Monthly Archives: March 2014

Definitely Maybe – Boris & Arkady Strugatsky

Definitely Maybe - Arkady & Boris Strugatsky

Definitely Maybe:

A good read? Definitely.

As good as Roadside Picnic? Maybe.

I’ve already mentioned my obsession with Roadside Picnic, so you can imagine my joy at finding out that Melville House were going to publish another book by Boris & Arkady Strugatsky as part of their Neversink Library.

This new edition was published in the last month but I found out about it AGES ago. It was like the break in the fifth season of Breaking Bad. I tried to hustle an advanced reading copy, but they were having none of it. I had to wait like everyone else. With all of the anticipation, I couldn’t help wondering if Definitely Maybe could fill the boots of Roadside Picnic…

definitely maybe

No, not that one

When I finally picked it up (from my favourite bookshop, in person), the damnedest thing happened. Every time I sat down to read it, something or someone would interrupt me. It was almost as if the Universe didn’t want me to read it. A couple of days ago, I said ‘to Hell with you, Universe’, and jumped right in.

Set in Leningrad in the 70s, the story concerns Malianov, an astrophysicist working on a thesis about how stars react to gas clouds…or something. He has sent the wife and child off on holiday so that he can get a bit of research done. When he finally sits down to work, it isn’t long before he realises that he is onto something, something big, something worthy of a Nobel Prize. But then the damnedest thing happens…

The chain of interruptions that follows leads Malianov to meet up with other professors who are experiencing similar weirdness to varying degrees of severity and in curiously individual forms. They try to find a link between their diverse fields of study and when they fail, they try getting drunk instead.

What the…?

That doesn’t work either and just as the chaos whirls to a crescendo, something really strange happens without the vaguest hint of warning. About half-way through the book, something changes, stays changed and is never explained. I don’t want to spoil it, but you can’t miss it and it’s definitely one of those rare double-take moments.

But, maybe that’s a little on the cryptic side.

definitely maybe

not that one either

To get back to the concrete business of what the book is actually about, it’s a story about a man who accidentally stumbles across something unimaginably powerful and has to decide between realising his lifelong ambitions and losing everything he has ever loved. The story itself has the pace and the mystery of a conspiracy thriller and it’s delivered with deadpan, defeatist humour, all without losing the cloud of certain doom.

I approached this book with one question on my mind – how does Definitely Maybe compare with Roadside Picnic? They both deal with humanity’s futility in the face of unknown powers. The message in both books is clear – we are all insignificant specks in a universe that doesn’t care about us, ignorant primates who only climbed out of the trees a few thousand years ago, hopeless playthings of vastly more intelligent beings.

It’s definitely not all bad though. In the world of Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, we encounter wonders equally fascinating and terrifying. Like a chimpanzee trying to work a landmine out, these alien artefacts could kill us at any moment, but we are still compelled to understand them. However, like poor Malianov, even the merest fraction of insight could come at a terrible cost.

Okay, maybe it is pretty bad, but that doesn’t change the fact that these stories are fantastic in every sense of the word. So give Definitely Maybe a go – it’s a bit left-field, a bit obscure, but you’ll read it in a couple of days…unless you get interrupted.

The Queue – Vladimir Sorokin

The queue - vladimir sorokin

The Queue – Vladimir Sorokin

NYRB

Looking for a short, experimental, soviet-era novel? We-he-hell, look no further!

The Queue by Vladimir Sorokin is set in Russia as the Soviet economy is stagnating into entropy. Commodities are hard to come by so whenever something good shows up, everybody rushes to buy it. I think it used to be a kind of joke back then that anyone who saw a line of people would naturally join it. It got to the point where nobody would buy anything from a shop that didn’t have a queue outside, assuming that the shop had nothing worth queueing for. People would stand in line all day to buy things they didn’t even need and, in a lot of cases, they didn’t even have to know what was at the other end.

And such is the case in The Queue. We’re never quite sure what everyone is expecting to buy and, generally speaking, neither are they. We get the occasional hint – it’s definitely American, it could be suede, they might have them in black – but all of these clues ultimately contradict each other so (spoiler alert) you never find out what’s so damned special that it attracts over a thousand hopeful Russians.

Historical idiosyncrasies aside, the style of the novel does enough to confuse the reader by itself. I say ‘novel’, but it’s teetering on the edge of becoming a script. The book is written entirely in unallocated dialogue. As the story progresses, we leave one conversation without warning and drift into an argument further along the queue. One moment, we’re listening to two people flirting with each other, the next, someone is buying a drink from a stall. Imagine what it’s like to stand still, in the middle of the street with your eyes shut, listening to the voices passing by – that’s the best way I can describe the sensation of reading this book.

