“MINUS” by Roman Senchin, reviewed by Wendy Muzlanova.
The time is post-USSR. The place is the aptly-named town of Minus.
The book reeks authenticity and is autobiographical. Little wonder, then, that the author looks so god-damned miserable on the back cover…
Roman Senchin is an unfortunate Russian refugee from Kyzyl – “Several Russians were stabbed to death, and a lot more were just stabbed, including my father.”
He is the present-day Gorky. His book is not an easy ride. Spare him some sympathy, though. We might not like it, but at least we don’t have to live it.
However, just for the time being…
…you will experience Senchin’s life right there alongside him, drinking the same samogonka, the optimistically and romantically named “Gypsy Girl” – “I haven’t heard of anyone being seriously poisoned…”
The book, like the town itself, is claustrophobic and oppressive – “In Minusinsk, the rhythm is laboured and sluggish, like blood in old veins…”
This is not to say that you will not be thoroughly absorbed by the book. When you finally put it down, you may well be glad that you have, but it will leave you wondering about Senchin and all his friends, “Where are they now!?”
I know that I just cannot leave the story behind after the reading.
As you progress through the book, you will become Senchin. You will see his friends through his eyes – “His pinched little face looks like a thoroughly desiccated skull…” You will inhabit the same stinking, noisy, hopeless hostel. You will lust after the same girl and you will hope, always hope, that she will be there when you look for her. “I need to look into her eyes. I’ve needed to look into her eyes for a very long time.”
It’s a hugely voyeuristic journey into the life of a man. The object of Senchin’s desire – and she is very much an object – wears her hair in a green velvet band – “They sell them in the market at ten roubles for five.”
The author’s casual and understated reportage of domestic violence and homophobia in Minus says far more than hyperbole ever could. These things are simply a way of life.
“…she had a miscarriage with only a couple of months left to go. Perhaps Sanya overdid it one time he was drunk.”
“We’re wary of getting too pally with the male actors…because most of them are queers.”
Senchin himself was on the point of being seduced by one such “festive” thespian and recalls, “I didn’t punch Lyalin like you’re supposed to if you’re a man.”
Well, apart from wife-battering and gay-bashing, there are other, smaller cultural details which the non-Russian Slavophile will find fascinating.
On cards – “Lyokha, let’s play Durak.”
On “narkotiki” – “Actually, I like Kuzmich and Managa a whole lot better than taking a joint.”
On drinking – “I flick the side of my neck to indicate a need to imbibe.”
I am so glad that this is the only example of Russki Sign Language in this work. It could all have been so much nastier…and a whole lot ruder…
Buy the book. I recommend it wholeheartedly. There must be one “hard-to-buy-for” irritant remaining on your Christmas list. There always is…
(first published in the Scotland-Russia Review)
“The Sacred Book of the Werewolf” by Victor Pelevin, reviewed by Wendy Muzlanova
I like a man who can make me laugh. In his latest work, “The Sacred Book of the Werewolf”, Pelevin does just that. He made me laugh on the bus, he made me laugh at the breakfast table – he even made me laugh in bed. The book is a satirical delight.
Apparently, the entire text of the book was found on the hard drive of a laptop, which was found (or planted) at a crime scene – or so the story goes….
This is a tale (pun quite intended) of a beautiful woman who is really a fox – who is really quite something else yet again! She creates hallucinogenic illusions using her tail – a talent which comes in handy during the scrapes she gets into working as a Moscow Lady of the Night – “Flogging someone is hard work, even when the procedure is merely a hypnotic suggestion…”
Our poor heroine hails from China, but unfortunately, her beautiful given name does not translate well into Russian – “Something like living in America and being called Whatze Phuck….” The narrative voice of our leading lady, A Hu-Li, is particularly strong throughout the book – well, the poor girl does have to contend with several different aspects of her personality all having contradictory conversations with each other at the same time…
Throughout the book, there are many pop-culture/consumerism references. T-shirts bear the legend “ckuf” (sic) and James Bond, PlayStation and Jaguar all receive a passing nod, as do Gucci, CNN and “The Matrix”
At times I felt as though I was reading Russia’s answer to America’s Bret Easton Ellis, albeit a much funnier and more intelligent answer…
There are also many literary references. Blok, Nabokov, Tolstoy, Proust and Joyce all get a mention, but the heart of this novel is a philosophical one, Nietzsche and Berkeley being included alongside reams of Eastern thought and mythos. This book is a treat for the ponderer – “…character has to be trained during the difficult periods of life, when the meaning of doing it is not obvious. That’s when it does the most good” – and if you have a few spare hours, why not ruminate for a while upon the following? – “The cause of error by living beings is that they believe it is possible to cast aside the false and attain unto the truth. But when you attain unto yourself, the false becomes true, and there is no other truth to which one need attain after that.” Our philosophical fox has equally deep-minded siblings, one of whom counsels her about the West – “Do you know what the secret horror of life here is? When you buy yourself a blouse or a car, or anything else, you have in your mind an image, implanted by advertising, of some wonderful place you will go wearing that blouse or driving that car. But there is no such wonderful place anywhere, apart from in the advertising clip, and this black hole in reality is lamented by every serious philosopher in the West.”
Descriptions of the varied and interesting characters who populate the book are vivid and humorous – “a certain trapezoidal quality in the plebeian proportions of his features made his face look like the West’s cliché of its Cold War opponent. Movie characters of that kind usually drank a glass of vodka and then ate the glass as a snack…”
In the later portion of the book, the “super-werewolf” story-line takes over, alongside a poignant love story, alongside a fantastical oil-prospecting mini-tale. It is no surprise then that the overall feel of the book is a little over-stuffed and more than a little chaotic. All this and Norse mythology too – oh, and Russian folk tales as well…and…and…
Then again, what do I know? I’m just a monkey missing a tale…
(first published in the Scotland-Russia Review)
“Why be Polite to Strangers?” – excerpt first published by Streetcake magazine
Our stories are still unfinished.
The spirit of grain, the breath of seeds
not yet greened above the snow.
Her eyes keep strangers at bay.
Confused, aroused, I touch her.
Her hair is bathed in Geranium oil.
I breathe her in and capture her.
My mind is drowned in sweet of flowers
and the first time that I fucked that girl.
It’s much too soon to leave, too late to stay.
I need to write our lives again.
The pain and fear will be crossed out,
The Others all scored through.
Our words will stand in proudly bold,
our reasons will be underlined.
We always speak in secret code,
our bastard half-caste language
(“Geranium” is one of the new poems in the collection, “A Comedy of Torture” by Wendy Muzlanova, available from erbacce press or directly from me if you’d like a signed copy)