the English publication of his writing in the mid 1980s. He died in 2011. Quartet books have recently republished The Year of Miracle and Grief in a handsome quality paperback, and I was sent a copy.

One summer, a twelve-year-old boy comes to a railway town on the shores of Lake Baikal in Siberia, where his parents are to teach at the school. He soon makes friends with the other local children, and spends most of his time outdoors, fishing, swimming, making rafts, building dams, doing boyish things until suppertime.

He is mesmerised by the beauty of the lake and mountains, and keeps finding his eye drawn to a lonely crag with a straggly pine tree on it. The rocky outcrop is known as Dead Man’s Crag – his friends warn him against going up there however the boy, (who is unnamed) feels compelled to try. He scrambles up to the ledge only to discover an wizened old crone sitting there. Once she’s scared him half to death, she introduces herself as Sarma, great grand-daughter of the Great Sibyr. She forces him into a cave, telling to go down to the bottom and return to tell her what was happening.  He goes in, down many stairs before arriving in an immense hall:

On a high-backed throne set on a small rocky platform sat an old man. At least he seemed to me to be very old under the thick white beard which fell to his chest. His clothes, halfway between a smock and a cloak, were navy blue, and against this background the white beard looked like sea foam…  White eyebrows covered his eyes. The face looked sad and austere.
At his left hand, her head leaning on the armrest of the throne, sat a little girl of eleven or twelve. Her dark chestnut hair was hanging down from the armrest and the old man’s hand was resting on the child’s knees. The armchair she was sitting on was somewhat smaller than the throne, but its back was just as high. On the little girl’s left, with his head resting on outstretched paws, lay a small black dog with a brown patch above his eyes.
And all three of them . . . were asleep.

Sarma had flooded the valley to make Lake Baikal in retribution for the Prince who lived there accidentally letting her son die. Ever since she has held the Prince and his daughter Ri captive, unable to forgive, still grieving. The boy, naturally, falls for Ri and begs Sarma to let him come and visit again. After many visits he tries to persuade Sarma to set Ri free, and Sarma bargains – accepting her terms will change his life totally.

Rooted in local myths of the origins of this bleak and beautiful landscape this fairy-tale is, like all the best of its kind, strong on the consequences of dealing with magic. There is a price in suffering to pay for changing the equilibrium. Borodin was a Christian, and so the fairy-tale almost becomes a kind of parable about forgiveness and grief.

Where this book excelled for me though was in the descriptions of the ever-changing moods of the lake and its environs, going from transcendent beauty to stormy waves to icy danger. The translator, Jennifer Bradshaw has done a great job here. For instance, one day:

The water no longer looked like glass. I had the feeling that an immense blue tablecloth had been stretched out between the four points of the compass and that beasts were walking underneath it, unable to reach the shore. The smooth shining waves were not lapping against the bank but flowing on to it in a film of transparent sky blue.

From the start, we know that the boy survives all his trials, as the story is recounted by an older and wiser self. This degree of hindsight and first-person narration gives a totally different slant on what happens, it’s not as immediate as a certain other tale I’ve read recently involving magical sleeping beings in a cave deep under a hill I can think of (Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen that is); they do share the love of landscape though.

If you love Russian landscapes and fairytales this story, at first deceptively simple but then complex underneath, may be one for you. (8/10).

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Source: Review copy – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Year of Miracle and Grief by Leonid Borodin, Quartet paperback, 190 pages, republished Nov 2013.

The making of a scientist

Konstantinby Tom Bullough

When I met Tom Bullough at the Penguin Blogger’s Night last month, I was instantly taken with his reading from his novel Konstantin.  Later, talking to him, he was excited by the finished article and showed me the lovely fold out cover. An oversized paperback original, the dust-jacket is scattered with gilt planets, stars, constellations and little spacemen.  You can see it in full on Tom’s own website here.  I digress already – back to the novel…

Konstantin is the true story of how a boy grew up to become one of the founding fathers of the Russian space programme – a pioneer in rocket science. Bullough concentrates on the period of his childhood, going through to his mid twenties where we leave him as a teacher developing his scientific ideas.  Don’t worry about being blinded by science though; this novel is concerned about a man following a dream.  First however, let me introduce you to the man it is about.

