BOOK REVIEW: Prussian Nights by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Prussian Nights: A PoemPrussian Nights: A Poem by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This long-form narrative poem tells a tale of inhumanity in the Soviet advance toward Germany during the Second World War. The narrator is a run-of-the-mill soldier who witnesses rape and murder by his comrades. Solzhenitsyn was a young officer in the military during the war, and it’s probable that the story of the poem draws from his real-world experience during the war. It’s said that he composed and memorized the poem while he was in the Gulag.

While the poem’s story focuses on violence and inhumanity perpetrated by some soldiers, it isn’t particularly graphic in its description. Rather, the author sets up scenes and leaves it to the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks. It’s also true that in some cases the narrator is witnessing the aftermath of violence and not the act itself. It’s not a pretty story, but readers needn’t be concerned it will be gratuitously graphic.

While the translator chose to stick to rhyming verse, the poem is quite readable. The story is told in a straightforward fashion. Many will find this appealing because the readability is high. However, others may find the lack of metaphor and poetic approaches to language to make for unappealing poetry. There’s not a lot of symbolism and the meanings seem quite literal. That said, the imagery is often vivid and evocative, and the metered verse reads smoothly and lyrically.

The book has a feature that I like, which is the original [Russian] is on the left-hand page with the English translation, produced by Robert Conquest, on the right. The translation didn’t come in greatly useful for me. I had two years of Russian back in college, but that was a long time ago and I read Cyrillic with the unconfident stammer of a first grader. Still, it’s interesting to get a taste of the original.

I’d recommend this book, regardless of whether one is a poetry reader. The story can be read as just that, a story, and it offers insight into the ugly inhumanity too often set free in the act of warring.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Master and MargaritaThe Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The Devil comes to Moscow with his entourage of henchmen – a tram-riding cat, a fallen angel turned assassin, an ex-choirmaster, and a vampiress – and chaos and malevolence ensue. While most of the story unfolds in early 20th century Soviet Union, a few chapters focus on the story of the crucifixion as seen from the perspective of Pontius Pilate. We learn well into the book that Pontius Pilate is the subject of a novel written by the character who calls himself “the Master.” A love story between he and Margarita is central to the story, though mostly in the latter half of the book.

While Bulgakov’s book is whimsical and humorous in places, its theme is demons and supernatural beings acting in a rational, modern world that has abandoned belief in the supernatural. The Devil (who goes by the name Woland, a variation on a Germanic word for demon) and his troupe perform a black magic show that the audience assumes to be illusionism though it produces far more disturbing effects than a David Copperfield show. The story is a dark carnival tale (think Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes” but not so much horror as a macabre comedy. One will also note that the relationship between God and the Devil is more on the order of Pratchett and Gaiman’s “Good Omens” than the Biblical rendition.)

While the book is pure fantasy in its story, it presents a thinly veiled commentary on Soviet life. Part of the reason why the mischief of Woland and his lackeys goes unthwarted is because it takes place in a world where the government “disappears” people on a regular basis and in which the quashing of religion means that even seeing doesn’t result in believing. Anyone witnessing a supernatural act is written off as drunk, insane or – at best – easily duped.

Although, as I think about this, it might not be so much a contrasting and ancient and modern life as it appears. After all, Pontius Pilate is at the fore of the historical part of the novel. Pilate, who viewed Jesus as a harmless lunatic, was troubled by the decision to execute him when the violent figure of Barabbas was selected instead for release based on a Passover norm. (Hence, Pilate’s famously “washing his hands” to the whole business of Jesus’s execution.) In this light, it may be more of a general commentary on humanity’s simultaneous need to believe in, and inability to believe in, the supernatural.

This novel is well-written, engaging, and thought-provoking, and I’d recommend it for all readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Notes from UndergroundNotes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This novella is divided into two uneven parts. The first part consists of eleven chapters of floating head philosophizing by an old man about all manner of topics loosely connected by a cynical outlook. The most prominent topic is consciousness and how it’s a curse upon mankind – for the more one has of it the more one is trapped in a dead-end life. (Presumably what Dostoevsky meant by “the underground.”) One really has to be interested in philosophy to get through the first part, which is about 1/3rd of the book, because there is no story and nothing in particular to make one interested in the monologuing old man’s life or thoughts. However, it’s considered the first existentialist novel, and is considered important on that grounds, and the philosophy is thought-provoking now and again.

It’s in the second part that the book gets interesting. In this part, we get a flashback to the narrator’s life as a young man and the events that presumably shaped the cynical philosophy that he’d rambled on about in the first part.

