Do you see ruins? Pushkin Hills by Sergei Dovlatov

“ ‘Pushkin too had debts and an uneasy relationship with the government. Plus the trouble with his wife, not to mention his difficult temperament…
‘And so what? They opened a museum. Hired tour guides – forty of them. And each one loves Pushkin madly…’”

As Pushkin Hills opens, Boris Alikhanov is on his way to what he hopes will be a chance to pull the unravelling threads of his life together. He intends to secure a summer job as a tour guide at the Pushkin Preserve, a rambling estate dedicated to honouring and celebrating the life and memory of the famous Romantic Russian poet. He himself is writer whose literary ambitions have remained unrealized while his journalistic endeavours have raised a few official eyebrows. His marriage is in shambles, his refuge is the bottle.

As familiar as the tale may be, it is evident from the earliest pages that we are in the company of a narrator who is out to chart his own decline with a dry sardonic wit that manages to be, in turn, political, philosophical, and laugh out loud funny. Accepted on a trial basis by the collection of Pushkin fanatics in charge at the tourist centre – most of whom seem to be rather desperate middle aged women – Boris settles into ramshackle accommodations in a nearby village with a landlord even more decrepit than his abode. He then sets out to learn the tour guide’s script and routine.

PushkinHis stint at Pushkin Hills begins well. He masters the art of herding groups of tourists around the estate, riffing on the script when required and suffering the most foolish inquiries with surprising equanimity. Until his wife arrives. She is determined to move to America with their daughter, eager to follow the waves of immigrants leaving Russia, but Boris is bound by some attachment that he is not ready to cut. She asks him to join them or set them free, he begs her to stay. Yet once it becomes clear that she is committed, in fact even happy to be moving on with her life, he quickly begins to lose his precarious footing.

The end may seem almost inevitable. But the magic of this novel lies in author Sergei Dovlatov’s keen eye and ear for character and dialogue. Boris’ world, past and present comes alive in striking detail. At one point he reflects back on his courtship, such as it was, with his wife Tanya, noting the one time she called him. He arrives, after a little liquid fortification, to find her cousin waiting to meet him:

“The lad looked strong.
A brick-brown face towered over a wall of shoulders. Its dome was crowned with a brittle and dusty patch of last year’s grass. The stucco arches of his ears were swallowed up by the semi-darkness. The bastion of his wide solid forehead was missing embrasures. The gaping lips gloomed like a ravine. The flickering small swamps of his eyes, veiled by an icy cloud, questioned. The bottomless, cavernous mouth nurtured a threat.”

The purpose of this encounter is soon revealed:

“‘Why haven’t you married her, you son of a bitch? What are you waiting for, scumbag?’
‘If this is my conscience, ‘ a thought flashed through my mind, ‘then it is rather unattractive.’
I began to lose my sense of reality. The contours of the world blurred hopelessly. The cousin-structure reached for the wine with interest.”

Boris, for all his shortcomings is a deeply human and likeable protagonist. Even for a reader who lacks the depth of background in Russian literary and political history to pick up on all the allusions and often intentional misquotes in the text, Pushkin Hills is an intelligent, entertaining read. (An unobtrusive series of footnotes add basic background where relevant.) Originally published in Russian in1983, this translation by the author’s daughter, Katherine Dovlatov, brings to life a novel that manages to feel fresh and vital more than 30 years later and 15 years after the author’s death. As the translator notes in her acknowledgements, being able to work with her father’s rich material has allowed to her to continue a precious dialogue. A special gift indeed.

Pushkin Hills has been longlisted for the 2015 Best Translated Book Award (BTBA).

A nuclear folktale: The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov

lakeAt the beginning of The Dead Lake, by Uzbek author Hamid Ismailov, an unnamed traveller encounters Yerzhan, a 27 year-old man seemingly confined to the body of a young boy, playing violin on the platform of a railway station. Fascinated by this odd character, he invites him to join him on his  train journey where Yerzhan proceeds to share his account of growing up in a two-family railway “stop” on the steppes of Kazakhstan during the years of the Cold War. The landscape of his homeland, vast and underpopulated, is seen to be the ideal testing ground for the Soviet side of the nuclear arms race. The tremors and explosions that rock the “Zone” become a terrifying feature of daily life for the nearby residents.The resulting radiation will take a much more devastating toll.

Early on Yerzhan finds respite in music. At the age of three, he shows exceptional musical aptitude for playing his granddad’s dombra, graduating quickly to the violin. For years music consumes him. A Hungarian worker at the Mobile Construction Unit is found to tutor the young musical prodigy. He absorbs the music, quickly learning to read and play many classical masterpieces.

“He dreamt these phrases, together with the sounds of the violin in the different-coloured, rounded notes. His dreams had never been so jolly before. The notes walked about like little men. This one was fat and pompous, with a huge pot belly, while these minced along on skinny legs.”

reedHe also finds a personal hero in the handsome Dean Reed, the American born pop and rock singer who became a celebrity behind the Iron Curtain, and imagines himself growing in the image of his mentor and securing the heart of his beloved Aisulu. But when he suddenly stops growing at the age of 12, his intended continues to grow, eventually reaching an unusual height for a woman. His heartache, which he seeks to answer in the songs, magic, and legends of his people becomes an allegory for the very real and tragic legacy that atomic fallout has left on the land and people of this remote part of the world.

This moving novella is part of Peirene Press’ Coming of Age series. Ismailov breathes life into the steppes, from the snow dusted barren slopes, to the ubiquitous worms, lice, and flies. The silence of the landscapes is contrasted with the violence of the test flights and explosions. The musical tones of violin meet traditional folksongs. Andrew Bromfield’s sensitive translation form the Russian is especially effective in maintaining the lyrical quality of the songs that are woven into the tale. The result is a simple, but thought-provoking read.

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2015: It is good to see small, subscription supported presses like Peirene receiving the attention that these nominations bring to the wonderful stories that deserve to reach a wider audience.