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935) wasn’t born into a normal family. His mother was an educated Russian, his father an orthodox Polish priest, who had been deported to Russia. When he was nine he became deaf as a result of scarlet fever, and became largely self-educated after that, which allowed the boy who read Jules Verne, and dreamed of space to focus on his interests.  He is particularly known for his ‘Rocket Equation’ which relates the mass and power of a rocket to the velocity it can attain – the basics of jet propulsion.

The novel opens in 1867, and Kostya is taking food to his father who is working as a forester:

Kostya hurried down the bank towards the frozen Oka, fine and light in his heavy sheepskin coat as a sparrow in its winter plumage. On the river, the tracks of the woodsmen cut north through the even snow, steering a line towards the pine logs strewn along the shore beneath the forest. Kostya ran and slid on the exposed ice. From the darkness of the birch trees he emerged in the December sunlight, one arm extended for balance, the soup can blazing beneath his shirt and his coat, and nowhere beneath the ice-blue sky could he see any movement beside his own long, wavering shadow.

The long Russian winters form the backdrop to most of this novel. There is no denying the hardship it causes to the average Russian family, but when the sun shines, Bullough’s lyrical prose makes it seem like the best of days, a romantic time for tramping in the snow or going tobogganing. Here, Kostya is waxing lyrical to his brother Ignat on their way to the town’s sledging hill:

‘In my world, anyway, there wouldn’t be any gravity, so it would be easy to pick up anything we liked.  In my world, I would be able to jump versts through the air. I would be able to jump through the clouds and right out into the ether. If I wanted to go to Moscow, I would just have to run and jump and I could fly there, easy. The people in the train would see me zooming past like a cannonball! …’

Kostya was probably lucky to survive his encounter with scarlet fever, and the ensuing deafness frees him to think; later, he will make himself an ear-trumpet which allows him to communicate better and will rarely be seen without it.

Aged 18 he goes off to Moscow where he studies at the free library, and gains a mentor in its librarian Nikolai Federov, a philosopher and proponent of Russian Cosmicsm, which combined culture, religion and ethics with science and evolution to look forward to the future of mankind. With Federov’s encouragement and guidance Kostya flourishes in his self-teaching.

We leave Konstantin a few years later – he’s become an inspirational science teacher to his pupils, he’s married and has become a family man, but we can sense that his best is yet to come…

Set as it is during a period of great change, where science and engineering are beginning to revolutionise life, Bullough manages to combine one man’s dreams and achievements with the essential spaciness of the landscape into a rather fine Russian novel. To cap it all, an exciting coda puts Tsiolkovsky’s influence on those scientists who came after him, firmly on the map telling the story of Alexei Leonov’s spacewalk in 1965.

Kostya’s parents were both fascinating characters not being conventional Russians, and I did miss them in the second half of the book once he’d moved to Moscow.  No detail is missed in Bullough’s descriptions though – from felt boots to the use of the old Russian units of measurement (versts and arshins etc, approx 1km and 71cm respectively), everything is authentic.

Russia, winter and science – three subjects that, when combined with Bullough’s beautifully descriptive prose, made an enticing and charming read. Bullough is a writer I’m longing to read more of. (9/10).

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– I received my copy of Konstantin courtesy of the publisher – Thank you.
– For another review, read Mark’s from Mostly Books write-up.
– Reading this book reminded me of another novel I loved (read pre-blog) about the Russian space programme – Ascent by Jed Mercurio (see below) – which tells how a Russian test pilot goes to the moon in a thoughtful and slightly detached spare style that is not afraid to use technical jargon without explanation, but is totally gripping.

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To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Konstantinby Tom Bullough. Pub March 1st by Penguin Viking, 208 pages, paperback original.
Ascent by Jed Mercurio

Cold war secrets the spooks can’t hide …

The Trinity Six by Charles Cumming

We know about the Cambridge Five – Philby, Burgess, Maclean, Cairncross and Blunt. What if there had been a sixth man in this spy ring?  What if that sixth man wanted to tell his story? What if his story could cause shame not just to the Russians but the British government as well? These are the questions that Charles Cumming’s exciting spy thriller seeks to answer.

