A Decade in Blogging: A Journey through 20th century Russia

Sometimes time flies, and sometimes it stands still. Before I knew it, 10 years of writing the book annual digest on this blog had passed. Reading them makes me nostalgic and occasionally rekindles my interest. At times, my own words sound surprisingly unfamiliar. Taking a view of a decade gives me a perspective that is not discernible when I look back at the end of each year.

Quite a lot of my reading has been at the blurry edges of literature and politics, between paradise and labyrinths. These labyrinths traverse across many lands and times. They have taken me to to places made familiar by past reading- Russia, Hungary, various countries in South America — all places I have visited only via books. In the last decade, a few new countries surfaced on my literary map — Guatemala, Nicaragua, Bulgaria, Norway and Bolivia.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Aleksander Solzhenitsyn

But nowhere feels as familiar a home as Russia does when it comes to literature. The universal themes of Russian literature make us all feel Russian at heart. For me, this started during adolescence and continues to be of interest, though less intensely, in the decades since.

The reason isn’t too far to seek; the classical Russian novel was more than a work of literature. More often than not, it was a means for communicating ideas and philosophical reflections. There is also a remarkable continuity of themes, what with Russian writers taking up, as it were, themes from a previous novel by a different writer and forging ahead on the trail. .

If Latin American literature is an Amazonian river, Russian literature is like a constellation providing direction to lost voyagers– as we all are at some point or the other.

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During the last decade, I have journeyed through 20th-century Russia through some of its novelists of this period. Some of the more significant writers that I read in the last decade are Andrey Platonov, Vasili Grossman, Evgeny Zamyatin, Mikhail Bulgakov, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and, more recently, Boris Akunin. What follows is a digest of this journey through my reading lens. Continue reading

Reading Vasili Grossman in the time of Mo Yan

I have just begun reading Part III of Mo Yan’s “Life and Death are wearing me out”  (a little over one third of the book) and have mixed feelings about it. What works for me is the narrative of post- revolutionary China, particularly about the Cultural Revolution. What also works are the different points of view, a robust sense of humour amidst a tumultus period of China’s post- Revolution history and a literary flourish that make the book a page turner.

What doesn’t seem to be working is the quirkiness of the narrative, tangential diversions and exaggeration- much in the style of Garcia Marquez in “One Hundred Years of Solitude” which I liked the first time I read “One Hundred…” but found it irritating while reading the second time.

Mo Yan’s style also contrasts with another book that I happened to be reading alongside- “Everything Flows” by Vasili Grossman.

The collectivization of the peasantry, among other changes in the post Revolutionary Soviet Union up to Stalin’s death are very similar to those in China in the 1950s and 60s. Yet, the contrast between the two writers could not be more striking- Mo Yan is verbose and humourous while Grossman has used tight prose and is uniformly serious, digressing into long soliloquies on Lenin, Stalin and a grand sweep on Russia’s thousand years of history. It was refreshing to read a simply written, straightforward novella that is no less – if not more, engaging than “Life and Death…”. I finished the 200 page “Everything Flows” in a couple of weeks, much moved by its sparse but surgically precise prose.

I continue to plough through “Life and Death are wearing me out”, and if I am not worn out by the time it is finished, will post a longer review.

End of the road for Orlando Figes

It’s a pretty tragic end for Orlando Figes. I was quite impressed with his first major work on the Russian Revolution- A People’s Tragedy: A History of the Russian Revolution, even though I later felt that his work was little more than a well narrated compendium of many extant works on the Russian Revolution. I do not agree  with his blanket statement that the Russian Revolution was a “people’s tragedy”. At that time, however,  in my own little, dilettantish manner I had ended the review of his book with these words:

… The brashness of his youth shows clearly in the rather eclectic treatment of the subject throughout the text. But the sheer volume of the information makes up for any slackness in analysis.

There cannot be any doubt that Figes’ book marks the start of a brilliant career for the author and is central to the debate that he has brought into sharp focus.

By owning up to writing negative reviews of the books of his rivals, of all places at the Amazon.com book reviews, I am afraid the brashness of his no-longer-youth (the review was written over a decade back), has brought his brilliant career to a grinding halt.

Chingiz Aitmatov- RIP

Sometimes death serves as the reminder of a book unread. Chingez Aitmatov’s death yesterday in Germany just reminded me of a book that has been on my reading list for longer than any other one that I can remember- Jamila.

Jamilia’s husband is off fighting at the front. She spends her days hauling sacks of grain from the threshing floor to the train station in their small village in the Caucasus. She is accompanied by Seit, her young brother-in-law, and Daniyar, a sullen newcomer to the village who has been wounded on the battlefield.