One can subdivide the second part into three subsections that each get more extensive and more interesting in turn. In the first section, the narrator tells about how he became irritated that there was an alpha male military officer who would walk boldly down the sidewalk and everyone would get out of his way. The narrator is ashamed that he consistently got out of the man’s way, himself. Since there was no rule that this man was owed the right-of-way, the narrator devises a plan to play chicken with the man. This may seem like a silly and sad little story, but it gives insight into the man’s state of mind. There are shades of “Fight Club” in this book, as the narrator feels emasculated by society and modernity. He’s a coward, but a proud coward who believes the world is ruled by fools, while men of intellect – such as himself – are trapped in the underground. He also has a masochistic ambivalence about pain and suffering.

The second and third sections flow together from a solitary event. The narrator runs into an old acquaintance from school, Zverkov, and invites himself to Zverkov’s going-away party dinner. However, neither Zverkov nor his chums particularly care for the narrator. There is a tension not only because they are of a higher status, but because the narrator has a chip on his shoulder about it. The narrator feels himself the superior man, and his self-invitation to the party is in a way another act of playing a game of chicken with those who are de facto superiors. His low-income post, combined with his feelings of superiority, compels him to assert himself to no good end.

When Zverkov and his pals slip away, in part to continue their festivities and in part to get away from the narrator, the narrator pursues them to the brothel they’ve taken their boy’s-night-out to. This is where the third part begins when the narrator ends up sleeping with Liza, a young prostitute. After the deed, the narrator rambles on about how she should get out while the getting is good, engaging in moralistic diatribe. Before leaving, he gives her his address card. Over the next several days, he swings between fears that she’ll actually show up to his shabby abode and fears that she won’t. His feelings for Liza bounce between whipping post and object of affection. And, being a classic unreliable narrator, the reader is left to guess as to the weight of those competing feelings.

Once one gets into the second part, this book becomes intriguing. The lead character would, at best, be classified and anti-hero. There’s nothing likable about him, but still one wonders how events will unfold. The first part offers the occasional bit of food-for-thought, but isn’t a compelling read for those who didn’t major in Philosophy. Even most Philosophy majors will find it needlessly cynical – if interesting. Still, it’s worth reading, and, hey, it’s really short.

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BOOK REVIEW: Thirst by Andrey Gelasimov

ThirstThirst by Andrey Gelasimov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This novel (novella) is translated from Russian, and is the story of a soldier, Kostya, who fought in Chechnya and was badly burned while trapped inside an Armored Personnel Carrier (APC.) Owing to his severe disfigurement, Kostya becomes a heavy-drinking homebody. This changes when one of his team members from the war, Seryoga, goes missing and a couple surviving team members come to recruit Kostya to the search party.

Kostya struggles with an internal conflict common in war stories. On the one hand, Kostya both rationally recognizes the logic of why his friend and teammate, Seryoga, didn’t pull him from the burning APC (i.e. Seryoga believed Kostya was dead) and he loves Seryoga like a brother. On the other hand, he can’t help but feel that if Seryoga had pulled him out sooner he wouldn’t be so hideously disfigured and his life—as he sees it–wouldn’t have been ruined. Kostya battles those feelings, even defending Seryoga’s decision based on the reasonable conclusion that Kostya was already dead. A flashback sequence interwoven into the contemporary timeline shows us the events of the APC attack, including—ominously—a discussion of what should happen in case grenade breaches the vehicle for the benefit of the FNG (F@#%ing New Guy.)

The story is short and sparse, and that complements the somber tone of the book. One reason for dragging Kostya into the search is that his father is a Lieutenant Colonel with the pull to access records. This forces Kostya to open up the estranged relationship with his father and his father’s new wife. One gets the feeling that Kostya blames his father more for his plight than he does Seryoga, adding to any pre-war problems in the relationship. There are several factors that combine to move Kostya toward a better place over the course of the story. One is the thaw in relations with his father, and–perhaps even more so—the burgeoning relationship with his step-mom, Marian, who he discovers to be a genuinely good person. A second factor is reconnecting with his military buddies. Finally, his art (Kostya has a talent for drawing) becomes more therapeutic as his friends and family begin to see it.

This is a classic brothers-in-arms story. The universality of that bond comes through in translation. With tweaks in details (and choice of liquor) this story could be about American soldiers in Vietnam or Iraq. What makes the book a worthwhile read, if nothing else, is its display of that commonality of human experience. The ways of soldiers who have a stake in each other, even if they feel little personal stake in the grand strategy that has put them where they are.

I found this story to be moving and thought-provoking. I’d recommend the book—particularly for readers of literary fiction—and it’s definitely literary fiction. The story is character driven, and not plot or action driven. The tension derives from the interaction of characters and not (except for the APC fire) outside events. Many will find the ending abrupt and anti-climactic, but it’s the story of Kostya’s journey and not of any particular destination.

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