Respected academic Sam Gaddis is in debt, badly. The advance for a new book would do the trick – but what can Sam, an expert on the Cold War and Russian secret service, has no idea for a new angle though. Then his best friend, journalist Charlotte Berg invites him to co-write a book with her – she has a scoop in the offing, she’ll tell him more later. But before they can get together to start thinking about the book, Charlotte dies. Was it murder? (Of course it was, but Sam doesn’t know that at first).

Sam starts to investigate from Charlotte’s papers, and before he knows it, he’s drawn into a deep web of intrigue that put him in danger. As he pieces information together, the plot takes us from London to Winchester before heading off all around Europe.  Gaddis may be a expert historian, but he is an amateur spy.  He is lucky though, and without always knowing, he manages to stay one step ahead of those who want his investigation closed down.

This is a complex story of cross and double cross in which you have to keep your wits about you. The pace doesn’t let up either, and the action easily matches the detective work to give a good balance.  Modern spycraft is well to the fore which always makes for interesting reading and was reassuringly not as over the top as in Spooks, (which I do adore).  Cumming is being rated as a successor to Le Carré, and you know, they may just be right – and I don’t mind having to read more to see if I really agree.  (8.5/10)

See also Elaine thought of it at Random Jottings.

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My copy was supplied by Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Trinity Six by Charles Cumming. Harper pbk Sept 11, 416 pages.

War & Peace – without much peace, but with added Vampires…

It’s that time of year again when I like to pepper my reading with a bit of blood and gore and undead creatures.  I won’t be reading all vampires and zombies – the plan is to alternate roughly, so do come back later if the undead are not your thang!

My first book in the Transworld Book Group challenge however fits the bill perfectly to kick off Gaskella’s new … Duh-duh-daaah!…

Twelve (Danilov Quintet 1) by Jasper Kent.

I have read War and Peace, so I know a little bit about Napoleon v. General Kutozsov, the Battle of Borodino and Napoleon’s march on Moscow, and I’m sure we all know that Napoleon had to retreat and Tchaikovsky wrote the 1812 overture to commemorate it.

This military setting forms the backbone of this novel as we follow the exploits of Captain Alexei Ivanovich Danilov and his small band of officer comrades.  They work as a kind of elite force, spying on the French and using guerilla tactics to keep one step ahead. It’s hard work though – Alexei lost two fingers when he was captured in a previous campaign.

It’s not going well for the Russians, and Dmitry, nominally in charge of Alexei’s group, has taken matters into his own hands. He has engaged a band of mercenaries whom he met in the Balkans to help. He explains that they’re like the monks the Tsar once had as a bodyguard – the ‘Oprichniki’. The Balkans will act as a guerilla force to pick off a few French soldiers here and there and generally sow fear amongst them.  Dmitry explains …

‘They enjoy their work. Like any army, they live off the vanquished.’ None of us quite followed Dmitry’s meaning. ‘The spoils of war. Armies live off the gold and the food and whatever other plunder they take from the enemy.’
‘I’m not sure they’ll find enough gold with the French army to make their journey worthwhile,’ I said.
‘There are rewards other than gold,’ said Dmitry with an uncharacteristic lack of materialism. ‘They are experts at taking what the rest of us would ignore.’

They are a scary band of chaps, and they certainly go to work with relish – but then they would be, the Oprichniki are vampires.  It’s obvious from the start to us the reader what they are, but it takes Alexei some time to cotton on, and then he becomes a man with a rather different mission.

Meanwhile, in between bouts of spying on the French and haring around the place trying to catch up with his fellow officers, Alexei hangs around Moscow, where he acquires a mistress – a posh prostitute called Domnikiia. Alexei’s wife and young son remain in Petersburg – he feels little guilt though, and continued encounters with the Oprichniki give him no time to consider his position.

Then, of course, there’s a third element after the French and vampires to do battle with – the weather.  It’s winter, and a foodless, occupied Moscow is no place to hang out for humans – the vampires do OK though!

At the beginning of this book, I had wondered whether the military setting would overshadow the rest of the story, which was something I found slightly with The Officer’s Prey – a Napoleonic military detective story by Armand Cabasson I read a couple of years ago.  Twelve though, with its domestic sections in Moscow, came alive in a less soldierly fashion.

