Review 2096: The Raven’s Children

I thought Yulia Yakovleva’s Punishment of a Hunter was an excellent 1930’s-era Russian mystery, so I looked for more. But all I could find was The Raven’s Children, a children’s book.

In Stalinist Soviet Union, seven-year-old Shura lives with his older sister Tanya, his baby brother Bobka, and his parents. All of them are patriots, but one night his father disappears. The next day, their mother behaves oddly, packing a suitcase, saying she quit her job, but she doesn’t tell them anything. The family unusually has a two-room apartment with Shura and Tanya’s bedroom accessed by a wardrobe so the second room is not obvious. That night Shura is awakened to see someone being taken away in a black car. The next morning, their mother and Bobka are gone, and Shura overhears a neighbor saying that they were taken away by the Black Raven. Their neighbors won’t speak to them except the timid old lady down the hall, who gives them a purse of money from their mother with instructions to go to their aunt.

Neither child wants to go to the aunt, so they spend the day wandering around talking to the birds (who talk back), trying to find the Black Raven. Gradually, they understand that their parents are thought to be spies and traitors. They think there must be some mistake and if they find the Black Raven they can tell him so. Then when they arrive home at their apartment that night, they find their neighbor living in it.

I always go under an assumption that the age of the protagonist in a children’s book is roughly the age of its intended audience. That being said, I think that children that age would understand very little of this book and be terrified by some of it. And I’m not a person who thinks children shouldn’t be scared by books.

For one thing, Yakovleva slowly brings in an element of magical realism. The talking animals and even Shura becoming invisible and having people walk through him was okay. But Yakovleva makes metaphors become real, so ears and eyes appearing in the walls are really creepy. But the worms are the worst. And I don’t want to spoil anything, but some characters, once disappeared, stay disappeared.

Yakovleva wrote this novel because her grandfather had similar experiences as a child during Stalin’s Reign of Terror. This novel might work as a teaching tool, but I would advise it to be with discussions with an adult who has read up on the period. Otherwise, I don’t think children are going to understand this novel.

By the way, several adult Goodreads readers complained that they didn’t understand what was going on, and at least one of them said she was from a former Soviet country.

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Review 2095: We

I am pretty well up on the 19th century Russian novelists, so when I was making my Classics Club list, I asked my husband to recommend someone more recent. He mentioned We.

The introduction calls Zamyatin an inconvenient citizen of both the czarist and Communist regimes, because he believed in complete freedom for the individual. His novel We is the granddaddy of dystopian novels and an inspiration to Orwell.

D-50 is a good citizen of the OneWorld, where everyone eats, sleeps, and works in unison. He is also the creator of INTEGRAL, which is going to be shot off into space to make the entire universe uniformly happy. He is writing a record to explain to the citizens of the universe why they should want to be uniform.

He thinks he is happy with O-90, whom he periodically requests for sex (the one time when they’re allowed to close the blinds of their glass apartments) until he meets I-330. There’s something mocking about her, and he thinks she’s up to something. Then she begins dragging him into situations that he should report her for to the Guardians. But he doesn’t, and soon he is madly in love with her and behaving strangely.

This novel is both dystopian fiction and a satire of some of the beliefs of Communism. At times, it is quite fevered in tone, and I wasn’t always sure what was going on. Characterization doesn’t even make sense in such a novel, so Zamyatin picks out weird facial features to identify people. Not my genre, but interesting.

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Review 2010: Punishment of a Hunter

When Zaitsev and his homicide team in 1930 Leningrad investigate the death of Faina Baranova, he knows there is something odd about it. Although all her clothing is practical, she is dressed in velvet and posed before red curtains the neighbors in her communal apartment say are not hers. There is something theatrical in the scene. However, after months, the team finds no clues.

In a meeting at work of the OGPU, Zaitsev is accused of hiding bourgeois origins. He claims he knows nothing about his father, having grown up in an orphanage. Pasha, his building janitor, shows up in support and claims to have known his mother; nevertheless, some days later he is arrested.

