The New York Review of Books
In one of the first twenty-first century Russian novels to probe the legacy of the Soviet prison camp system, a young man travels to the vast wastelands of the Far North to uncover the truth about a shadowy neighbor who saved his life, and whom he knows only as Grandfather II. What he finds, among the forgotten mines and decrepit barracks of former gulags, is a world relegated to oblivion, where it is easier to ignore both the victims and the executioners than to come to terms with a terrible past. This disturbing tale evokes the great and ruined beauty of a land where man and machine worked in tandem with nature to destroy millions of lives during the Soviet century. Emerging from today's Russia, where the ills of the past are being forcefully erased from public memory, this masterful novel represents an epic literary attempt to rescue history from the brink of oblivion.
Sergei Lebedev was born in Moscow in 1981 and worked for seven years on geological expeditions in northern Russia and Central Asia. His first novel, Oblivion, has been translated into many languages.
|Publisher:||New Vessel Press|
|Edition description:||New Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Antonina W. Bouis is one of the leading translators of Russian literature working today. She has translated over 80 works from authors such as Evgeny Yevtushenko, Mikhail Bulgakov, Andrei Sakharov, and Sergei Dovlatov. Bouis, previously executive director of the Soros Foundation in the former USSR, now lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
I stand at the boundary of Europe. Here, every cliff above the ocean reveals the yellow bone of stone and the ocher-red soil, looking like flesh; the bone crumbles under the blows of the waves, the flesh of the soil devours the tide. The ocean is so vast that eyes cannot encompass it. Here, Europe ends; the shore recedes, as if the continent was drawing into itself.
You came here out of the taiga and tundra in order to see the Columns of Hercules, to discover the world that gave birth to the Atlantes holding up the grim sky of your homeland, to breathe from the mouth of Gibraltar the life-giving air of the lungs of the Mediterranean — for those born in Russia this remains the limit of the inhabited world, as the ancient Greeks had thought.
This boundary has challenges: a new, different life lies only beyond the faceless ocean waters, similar to death; dry land is unfolding constancy, while the ocean interrupts this, demanding spiritual effort, a great goal for which you can renounce the familiar solidity of land and step onto an unstable ship deck.
My soul and heart are filled with the memory of spaces yearning for the polar circle, filled with their muteness craving a word, filled with the eye-bleaching whiteness of the snows, the blackness of the night, the blackness of the mine where the air is impoverished by breathing and does not know the dawn.
That is why for me, having come to the edge of the world, the goal lies not ahead but behind: I have to return. My trip is over and the return trip must begin in words.
I sense — this sensation is sudden even though it ripened long ago — that I am a European to a greater degree than the inhabitants of the country that looks out onto the Atlantic as a balcony looks onto the street.
I was at the other edge of Europe, which breaks off with rocky ledges into the swamps of Western Siberia; I saw the dark back alleys of the European continent, its Finno-Ugric sheds, its backside, its foundation; I stood beyond the polar circle in the Ural Mountains, where Europe and Asia meet: on the European slope, only the polar birch grows, low and twisted by the winds, while on the Asian side there are cedars, tall, powerful, their roots breaking stone, and in the sky overhead storm fronts collide from the two great plains.
It was there, where Europe's life force weakens, where it is only enough for reindeer moss and lichen while the thick Asian forest and grass threaten to overflow the crest, that I first felt I was European.
There, in the middle of the range, thinking or speaking, trying to write something down, you suddenly realize: you have reached the edge of language. On the Asian side you have to make some effort to name objects; they seem to slide away from being named. Or to put it a different way — between name and thing arises a thin and tight film similar to the caul that surrounds a baby in his mother's belly; things here have not yet been born for the language you speak. Fir and pine will be fir and pine for you, but the names will be alien to their essence, which requires different sounds and responds harmoniously only to them.
The edge of language, the outskirts of the European world; beyond there is only the flatness of Siberia's swamps. Here you will learn what muteness really is: you can speak, but the world does not respond to speech. You realize that your home-land is your language; its strengths, its defects are your integral strengths and your defects; outside language you do not exist.
I recall being in a village in early, frosty spring: huts squashed by the long-standing gray snow, hardened prints of felt boots and sled runners on the road; the reluctant awakening after winter — the shaggy winter dreams reeking of lime and felt are dissolved in the air inside the house.
They had recently closed the village school, there weren't enough pupils. The building, an old manor house, was boarded up. The school stood on a conspicuous hill, and for several months the village lived with a view of the former house of landowners, abandoned as if in retreat.
A monument to a cosmonaut was stuck in the schoolyard, as if he had landed there and being unneeded was placed on a pedestal and painted a silvery color to match his space suit. The school, despite the cold that froze out odors, smelled of damp wallpaper and mice. By the stove in the corridor the watchman sat on a stool, a man composed of felt boots, quilted trousers, quilted vest, and hat with earflaps; the floor-boards creaked and it sounded like chalk on the freshly erased blackboard; through the keyhole I could make out desks and chairs, clumsy and heavy to match the children's backpacks; a ruler lay on one of the desks, as if the teacher had forgotten it and would be back.