Although this book was rather long at 539 pages, and took a little while to get into, I did enjoy it.   It does have a high gore and violence count, but these vampires are the real thing – proper nasty blood-drinking, flesh-rending, sunshine hating, superhuman monsters from the borders of Europe and Asia.   Twelve in the first in a planned quintet of novels – would I read another?  Next vampire season certainly!  (7.5/10)

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My copy was supplied by the publisher, Transworld – thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Twelve (Danilov Quintet 1)by Jasper Kent – paperback 539 pages
Thirteen Years Later (Danilov Quintet 2)
The Third Section (Danilov Quintet 3)
War and Peace (Vintage Classics) by Leo Tolstoy
The Officer’s Prey: The Napoleonic Murders by Armand Cabasson.

I think I was expecting too much…

Snowdrops by A D Miller
I bought this debut novel at the beginning of the year.  It’s had a lot of interest even before it was Booker longlisted. Trying to ignore the hype, I dove in…

It’s a tale of an Englishman abroad. Nick is a thirty-something lawyer working in Moscow. One day, he stops a mugger from stealing a beautiful woman’s bag in the Metro.  She is Masha, and soon they begin a relationship.  He meets Masha’s younger sister Katya, and their old aunt – everything seems to be going well between them, Masha stays over regularly and he hopes she could be ‘the one’.

Then the sisters enlist his help as a lawyer to do the conveyancing (Moscow style) on selling their aunt’s flat and moving her to a nice new one in the suburbs.  Meanwhile, in his day job, Nicholas works on the legal side of corporate finance – always a risky business in Russia. His firm is helping the banks finance a big deal for a new Arctic oil terminal being built by the ‘Cossack’.

You can sense right from the start that his home and work lives will go up the creek eventually.  This is telegraphed by the way, now back in England,  the novel is written as a confession to his new fiancée – he feels the need to come clean about what happened in Moscow that winter; after reading this, surely there will not be a future Mrs.  So why did he go to Russia in the first place?

I gave the easy answers I always did when asked that questions: ‘I wanted an adventure.’
That wasn’t really true. The reason, I can see now, is that I found myself entering the thirty-something zone of disappointment, the time when momentum and ambition start to fade and friends’ parents start to die. the time of ‘Is that all there is?’ People I knew in London who had already got married began to get divorced, and people who hadn’t adopted cats. People started running marathons or becoming Buddhists to help them get through it. For you I guess it was those dodgy evangelical seminars you once told me yuo went to a couple of times before we met. The truth is, the firm asked me if I’d go out to Moscow, just for a year, they said, maybe two. It was a short cut to a partnership, they hinted. I said yes, and ran away from London and how young I wasn’t any more.

Nikolai, as Masha calls him, is just not hard enough to survive long term in such a sleazy, corrupt and cutthroat world. He’s naive and not capable of thinking like a Russian.  His neighbour Oleg warns him. His best friend Steve, a journalist who has gone native, warns him.  He takes no notice until it’s too late.

I did enjoy this novel, but was also disappointed.  Maybe having read other books like Le Carré’s The Russia House and Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, I was expecting a bit more intrigue, a bit more real jeopardy.  It all seemed a bit low rent for a ‘psychological drama’ as the blurb put it.  The real star of the book is Russia itself – from the restaurants and nightclubs to the snow filled streets and freezing weather, and everywhere oozing corruption.

Will it make the Booker shortlist?  I don’t think so.  Snowdrops is a fine debut novel, but not quite special enough for me. (7.5/10)

Read what some other bloggers say: Petrona, and DGR.

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I bought my book. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Snowdrops by A D Miller, Atlantic hardback, 273 pages.
The Russia House (Penguin Modern Classics) by John Le Carré
The Quiet American by Graham Greene

The mad scientist and his red ray

The Fatal Eggs by Mikhail Bulgakov.

Pre-blog, back in 2006, we read The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov in our book group and I loved it. This novel about the devil coming to a town of non-believers in 1930s Russia and spreading mischief paralleled against the a writer in mental hospital who has written a Pilate’s eye view of Jesus is a delicious satire on Stalinism and the repression of religion and art.  It wasn’t an easy book to get into – I’d previously tried to read it and failed, but this time it did click with me and I loved it.