Seit observes the beautiful, spirited Jamilia spurn men’s advances, and wince at the dispassionate letters she receives from her husband. Meanwhile, undeterred by Jamilia’s teasing, Daniyar sings as they return each evening from the fields. Soon Jamilia is in love, and she and Daniyar elope just as her husband returns.

A love story that ranks alongside Turgenev’s First Love.

A news report about his death at IHT:Kyrgyz author and statesman Chingiz Aitmatov dies at 79

Aitmatov first found fame with his 1958 novel “Jamilya.” Set during World War II, it tells the story of a young Kyrgyz woman who leaves her husband and runs away with a crippled war veteran. The novel sparked heated discussions in the majority Muslim and male-dominated society about whether a woman could leave her husband for another man.

French poet Louis Aragon praised “Jamilya” as “the best novel about love.”

More on Aitmatov’s works.

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Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears

Moscow does not believe in tears (1980) provides a rich view into the Soviet Union circa 1980 even as it is clearly inspired by French cinema of the time. It tells the very earthly story about three girls who have just come to Moscow in 1958 and then fast forwards twenty years later. What emerges is the portrait of a people with their own problems. There are no signs of a society crashing into an abyss that it was to a mere ten years after the movie was made. At the same time,there are no pretensions of a worker’s paradise either- decrepit roads, dilapidated cars, apartments in disrepair- all attest to a not so glorious condition.

There are barely crouched references to Breznevian rule. Gosha, who comes into Katya’s life towards the end of the movie comments says that everyone need not aspire to be a manager, or a leader and recalls the Roman emperor Diocletian who first established an autocratic rule in Rome and then gave up his empire to live in the countryside and grow cabbages, though interestingly in the movie he mentions him as a good ruler.

A good emperor by the way. At the height of his empire, he gave away the crown and settled down in the country. And when he was asked to take over again, he replied- “if you looked at the cabbages in my garden, you’d stop asking me.”

There is an underlying Soviet belief in the reduction of class antagonism, of a possibility of a woman rising to be the director of a big industrial plant- and a single mother at that. At the same time, there is an acceptance of patriarchal values, the authority that a man wields and that Gosha demands. Drunkenness among men, much prevalent during the Soviet years- as it is later, is very visible- with repeated declarations to drinking being a holy act.

It may be unfair to read too much into the movie with the wisdom of hindsight after the disintegration of the former USSR. But even without that, the movie comes out as an essentially humane one, and touches one. It’s music alone is worth listening to again and again, as I did long after I had watched the movie twice. But one cannot stop being where one is situated in time, and a final point on its relevance to Soviet society and its disintegration.

Soviet Union was not a paradise. Neither was it hell- it was a society that set too high a demand for itself and placed too many demands on its people to lead mankind into the future- there are repeated references to the future. “Chemistry is the future of the world”, says Katya, while Rudolph, the father of her daughter, claims that “TV is the future, when there will be no more theater, or books or movies.”

“The future? You should be thinking about the present”, says one of Katya’s friends.

The postponement of the self- whether of the individual, or a city- Moscow in this case, or a nation, is not always a fine thing.

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90th Anniversary of the Revolution against Das Capital

The Bolshevik Revolution … is the revolution against Karl Marx’s Capital….events have overcome ideologies. Events have exploded the critical schema determining how the history of Russia would unfold according to the canons of historical materialism. The Bolsheviks reject Karl Marx, and their explicit actions and conquests bear witness that the canons of historical materialism are not so rigid as might have been and has been thought.

(Live Marxist) thought sees as the dominant factor in history, not raw economic facts, but man, men in societies, men in relation to one another, reaching agreements with one another, developing through these contacts (civilization) a collective, social will; men coming to understand economic facts, judging them and adapting them to their will until this becomes the driving force of the economy and moulds objective reality, which lives and moves and comes to resemble a current of volcanic lava that can be channelled wherever and in whatever way men’s will determines.

On the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the Great October Revolution, 17 leading academicians from Russia, among them Roy Medvedev and Mikhail Shatrov have issued an appeal reiterating the achievements of the Revolution and criticizing post- USSR attempts to whitewash that period of history.

In sum, the popular power of the initial years of the revolution degenerated into rule by the bureaucracy and its leader Stalin.  We consider the massive Stalinist repressions, along with the violation of the rights of the individual and of whole nationalities in the USSR, to have been a crime.  All this discredited the ideals of the revolution and of socialism.

While acknowledging these facts, we do not accept scholarly-sounding lies and stupefyingly one-sided propaganda with regard to the whole of Soviet history. This history was diverse; within it, democratic and bureaucratic tendencies engaged in conflict with and replaced one another.  Hence, the freedoms of the NEP years were replaced by Stalinist totalitarianism, which in turn gave way to the Khrushchev “thaw”.  Later, the Brezhnev authoritarianism was replaced by perestroika, which proclaimed as its goal the creation of a humane, democratic socialism.

Image Source: Marxists.org