Apathy. Complete and utter apathy. That’s the only thing I can bring myself to feel about 2017 by Olga Slavnikova, winner of Russia’s equivalent of the Booker Prize in 2006 and translated into English this year by Marian Schwartz.
I’ve not read any modern Russian fiction, so I was intrigued by this book and was pleased to score a copy from Library Thing’s Early Review program. But, now, at page 192 of 414, all I can say is “meh.” And when there are so many good books out there to read, meh is not enough, especially not when the reading feels so much like work.
2017 has a lot of ingredients that I love. It takes place in Russia in 2017, 100 years after the Revolution. There’s an expedition to the Riphean mountains to find a hidden vein of rubies—a bit of magical realism creeps in here in the figure of the Mistress of the Mountain. There’s a strange relationship between the gem-cutter Krylov and a mysterious woman who calls herself Tanya. Complicating the relationship are a spy who makes his presence blatantly obvious and Krylov’s ex-wife, Tamara, the wealthy and famous owner of an undertaking business. It’s not a bad plot, as plots go. And there are some comic touches, such as Krylov and Tanya’s quirky way of choosing meeting spots: one of them would select a street and the other a random building number, and this process led them into all kinds of places they’d never choose to go. So much to like, but…
Even though this novel has a lot of the right ingredients, I can’t bring myself to take an interest in it. Part of the problem is the writing. The paragraphs are long, the vocabulary sometimes needlessly complex. At times, the descriptive language is gorgeous, but it’s just as likely to turn toward the purple or the clunky. Here’s a sample:
Beauty was pouring over him from all directions. Anfilogov scooped it up when he wanted to make dinner, out of the smiling river; sunlight fell on Anfilogov through this beauty—through the branches, through invisible aerial nets—and the sun itself was transformed from the ordinary natural lamp you don’t look at into the focus of the beauty, a radiant object that irritated the nerves. The locale was infected, not to say irradiated, with beauty. White nights had come here, to the north end of the Riphean range; the day faded infinitely, and the sky was like the nacre of an open shell—wavy, like pale mother of pearl. Then came a spectral, shadowless twilight, and the red tent turned an unusual, somehow cosmic purple, and the sleeping river frothed gently, like an infant in swaddling clothes.
In the past, I’d have blamed the translator for the sometimes awkward writing, but in light of Jenny’s recent post on translation, I wonder how much of the problem with the writing is a fault of the translator and how much is in the Russian text.
Despite my issues with the writing, it’s not consistently bothersome enough to turn me off this book. It only means that the story or the characters need to be particularly exciting to make it worth the focused attention it requires. And they just aren’t. For me, what this book really lacks is passion. All the characters are so flat. Even Krylov and Tanya’s affair is depicted as something perfunctory, not something rooted in wild lust. I suspect this flatness is meant to be satirical in some way, but it’s a satire that I don’t think translates well. Such dull, passionless characters only really work for me when the narrator shows some spirit or humor, but the narration is just as flat as the characterization.
So, folks, I’m calling it. I’m not really hating it; I’m just filled with unconcern, and when there are so many books and so little time, a book that inspires nothing but apathy is a waste of my time.