The Master and Margarita, not published in his lifetime, is arguably Bulgakov’s masterpiece, but when I came across a new translation by Roger Cockrell of one of his earlier novellas written in the mid-1920s, I had to give that a go. The Fatal Eggs was originally published in the West in a collection of novellas called Diaboliad.

Bulgakov was a fan of HG Wells, and this novella owes much to Wells’s The Island of Dr Moreau amongst others, which involved a mad scientist doing experiments on animals.

Set in 1928 – just into the future at the time of writing, Bulgakov’s Professor Persikov is a classic mad scientist. The ageing academic is consumed by his passion for zoology, and amphibians in particular. He is a difficult man, and makes the lives of those around him hell, including his assistant Pankrat, and all the students he teaches in Moscow whom he persistently fails in their exams.

One day he makes an accidental discovery after having left a microscope on; when he returns the combination of light and lenses has created a red ray which focused on the amoeba under the scope has accelerated their growth immensely. He builds a larger apparatus, and tries it out with similar success on his beloved frogs.

At the same time as Persikov’s discovery, and unbeknown to him, a fatal disease is rampaging its way through Russia’s poutry stock, and all chickens have had to be destroyed. Persikov’s invention by this time has come to the attention of journalists and the secret police – who step in to confiscate his large machines, planning to use them to speedgrow new chickens – but there’s a mix-up with the eggs, and as you might guess, things are going to go badly wrong!

Mad professors, bungling secret agents and mob rule make a heady mix for some broad comedy and swipes at all things red and Russian – nothing escapes his satiric pen, although I’m no expert in the October revolution and what came after it. The ending of this novella is somewhat weak, using a conveniently Wellsian construct that I won’t divulge to save spoiling the plot for anyone else that wants to read it – however, getting there is rather fun, and I’m keen to read more of his other works.

The extra material was also very well worth reading. In the introduction we meet Bulgakov, and find out about his influences and some of the references in this novella.  After the story, we get the translators notes which include explanations of the puns in the text, and lastly a thirty page biography and survey of Bulgakov’s work. Bulgakov died young at 48 in 1940, and it was thanks to his third wife’s efforts after his death that we got to read his works in the West, although it took until the early 1970s for the first uncensored translations to appear.

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I bought my copy.
To explore further on Amazon, click below:

Stalin & UFOs – a philosophical SF thriller

Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts.

This novel was short-listed for the Arthur C Clarke Award for Science Fiction novels last year, but it’s really more of a philosophical thriller and a commentary on the fall of Communism than out and out science fiction.  It’s dark, thoughtful, thrilling and hilarious by turns and I loved it.

It’s 1946 and the ‘Great Patriotic War’ (aka WWII) has ended.  Stalin believes that the Soviet peoples need continued conflict to remain together under his thumb and he comes up with an idea.  He gets a group of the top Soviet science fiction authors together and orders them to come up with a plan for an alien invasion that could be faked if necessary.  They devise a race of ‘radiation aliens’ beings of pure energy who they decide should destroy the Ukraine…

How could we plan such a monstrosity so very casually? This is not an easy question to answer, although in the light of what came later it is, of course an important one. Conceivably it is that we did not beleive, even in the midst of our work, that it would come to anything – that we felt removed from the possible consequences of our planning. But I suspect a more malign motivation. Writers, you see, daily inflict the most dreadful suffering upon the characters they create, and science fiction writers are worse than any other sort in this respect. A realist writer might break his protagonist’s leg, or kill his fiancee; but a science fiction writer will immolate whole planets, and whilst doing so he will be more concerned with the placement of commas than with the screams of the dying. He will do this every working day all through his life. How can this not prodce calluses on those tenderer portions of the mind that ordinary human beings use to focus their empathy?

