Antonina W. Bouis
New Vessel Press
January 19, 2016
First published in 2015
also available as ebook
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MY THOUGHTS ABOUT THIS BOOK
As a reader, I feel fortunate to live in an era when we are more attentive to diversity in literature. There are wonderful small presses out there focusing exclusively on making foreign authors available to English speaking readers. New Vessel Press is one of them. I presented recently a book translated from the French, The 6:41 to Paris. Today, I’m thrilled to present to you Oblivion this time translated from the Russian. Thanks New Vessel Press for sending me a free review copy.
Oblivion opens with stunning pages, breathtakingly beautiful. In fact, I felt like learning the sentences by heart! It reminded me a bit of Sylvain Besson’s book on the taiga, The Consolations of the Forest.
While engaging with the reader (for instance through a you/I alternation), the narrator remembers places he’s been, and what it means to be European, not in the political sense of the word, but geographically speaking. It is also an interesting reflection on language:
You realize that your homeland is your language; its strengths, its defects are your integral strengths and your defects; outside language you do not exist.
Little by little, the book focuses on the childhood and adulthood of the narrator. His dacha plot was next to the one of an older man. Slowly, this blind mysterious neighbor inserted himself in his family, replacing his real grandfather who had died in the war. So the narrator calls the man Grandfather II.
No one seemed to know where this man was coming from, but the child could feel a sense of drama somewhere in the past of Grandfather II, maybe an exile, a prison? He could also feel the man was dead inside, inhabited by some “great evil”. The kid gives gives himself the mission of discovering the past of the man.
There, behind the door, was something that had no place in the present; Grandfather II carried all his past with him, like a refugee at a short halt who does not unpack all the stuff from his city life.
Externally Grandfather II remained the same but I think inside, condemned to darkness, he was sentenced to being torn apart by the manifestations of his memory.
Feeling closer to some terrible discovery about Grandfather II, the narrator then vows to forget all about him and chooses a profession that would lead as far away as possible from him. But “the gravity of destiny” leads him to camps in the North, and closer and closer to who this man was…
You cannot select a path, a path and time select you.
The book has many rich layers. It is partly about Soviet prison camps, but I think it is at the same time so much more than that. It is a reflection on memory, time, as well as on what fiction and facts are.
You see and remember; this text is a memorial, w wailing wall, for the dead and the mourners have no other place to meet except by the wall of words – the wall that unites the living and the dead.
There are incredible descriptions of nature, often in grey (not unlike The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov). I was totally captivated by meditations starting from simple objects: an ear-shaped mushroom, a nail on an old board. The narrative on the quarry and mine work is very powerful (the author is a geologist after all) in describing the dehumanization of such context.
And then, little by little, we shift from dehumanization to slow descent into hellish nightmares and madness. When I was reading the last chapters, I kept thinking about paintings by Bruegel. The Scream by Munch would also fit!
I found the very ending a bit anti-climatic, but happily so, otherwise I think emotionally, it would have felt totally unbearable.
Kudos to the translator to recreating such an amazing ambiance!
EN DEUX MOTS :
Roman atmosphérique sur le goulag. L’écriture est superbe, d’une prose extrêmement poétique, parfaite pour évoquer la beauté rude du paysage russe ainsi que pour empêcher les lecteurs de glisser dans l’oubli d’une des pages les plus noires de l’histoire soviétique. Inoubliable.
VERDICT: Powerful, intense, and poetic evocation of Soviet prison camps. Reading like a detective story, it will haunt the reader and help him escape oblivion. Unforgettable.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT
In one of the first 21st century Russian novels to probe the legacy of the Soviet prison camp system, a young man travels to the vast wastelands of the Far North to uncover the truth about a shadowy neighbor who saved his life, and whom he knows only as Grandfather II. What he finds, among the forgotten mines and decrepit barracks of former gulags, is a world relegated to oblivion, where it is easier to ignore both the victims and the executioners than to come to terms with a terrible past. This disturbing tale evokes the great and ruined beauty of a land where man and machine worked in tandem with nature to destroy millions of lives during the Soviet century. Emerging from today’s Russia, where the ills of the past are being forcefully erased from public memory, this masterful novel represents an epic literary attempt to rescue history from the brink of oblivion.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
was born in Moscow in 1981
and worked for seven years
on geological expeditions in northern Russia and Central Asia.
Lebedev is a poet, essayist and journalist.
Oblivion, his first novel,
has been translated into many languages.
Lebedev’s second novel, Year of the Comet,
is coming out from New Vessel Press in 2017.
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Thank you for recommending this book. I have read several books by Alexander Solzhenitsyn and a biography about him. This book is certainly one I would enjoy. After reading The Gulag Archipelago, you really appreciate being born in North American.
I don’t know if you consider Doctor Zhivago a contemporary work, but I have read it a half dozen times and seen the movie even more.
Have you read Paullina Simons’ The Bronze Horseman trilogy? She was born in St. Petersburg. This is a war story, that starts in 1941 with the invasion of Russia by Germany in WWII and ends in America in the Vietnam war period. But more importantly it’s a love story about a young Russian teenager, who falls in love with a Russian soldier, and all their trials.
All the Clean Ones Are Married and Other Everyday Calamities in Moscow is written by Lori Cideylo, an American of Ukrainian descent, who shocks her parents by moving to Moscow just before communism falls. It’s a funny and sometimes sad and tragic account of her time there, while in the employ of a Russian newspaper.
And lastly, I recommend Nureyev: His Life by Diane Solway, about the dancer, who entered life on a train outside Irkutsk, a place which figures prominently in Russian history, being the place of execution of Admiral Kolchak and perhaps the location of the missing gold reserves of Nicholas II.
thanks for all these wonderful recommendations!
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