Gyula and Khust and Kapušany. There’s something about the sodden, crumbling brick and cinderblock-scape of eastern European towns that I find irresistible. I’m arrested by the desperate beauty of these places: the wrecked medieval castle on the outskirts; the main street with its waterstained two-story layer cake structures in fading pastel pinks and butterscotches; inexpert patching where entropy or mortar shells have left their mark; squat cubical huts slathered in oatmeal stucco. The inevitable Erste Bank. The EURO-MODA secondhand shop. The bad pastry shop. The bad baguette sandwich shop. The Všetko! One Euro! shop. The gatherings of Roma. The improbable Cadillac Escalades of the nouveau-riche wedged into too-small parking. For me, the allure of these towns is matched only by the pain undergirding them. I wish I was capable of enjoying a less complicated kinship with these places. Just a tourist with no plans of hanging around—here for the halušky and a few somber snapshots at the family boneyard. But like the region where my family name adorns villages and ancestral mansions, my better days are likely behind me. Like them, I am running out of time. Actuarial irrefutabilities are at work; senescence is taking chips out of me on a daily basis despite my plans, my hopes, and the people who depend on me. For László Krasznahorkai, the 2015 Man Booker International laureate and stalwart-in-translation of the New Directions stable, these locales, or ones like them, comprise the greater part of his published fiction. Over the last dozen years or so, New Directions has released a mini-torrent of Krasznahorkai—seven titles by this soft-spoken Hungarian author whose debut, Satantango, first hit shelves in 1985. What’s the fascination with this author, a chronicler of the detritus of failed collective policies, inebriation, madness, faithlessness, and spiritual asphyxia? Perhaps the sixth and most recent New Directions release, The Last Wolf & Herman, provides a partial answer for those wondering whether or not to read the writer Susan Sontag referred to somewhat hastily as the “contemporary Hungarian master of apocalypse.” The book is a slim volume consisting of two (structurally and functionally, three) related short stories: I. "The Last Wolf" and II. "Herman"—a) "The Game Warden" and b) "The Death of Craft." Stylistically, the latter two stories represent a more conventional side of Krasznahorkai, but "The Last Wolf"—involving a wolf we never see and a disillusioned German philosophy professor that we see far too much of—is unlike any wolf story you’ve read before. Befuddled in Berlin, our professor bends an elbow at a local Hauptstrasse watering hole, puzzling out a conundrum: What is preferable—a life marked by futility or a life marked by scorn? Burning a hole in his pocket is a letter outlining a generous job proposal, but the faded scholar is assailed by doubt: …he can’t have been the one it was intended for, since he wouldn’t have been invited to Extremadura, by this unheard-of foundation, a foundation staffed by people he had never heard of, asking him whether he felt like spending a couple of weeks there writing something about the region… The sporadically interested bartender does his best to stay alert as time melds for both teller and tale in this account of epistemic hell. But spilling his story brings the professor little relief as truths and half-truths and facts lost and gained in translation slowly peel back the scab of the unrelenting disquiet that there is, despite the substantial sum offered for his services, little to be learned and less to be accomplished in this venture. But chronically broke, the professor accepts the offer. The mantle he assumes becomes more a calling than a payday, directing him to a distant country, to confront barren wastelands and scour obscure texts in search of a beast that may never have been. We sit with the barman and listen along with him as our itinerant professor endures the generously financed and enthusiastically, if haphazardly, organized junket to Extremadura—Spain? Portugal? Both? Neither?—where the last wolf in the region may or may not have met its end. The professor is a man drowning in myth and metatext and deep suspicion, but contractually bound to codify whatever he might find, real or otherwise. By story’s end, relentless self-accusation has the good professor lying curled, fetal, in expectation of his inevitable unmasking and the discovery that “it had been a mistake inviting him, and that they’d be taking him back…asking him not to make them look ridiculous again.” A common misstep when grappling with eastern European writers is to misread these authors’ personal experiences of a life lived under a fractured Communism, their discombobulated personal Marxism, and their more-than-likely agnostic take on organized religion and to conflate these into a catchall label—“political”—as if that were some sort of commendation, or explanation. László Krasznahorkai’s life and work are not spared this broad misconception, James Wood calling him “a more political writer than Beckett” and Margit Koves in Adelphi “…a romantic anti-capitalist of the age of globalization who examines what happens to various forms of art and culture at the time of globalization," both of which, while accurate, are akin to focusing on a politician’s modest handsize, or a writer’s height. To misread Krasznahorkai as merely, or primarily, a political writer is to risk squandering the profoundly personal nature of his stories. More tragically, it is to foist a kind of sloppy activist, and determinately secular métier onto one of contemporary literature’s most sophisticated exponents of the sacred. It is to miss his elegant, if troubling, depiction of the regrettable distance at which the sacred is held from the greater part of contemporary cultural production. With his repeated exploration of the importance of the sacred to life and culture, Krasznahorkai is among the more godly godless authors you’re likely to meet. These, I submit, are what, in a widely publicized quote, W.G. Sebald was hinting at when he said that “Krasznahorkai’s vision rivals that of Gogol’s Dead Souls and far surpasses all the lesser concerns of contemporary writing.” Though lacking his predecessor’s mad religious zeal, like Gogol Krasznahorkai directs his most consistent and pointed critique against a kind of indolence that results in spiritual vacuity, servility to baser human drives, and incurious acquiescence to the pull of a morally and aesthetically baffled culture. Although clearly no fan of conspicuous consumption, his hard appraisal of the same is more than just fashionably provisional snobbery toward rough-grind economics. Rather than limit his focus to the corrupting power of capital, he would have us seek out worth that lies beyond the realm of what is bought, sold, traded, stolen, corroded, and corrupted. Often cursorily compared to writers like Thomas Bernhard and William Gaddis, Krasznahorkai employs nothing of the former’s self-crippling contempt for the church, and serves as a proper antipode to the latter’s flippant disregard for all things spiritual. His protagonists are not polemical, but confessional. His motif has more in common with Cormac McCarthy’s via negativa to enlightenment, populated by an absent god, human savagery, holy fools, ersatz messiahs, sacred texts, and the unwashed but heroic who are consumed by the task of making things right. But when making things right proves, as it inevitably does, beyond the capacity of a Krasznahorkai protagonist, it is madness, exile, and ruin that follow. Audible in the creeping dementia of these central characters —the doctor in Satantango, Korin in War & War, the hapless Valuska in The Melancholy of Resistance, and Herman in "The Game Warden" – are echoes of Samuel Beckett’s crone in Ill Seen Ill Said: Already all confusion. Things and imaginings. As of always. Confusion amounting to nothing. Despite precautions. If only she could be pure figment. Unalloyed. This old so dying woman. So dead. In the madhouse of the skull and nowhere else. Where no more precautions to be taken. No precautions possible. Cooped up there with the rest. Hovel and stones. The lot. And the eye. How simple all then. What Beckett manages stylistically in brevity and quick-cuts, Krasznahorkai accomplishes via what his long-time translator George Szirtes has described as “a slow lava flow of narrative.” The ancients might have characterized Beckett as melitta—the sting of a solitary bee, repeated a thousand times, and Krasznahorkai as murias—a thousand individual ants moving in a wave. In regard to the latter, this quite consciously nurtured device of the paragraph- or page- or chapter- or story-long sentence is on full display in "The Last Wolf"—a 50-page story comprised of exactly one sentence. …how could he explain how long ago he had given up the idea of thought, the point at which he first understood the way things were and knew that any sense we had of existence was merely a reminder of the incomprehensible futility of existence, a futility that would repeat itself ad infinitum, to the end of time and that, no, it wasn’t a matter of chance and its extraordinary, inexhaustible, triumphant, unconquerable power working to bring matters to birth or annihilation, but rather the matter of a shadowy demonic purpose… George Szirtes’s fluid translation of "The Last Wolf" maintains this feel of textual surge, of ebb and flow, and remarkably, of the parallel poetic structure characteristic of the ancient Hebrew ketuvim. The above citation concludes—if that is the right word—below. An apodosis to the protasis ending in a deep exhale in a literary selah of sorts. …something embedded deep in the heart of things, in the texture of the relationship between things, the stench of whose purpose filled every atom, that it was a curse, a form of damnation, that the world was the product of scorn, and God help the sanity of those who called themselves thinkers… It is this kind of writing that, even in his short stories, reveals Krasznahorkai as a writer obsessed in the parsing of the invisible. Parsing it, and then rendering it in a philosophical relation to the visible by means of sentential waves that serve as both trap and what the author calls kijárat—a way out—a way to extract oneself from the conceit, step back, and view the overwhelming detail from a distance as it fashions itself into a cogent whole. In a sublime marriage of form and function, with image-rich prose coming at us in layers of detail and perspective and internal dialogue, Krasznahorkai’s prose readily overwhelms the reader with sadness—or isolation, or beauty—of a purity rarely encountered, but which ultimately compels us to stop, move back from the page, and offer these invisible qualities our more conscious consideration. A too-brief example: Korin, the aspiring scribe of War & War, describes his narrow escape from peril at the sleazy “Sunshine Hotel” where even the interior windows were sheathed in: iron bars, at which Korin had hardly taken a glance than he started back, for he only saw the people there for the fraction of a second and did not dare catch their eyes again, they looked so terrifying, but the personage beyond the glass and metal grille somewhat suspiciously asked him, ‘Sunshine Hotel?’ to which Korin had no idea what to answer, but…a few seconds later he was outside in the street again, putting as much distance between him and the place as he could, as quickly as he could, all the while thinking that he should immediately ask someone for help… This work is that of an artist who articulates the beauty and the terror he encounters, choosing to reveal it typically in characters caught up in life’s abundance, yet an abundance that’s never quite so apparent, able to be appreciated, as when it’s being wasted. The characters shaped by Krasznahorkai don’t dabble in cheap eschatologies, nor does his prose suffer from the fate of so much sci-fi and dystopian literature—drowning in shallow puddle readings of Heideggerian concerns with techné. He addresses dehumanization and the encroachment of "the last things," certainly, but without the de rigueur fixation on artificial intelligence and the potential for maleficent feats of engineering or bio-engineering consuming life on the planet. Fear in this fiction bubbles up from springs far more difficult to dowse, flowing from motifs that lie deeper—envy, lust, and animal malevolence—than antagonists mechanistic or materialist. It is not drones and dogma and big data that dominate the landscape in Krasznahorkai country, but Cain and Abel. His demons—as with any demon worthy of the title—lurk within, not without. In Satantango, this degeneration is incarnate in the gluttonous “doctor.” Bent on his own ruin, his home closed to all but the woman who keeps him supplied with drink and victuals, wallowing in filth, pickling in a seemingly exhaustible supply of tulip glasses of pálinka, he eventually nails his door shut so “no one would disturb him” in his work. Which work? Medicated, wrapped in blankets against the cold, peeking out his front window to monitor the movement on the street and chronicle in his journals in delectable detail the depravity of his neighbors, the denizens of this ruined town. He woke at noon, drenched in sweat and angry, as always after a long sleep, cursing, turning his head this way and that, furious at the wasted time. He quickly put on his glasses, reread the last sentence in his journal…'They’re dead, the lot of them…or they’re sitting at the kitchen table leaning on their elbows. Not even a broken door and window can rouse the headmaster. Come winter he’ll freeze his ass off.' And therein art meets life, capturing the appeal of towns like Gyula and Khust and Kapušany. As towns go, they tend to be compact and compartmental, designed on a human scale, lending themselves to leisurely walking, popping into hidden courtyards for a peek at what lies within. Places wonderfully accessible to the boundless speculations of a febrile imagination. And moving past these windows, it’s not difficult to imagine a dissolute physician; a plump and lusty butcher’s wife; or a didactic, alcoholic ex-state security agent within. Outside, the new paint job bought with European Bank for R&D money dries slowly as the town spirals into its inexorable, if unacknowledged, katabasis. In each one its own history of religious purges, mass executions, plague, pogrom. It’s not just growing older, though I wish sometimes it was; that would make things simpler. No, my fascination with impending ruin moves beyond mere fetish, or morbidity. Here, in these places marked by decline, the geographic fag-end of the corpse of Austria-Hungary, there are stories lurking. Stories that resulted in the delectable stories of László Krasznahorkai. Grueling, painful, beautiful human stories. My own, perhaps, among them.
Eighty-eight books on my TBR pile. Thirty-seven on the TBR reserve squad. And beyond Jaromír Navratil’s engrossing Prague Spring 1968, I can’t rightly remember much else of what’s stuffed into the extra carry-on I brought along on my last trip into English-speaking territory, specifically for the purpose of bringing it back filled with books. Still there, safe in the bag, in the same corner I dropped them, having unlocked my flat and walked into a life instantly too full. I don’t know how you make your personal value judgments, but I am not morally prepared to lump a suitcaseful of half-recalled books into my aggregate just yet. Why do we do this? I managed to put away about 120 titles this year, some of those twice, yet, it wasn’t enough. I worked as a priest years back, but quit. When I took off the dress I also sold my entire library. Two thousand five hundred books, conservatively. I kept about a half dozen, one of which was in English. Yet somehow, given sufficient time, they’ve found their way back. At first, just a trickle -- a title here a title there. But then, in some twisted literary analogue of punctuated equilibrium, I now own more than I did then. Stacked and shelved, their covers shinier, their authors confirmable, and in most cases, their copyrights or attestations more recent by 100 human generations, give or take a millennium. But these new books and their silent scream for attention don’t fool me; they’re still bent on the mischief they’ve been up to since Gilgamesh. I have a theory about all the reading and the writing, and it arises from simply having been blessed with the chance to slow down, to look around, and to talk to the people whose lives meld with my own. Reading is more than just our drug of choice. Writing well is more than just whistling louder past the boneyard now that our gullibility has been largely defrocked. We read and write for largely the same principal reason the ancients did: because, good Lord, we’re a damn mess. If 2016 hasn’t convinced you, I’m not sure what it will take. I look east and then south, and through a day across the sea, and then back to my homeland where finally my glance comes to rest on The Donald, and I conclude that there are far darker shadows in the world than those cast by my unread piles of books. There are far bloodier and more intransigent problems to be wrestled with than my inability to carve out the time for Karl Ove Knausgård. Yet, there’s a kind of solace that comes with the certainty that the books won’t stop and that the pile will never shrink: it’s the assurance that I’m not alone. Not alone in my wariness of the categorical, the naively empirical, and -- this most of all -- the terrifyingly attractive and endemic lack of imagination that eventually infects all modes of human endeavor, as well as its ugly step-sister -- the urge to repress that imagination in others. So, I keep reading. I loved every book I read this year, even those I hated, if for nothing else than for the conscious engagement it took for them to be written. The Old Book asserts that Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ Λόγος -- in the beginning was the word. It’s never been more true than at this moment: 'Til the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, we’re here for the books. What follows are books I read in 2016 but have read before and/or will read again. That is all. Dog Run Moon by Callan Wink I have lived for a while now in a big city, but come from much the sort of places Callan Wink documents in this debut collection of short stories: fly-over country, peopled with the unwashed, the insignificant, and bundles of the deplorable. Yet these lives are so beautifully observed, their piety so fragile, and their shared dilemma so unforced that it would be indecent to look away, not to care. My preference has -- probably always -- been for stories about the little people, and without romanticizing things beyond recognition, the broken folks Wink has imagined into existence here tug hard at the part of me that would not struggle in the least moving somewhere where the population density numbers go into free fall. To see if it would help me figure out some things: where love went wrong, where I fit, or where I might find again what was lost. Stories of substance told by a gorgeous stylist whose young enough to still give noogies to. Dark Lies the Island by Kevin Barry I have this bad habit of falling for every Irish writer I read and Kevin Barry is no exception. At the risk of lapsing into cultural stereotype, here’s why: perhaps it’s because the Irish don’t seem to possess the whine gene that infects this age. Goes double for their writers. Stepped on, starved, reviled, invaded, and subsumed, they just keep showing up, keep astounding us with the fact that grace and brutality can exist in such constant and fruitful juxtaposition. Life is an absurd joke and they are the punchline, at which nobody laughs harder than they themselves. In this collection of short stories, Barry shows an incredible knack for making what ought to be unappealing so utterly appealing. His writing is inhabited by the anti-Facebook crowd -- the uncoolest, most unenviable lives you will ever encounter. Lives that demonstrate that in the final accounting, all that ever really remains are faith, hope, and love. But faith poised to topple, hope with a leak at the seam, and love as bent as it can be and still be called love. Darkly comic and just damn dark, as filled with the sinister as they are with succor, this is writing I envy. About halfway in you’ll find “Ernestine and Kit,” likely a modern masterpiece. The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra When I first moved to the post-Soviet world, I was given this piece of advice: if you want to survive here, get used to thinking counterintuitively. That’s pretty much right. And that’s pretty much what Anthony Marra gets right in these nine interconnected stories of life “in Russia” past, present, and future. The greatest consistency of the place is its inconsistency: pragmatism meshing with fatal impracticality; ancient wisdom smothered in brutal ignorance; and Sergei Rachmaninoff composing the Divine Liturgy while across the street Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky are bumping heads and planning to burn the place down. The beauty in the ruins. Marra embraces the paradox and the result is a set of lives vividly rendered by a writer with a flawless eye for the spare detail that evades all genre writing about Russia. The hard lives he fashions engender an uncommon empathy for a place that can be a challenge to love, and it elevates these stories from lyrical curiosities to the realm of literary fiction that would set its hand to some worthy puzzles. Free will versus determinism, and the thought that surviving in the present just might be impossible if you’re unwilling to survive the past. And that’s just for starters. What? You were expecting a “Russian” book that wouldn’t be philosophical? Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man by Susan Faludi First of all, love Ms. Faludi for her brain, her admirable intellectual rigor. Next up, love her for her practicality. You may disagree with her analysis, you may not, however, brush it aside as aloof, obscurantist, or the work of someone indifferent to society and its welfare. Finally, love her for her clarity. Given the shitstorm of an election cycle we just went through, clarity is at a premium. As the author demonstrates in the lives of the men she chronicles here, compassion, understanding, and progress are the way forward. Time to peel off some ugly, inflammatory labels and chuck them into the trash before the glue is allowed to set. To gird up our loins for the long-haul if we’ve any hope of figuring out where this is all headed. It’s been 15 years since Stiffed was first published, but it remains solid, relevant journalism focused on what the hell is going on with American men. Spoiler alert: the Y-chromosome isn’t the problem. The Givenness of Things: Essays by Marilynne Robinson Seventeen essays, theological treatises, and rambling meditations with some loose-limbed exegesis thrown in just for giggles. Sound like an obvious stocking stuffer to you? For years, folks have been underestimating Marilynne Robinson’s superpower, namely: just as you’re prepared to dismiss her as a religious nut, she cites John Locke, links him back to Maimonides and forward to Edwin Hubble. A cage match against Bill Maher would be something to watch -- for about eight seconds. Newsflash! The priest recommends theology. Perhaps, but there’s this: Ms. Robinson’s considered worldview is drawn from literature that spans millennia. Also an eager student of the hard sciences, and as literate in Big History as anyone you likely know, Marilynne Robinson is somebody worth switching off the screen for. Primarily, because that’s exactly what she’s done in this book -- she’s tuned out all the noise just to talk to us. She’s taken the time to go soul to soul. Sure, she offers few solutions, but she also makes no assumptions that you’ll agree. Even if Givenness feels a tad homiletical, she really just wants to talk. And to the ugliest questions confronting our culture she brings a grace, a patience, and a fearlessness that has a way of stripping our polities of their stridency, and when you think about it, stripped down and flailing might just be the best position from which to preserve our dignity. In an age that seems hellbent on getting dumber as it gets louder, her quiet, considered path offers a way through. Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East by Reza Aslan In winter, Istanbul is a $59 roundtrip flight from Kyiv. The first time I went, Orhan Pamuk had just won the Nobel Prize. I managed to be predictable and came home with a bagful of Turkish writing. But it was another Turkish writer I learned about on that trip, Yaşar Kemal, whose They Burn the Thistles knocked me flat. That anybody could still write like that and sell books was a revelation in equal measures humbling and edifying. How was it that I had never imagined that these books, and the people behind them, existed? I went further south, into deserts and mountains and fruited plains -- in Arabic and Persian and Urdu, from Pakistan to Asia Minor down to the Levant and all the way across North Africa to Morocco. Reza Aslan, author of the invaluable No god but God has, in Tablet & Pen assembled a treasure horde of this writing. Poetry and prose excerpts (prefaced with much needed cultural and historical context) from 70 authors joined, as Aslan notes in the introduction, “by intention, circumstance, and setting.” The result is a primer in Middle Eastern literature the spurns the political in favor of the human. What a concept. And a marvelous way to start learning about the Middle East you’re not ever likely to see on the news. No More Heroes: Narrative Perspective and Morality in Cormac McCarthy by Lydia R. Cooper I’ll allow Cormac McCarthy’s finest critic to describe what this book is about: …his novels present a complicated ethics. Reality itself can be rather dark, and perhaps McCarthy’s complex, knotty ethical arguments demand attention precisely because they offer necessary insight into an increasingly complicated nonfictional world. Cooper has put together a deeply serious work that puts some common assumptions about McCarthy to the test --- from his storied “absence of interiority” and “lack of psychologizing” to his supposed “rejection of narrative empathy.” She also dishes up a few surprises, revealing the reclusive McCarthy as 1) a close reader of Virginia Woolf, 2) a writer whose style is (far) more counter-Faulkner than quasi-Faulkner, 3) a nihilist, but only if you’re ready to brand Samuel Beckett a nihilist, and 4) a writer deeply invested in the concept of justice. Along with a welcome confirmation of his sneaky classical erudition, it’s the latter part -- about justice -- that most engaged me. This is academic writing without a single abstruse construction in sight, and in it Lydia Cooper lays out a convincing argument about McCarthy’s oeuvre that might be summed up thus: the light never shines quite so brightly as when the darkness is working hard to overcome it. For fans and serious scholars, and particularly for those who’ve stayed away, intimidated by “all the blood,” this is your way in. The Dying Grass: A Novel of the Nez Perce War by William T. Vollmann In 1877, Chief Joseph – Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt – and the Nez Perce people, were defrauded massively by the American government. The 1,400 mile retreat toward survival on which Joseph led his people is the stuff of legend. To hear my third grade teacher, a young Apache woman, tell the story of the Nez Perce was to fall in love. No Indian story gripped us like that of Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain. “I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.” Our teacher coupled Joseph’s words of surrender with the Gettysburg Address, insisting we memorize both. She had that right, I figure. William Vollmann is no Native beauty, but The Dying Grass -- his fictionalized version of the brutal near escape of the Nez Perce people -- is as engrossing as anything I’ve read in the last decade. At times, certainly, his dialogue ranges into territories both florid and cornball, the action is marked by bombast, and the Nez Perce are afforded a dialect that may fairly be described as Noble Savagery, yet the overall effect as a master novelist goes about balancing multiverse narratives for 1,300-ish pages without tumbling into complete chaos is mirabile visu. Moving seamlessly from the historical to high art, in an antiphony of the sacred and the profane, these interwoven histories of the Bluecoats, the Bostons, and the People leave us with a flawed but deeply necessary re-telling of our common history. Read this book because of Standing Rock, and because Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain deserves no less. Voroshilovgrad by Serhiy Zhadan “We love the things we love for what they are” the poet said. What’s to love about Voroshilovgrad? Not much. At the very least, the novel represents a courageous attempt by Deep Vellum Publishing at bringing contemporary Ukrainian writing to an American market. Zhadan is an admirable writer whose poetry captures the problematic Ukrainian zeitgeist vital to the nation’s attempt at self-determination. In the long form, however, he struggles, and the incendiary quality of his poetry fizzles with the demands of the novel, sputtering out completely with the book’s sentimental resolution. The translation is serviceable, but uneven, with the dialogue suffering the greatest damage, and the unfortunate influence of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky and their love for allowing Slavonic inversions to stand in translation too keenly felt. Word has it that Yale University Press will be putting out Zhadan’s Mesopotamia -- a collection of short stories with a rotating cast -- late next year. So what is this review? A heads up for Mesopotamia, which is just a better book, and kudos to Deep Vellum for taking the risk. Crocodile Words by Dex Quire And finally, from the tiniest of presses imaginable – Blue Guitar Intl. Press – the story of a Native American boy on a college scholarship who, mostly on a whim, translates excerpts from the Quran into some less than sacred dialects. A timely satire on what can go wrong when we conflate our pieties with ourselves and end up taking both too seriously. An effortless and entertaining take on the nature of soft coercion, and the often fine line between obstinacy and courage. More from A Year in Reading 2016 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? 