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Bush House writers in Wasafiri Literary Magazine

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 17:20 UK time, Thursday, 17 November 2011

Wasafiri, the contemporary international literary magazine, has devoted its latest issue to the writers that have come out of Bush House - the headquarters of the BBC World Service.

The first thing that I need to tell you is that our collective work 'E kabo dara ju e kule lo' has been published in that issue! Hurray!

There are also articles about the friendship between George Orwell and Mull Raj Anand; interviews with John Tusa, Zina Rohan and Anwar Hamid; articles about Caribbean literature; excerpts and poems by Zinoviy Zinnik, Annabel Dilke, Vesna Goldsworty, Gwyneth Williams and many other writers and poets that have worked for BBC World Service.

In the same issue, I've reviewed two Russian books. That review follows:

Late last year Vyacheslav Pyetsuh, one of Russia's leading writers, published his 'would-be Nobel Prize speech'.

In it he appeals to representatives of the entire world literature scene on behalf of Russian writers and argues that only Russian literature is committed to exploring the human soul, that only Russian authors are worthy of the Nobel Prize.

He recalls the names of Russian writers who had never received this award, and indeed the list is impressive: Leo Tolstoy, Maxim Gorky, Vladimir Nabokov, Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, Andrei Platonov, and many others, true literary giants.

From this point of view it is interesting to examine what is happening in contemporary Russian fiction, particularly beyond the works of well-known icons like Pelevin, Kurkov, Ulitskaya or Akunin. Two books have recently been published by two preeminent authors: Alexander Pokrovsky entitled 'Sea Stories' and Alexander Terekhov's 'Army Stories' and the second one - 'Squaring the circle' is a compilation of stories awarded the best-newcomer 'Debut' prize for novice writers under 25.

The books 'Sea Stories' - 'Army Stories' could be still considered as part of the Soviet literary canon, the events of both taking place in the Soviet Navy and Army. As for the events of the second book they occur in post-Soviet Russia. But there is something that unites both books and if I dare to bring their common denominator to a single word, it is - dysfunctionality.

Dysfunctionality between expectations and reality, ideas and life, and aspirations and results.
In 'Sea Stories' by Alexander Pokrovsky this dysfunctionality takes absurd, comical, and sometimes even tragicomic forms. Indeed - the Army and the Navy at the end of the Soviet era had become a sort of satirical metaphor for the entire Soviet system, left in the gap between utopian ideology and flawed lives. One-dimensional logic of army command which goes against the dismal reality of military life was the best reflection of the absurdity of Soviet life: 'What kinds of people live in the USSR? All are in hurry, but running late. All are poor, but the fridges are full. All talk against it, but vote 'FOR', etc...'

Alexander Pokrovsky served 20 years in the Navy, mostly on a nuclear submarine. Many of his stories are built on the principle of extended joke. Thus, in the story, 'I - Zverev' Captain Zverev who is on leave decides to visit a sauna, but on the way to the public baths he must cross the railway. By coincidence there is a military train at the stop, and Captain Zverev, feeling a certain solidarity with the army, decides to stop to talk with a soldier on the train, enquiring 'where are you coming from, where are you going to, what are you transporting, etc...'

The soldier, suspecting Zverev to be a spy, arrests him and passes onto his commanders. They lock the poor captain in one of the train carriages, while establishing his identity, but forget about him and the train takes off. In short, Captain Zverev finds himself at the other end of the Soviet Union without any documents; indeed, who would ever take documents along to the public baths? His epic continues through the local KGB and other military bodies. After a series of thousands of unfortunate events, this Kafkean situation is finally settled by the intervention of Zverev's relative, who at first does not recognize him as his nephew, he is so dishevelled.

Finally, when Zverev arrives at his village, he shows up to his own funeral, as the villagers, having searched for him for ten days in the river, decide that enough is enough and conduct his funeral.

If in this story Captain Zverev is the only victim, in other stories, the reader faces much bigger scales of concern; after all we are talking about a nuclear submarine. Thus, in the story 'On Science' a duty officer brings some new top-secret equipment onto the nuclear submarine, and before it's been documented, he leaves the box with a guard at the top of the boat. In a while the guard is replaced, then the controller of the boat comes, notes the unknown object next to the guard who knows nothing about it, shouts at him for the mess and throws the box into the ocean. A few minutes later the duty officer arrives back to the top of the submarine...

