A Year in Reading: Il’ja Rákoš

December 14, 2019 | 10 books mentioned 3 5 min read

In 1996, on my second day in Ukraine, a respected, local priest—Otets (Father) Ivan—invited me to his flat for lunch. Jet-lagged and overwhelmed, I went. I’d barely hung up my jacket when he thumbed open a bottle of Sovetskoye champagne with one hand and poured while snapping a chocolate bar into sections with the other. I was bewitched. He then dropped a chunk *bloop* into our shimmering flutes, handed me a glass and offered up this sotto voce nugget with a wink: “our girls love it this way.” Thus had begun my master-class in the finer points of Ukrainian corruption.

Which you may have heard of. The news reports don’t do it justice, of course. For Ukrainians rich or poor, it is as pervasive as it is maddening. Every sociocultural touchpoint bears its trace, from the obstetrics that open your eyes to the palliatives that close them corruption complicates the process. Register your kid in a school. Get a driver’s license. A dog license. A dentist’s license. Open a business. Close a business. Make a sale. Build a home. Pay your taxes. Finagle a liquified natural gas distribution contract or secure a plum date with the local priest for your wedding and it’s blat (pull), otkat (kickback), and khabarya (bribery) all the way down. It’s quid pro quo, who-ya-know, and pay-to-play.

But over these past five years Ukrainian corruption, both macro- and micro-, has met with some significant resistance. The unwashed are naming names. We have become a nation of whistleblowers. There are, finally, arrests.

Had we been listening, Big History would have long ago consoled us: Unless forestalled by terminal cultural collapse, the grubby venality, relentless emotional grind, fragile loyalties and ugly contempt for individual dignity that connote a pervasive culture of immiseration will not hold. Corruption—personal or systemic—is unsustainable indefinitely. Finding corruption, wherever it occurs, has never been the problem. In Ukraine, it took the blood of the young mixed with the memory of the old to confront it and to put a beginning to the end of the days of bullying dilettantism and petty, quotidian tyrannies. Lev, Igor, and Rudy simply showed up too late.

For my part, I was afforded a nice, soft landing in the bog of Ukrainian corruption. I had tutelage from that jazz impresario of scam—the abundant, amiable Otets Ivan. The embodiment of the Russian proverb: if you’re going to steal, steal a million. If you’re going to fuck, fuck the Tsaritsa.

A week before the end of my parish service in Ukraine, Ivan called me up, excited; he wanted to show me the galleys for a book he’d written. “Take a look”, he says. I turn a page, another, begin to read. Slowly the fog lifts. I was reading my own sermon. Turn a page. My essay. Turn a page. My lecture. Seven years of my work in print with only one alteration: Ivan had listed himself as the author. He hadn’t even bothered to change the anecdotes from my-cum-his youth growing up in the 1960s on the Pacific coast of Washington State. I hope it sold well; I was on fire in my pastoral writing. Two things I know about Otets Ivan: He possessed a genius-level capacity for corruption, and he was my first local friend. The latter is relevant to my reading because I lack Ivan’s gift for acquisitiveness, but I am not less corrupt. To address it I read.

That’s the long way around to saying that I’ve come to a point in my life, in my reading, where I seek out books that engage my need for redemption. In practical terms, a book—no matter how relentlessly hyped—that betrays a lack of breadth, experience, or feel for honest human encounter doesn’t interest me. I won’t be scammed. Fiction or non-fiction, if I get a whiff of manifesto, a hint of ideology, performative prose, cheap signaling, aversion to complexity or any of the other stultifying categories of sociological pablum that make for viral tweets, then you’ve lost me as a reader. I don’t need to be made any dumber than I am naturally. And I, like you, definitely don’t need to be made more susceptible to the predations of the truly sinister agents of corruption that are at work all around us.

In the end, I’m looking for love in the stories I read because I believe the Old Book is trustworthy in this: love shall cover a multitude of sins. Edify me, lift me up, restore me, help me atone, even provoke me, but talk to me as if I were the only person in the room. It’s what they called storgē in ancient Athens—longsuffering, dedicate, parental love. It’s uncommon among storytellers, a rare gift, and the surest antidote to corruption I know of. You’ll find it in each of the books below.

Underland by Robert Macfarlane

coverI am a tree-climber. I became enamored of Macfarlane a dozen years back when he opened The Wild Places with a description of his need to climb “a tall grey-barked beech” in a wood outside London. In Underland, he descends to locales that my claustrophobia prevents me from following him except on paper. He takes us below the surface of the planet to the concealed geographies, sacred and ancient, that undergird our existence and link us to the depths of time. My book of the year, perhaps of next year, too.

Rock, Paper, Scissors by Maxim Osipov, translated by Boris Dralyuk, Alex Fleming, and Anne Marie Jackson

coverThe great appeal of the best Russian writers is their sneaky way of slipping hard-won philosophy into the story and doing it without being preachy. Perhaps that’s because it’s marked by an acceptance for our mutual predicament (essential to storgē), suffused with irony but bereft of contempt. Osipov’s short stories are brimming with it. Here’s a snippet: “He knew that all the cars passing by contained people who valued their lives no less than he valued his—their lives and the safety of their vehicles; and so they tended to be cautious, give warning, and not to despise themselves for their willingness to yield.” Think about that.