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It is late in the fourth Act of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, and the romantically devastated yet resilient Nina Zarechnaya draws a parallel between her life and that of a seagull that has been shot and killed near her family’s country home. The play hinges on this moment, which dispassionately asserts how grand aspirations cannot be dismissed, even if they are brought low by human recklessness, superficiality, and indifference: Men are born to different destinies. Some dully drag a weary, useless life behind them, lost in the crowd, unhappy, while to one out of a million…comes a bright destiny full of interest and meaning…For the bliss of being an actress I could endure want, and disillusionment, and the hatred of my friends, and the pangs of my own dissatisfaction with myself…I am so tired. If I could only rest…You cannot imagine the state of mind of one who knows as he goes through a play how terribly badly he is acting. I am a sea-gull -- no -- no, that is not what I meant to say. Do you remember how you shot a seagull once? A man chanced to pass that way and destroyed it out of idleness. I feel the strength of my spirit growing in me every day. I know now, I understand at last, that…it is not the honor and glory of which I have dreamt that is important, it is the strength to endure...and when I think of my calling I do not fear life. Now I am a devoted Chekhovian from a long line of devoted Chekhovians, but it has never been less than a struggle for me to admit that Chekhov, despite his prodigious talent and the pains he went to “to get the sound right,” was certainly guilty of allowing his authorial presence to overwhelm a character. To me, Nina’s speech less resembles that of a naïve 19-year-old than the domineering, 35-year-old, world-weary, consumptive male, so much so that I’m not entirely convinced that Chekhov, consistently ahead of his time, wasn’t making some entirely other kind of meta-textual joke. Or maybe he just blew it. Getting dialogue right has never been easy. Even the ancients, unburdened by modern conventions of verisimilitude, had their reasons for being concerned with making the text sound right. For modern authors, this task has come down in the form of a necessity to capture the patterns of ephemeral speech in physical form in such a way that it might, at least, suggest authenticity, plausibility, durability. The plain fact is that if it doesn’t sound real, how many modern readers will bother to venture beyond page two? But what tack to follow when one encounters literature -- celebrated literature -- that presents itself as fact but sounds like so much fiction? “We had an Invalids’ Home in our town. Full of young men without arms, without legs. All of them with medals. You could take one home…they issued an order permitting it. Many women yearned for masculine tenderness and jumped at the opportunity, some wheeling men home in wheelbarrows, others in baby strollers. They wanted their houses to smell like men, to hang up men’s shirts on their clotheslines. But soon enough they wheeled them right back…They weren’t toys…It wasn’t a movie. Try loving that chunk of man.” So who is that? Kurt Vonnegut? W.G. Sebald? Kōbō Abe? When 2015 Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich began writing her cycle on Soviet history, variously referred to as “Voices from Utopia” or “A History of Red Civilization,” she had little idea of what she was getting into. As she recounted in a recent talk, “it wasn’t until finishing up my interviews for ‘The Last Witnesses’ [not yet available in English translation] that I understood what I was describing with this approach. I wanted to write about this paradise, in the Russian understanding of it.” This week, Alexievich’s most recent book Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets was released in the United States, taking its place in an estimable lineup of work whose telos it is to capture the sense and nonsense of the Soviet Union. Other titles of this pedigree include notably, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, and Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. And yet, despite those novels’ indispensability for a fuller understanding of Soviet history, neither the metered didacticism of the former nor the engaging casual authority of the latter achieve the effect of Alexievich’s collage of first-hand testimony in Secondhand Time (the fifth and final volume in her Red Civilization series, though only the fourth to appear in English translation). Alexievich, it turns out, has different rocks to turn over. Her text ranges wide, and never has utopia appeared quite so dystopian as it does in the recorded witness of the disenfranchised, the embittered, the deceived, and the delusional that inhabit these pages. Her method is that of seeker, itinerant. She wanders the blasted and ill-remembered territories of the former USSR, encountering a host of characters -- dime-store philosophers, ex-military, ex-State security turned private consultant, the rural poor, and memorably, a raft of widows unhinged by the injustice of their loss -- but each with a tale to tell and bread to break. It is these communal interactions, these simple lives, that give her oral history of dysfunction its heft. In this way Alexievich helps make sense of a situation as impossible to explain as it is to deny. This urgency to assist us in grasping the Soviet conundrum comes across nowhere so effectively as in one particularly idiosyncratic mode of Alexievich’s reporting in Secondhand Time. Here she includes longish sections of seemingly scattershot testimony, unreferenced and decontextualized, presented rapid-fire, as if she were simply regurgitating what she heard while walking through a crowded railway station, jotting down overheard snippets of conversation, allowing herself a liberal dose of ellipses to reflect the bits she didn’t quite catch. 'The devil knows how many people were murdered, but it was our era of greatness.' -- 'I don’t like the way things are today…but I don’t want to return to the sovok, [discredited, retrograde “Soviet way” of thinking & living] either. Unfortunately, I can’t remember anything ever being good.' -- 'I would like to go back. I don’t need Soviet salami, I need a country where people were treated like human beings.' -- 'There’s only one way out for us -- we have to return to socialism, only it has to be Russian Orthodox socialism. Russia cannot live without Christ.' -- 'Russia doesn’t need democracy, it needs a monarchy. A strong and fair Tsar. The first rightful heir to the throne is the Head of the Russian Imperial House, the Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna...' These sections, subtitled “Snatches of Street Noise and Kitchen Conversations” go on for pages, like the graphomaniacal, rambling thesis of some importunately zealous, nicotine-oozing Marxist -- and Fulbright hopeful -- theater arts student from Lugansk. And while the collective dissonance of these quotations might rightly clang on the Western ear, to me they sound like home. The complaints, the confusion, the grasping for meaning recorded in these pages could have been lifted, verbatim, from conversations I’ve had around Kyiv with an old landlady, a wannabe capitalist rainmaker, a frighteningly accessorized Orthodox pilgrim, or a nicotine-oozing Marxist theater arts major… Like the improbably warped and yet wonderfully apt associations that spilled out of Chekhov’s imagination, the reporting in “Secondhand Time” makes extraordinary demands of the reader, while offering -- to the patient reader -- insight otherwise unavailable into what made the Soviet clock tick, albeit counterclockwise. This is a book rendered meaningful, rendered necessary, because of the difficulties it presents and the contradictions it documents. Its truth lies in the resolute confusion and resultant collective cognitive dissonance captured by Alexievich, and in her refusal to pronounce judgment on even a word of it. Secondhand Time is a strong closing act to Svetlana Alexievich's five-book cycle chronicling the last days of the Soviet Union, and of the effects of a dispirited socialism and cynical political apparatus on the lives of the Soviet rank and file. In contrast to her previous work, the absence of a single defined subject -- Chernobyl, Afghanistan, Women in War -- results in a book that is certainly less focused, but no less disturbing than her earlier histories. Seventy years of Soviet socialism has given birth to the homo sovieticus, and if Alexievich accomplishes anything here, it is to alert us to his existence, as well as to the grave error involved in the summary dismissal of his complaint, or graceless satisfaction at his profanation. She takes the jingoish caricature, the pulp-fiction rogue, the faceless millions of victims of historical record, and restores to them a voice -- their own. Like Chekhov, Svetlana Alexievich is an author who writes in Russian though does not self-identify as such. She is a messenger of no particular fealty save that owed to her story. Her body of work leaves us with more than a dry history of a time, a place, a people, but with a document composed of living breath. Breathing it in, we are compelled to clasp our hat to our head and set off to nudge, to jolt, and to buffet our way through crowds of former Soviet citizens -- Russians, Ukrainians, Armenians, Buryats, Tajiks, Latvians, Georgians -- at the Kyiv, Novosibirsk, or St. Petersburg vogzal and off toward our train. And perhaps, climbing aboard, we see there in our coupe a fair-haired young woman wearing a beret, a small dog on her lap, her luggage marked with the name of her country estate at L____________...
1. “Our life here is just so much absurdity.” – Svetlana Alexievich When Svetlana Alexievich and I sat down to speak in Kyiv earlier this year, I felt I’d seen this woman -- all five-foot-nothing of her -- before. Every day, there she is: solid as an axe handle, unyielding as a work of monumentalist sculpture. It was someone like this who tutored me in the bloodsport of Saturday morning marketing among Kyiv’s senior set. Aggression, but no violence, she might counsel. There’s one butcher we trust. If you plan to get in on his veal, show up early and show resolve. Lean in, with elbows. I’ve also seen someone like this at my church in her tightly wrapped fleur-de-lis headscarf, weeping in front of the icon of Our Lady of Pirogoscha. The image attends silently to her supplications concerning her family -- the husband drinking again and the son-in-law conscripted, sent east to the Front. She prays long and turns to leave, her hands hang limp at her sides. What solace will the semper virgine bring? On this day, though, I know her name: she’s Svetlana Alexievich, of Minsk, Belarus, and she is the 2015 Nobel Laureate for Literature. A cat-eyed neighborhood sergeant-at-arms, with her purposeful walk and her pricey Italian boots -- as incongruous as they are pristine, what with the rain we’ve been having, the April dark, and the grimy adventure of negotiating sidewalks in post-Soviet cities. 2.