After a few months, he is released without explanation. Zaitsev soon figures out he is to solve another murder, this time of a group of people on the site of a new park planned by Kirov, head of the party in Leningrad. The unspoken message is solve the case or go back to jail. However, because he’s been released, his colleagues no longer trust him and won’t speak to him about work.

Aside from presenting an intriguing mystery, Punishment of a Hunter evokes 1930 Leningrad, beautiful but gray and tired, the atmosphere paranoid, citizens poorly clad and fed. I was convinced by this post-revolutionary world as I was not by the popular A Gentleman in Moscow. I hope Pushkin Press will be publishing more books by Yakovlevna.

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Review 1886: Dostoevsky in Love

Up until now, it has seemed to me that biographies fall into two categories: more academic works that are full of notes and citations and are sometimes turgid or too detailed or works meant primarily for the public that often list no backup material whatsoever and are sometimes sensational or even untruthful. Dostoevsky in Love makes an interesting compromise between the two. It is short at a couple hundred pages, it does include notes, and it somehow distills a sense of the true person that pages and pages of detail may not. Dostoevsky lived an interesting life and Christofi relates the events and Dostoevsky’s ideas in an interesting way, including quotations from his work to illustrate his points.

Dostoevsky’s life was difficult. He was poor for most of it, yet one reason was his generosity. (Unfortunately, another was his addiction to gambling, which he finally conquered.) Most of his life was spent in ill health, including epilepsy, serious bladder infections, and finally emphysema. As a young author, his first work was acclaimed, his next reviled, and then he was arrested for his radical politics and spent four years in Siberia (after suffering through a fake execution), followed by a stint of extra compulsory military service (he had already completed his usual service) with years before he was allowed to go to either Moscow or St. Petersburg.

Finally, in the last few years of his life, he gained the recognition he deserved, but he was still so poor that his wife Anna had no money to bury him with.

I found this to be an absorbing book. I have always wondered why most of Dostoevsky’s characters seemed to be in a frenzy, and now I think it’s because he himself was often in a frenzy, beset as he was with cares.

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Review 1831: The Tolstoy Estate

Paul Bauer, an army surgeon during the World War II German invasion of Russia, finds himself stationed at Yasnaya Polyana, the ancestral estate of Leo Tolstoy. It is set up as a field hospital.

The men are startled to find a woman on the estate—Katerina Trubetzkaya, the Head Custodian. She and the estate workers refuse to leave. Bauer, who speaks a little Russian and is an admirer of Tolstoy, finds himself almost immediately falling in love with her.

This novel details the six weeks of the German army’s occupation of Yasnaya Polyana. Toward the middle, the book jumps ahead in the form of letters to tell what happened to the characters.

I enjoyed this novel. I thought that the descriptions of the field hospital and the characters’ activities seemed convincing. Particularly convincing seemed the descriptions of the cold. Conte does a good job of humanizing the German soldiers while still including some inflexible and dogmatic soldiers and some true Fascists. For example, the commander, Julius Metz, is slowly becoming unhinged from treatments of amphetimines.

Despite the novel being described in grandiose terms on the cover, I felt there was something slight about it. The love affair it was centered on wasn’t very convincing, for one thing, and I didn’t like how the letters broke the forward action of the plot and somehow seemed to trivialize the story. They certainly destroyed any suspense about whether the main characters would survive.

Since Tolstoy seems to be important to Conte, perhaps he could have found some way to sustain this importance. He says in the acknowledgements that both the Soviet and German soldiers were “acutely conscious of the site’s cultural, ideological, and even metaphysical significance,” but in the novel, of the Germans only Bauer and Metz, in his weird way, seem to be. I read this for my Walter Scott prize project.

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Review 1670: Classics Club Spin Result! The Brothers Karamazov

I selected The Brothers Karamazov for my Classics club list because I read it many years ago for Russian Literature and found it fascinating. I was curious how I would regard it now.

