May 20, 2012 by markstani
It’s not my intention to name-drop, but a senior figure in the translated fiction world warned me recently that the genre is in danger of suffering the perils of excessive stereotyping: that is, western publishers with too many pre-conceived ideas of what we ought to expect from different countries.
Forgive me for over-generalising, but France, perhaps, will always be seen as the primary exporter of philsophical thought; Indian novels need to address either fundamentalism or Slumdog-style caste clashes to stand much of a chance of selling outside the sub-continent; and just try picking out something from Argentina this year that does not overtly address the Falklands conflict.
Translations from Russian are certainly not as plentiful as they ought to be, and a quick skim of the English language shelves in the (admirable) Russian bookshop in Piccadilly Waterstones confirms a preponderance of heavy, classic gulag-lit, or else the kind of edgy, ex-pat crime novels favoued by the likes of Martin Cruz Smith and AD Miller, whose excellent Snowdrops made the Booker Prize shortlist last year.
The challenge is there for brave, innovative young publishers to shatter such strait-jacketing trends, and it is no surprise that it should be excellent ‘And Other Stories’ who take the lead. Oleg Zaionchkovsky’s Happiness Is Possible is ground-breaking in its very normality: a fable of modern Moscow with neither the gulag nor any kind of Mafiosi murder plot in sight.
The closest we get to organised crime in Zaionchkovsky’s gentle, thought-provoking book is a scam in which a yard keeper hands out keys to marked-for-demolition apartments to down-and-outs, in exchange for their exploitation as his labour force.
Zaionchkovsky’s novel, which is actually a series of loosely connected short stories revolving around an ailing writer and his unusually cordial relationship with his ex-wife and her new husband, is a delicate paen to a most indelicate, modern, sprawling, post-Perestroika city:
If we acknowledge that a city is a living organism, we must acknowledge its place in creation. And in so doing, we shall be obliged to cede our priority and accept that it is not we human beings who are the crown of creation, but the city. Because although we are also organisms, we are only small particles of the city, and a part cannot transcend the whole. It is not we who are Godlike, but our city. It is the arbiter of our destinies and the master of our wills. Without it we will perish or, at best, revert to the wild. Without it we would not be who we are.
These tales flit around the mundanities of everyday life, unveiling a host of characters, some of whom, given the narrator’s habit of drifting from real-life recollections into authorial fanciful notions, we are never quite sure are real or not.
The common theme threading through these stories is a kind of vague, unfocused search for contentment. Happiness in this modern city is generally gauged against the success or otherwise of obtaining a coveted Moscow residency permit. Zaionchkovsky’s stories quietly expose the inherent futility of such pursuits, and muse on the inescapability of fate.
Zaionchkovsky tells his stories with a delicate, self-deprecating humour and the kinds of turns of phrase that beautifully evoke this sprawling city’s all-consuming loneliness – the cloudless sky is described as ‘the same colour as a woman’s eyes that you describe as blue while you’re trying to win her favour.’
It ebbs and flows through unremarkable lives, and in the process creates a picture of a side of the city that is rarely seen by outsiders. It is this very normality that helps separate it so clearly from its stereotype. ‘Happiness Is Possible’ is both the most Russian of books, and something entirely different.