“Russian books are not read in decent homes.” – Ivan Turgenev Alexievich is a writer whose métier is surpassed perhaps only by her method in the level of righteous alarm it invokes among the Russian literati. The child of a Ukrainian mother and Belarussian father, Svetlana is not ethnically Russian; raised in the political realities of Russification, of Sovietification, she has always written in the dominant language of the region. This, in light of the subject matter she addresses, has resulted in a somewhat awkward recognition of her contribution to the fabled Russkiy Mir of refined culture. Russian writers from across the talent spectrum have chimed in to declare her “not one of us.” Until very recently, her books were -- if not banned -- reserved from sale in her home country. A 2005 National Book Critics Circle win for Voices from Chernobyl and the 2013 French Prix Médicis Essai for Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets did little to assuage the miffed nativism of local critics, but it was the awarding of the Nobel Prize that effectively flipped the datestamp on the Russian critical response back to 1938, or 1953, or 1970. Despite a set of remarkably brief and sanitized media reports about Nobel’s recognition of the velik i magooch russkiy yazyk (the grand and mighty Russian language), the award resulted in a more sustained series of denunciations of her work and person from major state-sponsored media. In language that would not feel out of place in a pulp fiction spy novel, Oleg Pukhnavtsev, writing for the Literaturnaya Gazeta, summed up the attitude well: “Alexievich is a classic anti-Soviet...a traitor.” Still other publications invoked obscure World War II metaphors to underscore Alexievich’s bad behavior, even calling on long-time fellow traveler and Italian journalist Giulietto Chiesa, who checked in from Rome, publishing a scathing condemnation in KULTURA, “the newspaper of Eurasian Russia’s Spiritual, Intellectual Realm:” “Ms. Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for statements that have no basis in reality. The award is a manipulation -- an attack on Russia and Putin. A political act that has nothing to do with literature." Lesser critics lifted the exact wording from reports published in 1970 to denounce Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel, hinting at gross fabrications of sources and citations. I have read five of Alexievich’s books. The revelations of criminality, brutality, bestiality, and degeneracy offered up by “ordinary people” and recorded by Alexievich are not for the squeamish, and the onslaught beggars credulity. In the production of a book, Alexievich interviews up to 500 people, of which perhaps a quarter of the recorded remarks -- whole or in part -- will make it into the published volume. When she does identify the source of a citation, she often does so with a minimum of information -- a job title, military rank, or family relationship. One may conclude, reasonably, that she is, strictly speaking, operating outside the realm of peer review and libel. Ranging from subtle to outright, condemnations of the Soviet regime out of the mouths of her subjects in her reporting are not infrequent, and are suspiciously pitch-perfect. Workshopped diatribes whose ear for Soviet stereotype would make a Ronald Reagan speechwriter blush. In Voices From Chernobyl, a widow describes in stoic terms her husband’s life and death as a Chernobyl “evacuator” (hazard containment and salvage). Note the critique, and the Russian "answer to everything." I got one thing out of him: ‘It’s the same there as it is here’...they’d serve the ordinary workers noodles and canned foods on the first floor…and the bosses and generals would be served fruit, red wine, mineral water on the second. Up there they have clean tablecloths, and a dosimeter for every man…ordinary workers didn’t get a single dosimeter for a whole brigade. Another time the nurse from the nearby clinic comes, she just stands in the hallway and refuses to come in.‘Oh, I can’t!’ she says. And I can? I can do anything. What can I think of? How can I save him? He’s yelling, he’s in pain, all day he’s yelling. Finally, I found a way: I filled a syringe with vodka and put that in him. He’d turn off... 3. “Forget the past, lose an eye. Dwell on the past, lose both.” – Russian proverb Alexievich and I met several times over the last year and spoke about her work. Perhaps the Russian critics aren’t off -- she has axes to grind. Prize money to earn. She offers a wealth of biographical detail -- born after the War into the family of a Soviet Army officer; not unsympathetic to the merits of the Soviet System; proudly listed among the ranks of those educated to engineer the Evil Empire, to heal it, to keep its books. Viewed from book-distance, Alexievich could easily have continued to satisfy my expectations of the Nobel laureate, viz: political ideologue posing as writer publishing in any language as long as it is not English. Had time and fate not conspired to allow me to meet her in person, she also could have easily persisted as the very template of the honorable Soviet subject betrayed by history. The former stolnik of the regime now conscripted via American political manipulations into the role of the fitfully content democrat, one reconciled provisionally to the advantages of democracy that accompany the advent of discretionary income. In the end, it is the 24 years that I have lived in the post-Soviet space that helps to convince me of Alexievich’s veracity. Those 24 years combined with the hours spent with her books, and now, the hours spent in her presence. This is no drone. No fictional cipher. No useful idiot. No soulless minion or Cold War rhetoric made flesh. The surest evidence is the body of work she has assembled and spread across seven books written over these last thirty years. Books that give voice to the historically voiceless. She has traveled across a territory with the land surface of the planet Mars, on trips that have resulted in the preservation of thousands of first-person testimonies of human history at its most brutal. Hardly an effort born of servility, ideology, or deceit. I ask her about repentance -- a word that repeats throughout the books that she describes as her “History of Red Civilization.” “Who needs to repent?” I ask. “And to whom?” You know, I was a part of that. Invested in that superstition of the time and place, that colossal error, and it’s a very difficult thing to free yourself of. That’s why people were so ready to talk to me. I didn’t make myself out to be somebody with answers about what had gone wrong or what was coming next. We had no idea how it could all fall apart so quickly, or how quickly it would all come back to life. The idea itself, of real, substantive equality, is eternal. It’s beautiful. But somehow, in the Russian application of it, it always ends in a river of blood. So they talk to me. I’d been a believer in it, just the same as they were. But I don’t know if I’d call what we’re doing ‘repentance.’ It’s more like reconsideration. We’re just talking to understand ourselves. American oversight played a big role in Germany coming to an understanding of its past, and we didn’t have that advantage. Didn’t have what was needed...the moral strength, the understanding, the intellectual elite, so many things. We’ve had to come to grips with our history as a people on our own. And so I set out to write that ‘why.’ That history of Red Civilization -- Russian style. Alexievich offers another word to describe herself: I’m an accomplice. When glasnost came I was with everybody else running around the square shouting ‘Freedom! Freedom!,’ even if we didn’t have any idea what that meant. And when freedom showed up, and Yeltsin quickly transformed into Tsar Boris, and the oligarchs into his boyars, we understood soon enough that all we really wanted was a better life. I was part of that -- past and present. And because of that disconnect, that ‘freedom’ looked shockingly similar to what we were trying to get rid of, that’s what interested me. Not more utopia. We’d had that. We had books filled with lofty thoughts of literary types and what they had to say about the big questions of freedom and dignity. But I wanted to know what were the little people thinking. What was down in the shit? The dust. What did they want? Did they manage to get it? And the more I talked to them, the more frightening it became. The more pitiable. And it begins to occur to me at some point that Shalamov [Varlam Shalamov was a Russian writer whose work focuses on the Gulag] was on the right track in Kolyma Tales when he said that they were all poisoned by the North. That he came out of the camp as much victim as executioner. But the rest of us, the ones who made it work, we weren’t ready to make that distinction. To say who was who. We still aren’t. 4. “In Russian lit, someone is always required to suffer: the characters or the reader.” – Russian joke In a 2009 report, the International Federation of Journalists reported that in the period following the breakup of the Soviet Union, 313 Russian journalists had disappeared or been killed in suspicious circumstances -- 124 of those in murders linked irrefutably to their investigative work. Another phrase that describes Alexievich: exceptio probat regulam. She is one journalist who wasn’t shot, despite publishing three decades’ worth of indictment of the Soviet regime. She spent the better part of the 2000s living away from Belarus in Western Europe, an existence made possible by a string of writing fellowships and the occasional prize money. But Svetlana Alexievich’s heart was bent on home. “Apart from my source, I couldn’t write. I had to go back.” Now that she has, and despite Belarus’s retrograde take on freedom of expression, she does not worry about personal repression. It’s funny in an odd way, you know. These great, powerful, dominating men who are so tender when you criticize them. He’s in a bit of a spot now, Lukashenko, [Belarus’s president since 1994]; he’s started cozying up to the European Union now with the money that used to come in from Moscow being spent on the war in Ukraine. So, yes, I’m still persona non grata, but he can’t pretend I don’t exist, and the books, my books, are being published and shipped in from Russia. They’re outrageously expensive, but there’s been a real raising of consciousness. People are learning who they are. What they’ve come through. When they recognize me on the street, they just come straight up for a hug. Maybe a photo. They’re worn down by living in this degraded system. They feel their complaint has been heard. If Flaubert was 'a man of the quill,' then perhaps I am 'a woman of the ear.' My interviews aren’t interviews as such. Just talks. We just talk and my role is to listen. Listening was difficult at first because of the cognitive dissonance I experienced. All that we’d believed in. I’ve talked about my father before. He was a beautiful man. He lived life well, and until the day he died he was a Communist. He believed in that idea, real justice, particularly for those who can’t defend themselves. But I had just come back from Afghanistan, and