Although I found it at times disorientating, I think, as an experiment, the book is just perfect. Sorokin executes the idea with a good deal of stoic Russian humour and takes us on an almost Joycean journey through all aspects of human life. But, in my opinion, the most perfect thing about the book is its length – because, as rewarding as I found the book, I know that had it been any longer, I might well have lost my patience with it.

All that said, it’s definitely worth a go. The Queue is full of gimmicks and quirks that I’d never seen elsewhere (like leaving a number of pages blank when the characters are asleep) and it has one of the strangest sex scenes that literature has to offer.

And if that doesn’t sell it…

In closing, here’s a bunch of Soviet jokes about queueing that I found on the internet:


What is 150 yards long and eats potatoes?
A Moscow queue waiting to buy meat.


Why are Russian meat shops four miles apart?
So the queues don’t get tangled up.


A Soviet man is waiting in line to purchase vodka from a liquor store, but due to restrictions imposed by Gorbachev, the line is excessively long. The man loses his composure and screams, “I can’t take this waiting in line any more, I HATE Gorbachev, I am going to the Kremlin right now, and I am going to kill him!”

After 40 minutes the man returns, and begins elbowing his way back to his place in the vodka queue as the crowd looks on. They begin to ask if he has succeeded in killing Gorbachev, to which the man replies: “No, I got to the Kremlin, but the line to kill Gorbachev was far too long, so I decided to come back and wait for my vodka”.


Still not bored of queues in Soviet Russia yet?

You Should Know About Don Camillo

the little world of don camillo giovannino guareschi penguin

The Don Camillo series – Giovannino Guareschi

You know what? You should know about Don Camillo and his adversary, Peppone. Don Camillo is the Catholic priest of a little village in Italy’s Po Valley – his ‘little world’. When we first meet Don Camillo, it is in an Italy trying to find its identity again after the Second World War. The eponymous priest is himself based on Don Camillo Valota, a priest who fought the Nazis as a partisan and was detained in Dachau and Mauthausen.

The fictional Don Camillo is enormous and “about as graceful in his movements as a division of armoured cars”, with hands like shovels and size 12 shoes. His physical immensity is matched by his personality which is by turns playfully mischievous and furiously vengeful. Like all priests, he talks to Jesus and has a particularly good relationship with the crucifix in his chapel – because this Jesus talks back.

The Communist mayor of the town, Peppone, is equally Don Camillo’s bitter political nemesis and his trusted friend and the dynamic between the pair is brilliant. Don Camillo, although a man of God, is not averse to committing little sins if it means thwarting Peppone’s ludicrous, politically charged schemes. Peppone isn’t blessed with Don Camillo’s intelligence but whatever he lacks, he makes up for in a militant belief in Russia, Lenin and the People. He’s a man with big ambitions and, as the mayor of the town, a man of influence. Sure, he’s an idiotic and quick-tempered communist but he’s well liked – so he must be doing something right.

Despite their political differences, the pair have a deep respect for each other – one they unsuccessfully try to mask. In many of the stories, they have to declare a temporary ceasefire in order to look after the interests of the town and, with a duo like Don Camillo and Peppone protecting it, the town is in danger only of farce.

Written and illustrated by Giovannino Guareschi, the first of the Don Camillo stories appeared in Candido magazine, in December, 1946, a couple of days before Christmas. It was so popular that Guareschi was bombarded with letters from fans demanding that he write more.

They’re like that in Italy.

the little world of don camillo giovannino guareschi penguinOn the whole, each story involves some farcical situation, usually sparked off by the latest mischievous episode in the ongoing feud between Don Camillo and Peppone. Having been born and raised in the region, Guareschi evokes post-war rural Italy perfectly. I wasn’t around the Po Valley at the time, mind you, but you can’t disguise the genuine article.

The stories can be read individually, if you like, but they blend together quite nicely. They were first published in English by Gollancz in the 50s as gorgeous little hardbacks. They’re ridiculously hard to find but I’ve tracked down two Penguins from the 60s and 70s so they’re probably easier to get hold of.

I’ve only recently come to learn of Don Camillo and it’s a perfect example of a series I should have known about. Sadly, it has faded into obscurity a little. I think anyone who has had the pleasure would agree that these books deserve to be read by everyone.

In the 50s and 60s, a series of five films were released starring French comic actor, Fernandel in the title role. Like the books, the movies are fantastic, but a nightmare to find in the real world although you can pick them up online for a small fortune. The first movie is available on Amazon for £15-£22 but take my word for it – it’s money well-spent.