Nothing ever came of these plans (phew!), in fact the group were ordered never to talk about it. Years go by and our narrator, Konstantin Skvorecky, never wrote any more SF taking up the vodka bottle instead, but he pulled himself together enough to make a meagre living as a translator.  Now it’s 1986, he’s in his early sixties and his life is about to take a very strange turn indeed, when one of his former colleagues turns up – now a KGB officer and he says he has proof that aliens are here …

‘Let’s be clear,’ I said. ‘The six of us concocted that story of space aliens.’
‘We did.’
‘We didn’t base it on anything factual at all. We invented radiation aliens. Crazy, really. I don’t believe a single one of us even approximately understood the physics of radiation.’
‘That’s right.’
‘It was fiction. It was our fiction. We made it up. It’s not real.’
‘Fictional and unreal are not synonyms,’ said Frenkel, smiling as if he had articulated a piece of profound wisdom.
‘Ivan, you’re saying that the story we invented is somehow, I don’t know, happening in the real world? That there’s proof that radiation aliens are invading?’

Then things start to get rather Monty Python as Konsty gives Frenkel the slip and ends up in front of an audience of UFO enthusiasts who see him as the prophet of the alien invasion, just like that scene in Life of Brian where his followers hang on every word and revere his gourd. An American whom Konstantin had been translating for earlier (wanting to establish the Church of Scientology in Russia), reappears and things get nasty – and Konsty ends up having to make a break for … Ukraine – and can you remember what happened in there in real life in 1986?

I loved this book on so many levels. Firstly it was a cracking good adventure with thrills, spills, cross and double-cross and even romance. Then there was the philosophical paradox in that UFOs don’t exist, but enough people believe that they do to create tremendous conspiracy theories which feed paranoia and keep the secret services busy. I loved how Roberts has taken many real facts and events and woven them into a rich sort of alternate history with these big ideas. The book also has a fantastic sense of farce – there’s a marvellous scene towards the end about Russians and queuing which had me guffawing with laughter. Konstantin, our unreliable narrator is not a typical Russian – he is known as an ironist and his skewed view on life pervades the story from the start; he can’t help but make wisecracks all the time, but is ultimately a rather loveable older man and his account of his great adventure was a brilliant read.

An absolutely brilliant read. (10/10) I bought this book and I want to read more of this exciting author’s books.

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Russian echoes of Waiting for Godot

The Concert Ticket by Olga Grushin

The story in this wonderful novel was inspired by a real event – that of the eighty year old Stravinsky returning to Russia in a ‘for one night only’ comeback concert; the queue for tickets started a whole year before.

Set in an unnamed Russian city some time during the height of the totalitarian regime, the streets abound with kiosks selling various goods.  When Anna discovers a new kiosk with a queue already forming, despite it being shut and there’s no indication of what it will sell, she bags her place, and thus begins a marathon that will involve her entire family. Anna is a school teacher, her husband Sergei is a frustrated professional musician who was assigned to play the tuba after the ‘change’, and student son Alexander helps out too. Rumours spread that the tickets will be for a special concert featuring an exiled composer, and each member of the family dreams of what they’d do if they got the ticket.

The line develops its own life, becoming a complex social structure, with myriad families all holding their allotted place – all taking shifts in waiting to get the single ticket per place. One of its members wonders what’s really going on …

‘All I’m saying is, it’s a very efficient way of disposing of people’s time, don’t you see? Thousands of us, some waiting for stockings, others for symphonies. But what if there aren’t any stockings, what if there aren’t any symphonies, so to speak? What if all of this is just a means to keep the masses occupied and hopeful – a cheap solution to the problem of time?’
‘Wait, does this idiot seriously believe that the State is maintaining a system of phony kiosks just so we waste our time waiting for things that don’t exist?
‘No, no, I’m not claiming that’s how it is, I’m only saying it philosophically. Like a metaphor, a metaphor of life, do you understand?’
‘Well, metaphor or not, this smells of subversion to me. You’d do well to keep your voice down – ‘

Waiting in the line becomes an obsession for all of them. Their jobs suffer, they don’t talk to each other any more except to arrange shift patterns. They begin to display all the traits of addicts – the line is their life now, their neighbours in the queue replace their families; the line is the only place were hope still lives. Whiling the hours away in the line is preferable to anything else. There is much philosophising about time and Sergei muses with himself and his neighbours in the line …

