Living Souls, By Dmitry Bykov, trans. Cathy Porter

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The Independent Culture

Dmitry Bykov's ambitious and sprawling book (abridged in English with the author's consent) caused a furore in Russia when published in 2006. Blending a novel of ideas with a fairy-tale and satire with lyricism, Bykov in Living Souls gives a picture of Russia in the near future and - as so many others before him - tries to understand the eternal contradictions of his country.

Several years from now, Russia is in a terrible state. The world is enjoying the new fuel Phlogiston and is no longer buying oil. The country becomes poor, marginalised, and turns to war, the only activity apart from oil sales its rulers can conceive. War brings no tangible results, partly because Russian officers exterminate more of their own men than the enemy does.

The "Camp of the Russian Warriors" (a reference to the classic poem by Vassily Zhukovsky) is an easily recognisable picture of the routine brutality and humiliation typical of the Russian army, especially during an endless, pointless war like the one in Chechnya. Yet Captain Gromov, an erstwhile poet, senses that there is something in his country beyond the surrounding ugliness – the stirring beauty of the countryside, the generosity of nature, the kindness of women.

The scheme suggested by Bykov to explain Russia's complexity is simple: the country's past and present have been determined by three incompatible forces. Two are descendants of tribes which inhabited Russia in the middle ages – the Varangians, founders of the state, and the Khazars, a semi-nomadic Turkic people who adopted Judaism. The Varangians (Russia's rulers) are responsible for all the harshness, cruelty and contempt for the individual, while the Khazars (Jews) value human life, but corrupt human nature by trade and business.

Both believe that Russia belongs to them and fight constantly. But there is also a third force - the real native people of Russia, despised equally by both fighting parties. These down-trodden and weak-willed people preserve the country's folklore and its poetic language and can be kind and good. Many end up as vagrants, and are caught, sterilised and eventually killed by the strict Varangian state.

Bykov, half-Russian, half-Jewish, described his book as "both Russophobic and anti-Semitic", and in the preface to the Russian edition apologised to anyone whose feelings he might have hurt. The editors of the sanitised English version went further and got rid of at least half of the novel's provocative statements and offensive language, including most references to "Yids". Even the title ZhD - an abbreviation that sounds like Yid in Russian, brilliantly translated as "Jewhad" by Francis Greene - has been rendered more mildly.

But the book's problems do not stop there. Busy with apportioning responsibility, Bykov ignores the social aspect of Russian history. The Khazar leader Misha Everstein readily assumes the role ascribed to Jews by anti-Semitic myths which blame them for the 1917 revolution, Soviet collectivisation, and perestroika. Misha proudly takes credit for it all and singles out as Khazar achievements the industrialisation of the 1930s and the liberal changes of the 1990s, as if neither he, nor the author is aware that these two processes took the country in opposite directions.

Having locked himself into "nationality issues", Bykov does not know what to do with his numerous characters. If Part One, "Departure", sets them off on a journey, Part Two, "Arrival", can not bring them anywhere apart from the sinister village of Zhadrunovo, synonymous with death.

Following the tradition of Gogol's Dead Souls, Bykov calls his long prose narrative a "poem". In Russian the book abounds in lyrical descriptions, witty metaphors and rich allusions. Unfortunately, in her attempt to make it all clear to English readers, its translator has elucidated and explained so much that hardly anything of the original texture has survived.