I ran up to him and I said, 'Papa, we’re murdering them. That’s not what you stand for.' He never questioned that his faith was well-placed. Communists come in all sizes. And the idea itself -- if the idea is about justice -- isn’t going anywhere. I argued with university students in France and they insist that our generation got it all wrong when it followed Lenin instead of Trotsky. It’s astounding, but they’re reading Trotsky and insisting they’re not going to make the same mistake as we did. I’d been traveling to Siberia -- Omsk, Tomsk -- for Secondhand Time and if you think Marxism is gone out of fashion except in American universities, think again. Dostoevsky said you’ll always find these inquiring young men gathering at the watering hole dreaming about revolution, about how to make the world better. In Russia, now, their motivation is homegrown. It’s Putin. These students read Marx, Lenin, Trotsky -- you can hardly believe it -- and they’re putting the current regime to the test. You know, there was all this noise about how surprised the West is that Putin has turned into this retrograde leader. That we couldn’t predict what he’d turn into today. Nonsense. Anyone who was paying attention from the first months after he came to power knew what was coming. Suddenly, the TV was filled with all those films again about the heroic NKVD and the KGB, and about the partisans, and the songs about the 'core principals.' All those books about Stalin. One after the other, about the women he loved, and the cigarettes he smoked, all that personal interest stuff. There were very public, State-led efforts to clear Beria’s name, turn him into some sort of social reformer. And now they’re opening a new Stalin museum and over in Perm they fired the old staff at the 'Victims of the Gulag Museum' and it’s been renamed 'Workers of the Gulag Museum.' Republicans, democrats, communists. Good ones and not-so-good. I just know I can’t fight that fight any longer. And feel no prerogative to convince anyone that there can be such a thing as a good and decent Communist. There were, in their own right. They worked for the public good. Compare them with what we’ve got going now. You have to think for yourself. I also cannot cover a war anymore. Cannot add to that storehouse of bad dreams. Instead I’m trying to talk to them, to listen to them about love. But this is hard for us. It’s not how our culture is built. We don’t connect to the concept of ‘the pursuit of happiness’ so easily. And the result is that every story about love -- about when you first met, when you looked into each other’s eyes -- inevitably turns into a story of pain. Ours is not a happy culture. Not defined by a Protestant ethic -- make a family and raise a family. But I will finish this book about love, though it might be not what you expect. 5. “Along with the whole world, I revere Russia humane and splendid...but I have no love for the Russia of Beria, Stalin, and Putin...” – Svetlana Alexievich We sit in the great hall of what was once the Shoemakers’ Union Cultural Center. The wind is howling outside, a spring front coming through. In two weeks in Kyiv we will be commemorating 30 years since Chernobyl exploded and poisoned the land. And across from me sits this woman with a Nobel Prize and who wrote about the disaster. But her answers to the questions raised have been long, conditional, occasionally contradictory, enigmatic, riddling. As if every voice she’s heard would now say its part. I want to go home. Watch Friends or anything that isn’t about murder, betrayal, brutality, or in Russian. Those immaculate leather boots. I cannot unsee her as the grandma who taught me to stand my ground in the market. The one who shoos the drunks out of the lobby of my building. Or those I saw on Maidan, soup pots defiantly on their heads after the president issued his emergency order to outlaw the public wearing of helmets, and threatened to arrest anyone caught wearing one. This seemingly familiar woman who speaks with a tiny, delightful lateral lisp that turns the word oskarblennie (insult) into birch leaves rattling in a spring breeze. In a corner of the world as glamour-obsessed as Ukraine, she doesn’t stand out. Yet she is ready to probe the cancer of the world. The Nobel Committee, prone to miscalculation, overstatement, and the conflation of literature with something else, insists that Svetlana Alexievich has unveiled a new genre of serious literature -- a claim that Studs Terkel could have summarily dismantled. It is fair to say, however, that Alexievich has used her time of grace to produce a body of work that resembles little else in the literary firmament. A body of work in which -- to the limits that her critics are correct -- she does, indeed, write very little. But in doing so, she has managed to unleash the power of the collective memoir. Her authorial pose resembles something far more ancient, and far less drama-laden than the usual soviet dissident fare. As a writer she is very nearly invisible. Invisible, but no longer unknown. In a global political environment oriented less and less toward seeking elegant solutions to emerging political complexities, the work of Svetlana Alexievich serves as worthy admonition of the real danger of leaders who stop listening to their people. But talk to her about her importance as a public intellectual and she scoffs. She’s not interested in becoming the high counselor, seeking consensus, or striving to convince. She is content just to listen, and then to write down what she hears, that it not be lost. Image Credit: Aleksandr Kupnyi.
1. In the 18 months since Kyiv’s Maidan protests have moved on, flared up, and fizzled in the cities of the east, Ukraine has managed to lurch into geopolitical purgatory -- not as hot as Damascus, not as cool as Prague. The city has settled into the importunate schizophrenia of the post-structural, where monetization serves as antidote for nearly anything -- civility, representative government. That is code for this: though no person directly responsible for the government-ordered sniper attacks of January and February 2014 has been prosecuted, Kyivites no longer have to concern themselves with actual cross-hairs of actual rifle scopes. And the money’s starting to flow again. The IMF is around, gobbling up transitive verbs: forgiving, restructuring, forecasting. Yet, for a place that is supposedly peaceful, consumed with reform, the hoi polloi have seen little forgiveness, less structure, and a forecast that is, at best, stormy. We spend, rather, a lot of time waiting for the other shoe to drop. I do. 2. My first encounter with Ambrose Akinmusire -- the liner notes of his 2011 Blue Note debut, When the Heart Emerges Glistening -- left the barest of impressions: late-20s, Oakland-born, LA-based, studied with Terence Blanchard. That biography matched with the implausible maturity of the music and my aesthetic’s nitpicking evil twin was off to discover what the trick was. Something was up. What was the true ontogeny of this most recent messiah -- the one who would coax America back to jazz? Twenty-nine-years-old: Who was he trying to fool? Trying to be -- Miles? Dave Douglas? Erik Truffaz? Clifford Brown maybe, mercifully back among us, moved on from bop? All the markers were in place: the Blue Note pedigree, the technical agility, the burnished phrasing, the seemingly unconscious feel for the very note the room needs to hear and when. Faith comes so dear, and the commodified -- and, admittedly, the local situation -- world has been hell on any generosity of spirit I may have once possessed. 3. Not that Ukraine hasn’t seen results -- it has. Annual inflation has stabilized (sic) at 140 percent. In the capital, a U.S. dime and nickel (equivalent) will still buy you a ride anywhere our subway goes. The Parliament refuses to repeal, or modify, its privilege of universal criminal immunity. And there are Russians -- two kinds: the kind who have been here for hundreds of years with their language and culture and few see any point in calling them Russian any longer; and the other kind. The latter group -- here with its tanks, sophisticated mobile rocket-launchers, and deliveries of lethal aid masquerading laughably as humanitarian food and medical supply convoys -- is both thankfully in the minority, and largely restricted to a territory in the east of the country about the size of the State of Rhode Island. And with the Kremlin-financed war they prosecute there, we have nearly 8,000 dead and another 1,000,000 “temporarily displaced” in the reductive patois of the political sophisticate. Ukrainian society, battling to make even modest inroads in the realm of cultural reform, is stuck with the leftovers of that distinctively post-Soviet borscht whose core ingredients are moral exhaustion, brutal cronyism, and arriviste contempt posing as sophisticated optimism. 4. Into this mess comes a young man with a horn, on tour with a new album entitled The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint, and perhaps it is only by me, but neither the metaphysical nor the political significance of this Oakland, Calif., musician’s presence in Kyiv goes unmarked. Brutal cops, poverty, disenfranchisement, and an empowered class that refuses, largely, to address itself to the question of dignity in identity: this black man from the East Bay has more in common with Kyiv than he probably imagines. With the written word, baseball, and jazz about all there is left to believe in, I need to find out who he is. But if my confession is honest, the truth is that Ambrose Akinmusire had me long before he ever traveled to Kyiv. From the opening phrase of “Confessions to My Unborn Daughter,” the first song on Heart Emerges, he had me. He starts out alone, a student running through some badass warmup intervals in a practice room of a Saturday, and then a series of Perfect 4ths and a drop echoed by the piano and a forlorn Do-Sol-Fa interval that screams theme music from a '70s TV police procedural. Followed by a concatenation (I’m going to insist) with tenor sax Walter Smith III of such virtuosity that, well, if these two don’t put you in mind of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, you're not even trying. From that point on the man is relentless -- melody after melody where the American sublime riffs on songs not unrelated to those from the old country that your grandmother sang to you both to bind you up and to break your heart. He that hath ears to hear. Ambrose Akinmusire isn’t just one more modest variation of every other one; his horn is the one thing needful. In a hard world, where moments of authentic revelation, of unsoiled, uncompromised, and uncompromising human achievement, and unimpeded self-examination are so seldom encountered, so elusive, he is the rara avis. And even if he weren’t, even if he was just another product of the genius of American marketing, there is, arguably, no place on earth more conducive to passing off the derivative as innovative than stylishly intellectual, post-Wall, East-Central Europe. Still, finally, with jazz, hearing -- live -- is believing, and I would have my chance to see, to hear, to judge. 