The watchman sat by the stove; piles of worn, scribbled-over textbooks that had been through many hands lay by the wall — Our Mother Tongue, fourth grade. The watchman took one book at a time, tearing off the cover and crumpling the pages so that they would catch faster into flames, and tossed them into the stove. "They shut the school," he said. "They don't issue firewood. So we use this for heat, you can't defrost them anyway. It's a big library, it'll last until April."
They fed the stove in the shut school with the Russian language textbooks. How you hated those books as a child, those "Questions on the text," the paragraphs marked "Test yourself," that enlarged, easy font, rounded like the corners of the desk, so that children didn't hurt themselves! You were ready to weep, because now none of it meant anything.
There in that Volga village, in the midst of fields covered with birch shoots, I learned what a person's mother tongue meant, mother tongue without quotation marks, without a school's edifying insistence.
Birches, snow, firewood, sky, road, fire, smoke, frost — I repeated the words that I remembered for only a slightly shorter time than I remembered myself. Birches, snow, firewood, sky, road, fire, smoke, frost — the words grew, as if they were material, had material energy; the words sounded symphonically, one through another, without blending, the frost was frosty, the fire fiery, the smoke smoky; the words became translucent, melting slightly, like pure flame, their phonetic casings lost their hardened precision, and the eye perceived the pure essence of meaning — like a bubble of air in a precious stone, refracting the light differently.
A bubble of air that is fractionally older than the stone — the air was there before the mineral appeared. This tiny gulp of older air, the integral soul of the word — it was what made the word real, belonging to life and death — that is what I saw and felt then in the snowbound village, where the white roof of the school was covered with splotches of book ash — the textbooks burned smoky and dirty, and the ash metallic and greasy from the thick typographic ink.
I learned that the Russian language was my homeland, my fatherland; those who populate the Russian language are my fellow citizens, my comrades. What I am writing now I write not by the right of memory but the right of language. I see and remember; these lines are as necessary to me as the pianist's need to touch the keys, to test the resilience of the silence before playing; beyond them I hear the sound of letters coming out of the dark.
Here, on the boundary of Europe, I see people on the beach, as beautiful as the Nereids or dryads of Greek mythology, hybridizing man with animals or plants to produce an immortal creature. Human beauty has a vulnerability, a presentiment of dying, which defines its individuality.
I see people playing golf, endlessly repeating a lesson in Cartesian geometry, the lesson of articulating space, capturing it in a grid of coordinates. I picture them in the middle of the tundra with ball and clubs — and I think that they would freeze in amazement: there can be so much space that you cannot master it even in your imagination; they would leave their game and go off in various directions to make sure that what they saw was not a stage set.
I see a café by the ocean where every evening the stiffening breeze mixes up snatches of conversation in ten languages, plays with them, like a simultaneous interpreter at a conference switching now to French, now German, now Polish — and I remember the cemetery of exiles where there is the same mixture of languages and dialects spoken by the man who became a watchman there of his own volition. There were no crosses, no peripheries, no graves, only barely visible ditches, covered by damp spring soil, over which he pronounced names from memory. The consonances, foreign to this area, fell into the soil like seeds, and it seemed that this was a prayer composed by an only survivor who had almost lost memory and reason in order to make room for those who had no other refuge in the world.
I see the smooth asphalt of the highway — and I recall the northern road that led to the gold mines. Along it drove long-haul Ural and Kamaz trucks, all-terrain vehicles, bulldozers, the road's shoulders infused with diesel fumes, dried to an oily crust that crunched under your boot. The powerful machines traveled alone and in caravans; from the high cab you could see how the engine noise made tundra hares scatter, partridges fly up into the air, and fish flee upstream, barreling through the water; it seemed that this low-lying area, giving birth only to tubercular trees, froze at the sight of the ribbed wheels and shiny bulldozer blades, ready to trample mosses and berry patches, to rip open the thin soil.
Suddenly, after a steep downhill, the Tsar Puddle is revealed: all the drivers call it that. Some say that this spot is cursed by shamans in revenge for the mining tunnels hacked into the sacred mountain, others say that this was the site of a mass reindeer pestilence, still others that an entire transport of prisoners froze to death in a blizzard here, hundreds of men herded to the gold mines in the forties. In general drivers were a tough crowd, not superstitious, not believing in God or devil, but the human mind truly could not cope with the sight of the Tsar Puddle.