The plot of the novel is seemingly straightforward, but it is complicated by the characters’ relationships and several subplots, some of which are only tangentially related. Fyodor Karamazov has three sons whom as children he left to be raised by the servants. The oldest, Dmitri (or Mitya), is an ex-soldier whom Fyodor has cheated of part of his inheritance from his mother. Now, although Dmitri is engaged to Katarina, a girl of high moral values, he has fallen madly in love with Grushenka, a girl with an unsavory past, and Fyodor is trying to compete for her. The second oldest, Ivan, is a cold intellectual atheist. The third son, Alexei or Alyosha, is studying to be a monk.

In my old Penguin Classics edition, the novel is split into two volumes. It is not until the second volume that the action takes place that is the centerpiece of the novel. Fyodor is murdered. Mitya has been working himself into a frenzy and making threats so is immediately the prime suspect. Did Mitya kill his father or was it someone else? If so, who?

We readers know what Mitya did that night, so we can answer the first part of that question but not the second part, at least not right away. Dostoevsky (I’m going to use the spelling of his name that I’m accustomed to, and that indeed is on my old Penguin copy rather than the one shown on the title page above) isn’t interested so much in that but in what happens next. And ultimately he is engaged in pitting atheism against belief in God.

In my student days, I found the long philosophical passages in this novel fascinating. These days, I don’t have as much patience with them and I actually skipped a couple of chapters once I got their drift. The amount of time spent on Father Zossima, for example, a relatively minor character who dies in Book One, is a little inexplicable to me now. I can’t help feeling he might have been based on a real person whom Dostoevsky revered, but his presence in the novel doesn’t seem important enough to warrant several chapters being devoted to his life and sayings.

This is not to say that I didn’t find the novel compelling. Although it is long and sometimes difficult, there was something about it that made me want to keep reading it.

The novel is written with an unusual approach to point of view. The narrator is an unidentified person from “our town.” But the narrator is privy to scenes he could not possibly have witnessed. Yet, the point of view is not omniscient. For example, we see what Mitya does on the night of the murder even though there is no actual witness to that, but we don’t see the murder.

As usual with Dostoevsky, most of his characters are in a frenzy. Were 19th century Russians really this excited? Well, they’re not in Tolstoy, but most of Tolstoy’s characters are upper class, while Dostoevsky’s are not. So, I don’t know whether this is a class difference or a difference in the author’s perceptions or what. And speaking of class, the attitude toward peasants here is not great, and there are also other politically incorrect comments on occasion. Just a warning.

The Brothers Karamazov is considered Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, so if you are interested in Russian literature, you should definitely read it. Dostoevsky’s preoccupations are not mine, however, and I think even less so as I get older. I couldn’t help parsing some of the arguments and thinking about an implicit slant to them. The best example is an assumption—a sort of cognitive leap—that is very important to the plot and is stated several times by different characters. The cognitive leap is that if God doesn’t exist, “everything is permitted.” Only one character questions this assumption—that there is nothing within humans besides religion to stop them from doing horrendous things. But his suggestion is brushed aside because Dostoevsky wants you to conclude that there is a God and his arguments don’t work as well if you believe in inner goodness or inherently moral or ethical behavior. I guess.

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Review 1554: The Vanishing Futurist

Right before the start of World War I, Gerty Freely goes to Moscow to be a governess for the Kobelev family. There she falls in love with one of Pasha Kobelev’s friends, Nikita Slavkin, a brilliant, idealistic scientist and revolutionary. Although Gerty is not political, she eagerly embraces the life of a communard in a commune Slavkin founds in the Kobelev’s house after the revolution. With them are Pasha and his sister Sonya and a few other young people.

Slavkin’s mission becomes to invent a machine that will change people’s cellular structure making them perfect Communists. Eventually, he comes to believe that he can make a machine that will transport a person into another dimension where perfect Communism is possible. Certainly, it doesn’t seem possible in the present one.

Hobson’s novel skillfully depicts the idealist euphoria and immense creativity of the early days of the Russian revolution as well as the hardships, the inevitable disintegration of communal life, and the craziness of those days as the revolution begins to turn in on itself. It makes really interesting reading and seems to much more authentically depict the time than any of the recent novels I’ve read about it.

