Olga Slavnikova’s profound new novel 2017 evokes, with uncanny vividness, a Russia of the near-future in which a character reasonably wonders  “…how much about human beings is human?”  One hundred years after the Bolshevik revolution, the masses enslaved by electronic entertainment and cyber-wizadry now inhabit roles rather than lives.  Or so it seems to Krylov and his ex-wife, Tamara who deliver the novel’s darker existential pronouncements.  Readers, thankfully, are allowed a more thrilling view as they follow characters that, despite their shabbily futuristic environment, are as human as any found in Tolstoy or Chekhov.   

“For months he had lived with an incomprehensible hunger,” Slavnikova writes of the yearning Krylov, a gifted gem-cutter who begins an obsessive affair with a woman he meets on a railway platform as the gem-hunting expedition of shady Professor Anfilogov departs for the Riphean mountains.  Krylov is the professor’s most gifted protege, but who is this “Tanya”?  

As Krylov’s obsession intensifies, the novel simultaneously follows the Anfilogov expedition into a wilderness alive with myth and danger.  “In the light of the barbed stars the untrodden snow was like a televisions screen flickering on an empty channel,” Slavnikova writes, “the northern lights flickered in the sky like a flame from burning alcohol.” In the city, the moon shines overhead “like an elevator button” and when a 1917 anniversary parade turns bloody, federal helicopters swoop down “like sledgehammers with dragonfly wings….” Descriptions such as these, along with Slavnikova’s flawless portraits — of a gigolo TV celebrity, for instance, or a fatalistic peasant — transport the reader to an alien yet weirdly recognizable world, one that remains, for all Krylov’s doubts, only too human.