Documents Concerning Rubashov The Gambler, by Carl-Johan Vallgren, trans. Sarah Death

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The Independent Culture

Living forever is fine, so long as things are going according to plan

Living forever is fine, so long as things are going according to plan

Reviewed by Anna Paterson

This is the fifth of the Swedish writer Carl-Johan Vallgren's eight books, which include a short-story collection and a travel book. Vallgren had to wait for fame and international sales until the 2002 publication of his blackly funny melodrama, The Horrific Sufferings Of The Mind-Reading Monster Hercules Barefoot. Readers who loved its rollicking pace might be a little disappointed by this slower, gloomier work. On the other hand, those who dislike fantasy should ignore the initial account of an unpleasant family of gods; there's not too much of that once the story gets underway.

On New Year's Eve 1899, Rubashov, who has gambled with everything worth having and lost it, sits alone in his rented room in a St Petersburg lodging house. Suddenly, a visitor turns up, a sombrely dressed civil-servant type with a troublesome body odour. Yes, it's the Evil One. As church bells ring in the new century, Rubashov signs away his soul for no gain other than "the gambler's thrill", accepting the terrible sub-clause that confers immortality. Of course, such contracts never quite deliver. He promptly loses the urge to gamble and instead uses his immortality for gain, playing Russian roulette against impossible odds and winning every time.

At first, Rubashov is successful in business and in love, but lean years follow. When the Great War begins, our man is a destitute drifter. Starting with trench warfare, his wanderings take him to wherever the Devil is in control. Vallgren has a taste for the grotesque and doesn't spare us: each 20th-century hellhole is described in vivid, ornate prose.

But the ageing undead seem to test the storyteller's patience and the vitality gradually fades from his voice. Maybe he should have stopped after the ominously dull scene in a clockmaker's shop, where the immortals "party". By now, Rubashov has lost his will to live, but he and the narrative have to endure until the end of 1999. On New Year's Eve, he is back in a St Petersburg alive with millennial fervour and, while the ghosts in his old lodging house have their own kind of ball, he is set free at last.

Vallgren is phenomenally good at telling stories and Sarah Death has translated his witty, fluent, slightly mannered language with wonderfully seamless precision. Rubashov's confrontations with absurdity and cruelty "history goes in circles" foreshadow the equally gruesome, but more optimistic, story of Hercules Barefoot.

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