August 2013

Edward Stephens


Gods of the Steppe by Andrei Gelasimov, translated by Marian Schwartz

It is with an especially blunt irony that Andrei Gelasimov calls the town at the center of his 2008 novel Gods of the Steppe, out now in a new English translation, "Razgulyaevka." The word is a cognate with the infinitive "razgulyat," which, when leading practice conversations about our weekends, my first-year Russian teacher memorably translated as "to go on a partying spree." At one point a viable smuggling outpost near the Chinese border, by the summer of 1945 "the village felt extinct," reduced to little more than a brief stop along the Trans-Siberian Railway for soldiers to stretch their legs on the way to the Eastern Front. In addition to ferocious temperature extremes and the foreboding impression of isolation common to all populations in the vast and sparsely populated Trans-Baikal steppe region, a summary of Razgulyaevka's particular hardships includes a local collective farm disabled by the loss of all its horses; general food shortage; rampant alcoholism; the almost total absence of husbands and fathers due to the Soviet war effort; constant threat of attack from Imperial Japanese forces just across the Argun River; the abandonment of the town by its native Buryat population (who claimed the place harbored evil spirits); and an epidemic, in recent years, of congenital respiratory diseases among its children. In short, the inhabitants of Razgulyaevka find little occasion to justify its name, even with the general availability of contraband Chinese liquor.

The effect of that irony, however, deadens on consideration of the novel's protagonist Petka, who manages, despite the shabbiness of his environs, to pass his days in what for a twelve-year-old rural boy amounts to a series of partying sprees -- at least in his imagination. His irrepressible tendency to play is the most profound feature of Gods of the Steppe. Gelasimov, to his great credit, seems to realize this: by and large, he allows the impetuous boy to control the pace of the novel, arranging most glimpses of the larger plot points through footloose Petka's roving around town, about the surrounding steppe, and over to the nearby prisoner of war camp. Gelasimov excels in conveying the essence of Petka's play, which, like all true play, is at once fanciful and painstakingly serious. His narration is attuned not only to the vocabulary of the playful mind, but to the protean pace of its concerns as well. When, for instance, observing Petka spatter a local woman with oatmeal the narrator takes care to add, "Quite accurately, of course. Comrade Stalin's gunners don't miss," recasting petulant behavior in the light of imagined state glory. It is not a scientific approach that yields a portrait of Petka -- forgetful, mercurial, belligerent, sweet, self-absorbed -- that so resembles the real imaginative life of children. I would call Gelasimov's style risky in a general sense, so much so that at times it falls flat as it attempts unconventional tonal shifts. But stylistic consistency would have risked raining on the parade, so any errors on the side of adventure are preferable to the alternative.

Taken individually, the scenes of Petka at play are humorous and endearing: his full-hearted attempt to raise a wolf cub in close quarters with a terrified herd of goats, the artillerist's precision with which he conducts the act of flinging cowpies at his granny, and the way he practices his salutes with his shadow (which, traitorously, only salutes him back if the sun is shining) approach the unforgettably delightful Kolya Krasotkin who befriends Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov. Over the course of the novel these scenes congeal into a thesis on the power of play as both a sacred rite of development and prime mover of human triumph and sorrow. Gelasimov lays the capstone to this thesis of play in a marvelously rendered climactic scene: pretending to an unquestionable spiritual authority, a Japanese doctor who has been called in to see about a dying child performs an impromptu faith-healing that he, taking his cue from the buoyancy of his self-appointed aide Petka, cobbles together quite irreverently out of shrieks, vague ideas of peasant values, snippets of Buryat Buddhism, and parodies of Noh theater gestures that he remembers from his own childhood. He loses himself to the fun of it all, and the odd cure works.