It was impossible to go around the Tsar Puddle: the long stretch of swampy land saturated with the water of melting permafrost extended for a hundred kilometers between two rows of hills. When the vehicles braked before reaching the edge of it, the drama of the place was revealed: all around the land seemed to be bouncing, everything was covered by rotting rusty water, jutting out from which were logs and boards smashed and turned into kindling by caterpillar treads, rocks scraped by metal, and squashed barrels of sapper pontoons that people had tried to use to pave the Puddle, vanishing islets of gravel and sand — traces of attempts to fill the gaping pit. In the distance the skeleton of a tractor cab, losing the last of its paint, rose out of the swamp, bent crane dangling. A bizarre forest grew along the shores of the Puddle: dozens of iron pipes and concrete reinforcements hammered into the ground, some torn and twisted out — drivers lassoed them with the winch loops of stuck trucks. Frayed, torn ropes, each with dozens of knots, unable to withstand the deadly clutches of the Puddle, were scattered about. If you come closer, stepping carefully so that your boots don't land in the drying sticky ooze, you can see the remains of minor dramas, desperate attempts to restock when work stopped at the mines; they needed fuel, explosives, and food, but the weather conditions kept the helicopters on the runway at the airport, and the bosses sent two or three trucks out, promising the drivers whatever they wanted as long as the cargo made it through.
Thus was born a caste of drivers who knew the Puddle, northern augurs who told fortunes by the water level, by animal tracks on the Puddle surface — it was believed that elk and roe deer chose the driest path; some drove to the side to risk a new spot, and then tractors worked a long time to haul them to shore; the majority tried to get across along the old track. Remains of these restocking trips were visible from the edge of the Puddle: spilled cans, the metal siding of the vans, benches, heaters — everything was thrown into the ruts to let the truck drive over it, and everything was inexorably consumed by the Puddle. Sometimes the Puddle became bloated, and corpses of things, decayed and digested by the juices of the earth, appeared on the surface; as if choking, the Puddle disgorged tarps, slate, drill pipes, all stuck together, fused into gigantic likenesses of rooted-out stumps, spat out the garbage dumped into it, bottles, packages, hacked out with a clot of dirt a skeleton of a fox tempted by leftovers, and then once again, in the course of a day or two, swallowed everything it had purged.
I see a German shepherd on a leash following a man on the embankment; the dog is hot, it steps gingerly on the hot stone pavers, panting wildly, sticking out its tongue, pink with purple veins; the dog is pathetic, overfed and old, used to a collar, indifferent to the bloated pigeons searching for crumbs in the cracks, but I do not feel sorry for it: I remember other shepherds, I remember the thick, viscous saliva dripping from their upper fangs, the roseate upper palate, ribbed like butchered meat on a counter, in their jaws, I remember the bark, which had nothing canine about it.
Usually the sound of barking, however furious it may be, reminds you of a city square or a village street — the distant echoes of a dogfight heard on a night in the boggy woods, you realize that somewhere nearby there are houses, people, a place to spend the night. But the bark of a convoy shepherd is not the bark of a fight, skirmish, flight, or hunt. You don't need to chase a prisoner, he is entirely at the dog's mercy, however in the bulging eyes, the clumps of sounds torn out of its throat, the degree of hatred reaches human levels; human — by nature of the feeling — hatred, grafted on to the dog, becomes bigger and stronger than the creature, and it must unload it upon the prisoners. That is why the barking of convoy dogs immediately makes you think of fangs, yellowed as if by tobacco, of the hatred that separates man and animal more profoundly than it does man and man, because the animal follows it to the end, to destruction, to the crunch of tendons and vertebrae; about the hatred spilled out with the barking into the air of a thousand places, living in the canine and human descendants, absorbed with meager milk and the marrow of chewed bones.
I see fishermen, the tips of their long rods glowing in the twilight, as if they were catching flying fish with that greenish light; after fishing, the men go to the café on the shore, drink beer or wine while the fish is cleaned in the kitchen; a local white wine in bluish bottles goes very well with the fish, clean and light, slightly bitter; this wine does not intoxicate, agitate, or weigh you down, it seems to rinse the feelings.
You take a sip of that wine and the woman you met and fell in love with here, the soft bonds of bed sheets, doubly salty sweat, from the seawater, the reddish pollen of the shameless palm flowers on her skin — all this recedes, and desire itself suddenly turns into an almost sexless tenderness, the sense that she is merely the vessel of her life, inaccessible to you. You look not at her anymore but at how her life lives inside her, perhaps unfamiliar to her as well; how the blood ebbs and flows, the blush grows, the hair curls. This quotidian nature of her body becomes precious and necessary; you want to take her hand to feel her pulse: the beating of the heart that was conceived in her mother's body, appearing out of nothing, out of a few cells.
You know that no one was ever closer to you than she is; but even she is not close. They bring the fish, dorade for her, swordfish for you, because swordfish does not resemble the flesh of fish; it has large fibers, it looks like bleached beef, and that is why you can eat it. You could tell her why you turn away from her plate, drink wine, and stare at the ocean, and she — sensitive and understanding — would empathize, but it would be only a story; there is the final definitiveness of experience that cannot be shared.
So you watch the fishermen on the beach, watch their rods tremble and bend when they drag the fish to shore. Farther along the transparency moves into darkness and then into color: there is a whirlpool, and the water spins slowly, thickly, and light circles float on the surface, like traces of drops fallen into hardening molten glass — the grayling snatching insects.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Oblivion"
Copyright © 2011 Sergei Lebedev.
Excerpted by permission of New Vessel Press.
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