The Unbearable Heaviness of Being
Roman Senchin has written a novel which aims to depict contemporary life in the unglamorous world of smalltown life beyond the Urals. It takes the form of an autobiographical memoir in which the border between fact and fiction is deliberately ill-defined. This is half-way between being reportage and reminiscence. Many Russian literary critics call this style New Realism; others “narrative non-fiction”. Since Senchin’s subject is a part of the country which oil-wealth has not touched and where travellers hardly ever venture, I would suggest that it is almost a form of imaginative travel writing.
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The author and his family (this part is fact) were chased out of the Tuva district on the Mongolian border by the non-Russian natives after the break-up of the Soviet Union. His parents had been senior “cultural workers” but were reduced to selling strawberries and the other commodities they produced from the land around the little isba whither they fled, forty kilometres from the town of Minusinsk (known as “Minus”) on the Yenisei. They had had to abandon most of their possessions, taking only some rapidly devaluing roubles, with which they bought a truck to use delivering commodities around the local area.
Their son, the author, is an educated twenty-something who is able to find work only as a stage-hand in the Minusinsk theatre. He lives in a hostel and does little more than put up with life in the sort of stoical way which some Westerners describe as “fatalistic”, or “Oblomovian”, but which Senchin implies, selfcritically, is really just weak. Everything is bleak, ugly, pointless and hopeless. The only refuge is vodka and marijuana. The idea of moving to somewhere more hopeful is never discussed.
Senchen is a vivid writer and his text has been fluently translated by Arch Tait. I say “fluently”, rather than accurately, because I have not read the original, and am conscious of the old (rather chauvinistic) saying about translation being “like a woman” in that if it is faithful it is not beautiful, and if it is beautiful it is not faithful.
Best then to judge for yourself:
“We’re walking to the theatre, of course, going to work, From time to time we slip on puddles turned to ice and curse. We’re following our usual route to perform our customary routine functions. It’s had to carry on when every cell in your brain is desperately shrieking, don’t do this! What’s the point? Just drop everything, run away, be different! Find something else, for heaven’s sake, something new! My legs, meanwhile, continue to propel me forward, along a pavement I’ve walked a thousand times before.
“I glance at the infrequent passers-by, at people in cars with their headlights on. All their faces are crying out the same thing, but all of them are walking, driving, hurrying forwards to a place where they have to be. It’s only in fairy tales that you fall over and become transformed, that you put on seven-league boots and in a trice find yourself in a land far, far away; you make a wish and—whoosh! It comes true. In real life you have to scrape along as best you can. Changes for the better are a matter of luck, and some people never have any.”
Leaving aside the issue of personal motivation, the reader is tempted to wonder if Minusinsk can really be that bad. The city has historical interest. Lenin used to visit during his period of exile in nearby Shushinskaya because, though small, it was a cultural magnet for a large part of south-central Siberia. In the twenty-first century, the theatre which the narrator works at is full of paying customers, night after night, all year round. Some folk seem to be enjoying themselves. You get the feeling that there is a certain amount of self-pity lurking behind the prose noir.
Perhaps that explains one of the more interesting themes in this book, namely that the older generation, which had been through the purges of the 1930s, the War and the hungry forties afterwards, are much better at coping with the dislocation of life caused by the break-up of the Soviet Union than the young people whom Senchin writes about. They grew up in the comfortable penumbra of Brezhnev-era stagnation, with plenty to eat, good educational facilities, and babushkas fluttering around keeping them warm and clean. Now that world has gone, these people are simultaneously discontented and idle.
On one visit to his parents, the narrator’s father shows him several ideas he has for raising production from the small plot he farms. The house is cold, his wife is not well and life is without much hope. Yet the old man trudges forward regardless. When the narrator leaves to return to Minusinsk, the old man even gives him money, enough to “keep me going for a long time if I don’t drink.” The young layabout feels good, not least because the theatre is closed due to an outbreak of flu. Also, his “moronic” room-mate is away so he has the room in the hostel to himself. For the first time in ages he is not debilitated by a lack of money or a hangover. “Perhaps,” he say to himself, “I should go out and look for a decent job.”
Perhaps?!I?! That single word explains everything. Oblomov himself could not have put it more succinctly.