‘Here’s a question for you: Does waiting make time move faster, or slower?’
‘Slower of course. Everyone knows that time flies when you’re happy, but when you’re waiting, each moment crawls by.’
(Each moment, they say. Ah, but moments are akin to snowflakes, no two alike. Some extend back like powerful microscopes, zeroing their light on some spot in the past, until the recollection, bright, enlarged, is spread for your contemplation as if under glass. Others remind you of that curiously unpleasant mathematical paradox, that hapless runner trying to reach point B from point A in eternal increments of half the remaining distance, doomed never to attive at his destination, the units of time sliding one out of another life endless smaller compartments hidden in larger ones, again and again and again, suspending time in an agony of futile anticipation. Then, of course, there are others, light and enjoyable, fleet and indistinct like dreams, like delightful whooshes down a slide in some forgotten park, like so many of their moments spent waiting, spent daydreaming, here – if they but knew it. Here, then, is a better question for you: If you’re happy when you’re waiting, what happens to time then?)
‘Me, I just can’t help wondering – we’ve given up almost a year of our lives for one or two hours of enjoyment. Is it worth it?’

I really loved this book. It felt so authentic – well the author is Russian; she perfectly captures the dreary lives of people just trying to get by under the regime but always dreaming of better things – and we get to live their hopes and aspirations with them. Like Vladimir and Estragon, Beckett’s two tramps in Waiting for Godot, the waiting is what they do best, with the lure of things happening tomorrow.

I definitely want to read Grushin’s first book, The Dream Life of Sukhanov having read this fantastic novel. (9.5/10) I bought this book.

N.B. This book has also been published with a different title – ‘The Line’ outside the UK.

Short Takes

Catching up on some shorter reviews …

Amulet by Roberto Bolano

To paraphrase the Cranberries album title, Everybody else is reading it, so why can’t I? – I’ve finally read some Roberto Bolano. He is definitely the flavour of the moment; his posthumously published epic 2666 is generating acres of discussion and review. However I wanted to read something shorter before deciding whether to commit myself to 900+ pages of the other.

Published before he died, Amulet is a short and slightly surreal novel set in Mexico during a period of political unrest. Auxilio, a Uruguayan woman, who hangs out with the poets of Mexico City is trapped in a bathroom at the university when the army invades to put down a student revolt in 1968. She’s there for 12 days, and lies on the floor starving, remembering and fantasising about the future and her life with the poets.

Knowing nothing of Mexican poetry or politics it was hard to know what, if anything, was real in the background to the novel. I was hoping to be dazzled by the writing, but found the confusing nature of the plot darting between Auxilio’s memories and reveries difficult. The opening lines promise much – a horror story of murder, detection and horror, but immediately this is taken away as the teller says it won’t seem like that if told by her. Interspersed among the ramblings, which become increasingly surreal prophecies, are some more conventional scenes of life with the literati, and their experiences with both the underbelly of Mexican society and the regimes in charge in Latin America; these episodes briefly brought the novel to life and I could see why he is so admired.

As for reading more Bolano, I may well try The Savage Detectives, but find the prospect of 2666 about 600 pages too much for me at the moment! (Book supplied by the Amazon Vine programme).

Old Peter’s Russian Tales by Arthur Ransome

I read Old Peter’s Russian Tales by Arthur Ransome as a companion piece to the wonderful Blood Red, Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick, reviewed here.

Ransome collected a wide selection of typical Russian fairy tales, but rather than present them as separate entities, the tales are told by a grandfather to his grandchildren. The first segment, The hut in the forest introduces Old Peter, little Maroosia and Vanya. The children are a keen audience and as they settle by the stove, they demand to hear a new tale and we’re off straightaway into a land of a rich merchant and his three daughters, followed by many others: the witch Baba Yaga with her hut on chicken legs, Sadko the dulcimer player who plays by the river (made into an opera by Rimsky Korsakov), and ones like the intriguingly titled The Stolen Turnips, the Magic Tablecloth, the Sneezing Goat and the Wooden Whistle. They are delightful, quirky tales and are highly moral. Those who are bad always get their come-uppance, and happy endings are not guaranteed.

The Boy Who Kicked Pigs by Tom Baker

It was seeing Jackie’s review of this book, that reminded me that I read it a few months ago, but didn’t get around to writing about it.