I read this book for my Walter Scott Prize project and really enjoyed it.

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Review 1500: Sofia Petrovna

The heroine of Sofia Petrovna is an ordinary Soviet woman, not political but a happy worker at a publishing house. She has a son, Kolya, a promising engineering student who is a dedicated party member.

Then things begin to go wrong. She hears of the arrest of some doctors, one of whom she knows. They have been accused of sabotage. She can hardly believe it. He seemed like such a nice man. But if they say it is true, it must be. Then Kolya is arrested.

Lydia Chukovskaya’s novella about the Great Purge under Stalin was written in 1939-40, and she kept it hidden for years. A Soviet publishing company accepted it for publication in 1962, but when it was almost ready, backed out. It was finally published in Europe in 1965 after having been smuggled out of the country.

This is a deeply interesting and harrowing novella about what happens to an individual when the world seems to have gone crazy.

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Review 1357: Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea

In the early 20th century, Teffi was Russia’s most famous writer, a journalist, short story writer, and playwright. In 1918, after the October Revolution, an impresario persuaded her to travel to Odessa along with a troupe of actors and other performers to give some readings. She ended up four years later in Paris, where she lived the rest of her life. This book relates the beginning of her journey.

The dangers of revolutionary Moscow convinced her to leave, but she never meant the move to be more than temporary. People had been disappearing from the city, and it wasn’t clear whether they left voluntarily, were killed, or were deported to Siberia.

The journey to Odessa was harrowing. Conditions were chaotic. At one stop in Ukraine, only their status as performers saved them from the authorities, who were murdering train passengers to take their valuables.

In Odessa, Teffi found almost a holiday atmosphere, meeting some of the people who had disappeared from Moscow. Soon, though, everyone was panicking at the approach of the Bolshevik army.

This book is written in a lively, quirky style with a great deal of humor. Although Teffi herself is sometimes naive, she observes events with a satirical eye. Yet, at times, she is lyrical in her longing for her homeland.

I put this book on my Classics Club list because I was unfamiliar with it and it sounded interesting. Then it came up for my Classics Club Spin. I am glad to have read it. I am interested in Russia, and it gives a much more accurate idea of the effects of the Russian revolution than books like A Gentleman in Moscow.

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Review 1348: The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks

Cover for The Ukrainian and Russian NotebooksFor anyone who has not followed recent Russian history very closely, The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks are eye openers. Drawn and written by acclaimed Italian graphic artist Igort, they are the result of two years he spent traveling in the Ukraine and Russia listening to people’s stories.

The Ukrainian Notebook¬†focuses on the Stalin-era Holodomor. This was a government-caused famine imposed on the Kulaks—the Ukrainian farmers who owned their own land—to force them into collectivization. At the time, Ukraine was a rich agricultural region, but by the time the Soviets had finished, millions had starved or been deported to Siberia and the land was a desert. The notebooks tell some stories of the survivors as well as stories about the modern effects on the country.

The Russian Notebook focuses on state-sponsored assassinations, rapes, and kidnappings that are going on under Putin. In particular, it starts with the murder of human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya and her attempts to help the Chechens. Then it goes on to explore the cause of the Chechens.

Finally, the book ends with an epilogue about the more current situation in Ukraine and the Russian “mandate” to take it back.

Since my husband and I are interested in Russia, these notebooks didn’t surprise us, but they may surprise people who are less aware of the recent history of Russia. Igort has written about a lot of other subjects, but his drawing style particularly suits this one.

One small comment about the cartoons. The text is translated, I assume from Italian, and very well done. The text in the illustrations, however, has an occasional typo, and the transliterations of some words from the Russian alphabet are nonstandard with Russian typos, too. For example, on one page, the Russian word “gazetta,” or magazine, is written with the character for “n” instead of “g.” This is a quibble, however, for what is a pair of effective and shocking graphic novels.

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