August 2014

Jesse Relkin

fiction

The Symmetry Teacher by Andrei Bitov, translated by Polly Gannon

The Symmetry Teacher is Andrei Bitov's purported translation of an obscure (some might say nonexistent) English book the author read in his youth -- translated back into English again by Polly Gannon. Originally I wanted to make an obvious comparison and call the book a matryoshka doll of interwoven short stories, but another reviewer beat me to the punch. So let's call it instead a piroshki (that's a traditional Russian stuffed pastry) of loosely connected fables packed together into a novel by one of the original postmodern novelists and major figures of contemporary Russian literature.

The book's frame story is narrated by a journalist who is somewhat privy to the mysterious death of the forgotten writer Urbino Vanoski, the main protagonist whose life and fiction populate the rest of the novel's stories. Unlike other loosely connected short story collections marketed as a novels these days (I won't name names), Bitov gives you everything you could wish for as a reader: fully developed narratives that can easily stand on their own (a couple of stories fall short), but which as puzzles pieces of Vanoski's identity come together to produce a meaningful cumulative effect.

The book opens with a fable in which Vanoski meets the Devil on a park bench. A fat, bald, and unpolished fellow, he carries with him a sack of pictures containing the most famous figures and moments of history. Hilariously, the pictures are not direct portraits of the actual things they claim to depict, but offer peripheral views: the mud under Alexander the Great's troops, the waves over the sinking Titanic, clouds floating above Homer's head, Shakespeare's feet as he bathes. When the Devil pulls out a picture from Vanoski's own future -- a brief glimpse of him in a shop with a woman who is not his current lady friend -- Vanoski becomes obsessed for the remainder of the story with finding this mysterious woman, with the disastrous consequences all too familiar in cautionary tales.

As the title suggests, throughout the novel and starting with his bewitching first story, Bitov challenges the notion of symmetry, uncovering a phenomenon of the human mind: the tendency to search for similarity in dissimilar things. As Vanoski hunts for the real-life copy of the Devil's picture, everything reminds him of something else until he is not even living life itself, but some grotesque copy of it. This inability to properly differentiate is the downfall of Vanoski, and a weakness of the characters in the stories that follow (most of which are excerpts taken from Vanoski's body of work). In the second story, Dr. Robert Davin, an ambitious young psychiatrist, forms an unlikely friendship with the town simpleton, a fellow named Gummi, who seems to have come from nowhere and insists he fell from the moon. As the doctor interviews Gummi, Bitov plays up the asymmetry of Gummi's narrative against the doctor's conception of it. On another level, Bitov applies the theme of symmetry to the age-old question of the body and the soul. Although most people in the story's insular town would view the body and soul as one and the same, Gummi's remarkable recollections seem to indicate otherwise: details of life on the moon and the teachings of a former Tibetan master on separating oneself from one's body. The philosophical subtext climaxes with the exploration of homonymy: Gummi points out to the doctor the symbol of "0," bringing up the question of whether it is a zero or a letter, a circle or a hole. Are we closing ourselves off from expanded consciousness because of our human ineptitude (there is something uncannily unhuman about Gummi) at distinguishing similarities and differences? That is one of the more original questions I've seen raised in fiction. Bitov asks it again and again in The Symmetry Teacher.

The concept of symmetry is so deeply embedded in the dialogue, characters, and plots, it's as if Bitov is continually holding up a thousand mirrors reflecting the book's titular theme. One cannot trust reflections, twins, or copies in Bitov's world. Life is forever dividing itself into finer distinctions, Bitov writes. Life is not one amoebic mass; the more closely you look at something, the more it subdivides into smaller phenomena. Challenging traditional symbols of rationalism such as science and psychiatry, Bitov posits that the more rational one is, the more likely one is to distinguish differences, which the author demonstrates in a series of fascinating paradoxes: the simpleton who knows metaphysical secrets; the impartial scientist who will do anything to not observe the truth about his own unfaithful lover; the enfeeblement of a king who possesses unprecedented powers as the compiler of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Speaking of symmetry, what about this whole translation business? Bitov insists that he has not made the original book up, even though the director of the Library of Congress has told him that it doesn't exist. About halfway through The Symmetry Teacher, Bitov announces the end of the translation of the original phantom book and the beginning of his "recollection of the forgotten text." Bitov's background seems to fill in all that's missing of this forgotten text; Russian characters, wordplay, places, and motifs appear most peculiarly throughout this initially English novel. The Symmetry Teacher is no translated copy, but an original work in itself.

Which brings me to perhaps the weakest part of the novel: what appears to be the author's own personality (as charming as it is) seeps a bit too much into the text, to the point where the already fragile integrity of the book is violated at times and the penetrating themes devolve into clever witticisms. What starts off as an intelligent, artfully crafted collection becomes a hodgepodge of details that it seems the author has always wanted to include in some work. Bitov's protagonist is insulted by the idea that the narrator-journalist would think of him as a James Joyce: "That puffed-up, unreadable Irishman irritated Urbino to no end." I think Bitov shows a self-awareness and sense of humor about himself here; one can't help being reminded of Joyce in The Symmetry Teacher, not only in Bitov's originality but also in his regrettable tendency to overindulge.

The Symmetry Teacher is not a light read, but thankfully at times it is also an entertaining one. For the right reader, this book will serve as the rich fodder for dozens of killer essays. Joyce said about his Ulysses, "I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I mean..." It is in Bitov's seemingly bottomless enigmas where I see Joyce the most. (Just look at me, lumping different things together, translating Bitov into English, but how can one help it?) The Symmetry Teacher offers a profusion of metaphysical and literary themes: time, death, memory, God, the spirit and the body, translation, the Russian language, dreams, Russia's conceptions of itself, and more -- with plenty of puns and poems thrown in the mix. Too much? I think so. Bitov is perhaps much like (yet different of course, if I've learned anything from the book) his own protagonist in The Battle of Alphabetica, the King of Britannica, who has taken upon himself the overwhelming task of compiling the enormity of life into the Encyclopedia Britannica.

A mixed bag of genres and styles -- science fiction, fantasy, magical realism, postmodernism, and satire, to name a few -- Bitov's novel cannot be easily classified, but I see it fundamentally as a collection of fables for adults. If so many of the stories weren't as readable as they are, The Symmetry Teacher would not work as a novel.

Although King Bartholomew, the great compiler of the Encyclopedia Britannica, possesses an unparalleled power -- the ability to banish people and things from existence -- he cannot extinguish elephants or lions, for fables are so deeply rooted in human consciousness that they cannot be blotted out. When I finished The Symmetry Teacher, I didn't think I liked it. A week later, while writing this review and recalling several of the individual stories, I remembered the book much more fondly. In the wake of Bitov's novel, the discrepancy between my original reading experience and my remembered one has of course piqued my interest. It just goes to show you the true power of a fable. Just as Bitov couldn't forget the original English novel on which his latest work is based, The Symmetry Teacher is, at its worst, a book that cannot be easily blotted out of one's memory. At its best, it is filled with enigmas and puzzles that may just keep the professors busy for quite a while.

The Symmetry Teacher by Andrei Bitov, translated by Polly Gannon
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374273514
288 pages