Books: Make mine a superglue, brake fluid and insecticide
Harry Ritchie is shaken but not stirred by a lethal Russian cocktail
Saturday 18 January 1997
Bored of banana daquiris? Tired of tequila slammers? Why not try one of the exciting cocktails detailed in Venedikt Yerofeev's novel Moscow Stations. The Spirit of Geneva, for instance: take 200 grammes Zhiguli beer and add 150 grammes spirit varnish and 50 grammes each of White Lilac toilet water and sock deodoriser. For the more adventurous drinker, Yerofeev recommends the guaranteed brain-blaster known as Dog's Giblets, concocted from Zhiguli beer, Sadko shampoo, superglue, anti-dandruff solution, brake fluid and insecticide.
The recipes come from one of the many digressions in this short novel about the Russian narrator's alcohol-fuelled train journey from Moscow to see his son and lover in the town of Petrushki. At least, that's what is supposed to be happening, but the narrator's account is less than clear. No surprise given that, by the time he boards his train at eight in the morning, he is struggling to cope with a grievous hangover from a week- long bender, has just been turfed out of the station buffet after requesting a revitalising 800-gramme shot of breakfast sherry, and is preparing to tuck into his essential supplies for the two hour journey - two bottles of Kuban vodka, half a litre of Rossiiskaya and a bottle of fortified rose.
Having overcome the melodramatic attack of nausea provoked by the first sips from his essential supplies, the narrator settles down to endure the ride. Though he is out of his box, there is no danger that his fellow passengers will scorn him, for they are all out of their boxes as well, including the ticket inspector who has devised an ingenious system of fines - passengers have to pay him a gramme of vodka for every ticketless kilometre. It's not a short trip and nobody seems to have a ticket.
The novel itself staggers along as the narrator gives us the benefit of his experience of life on the rocks. He provides a brief, crazed overview of a alcohol dependency in the lives of great writers, a daft survey of the world (Siberia is populated by "negroes", the streets of Paris are lined by brothels and clap clinics), and another top tip, on how to avoid hangovers - drink what you had the night before until you have drunk the same amount and then drink another 250 grammes of the stuff.
Meanwhile, back at the storyline, things are getting dazed and confused. There is a drinks party of sorts wherein the narrator and other passengers resolve to tell each other stories, just like characters in a novel by Turgenev, but that quickly peters out. There's also an account of the narrator's attempt to engineer a revolution in Petrushki, but Norway refused to reply to his declaration of war and the only decrees passed by his committee concerned local pub opening hours (to be moved back to a more convenient 5am). But all too soon the narrator loses his tenuous grasp on reality, leaving him wrestling with those key existential questions familiar to anyone who has stumbled through the night, a congealed fish supper in one hand, a warm can of Tennents Extra in the other: Where am I? What am I doing here? How do I get home?
Tragically, this is an autobiographical novel, which explains why this is a posthumous translation. After a life spent drinking improbable amounts and kinds of alcohol, and getting the sack from a series of menial jobs (no mean feat in the former Soviet Union), Yerofeev died six years ago, just when Moscow Stations was beginning to emerge from its sorry plight as a samizdat work that lacked the kudos of political oppression. Yerofeev's translator, Stephen Mulrine, is to be congratulated for latching on to this novel and bringing it new life in an English version. The slang grates occasionally (faces are never faces but "coupons", "fizzogs" and "ugly mugs"), but by and large he has done a good job.
What he can't do, however, is conceal the flaws of the original. Faber's bumf claims that Moscow Stations is "an absolute classic of Russian literature". Had I stopped reading the novel after the first 10 pages, I would have agreed, for the opening sequence describing the narrator's stumble to his train is a work of comic genius. But, appropriately enough, after the riotously funny start, the book wanders about, becomes befuddled and, especially during its more fantastic flights of fancy, gets irritating and boring. The kind of people who go to the ICA will clasp their hands in horror at this judgment, but for all his darkly farcical moments, Yerofeev has been easily surpassed in dark bedrugged comedy by Irvine Welsh.
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