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Sunday 20 February 2011

Living Souls


Think of the wonderful circles in which our whole being moves and from which we cannot escape no matter how we try. The circler circles in these circles. – E. T. A. Hoffmann

Living Souls has the feel of a sprawling Russian epic novel – even the abridged English translation is 439 pages long (the original was 685 pages) – but it really isn’t; War and Peace (1440 pages) it is not, nor is it And Quietly Flows the Don (992 pages) or Doctor Zhivago (592 pages) but it does owe a debt of gratitude to all three and certainly follows in their footsteps. Tolstoy wrote about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, Sholokhov focuses on World War I which is also covered by Pasternak along with the Russian Revolution, and the subsequent Russian Civil War. Bykov’s novel, set roughly fifty years in the future, deals with what he imagines the next Russian Civil War might be like.

At the moment because of the oil situation in the world Russia is quite well off but what if an alternative fuel source is discovered? Bykov suggests that something called Phlogiston is discovered and the demand for oil shrivels up overnight, so much so that the populace end up eating synthetic food made out of the stuff. War brings no tangible results but it is a distraction. Unlike George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four, to which this book tips its hat (he even borrows “Lies are truth, slavery is freedom” at one point), the reasons for the state Russia finds herself in are never clearly and concisely explained. There is much political discussion but it would have been nice to have been provided with something equivalent to Emmanuel Goldstein’s book that laid out things in a dispassionate fashion.

While set in the future you could never call this novel ‘science fiction’ although there is a touch of magical realism about the book, especially towards the end, and it is written with a satirical edge that inevitably conjures up the likes of Bulgakov even if the English title is more of a nod to Gogol than anyone else. Living Souls was not the original title of the work. It was ЖД which Google Translate renders as Railway. Railways are discussed at length in the book – they’re trying to build a single track that will encircle the whole of Russia for one thing as is illustrated on the cover of the original Russian edition (circles also crop up all the time and it’s impossible not to think of Dante’s circles of hell bearing in mind that the first part of Dead Souls was intended to represent the Inferno of a modern-day Divine Comedy) – but I can also see why, in her review in The Times, Elaine Feinstein suggests that the title would be more accurately translated as Zh.D “which suggests that Jews (Zhydy) are his principal target.”[1] This is perhaps borne out by an earlier translator’s decision to render ЖД as Jewhad – Francis Greene translated two episodes from the book for Glas[2] – but it is not as simple as that. Jews certainly crop up in the book as ‘Jews’, ‘Khazars’ and ‘Yds’ (presumably a contraction of ‘Yids’) but they are not its primary focus any more than the ‘Joes’ (a peripatetic band of men and women suffering from something called Vasilenko Syndrome) or the ‘natives’ the supposed true heirs to Russia.

Bykov goes out to court controversy and stimulate discussion, as can be seen in his recently published novel Zh.D., taken from two Russian letters of the alphabet: ‘It's going to be fiercely Russophobic and fiercely anti-Semitic,' he said just before the novel's publication. He went on, ‘It depicts both Russians and Jews as virus nations, which bring misfortune and decay to whatever they're trying to colonize. It's the best book I've ever written, it's actually the best book that can possibly be written today, and it's very, very funny.'[3]

Since this is the only thing by him I’ve read I can’t speak as to whether it’s the best thing he’s ever written but it is frequently humorous and many of its characters, albeit the minor ones, are quite preposterous. “To be fair, some of the humour bases itself on cultural in-jokes which do not easily make sense to the casual Western reader.”[4] There were several places I could tell there was something going on that I simply wasn’t getting.

Nick Harkaway met Bykov in Russia (and later interviewed him in the UK) and describes him as follows:

Bykov is elemental; a huge man with a huge voice and huge passion. In Russia he’s basically a rockstar – radio host, biographer of Pasternak, novelist, poet, TV personality… he’s a kind of cross between Melvyn Bragg and Bob Geldof; a cultural force who takes delight in causing outrage to enlighten.


I can’t help but hear an echo of P G Wodehouse’s Vladimir Brusiloff[5] in the assertion that it’s the best possible book in the world – and since Bykov reads Wodehouse, that’s not so far-fetched.[6]

ЖДIn a review of the book in Glas they also suggest that the title “could be tentatively rendered as ‘A.D.’ in English”[7] and the simple fact is that I would be hard pushed myself to come up with a single pithy title that encapsulates this book. I don’t think it tries to do too much. I just don’t think it does it (at least in translation) too well and a number of other reviewers suggest it would benefit from the ministrations of a good editor. I’m not going to argue but I would have been happy with a dramatis personæ, a map and a glossary.