The Girl from the Metropol Hotel by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, translated by Anna Summers

coverAs preposterously original as her fiction is, this is Petrushevskaya at her spare, brutal best. This refreshingly brief memoir adds, at the very least, sobering perspective to current debates about “Cancel Culture”. At its most exhilarating it provides some toothy, deeply grounded counterpoint to the claim that there are no more heroes.

What Are We Doing Here? by Marilynne Robinson

coverI swear, Marilynne Robinson steals all my ideas and then writes the hell out of them with intellectual rigor that’s as rare as it is outmoded in an increasingly vitiated culture. She is the anti-Tweet, the anti-meme, the anti-eyeroll GIF. Lectures, essays and, yep, sermons. Read her, get smarter, and feel your heart swell.

Self-Portrait in Black and White by Thomas Chatterton Williams

coverAn articulate, compassionate, and necessarily particular argument/memoir on the “fluidity of racial borders” and the idea that it is not the perception of race that gives rise to racism, but racism that gives rise to concepts of race. Williams delves into the abyss of corrupted human nature and emerges hopeful writing, for example: “…the situation is not zero-sum: We can simultaneously resist bigotry and imagine a society that has outgrown the identities it preys on. In fact, we have to.” Smart x3.

Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming by László Krasznahorkai, translated by Ottilie Mulzet

coverProviso: You will need to read the first three books in Krasznahorkai’s tetralogy—Satantango, Melancholy of Resistance, War & War—if you want to get this. What am I talking about? There’s nothing to get. Unless, that is, you’re interested in grasping the uncommon appeal of fake news, collective crisis of conscience, and cultural entropy. And all wrapped in Krasznahorkai’s prose both staggering and nonpareil, and dipped in wincingly dark humor sauce. Very funny. Very true. Very us.

is a staff writer for the Millions. An American resident of the post-Soviet space for nearly 25-years, his work has concentrated on the cultural sphere of Eastern Europe, appearing in Russian and Ukrainian at cultprostir.ua and LB.ua. He is the author of an essay collection in Ukrainian, Os' Khristianska Vira. Kyiv is home.

3 comments:

  1. Another invigorating list — and you have a short story in “Otets Ivan,” one worthy of all the great Russian authors. He sounds fascinating and I admire your sang froid at his gleeful plagiarism! I’m afraid that we here, back in the mother ship, are becoming more corrupt every day. Not so much at the peon level, where most of us hunker down, but in the great halls of power, at the nexus of infinite wealth and political pull where Great Wealth buys up the government and sets all the agendas. Maybe it has always been this way but never so stark and unapologetic. I deeply want to believe that democracy works, but it’s only as good as the folks running it.

    So, I look forward to your suggestions — Petrushevskaya, Osipov, MacFarlane — and Robinson’s essays. Confession — have tried Krasznahorkai and was flummoxed. Will brace self, take a deep breath, and try again. Cheers to you, Il’ja!

  2. Always a joy to hear from you!

    Yeah, Ivan has a eye for opportunity, no question. He’s still kicking, appetites intact. I have to wonder, though, how long it will last for him now that he’s so out of step with the zeitgeist here.

    It’s distressing to read the news of American democracy falling prey to the bugaboo of the digital age: user error. And all too often user error fueled by Russian & Ukrainian oligarch millions. (Now there’s a reason to oppose globalism!) Be of good cheer, Priskill–a corrupted center cannot hold. Keep this anecdotal encouragement in mind: we had parliamentary elections this July and just under 300 of 420 seats turned over. They threw the bums out. 70% in one election. It can be done when the message resonates; the talent, will, and intelligence to give voice to a message that resonates with the American public will emerge. I have to believe it because the alternative is unimaginable.

    Don’t get down on yourself over Laszlo; he’s an acquired taste smothered in an obscure sauce that looks like it was cooked up from the floor sweepings from the great hall at a train station in an obscure eastern Hungarian town. For me to get him it was important to set aside presuppositions and false expectations. Resist the urge to figure out his politics. Ignore his ontogeny. He claims he writes by talking to himself on long walks (I believe it) and then heading home and writing down the conversation. (In person, he is soft spoken, gentle, comic.) So take that deep breath and go with him on a walk, let the crazy uncle talk. Read it out loud when necessary to get the flow. If none of that works, WATCH Bela Tarr’s 7-ish hour treatment of Satantango. (This is a solitary exercise; friends and loved ones will question your sanity. Picture Tarkovsky at his best only twice as long.) With ungodly amounts of temporal and emotional investment I predict you’ll arrive at that place where Krasznahorkai’s diagnosis of our current predicament becomes, oddly, helpful.

    That kind of goes for all of these books and the imperfect witness they provide to the way I’m trying to process the world–providing sources of encouragement, and to repeat myself, loving assurance that intelligence, integrity, still matter. Which they do.

    Peace to you and yours, Priskill

  3. Il’ja, thanks so much for the good words — The elections in Ukraine are astounding, especially given the trend toward de-democratization seemingly everywhere else. There IS hope. It is nothing short of miraculous that he won and we are routing for him. I hope we are not too jaded and mis-informed here to effect a similar sea change. Kudos to you guys!

    Hah — the crazy uncle description is too funny — I will follow your suggestions and try again, even unto Santantango. 2020 will be the year.

    Cheer to you and yours in 2020!

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