The Boy Who Kicked Pigs is by Tom Baker – yes, the fourth Dr Who. Incidentally, I can really recommend his autobiography Who on Earth is Tom Baker?, and having read that was intrigued to read this truly bizarre and gothic novella. It tells the story of an evil thirteen year old who kicks pigs – it starts off with his sister’s piggy bank, but progresses to anything porcine including a bacon butty which is his downfall. He pledges revenge and

Although written as a children’s story in style – a bit Lemony Snicketish, it most definitely is not – but fans of Tim Burton would love it. It is also full of arcane adult references from the 1960s – from Will Fyffe (eccentric news reporter) to Hylda Baker (Lancashire actress). Clocking in at just 124 pages, of which half are evocative line drawings, it doesn’t take long. I found that imagining Baker himself narrating made for an entertaining reading!

A true story of the Russian Revolution

There has been renewed interest in the beloved children’s author Arthur Ransome lately due to the publication of a new biography: The Last Englishman by Roland Chambers. What many people don’t know is that years before he wrote the children’s classics, including Swallows and Amazons, for which he is so fondly remembered, he lived and worked in Russia at the time of the revolution; this is chronicled in the above biog.

Marcus Sedgwick’s novel also tackles Ransome’s time in Russia. Sedgwick is one of those teen authors whose books are crossover adult reads too, and I can’t recommend this one highly enough – it has revolution and politics, spies and intrigue, romance and family drama, all steeped in Russian fairy tales.

Stuck in a marriage where he didn’t love his wife, Ransome ran away to Russia in 1913, although he regretted having to leave his daughter behind. There he taught himself the language and became a journalist on the Daily News at the start of the Great War. He also covered the 1917 revolutions, and was close to Lenin and Trotsky. There he met the real love of his life, Evgenia, who was Trotsky’s personal secretary; they married eventually. He was somewhat sympathetic to the Bolshelvik cause, although remained loyal to his homeland, and this led to MI6 using him through their agent Bruce Lockhart (whose Memoirs of a British Agent was a bestseller in the 1930s); MI5 also kept tabs on him for years. Ransome’s occasional journeys to and from the UK were full of adventure and peril, especially the time the Estonians used him to deliver a secret armistice proposal to Litvinov in Moscow in 1919, where his good reputation with both sides was his life-saver.

It was at the start of his self-imposed exile that he wrote his book Old Peter’s Russian Tales: these are full of magical talismans, poor peasant folk on quests, cunning animals, greedy men and wicked stepmothers, and Baba Yaga of course. These moral tales are often dark and many don’t have happy endings, but really get into the Russian psyche.

Sedgwick’s novelisation is no dry biography. He starts by using the fairy tales to tell the problems of the people, embodied by a great Russian bear spurred into action against the Tsar by two friends arguing in the forest – they are Lenin and Trotsky. This is superb scene-setting, and Ransome wanders into it and instantly falls in love with a woman stirring a pot on a stove in an office …

‘This is what you want,’ she said, almost in a whisper.
She nodded at the pot, and Arthur found himself drawn towards her. He looked inside.
‘Potatoes,’ she murmured, as if it were the most beautiful word in the world. Her eyes lit up and Arthur realised how very hungry he was. He stood no more than a weak moment’s decision away from her, and looked into her eyes.
This is what you want.
And that was how the young writer found love, just when he had stopped looking for it.

How can you not be reeled in by the utter romance in those words. Combined with all the derring do of the amateur spy, the author delivers a totally fabulous novel. Swallows and Amazons was his favourite childhood book, and when the National Archives released the files on Ransome, it was a story demanding to be told. Some of the fascinating telegrams from those archives are reproduced in the Appendix.

This book is likely to send me off on a Russian reading trail when I have time, as I realised (again) my lack of knowledge of things historical and the October Revolution in particular. I highly recommend it. (10/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Blood Red, Snow White: n/a by Marcus Sedgwick, Orion paperback.
Old Peter’s Russian Tales by Arthur Ransome, paperback
The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome by Roland Chambers, paperback
Memoirs of a British Agent – Being an account of the author’s early life in many lands and of his official mission to Moscow in 1918 by Bruce Lockhart