5. No rain since May, peat bogs that ring the city have been smoldering for weeks. The air has a bite to it, like the inside of your country uncle’s smokehouse after a three-day cure of roadkill wrapped in bicycle tire. As he locks up and heads out on his walk, a neighbor pulls on a surgical mask. He sees me and quips that he hopes the burn doesn’t reach the toxic mystery piles the Soviets buried out there in the '50s -- waving a hand at some undefined coordinate the way Kyivites do when giving directions. It was right after the War, before the city began to spread. I tell him I’m going to see an American trumpet player that evening and he disappears back into his flat and comes out with two more masks and hands them to me -- one for me, one presumably for the horn player. It’s a crisp October evening, and in Kyiv -- where Sting or Alla Pugacheva constitute a hot ticket -- Ambrose Akinmusire has a big gig in a small hall. The venue is a retooled warehouse a short walk from home, and the chill and the smell of smoke distract from a gimpy lower back and the moral pressure of the task ahead, a task that begins with getting his name right. His website is solicitous, complete with a phonetic rendering that shows the emphasis is on the MU -- AkinMUsire. MU, the 12th letter of the Greek alphabet, the world’s tiniest bittorrent client, and, way back, something akin to the Phoenician word for water. Get the name right -- at my age I may not see his like again. When your quotidian is shreds and tatters and the hurly-burly your daily bread, it is too easy at times to shut down the frontal cortex and just let the pituitary take over. And when the horn player is late, late, late to the stage, my old man’s brain struggles to conjure up anything but the worst. And when the worst turns out to be just that he is late, and he appears intact, I exhale. The crowd of mostly under-25s is jammed, maybe 300 in all, into a room holding half that. Overheard conversations put a lot of them as music students, conservatory types, slender boys with the slightly fey posture of those who have spent untold years under the tutelage of some humorless piano instructor. When they clap they hold their hands as if preparing to feed an apple to a horse – fingers arching back delicately, tightly. Bored-looking girlfriends, a few haircuts, and a very few from Kyiv’s emergent economic powerhouse -- the IT class. There is also a fair representation of a category of Eastern European city-dweller of whom space prohibits adequate description -- the gorodskoy sumashedshiy, the urban crazy. That, and four young Americans who are here for all of us. By 20 minutes in, the quartet has managed to tear even the most device-dependent up from the glow of the screen. The moment comes with the song "Regret (No More)," a fatal blow-- if ever there be -- to the unexamined life. Whether he has succeeded in corrupting any of the youth in the room to the joys to be discovered in a deliberate study of, and an even more deliberate departure from, the cultural legacy left to us, only time will tell. But for those minutes Ambrose Akinmusire and pianist Sam Harris bewitch the room -- the moment never to be repeated, never needing to be. It gives me no end of joy to see that this tune, so confessional, so idiosyncratic -- all doits and lip-slurs and half-valving -- is such a crowd favorite. The song ends and the room howls. Ambrose smiles. The Savior has not left the building. Two hours and two encores later and it’s 11:30, and before I can convince myself that it’s not going to happen I’m introducing myself to the man in a room off the main stage. When I ask if he’s got time to talk at the end of this very long day, he is grace in action, and agrees. Then I, who can barely talk to him about music, ask what he’s reading and Ambrose Akinmusire treats it as if it’s the question he’s been expecting all along. Ambrose Akinmusire: Ta-Nehisi Coates, right now. And James Baldwin. I had a period there where I was reading a lot of Chekhov. Those stories over and over. All that anger held me for a long time, then in the end… My heart is racing. Chekhov? Jesus. He breaks off, distracted, perhaps recollecting, certainly tired. He is soft-spoken, deferential -- qualities that appear again and again in the music -- an ear for the quiet tones, a respect for voices other than his own. The Millions: How does the reading -- Chekhov, Baldwin, Coates -- inform the music? AA: You have to define your own morality. Good writing helps but it’s not something to follow unquestioningly. You work through it, it’s internal, it has to be, or it’s just formalism and not your own; you just end up doing what everybody else is doing. Personally, you end up carrying around mistakes that you can’t change and it’s paralyzing. We’re all going through that. All the time. TM: So that’s where “Regret (No More)” comes from? Confronting yourself. A state of confession. The lament, the wail? AA: I wrote that at a time when I was working on some things. I understood that I had to get past them, let them go. You can’t dwell on the past. It blinds you. And I want the music to lead, not follow, if you see what I mean. I do, but I’m a little star-struck. The tone he achieved on stage had me in tears. He goes on. AA: So it is a cry, yeah, but not in sorrow so much, but liberating. Discovery -- in the abstract or in the particular -- it’s personal at first, until, in time, you begin to see how universal it is, how everybody is experiencing it. The cry starts out tentative, grows more confident as the story starts to tell itself…” TM: Stories. The ornate song titles, album titles -- from out here it feels like there’s some literary process going on. I’m just standing there listening, but I’m looking for ancestry -- Miles, Dizzy, Terrance, whoever. And with Sam (pianist Sam Harris), I’m hearing Bill Evans and then Kenny Barron and then nothing at all. Who am I hearing? AA: It’s impossible to say. I listen to everything. We all do. I read everything I can and it all has its intended effect. Everybody in the band is always reading something. The great work, work that lasts, it’s never coercive. You can’t force resolution, meaning, on an audience. You have to respect their intelligence; they’ll take it where they need it to go. They decide -- or not -- how it all resolves. So, there’s a risk there every time, and that’s freeing for everybody. Bassist Harish Raghavan has been part of the -- let’s call it -- ”interview” the entire time, but silent. What strikes me at first as poise -- these are, after all, men of international reputation -- now is revealed as kindness. We talk about personal things: family, Indian, Black, White, Chicago, Oakland, Seattle, and my old heart lifts. Harish Raghavan: I’m reading the Coates, too. And Devil in the White City. The Erik Larson book. I’m from Chicago, so I’m really into the history. I’ve been listening to that Hardcore History podcast a lot. Man, that stuff is just incredible. Really challenging. But I’m an idiot. I am Chris Farley interviewing Paul McCartney. I suck. He says Chicago and I blank on the Cubs. I consider, briefly, showing them the surgical masks, telling them about the air, the fires. But sometimes Kyiv, it seems, is just too much to process. The fugue passes, common sense intervenes, and we talk about the tour. ”Why Kyiv?“ I ask. Harish looks at Ambrose, who defers. HR: I don’t know. We had this trip to Poland and the agent calls and tells us we’re going to Kyiv. We didn’t have any idea what to expect, I mean, with what you hear in the news. With what you hear in the news. The lateness of the hour hits me -- how tired I am, how tired they must be. You can taste the outskirts burning at the back of your throat. The crowd is mostly gone. I’m halfway to asking how he could stand to play in all this stink. Somebody with an American accent calls for a gin and tonic. Three shaved heads stand near the exit, watching. No neck tattoos. Security, I pray. We shake hands all around and again I’m struck by the decency of these men. I shove the masks deeper into my pocket and head out into the sour night. Whatever they may have expected, what the Ambrose Akinmusire Quartet got was a night onstage before this cloud of witnesses, most of whom had, in all likelihood, known them previously only via the Ukrainian duality of a Facebook post and an illegal download. An otherwise unimaginable crowd in a country in the grip of a rumored war stopping to listen to a black man from Oakland and his band testify while the city burns away its edges. Ukraine heaves, working to purge itself of ideologies long dead and new injustices turning gangrenous. But for one night, here stands a man channeling James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Anton Chekhov to lead them. He that hath ears to hear. Image Credit: cultprostir.ua.