The same dysfunctionality, bordering on the absurd, could be seen in most stories of the 'debut'-prize winners. The book opens with a story of Alexey Lukyanov entitled 'High pressure'. The story starts with the crisis in Russia when radio, television, Internet, and other media suddenly cease to work. Life seems to stop. But there are some egg-heads, offering the production of transmitters of information working on steam - high-pressure transmitters. A provincial team that is at the centre of the story, duly begins production of these transmitters.

After a number of upheavals, when people in their incredible stress forget even the holy of holies - the Russian curse, when in the end even the disappointed government decides to emigrate to Trinidad and Tobago leaving its people behind, one of the characters exclaims: "We are f***ed up!" and suddenly, with these words, the pressure is restored in the steam system, life is restored to the country and order is restored to life...

In 'Squaring the circle' a motif of universal movement is added to the notorious dysfunctionality. Everything moves in the country, young people aimlessly travelling on the third shelf of sleeper trains, announced by the decree a "dwelling zone" (in 'Modern pastoral' by Igor Saveliev); Sveta, freed from prison, moves as she travels towards her home, learning that life behind the bars was more secure than in the wild ('Free' by Polina Klyukina); a student-narrator enters the Moscow underground to meet his dark glory after he decides to kill his girlfriend ('Another chance at fame' by Arslan Khasavov), a schoolteacher entangled in the confusing relationship with the mother of the 'dimwit' Vietnamese pupil (thereby identifying dysfunctionality of education) goes to Moscow ('Dimwit' by Polina Klyukina).

One can discuss at length the nature of Russian dysfunctionality and its place in the Russian literature. Since Gogol's 'Overcoat' (from which the entire Russian literature grew up by the famous expression of Dostoevsky), it mainly focuses on how to achieve harmony between the internal and external, between the body and overcoat, the spirit and life, and ideas and reality.

There is a constant metaphysical gap among the systems of ideology followed by the Russian public life, whether it's Middle Eastern Christianity, German Marxism, or Western consumerism, and the Russian natural mentality. Different ethnic groups have differently adapted the universal system of ideology to the conditions of their lives: the Iranians have mastered the Shia branch within Islam, the Central Asian nations transposed Islam in the local fashion through Sufism, whereas the English or Germans created local adaptations of Christianity in Anglican or Lutheran forms.

As for Russians, they profess mostly the very orthodoxy. So it was with Christianity, as was the case both with Marxism during the Bolsheviks, and now with consumerism. Is Russia finally ready and able not to be the 'third Rome', neither the 'Third Comintern', nor the 'third Dubai', but itself, when confronted with the fierce and beautiful outside world?

In my opinion, the three most powerful pieces in these two books are on this very subject. Along with the aforementioned 'Dimwit', I would single-out 'Salam, Dalgat' by Gulla Khirachev and the novella of Alexander Terekhov 'The story of lance-corporal Raskolnikov'. 'Salam, Dalgat' is a lively account of today's Dagestan, where the nomenclature corruption multiplies to result in social problems, unemployment matches the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, which interferes with the gadgets of modernity - Mercedes-Benz cars, prostitutes and drug addicts.

The story poses the question: which way will the young man Dalgat - Stephen Dedalus of Makhachkala choose? But whatever is happening today in Caucasus will dictate the future of the entire multinational Russia, that is the conclusion to which the author Alisa Ganieva, writing under the pseudonym of Gulla Khirachev leads us.

'The story of lance-corporal Raskolnikov' in its very title hints at the 'Crime and Punishment.' Several new recruits begin to serve in the Soviet Army and while they are still rookies, one of the soldiers steals money from his comrades. Raskolnikov publicly accuses an Uzbek - Zhusipbekov who though he strongly denies it, is sent to the worst military unit as punishment, where after some time he hangs himself. Subsequently it's found that not Zhusipbekov, but someone else had stolen money, and now the fate of the 'damned outcast' falls upon Raskolnikov. Until the very demobilisation, he remains an outcast-rookie, who is bullied by anyone who can be bothered. So when the narrator Maltsev is ready to be demobilized, someone sneaks up on him and his demob is postponed. Consequently the suspicion falls on Raskolnikov, whom Maltsev beats up and who confesses his wrongdoing. But in the end it turns out that the first time and the last time, not at all Raskolnikov, but a certain mate Barintsov who had already been discharged was the sneaking traitor...

Encountering the unknown outside world, looking at which you begin to discover and better understand yourself, and learn to understand your own various dysfunctionalities - isn't this the essence of the 'responsiveness to the world', which was highly praised in Pushkin's works by Dostoevsky? The best stories of those two books by 'Glas' are also about it.

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