Life as a Literary Device, By Vitali Vitaliev

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The Independent Culture

A highly-regarded journalist and author in the ex-Soviet Union, Vitali Vitaliev published his work in distinguished journals like Literaturnaya Gazeta, and wrote for the satirical magazine Krokodil. His investigative skills gained him unwelcome attention both from the "mafia" and the KGB, and he defected in 1989.

He has since lived in a variety of places (Melbourne, London, Dublin, Edinburgh, Folkestone) and travelled to many more. "How are you going to cope with stability, Vitali?" he recalls being asked by a former editor. In fact, he says, he is "addicted" to instability and has had no trouble re-locating it in the West. This quality is what makes him such an effective travel writer.

Many of his dispatches are woven into this "writer's manual of survival" and form its liveliest scenes. Vitaliev has a keen eye for the comic or incongruous, whether penguins in the Falkland Islands busily walking along "like Oxford Street shoppers", or photographers in Shetland, whose shaggy hair reminds him of the Shetland ponies. His portraits of the UK, particularly pre-regeneration Folkestone, are revealing and salutary.

Life as a Literary Device is an unconventional autobiography. Vitaliev tells us that its aleatory style was inspired by one of his favourite 20th-century Soviet writers, Valentin Kataev, who described some of his works as mauviste. The term derives "from the French mauvais – bad – the essence of which is that since everyone nowadays writes very well, you must write badly, as badly as possible, and then you will attract attention".

Mauvist writing is "bad" rather than bad, of course: Kataev's refusal of the narrative conventions is artfully Modernist. In this book, life is not so much the device as the model. Here are thoughts, observations and memories "in no particular order; poems written down like prose... gaps between paragraphs and even sentences, like the brief stops of a marathon runner to regains his breath".

This description gives us only a few of the flavours in the borscht. Vitaliev recycles letters, quotations, extracts from admired authors. He adds interviews, anecdotes, and "survival tips".

Life as a Literary Device teaches the reader with a secret craving for chapter-headings, bibliographies, and beginnings, middles and endings to abandon logic and go with the authorial flow. Eventually, all the aspects begin to make sense, even the sentences that replicate themselves, and the shifts of viewpoint from first person to third.

In fact, under the flurry and slither of flashbacks and fast-forwards, a compelling narrative assumes shape. The unstable freelance life teeters more and more desperately. The author loses his column. His marriage breaks up. He becomes depressed. He needs an angioplasty. A story-teller's instinct, always visible in microcosm, has by now taken the wheel, and we hold our breath as Vitaliev steers us downhill, and smile with him when a brighter horizon dawns.

Vitaliev is a genial companion. His tone is immensely likeable. He relishes his successes without arrogance and suffers disappointment without self-pity. He is a genuinely comic writer – not a sabre-toothed satirist, despite the Krokodil years, but friendly and slightly melancholy. His English is fluent and idiomatic. For all the zaniness, there is a good deal of humanity and common sense in this miscellany. I was sorry when the journey ended, and wanted to start the rolling, rocking ride all over again.

Carol Rumens's latest volume of poems is 'Blind Spots' (Bloodaxe)