Saturday, 23 July 2016

Happiness Is Possible by Oleg Zaionchkovsky

We only even remember ourselves
when something starts to hurt.
I woke in the middle of the night last night desperate to remember something I'd half-dreamed, but I lost it. It went something along these lines–that sometimes when you pick up a novel, from an author you've never read before, it's like meeting a new person for the first time: you're either constantly on guard so as not to miss or misinterpret something or, worse, read into everything something which is ostensibly not there; or else you end up seeing them straight, only the surface registering, and you risk missing out on all their subtle complexities. I find this a lot of the time. 

But then there are those authors who surprise you; authors whose words strike a chord, whose prose is comfortable, simpatico, inspiring immediate and lifelong friendship and devotion.

Of course now you're expecting me to lump Oleg Zaionchkovsky into one of the two camps and complain or wax lyrical about his relative merits or lack thereof. Oddly enough, he falls in the gap. 

I've read enough postmodern-ish Russian fiction to know what to expect–Zinovyev's Homo-Sovieticus, or else some modern fable pitting progress against nostalgia, the pastoral against the Metropolis–and I've come to accept that in translation, even in those by the deftly superb Andrew Bromfield, I'm going to miss a sizeable chunk of important cultural references and misunderestimate simple, but different, mannerisms of the author. 

But–ha! here we go–the first thing I notice about Happiness is Possible is that it feels natural, that it could have been written as if by an English speaker living and (not) working in Moscow. Sure, there are moments where I felt cool about what was written, or thought What the hell was that? but in context these could be explained–in hindsight with the aid of A. D. Miller's introduction*–and in context they made sense: the barbed (and amusing) slurs on various ethnic populations, sectors of society, classes, individuals etc., the odd Muscovite tendencies towards city-worship, of which the narrator is also guilty, the clashes of Capitalism and Communism, and so forth. More often than not I suspect I was just missing the joke. Regardless, the rest reads beautifully, simply, but also not quite hiding a bittersweet humour and fatalism. It's also very much a grower, a book to come back to and discover a deeper understanding, a fuller appreciation. Whether this is to the glory of the author or translator (or both) is unclear, but glorious it is. 

The bulk of the connected vignettes, some longer than others, comprise imagined situations with the Muscovites and interlopers who populate the narrator's corner of Moscow, or else real life encounters, and it's not clear which are which. And it doesn't matter. Each is complete in and of itself, with only his estranged wife and dog Phil being integral to them all, the central thread around which the fictions are woven. They display in turn slapstick comedy, moral seriousness, callousness, whimsy, philosophy and a bleak humanist humour that has come to characterise Russian fiction, for me at least.

Of course, you're looking at the title and wondering, what, is he being ironic? can anyone be happy in post-Soviet Russia?, but yes, it appears happiness is possible. Zaionchkovsky's narrator is content to live in a high rise–his high rise–with his dog (the passage where he first inherits Phil is throat-tighteningly evocative), as the ex-husband and occasional lover of his ex-wife, tolerated by her new husband, rising at noon to write, if the words come, or not write if they don't, his novels and commissions, raising a glass with a selection of friends, acquaintances or fictional characters as the need arises. 

Finally, then, I can only conclude that this is some damned fine writing and translating, more excellent work from what is fast becoming my favourite fiction-in-translation house, And Other Stories. If I had £40 to spare just now I would be on their subscription list like a shot (yes, they have a subscription list! Exciting crowd-funded publishing seems to be literary sugar to my bookish sweet-tooth), and I advise you to check them out. I'm now two books into their backlist and I intend to keep going till they're all done.



*I never read the introduction first–in my opinion they should always be at the end of the book, masking the intellectual prism of another reader whose projected interpretations can prejudice a novel.**

**Of course, at the end it would all feel unbearably smug, with the nudges and winks and candid camera, eh, photography, eh, a nod's as good as a wink etc.***

***Sorry. I'd not obliquely referenced Monty Python in so long it just slipped out.

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