1. Kyiv – 18-20 February 2015 Mikhail Bulgakov opens White Guard -- his semi-autobiographical novel about the Turbin family and their experiences in Kiev during the Russian Civil War (1918-1922) -- with a brief description of the winter night sky: “…highest in its heaven stood two stars: the shepherds' star, eventide Venus; and Mars - quivering, red.” The first time I read it, perhaps 20 years ago, I groaned at the labored Prince of Peace vs. God of War metaphor. Written in the stars, no less. Ugh. Another Russian drama queen. It happens less often nowadays, but it turns out that in the right circumstances I can still be an ass -- Prince of Peace vs. God of War is about damn right. It was last year over these three days that 105 Ukrainians died when a political protest taking place about a half-mile from Bulgakov’s Kyiv home went medieval -- that is, if you’re comfortable with broadening the received definition of ‘medieval’ to include turning fire-hoses on crowds in -10˚C temperatures, family-packs of Molotov cocktails, and sniper fire. This is the first time I’ve been in a hot war zone, and the only thing I’ve learned is that I’m too old for this shit. Bulgakov volunteered for it, and then watched as the Chekhovian gentility his family enjoyed was crushed between strident Bolshevism and myopic Nationalism. For that, I can forgive him his bathetic imagery. I can also see (better late than never) how the picture works well as a fulcrum for this novel of war and its horrors, of loyalty and its limits. I can forgive him because history seems to be repeating itself here in Kyiv, and he called it in White Guard. Desperate for peace, yet no end of war. He’s tricky about it. Tricky like Cormac McCarthy in No Country for Old Men, which, for about 200 pages, has you thinking you’re reading a standard detective thriller, and then suddenly you’re not, at all. That level of tricky. That species of tricky. Bulgakov teases with some noirish Kyiv urbanscapes, irritates with some tedious description of military equipment, and charms with samovars and Orthodoxy and tea on the veranda. And all the while he’s sneaking up behind you with a two-by-four, because what he’s really been talking about this whole time is collapse. Outlining the inevitable failure of those who resist conscious engagement of the world; prophesying the certainty that men will make war, sometimes assembling randomly on the same ground twice in a century; and above all, offering a nuanced critique of the tendency to cloister ourselves when confronted with an unexpectedly complex world. The novel conveys his sense of loss, of befuddlement, while managing to issue a clear challenge to the smug imperturbability -- and culpability -- borne by privilege in times of cultural collapse. Where The Master and Margarita or Heart of a Dog subvert with satire, you see it coming, but with the guileless White Guard you don’t. Joseph Stalin, sentimental fool, and perhaps grasping the value of a writer who could express so beautifully the futility of resistance, let Bulgakov live. Traveling to Kyiv? White Guard is an indispensible vade mecum for the lit-minded tourist moving through streets and yards once again soaked in blood, and hoping for a glimpse into the city’s ancient heart. 2. November 1, 2013 An old soviet joke. Guy goes to a fortune teller: “For ten years you won’t have enough to eat, your friends will betray you, and your life will be a web of lies,” she says. “Ten years?” he groans. “Then what?” “You get used to it.” Post-Soviet life is badly lit but you get used to it. I’m in a second floor interior room of a publicly-funded medical facility near the center of Kyiv. There’s just enough light in here to reveal some hulking thing in the shadows that swallow the opposite wall. I’m not alone. A woman is issuing clipped instructions in a voice more smoke than sound, like something out of a Soviet film from the “let’s-all-slit-our-wrists-but-let’s-get-blind-drunk-first” school. The whisperer alternates as clinic radiologist and apparent doppelganger of Margarita Terekhova, the actress who illuminates Andrei Tarkovsky’s Zerkalo. She’s also probably too young to have seen the film. Will this generation be the one? Or will they emerge from this as jaded as their elders? In his (1993) debut novel The Year of the Frog, Slovak writer Martin Šimečka depicts the airless existence of a young man in communist Czechoslovakia. A dissident father’s political essays have left his son, a long-distance runner, blacklisted from university. His prospects truncated, the boy endures soul-numbing humiliation as he searches for a response to his censure preferable to that of simple resignation. If dignity in identity exists, then the question is not whether to resist a tyrant, but how and for how long. What impresses most about the people who undergird Ukraine’s “Revolution in Dignity” is that they, like Šimečka’s protagonist, are in this for the long run. She extends a tiny birdboned hand and I surrender my overcoat and belt. She hangs them on a hook that she can see but I cannot. Then my shirt, which she drapes across the back of a chair. It shimmers in the soft focus of the half-light. She takes me by the elbow and leads me toward the shadows. Shirtless and out of options except to follow. I’m breathing through a straw. We stop near the hulking thing -- some kind of metal booth on a six-inch platform. She helps me step up and inside and tells me to cross my arms above my head. Her cool hand on my back, she urges me to lean forward onto a metal sheet, which I -- freed of any thoughts of resistance -- do. She’s off toward her booth, closing a door, punching a button. An analog of her voice pulses over an ancient speaker in an invitation to corruption -- "breathe deep, hold, do not move" -- followed by an electric hiss and a thud. The voice comes back on to tell me we are done here. I take comfort in “we,” somewhat less in “here.” She thumbs one switch in a bank of four and the room goes dark. 3. February 18, 2014 I live on Podil, a thousand-year-old Kyiv neighborhood squeezed between low hills and the right bank of the Dnieper River. In 1811, a fire rid the quarter of its wooden structures, and the place was rebuilt in brick and stone by Russian Empire architects with a thing for proscenium arches, fluted pilasters, and mascarons. It is robust and residential, a mix of significant Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities, and flush with small business. The bug-eyed shock of Western European news reports on “Ukraine’s Fascist Problem” strike us as particularly unreflective -- tendentious, and not at all helpful. The area is proving largely impervious to gentrification: no doubt the result of our fascist problem. It takes a brisk 20 minutes from my flat, uphill and down, to reach the fighting on Maidan. It’s late, after 11, and I am walking in a silent drizzle down an otherwise deserted Pritisko-Mykilska Street, trying hard to recall the century. I stop in front of the Florivska Convent, named for Florus and Laurus - saints and stonemasons. The sisters ran a hospital here for the better part of three centuries, and busloads of health pilgrims from Moscow still arrive each week. In summer the rose gardens dazzle. Eyeballing the distances, from this spot a right fielder with a good arm could hit the abbey, swivel left to pick off St. Nicholas Church at one end of the street, and then back right to target Our Lady of Pirogoscha bookending the other. Around another corner curves St. Andrew’s Descent – Andreyevsky Spusk to locals – and the home of White Guard, where Mikhail Bulgakov spent half his life. 4. November 1, 2013 The radiologist takes me to her cabinet and offers me tea. While we wait for the electric kettle she holds up my film to the desk lamp and stares. She wags a finger at a smudge she sees there and sits to write out her diagnosis in duplicate, longhand. It’s something you notice -- the immaculate penmanship. No heart-topped i’s or schoolgirl loops: this is Klingon cursive. That and the near sacral insistence on handwritten documentation. It starts early, this insistence. Arts or sciences, crisp classroom dictation and flawless transcription are tried and true staples of (post-)Soviet pedagogy. In Ukraine’s education system -- so utterly shattered and for so long -- flawless calligraphy provides cheap validation that some standards are immutable. On some days there is more solace than despair in the thought that Kyiv of 2015 is not so far removed from Kiev of 1918. Not that long ago, and with computers on every desk, the tellers at the branch where I do my banking still also wrote out each transaction by hand. “Handwritten is more reliable” they tell me. So near the Bulgakov home, who can argue. In his engrossing Love and Garbage, Czech writer Ivan Klima writes about the inevitable cultural stagnation that follows the sanguinity of an uprising. His is the story of a Prague writer-cum-street sweeper discredited by the totalitarian regime, yet determined to pursue that which most engages him -- life itself. The loneliness and alienation are palpable as Klima guides us on a lover’s tour of Prague, urging us to consider: “When does a person become what he otherwise only pretends to be?” What are the limits of a disengaged conscience? What is the true nature -- and genesis -- of coercion? An older woman in a lab coat knocks and enters as we sip our tea. She’s carrying a tray of large, white onions, cut in half. She sets a half-onion on the desk and leaves, closing the door behind herself. 5. February 20, 2015 Andreyevsky Spusk is a cobblestoned switchback rising along the contours of the hill – witness to the truth that beauty in ancient cities is not a consequence of design, but of resistance to it. Stones come loose, yards overgrown, random, tumbling watercourses following a heavy rain, and light from a streetlamp curving through fog in a way that quantum physics rejects but the 19-century insists on. The street is beautiful in the way that a thing can be only at advanced age -- after history has weighed in and done its worst. Noises carry surprisingly well down its length. An arguing couple walking downhill on an otherwise quiet night are sound long before they’re light. I follow the curve up, and just past the Bulgakov home on the sweep of the wind comes the sound of drums, atavistic, insistent, from Maidan. 6. December 18, 2014 We learn that Oleh Lysheha died last night. One of the good ones -- a sculptor, playwright, and the nation’s finest lyric poet. He enjoyed going barefoot in the city. James Brasfield’s translation in The Selected Poems of Oleh Lysheha with its spare Ukrainian–English antiphony is something of a minor miracle. 7. November 1, 2013 She clips one copy of her report about my slushy left lung to the enormous x-ray and slides it over to me. The other she drops onto a pile on the corner of her desk. She is 25 -- probably -- freckled, almond-eyed, with a Slavic jawline evolved for a Paris runway. Inside a bulky sweater and lab coat she is also tiny. I’m two of her. 8. January-February 2014 Protestors erecting Mad Max barricades control Kyiv’s Independence and European Squares: Maidan. Mounds of burning car tires endlessly replenished provide a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night. Jesus, Mars, and now Vulcan. Small squads of priests vested in penitential black approach the riot lines at regular intervals to pray. Regular orchestrated volleys of gunfire come through the smoke from the police side. Casualties begin to mount. The American Embassy issues its advisory to stay clear. I’m back at the clinic for an all-clear. Kyivites by the hundreds, including my radiologist, tend to the wounded in field hospitals on Maidan. Image Credits: Flickr/Ivan Bandura; Sasha Maksymenko; Jordi Bernabeu Farrús.