The power of play is not without its drawbacks in Gods of the Steppe. For all its efficacy time and again in disarming the more repressive tendencies of the adults around Petka, in spite of its magical ability to trump the trials of abject poverty and neglect he experiences in Razgulyaevka, children's play is also the logical stepping stone to large scale acts of war and destruction. Petka and the other "Razgulyaevka lads" -- curiously, although women are omnipresent in the novel, girl children seem not to exist -- play at war almost to the exclusion of all else. The actual soldiers who appear frequently come from similar impoverished towns and, like the younger boys, they too face the constant nagging of time and boredom. By the end of the book it is clear that Gelasimov interprets war, with its obsessive focus on rules of conduct and guarantee of travel and high adventure, as the dreadful apotheosis of play.

Of course, the complexion of war is at the cusp of an irrevocable change: the specter of the atom bomb casts a pall over the novel from the moment we learn that Hirotaro, a Japanese prisoner of war at a camp just outside of town, longs to be reunited with his wife and young son in Nagasaki. (I wonder if that word -- "Nagasaki" -- carries the same automatic connotations of desolation for Russian readers that it does for Americans or Japanese. If not, Gods of the Steppe is a very different book in translation, its structure founded on conspicuous dramatic irony that is much more subtle in the original.) Characters at various times unwittingly allude to the Bomb. Hirotaro, for instance, in the family history he writes throughout the book describes the moment when Japanese soldiers first used Portuguese muskets rather than swords. The guns ensured total defeat of those clans without them -- the shades of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are clear. Or consider the conversation Petka has with an Red Army major in which they begin to imagine the destructive force possible with larger and larger bombshells:

"I was wondering whether a thirty-four would blow up a whole house or not."

"Depends on the house. A high-explosive shell might."

"What about two houses?"

"Two, too."

"A whole town? [...] Is there a shell that could blow up the moon?"

The major sighed and shrugged. "There aren't any cannons like that."

"What if you took the bomb on an airplane?"

"It wouldn't get there. What for anyway?"

"But could you blow up the whole earth? Is there a shell like that?"

The Bomb finally drops in the epilogue, a quaint two-page addendum written as matter-of-factly as the "Where are they now?" frames at the end of so many based-on-a-true-story movies, a narrative voice utterly at odds with the exuberant one of the preceding pages. What is Gelasimov driving at as he reveals the fates of his characters post-VJ-Day? Hirotaro grieves for a time the loss of his family, but he rebounds; Petka becomes a career geologist working for the Soviet state to locate uranium deposits. "So, you see, everything did fall into place," this new narrator concludes, apropos of nothing. That helpless final platitude, I think, is comment enough: there are not words to register Gelasimov's disgust at a world that starts with play, perverts play into annihilation, and then accepts the man-made annihilation as only another inevitability of history.

Not having the Russian text at hand, I approve of Marian Schwartz's translation anyway. She seems to have had no trouble simply letting Gelasimov's at times awkward or overreaching style be: a less sure translator might have succumbed to the temptation to work out the kinks. I do, however, wish to raise two minor issues. Owing perhaps to a bias toward adjectival honesty, I would have rendered the title Steppe Gods. And I find it odd that such an accomplished translator as Schwartz -- her forthcoming English translation of Anna Karenina, no doubt a career achievement, is only the tenth in 145 years -- found it necessary to insert her own explanatory note into one of the author's sentences (emphasis mine): "Razgulyaevka got its name -- which means, roughly, 'Here's where to have a good time' -- because of liquor." In her place, I might rather have used what clout I had to press the publisher to include at least a barebones set of annotations, which would reasonably include the explanation above, as well as several other nuggets that might improve a non-Russian reading of it. Chapaev jokes, the Battles of Khalkin Gol, the Trans-Baikal region, and Soviet de-kulakization would all make splendid entries. Finally, though, my qualm here concerns the marginal lack of something that is in every other way present in Schwartz's translation: the care and respect that such a very rich, good book deserves.

Gods of the Steppe by Andrei Gelasimov, translated by Marian Schwartz
ISBN: 978-1611090734
256 pages