I did an unusual thing when I got about 100 pages into this book. I stopped and looked it up on Google and read several reviews just to see if they were as confused as me. I was seriously considering abandoning the book there and simply talking about what I’d read. I’m glad I didn’t but I can’t pretend the book wasn’t hard work either. I said it wasn’t a science fiction novel and it’s not but the two things I can think to compare it too are: Dune (the 608-page book, not the David Lynch film) and Babylon 5. To fully appreciate both of these takes time to get to know the various races, their ethics, politics, religious beliefs and complex histories and Living Souls is no different. For starters, although Russians are mentioned in the book, the two rival factions are actually the Varangians and the Khazars and what made understanding where these groups had arisen from hard is that it was members of both groups talking to each other who told the story and each had its own bias. So it was hard to gain an objective perspective of what happened between now and then.

According to Bykov, since the seventh century Russia has been moving in a vicious circle consisting of revolution – tyranny – thaw – chaos – a new revolution, which is repeated again and again in Russian history. And behind both the disasters and the apparent achievements there is an opposition of two forces tearing Russia apart: the “Varangians” (or “Northerners”) and the “Khazars” (or “Southerners”), both invaders of Russian territory alternatively taking the upper hand and overthrowing the other.[8]

One woman describes them as “the Iron and the mad” and those aren’t altogether inaccurate titles.

The ruling Varangians are Odin-worshipping, Nazi-minded nationalists (they claim to be of Nordic/Aryan extraction) whose army (a semi-ecclesiastic system with seven distinct levels of initiation chained to an intentionally confusing Rulebook) considers stupidity a virtue and incorporates regular executions of their own soldiers to boost morale; they symbolise everything the West associates with Stalinist Russia. Priest-Captain Ploskorylov’s image of the typical soldier was a man whose “sole purpose … was to march as quickly as possible to his end, [a man] more afraid of his own side than his opponent’s.”

The Khazars, “Southern Russians bolstered by Jews and liberals exiled from Moscow, hark back to the Khazar Kaganate, a Caucasian kingdom that flourished between the 7th and 10th centuries AD, and converted to Judaism around the turn of the 9th.”[9] On the surface it might seem we have the good guys versus the bad but the Khazars are morally corrupt and represent the worst aspects of Western capitalism. They also have a book of rules, the Alternative Guidebook, which held that “any idea could take hold, however far-fetched, and would soon become the only one possible:

Point 1. No one knew what had happened.

Point 2. All sources were to some extent falsified.

Point 3. There was no truth, only a series of asymptomatic approximations.

Point 4. If something appeared to be true, it meant it wasn’t.

Point 5. Forget everything you’ve read and march onwards.”

The core difference between the two is explained by Major Volokhov, a former historian and an erudite, who I’ll talk more about later:

Your northern friends want to build an empire. There’s plenty of positive empire-building in history, but there's no truth or justice with these ones: their imperialism is about smashing others and grabbing for its own sake. Our Khazar friends aren’t building an empire of course, oh no, they’re building a corp… corporation, and a corporation has one simple principle, to be eff…efficient, that’s it.


Then there is the original population, the ‘natives’ as they tend to be called by both sides, or ‘Wolves’, exemplified by but not restricted to the Joes, a meek and tolerant people, the keepers of folk wisdom, who appear quite indifferent to the goings-on and in general seem able to adapt to whatever either side throws at them. They speak their own secret language which uses the same Russian words but assigns different meanings to the words making it sound as if they’re talking nonsense. At times they are preserved and looked after (some of the Joes being ‘adopted’ almost like pets) or, during food shortages when people can’t afford to be as charitable, culled.

There is another possible meaning to the title. In the book there are two villages mentioned, Zhadrunovo and Degunino. The latter is being constantly taken and retaken by either side because of the fact it magically never ran out of supplies – I’m being literal here; it has a magic stove and a magic apple tree. The book opens with the Varangians under Captain Gromov taking the village for the twelfth time and without a fight because its previous occupiers, having eaten their fill, have now scarpered. The war is now in its third year and “[n]either side could be bothered to kill the other, and both tried desperately to avoid fighting, unable to live together but ashamed to pack up and go home.” Zhadrunovo is a very different place. It’s said if you go there you won’t return although no one is sure if this is because you can’t escape from its clutches or don’t want to. Either way these are the two goals that most of the book’s main protagonists end up heading towards, some to engage in the Final Battle, the date of which has already been agreed in advance by the Varangian and Khazar generals, others to find escape.

The book doesn’t have a cast of thousands but I bet there are a couple of hundred people wandering through its pages – at least. The blurb on the back highlights four couples:

Against this rich backdrop of events, Living Souls follows the lives of four couples struggling to escape the chaos and stupidity of the war around them: a teenage girl who adopts a homeless man, a poet turned general separated from his lover, a provincial governor in love with one of the natives, and a legendary military commander who is sleeping with the enemy.

These are:

Vasily Ivanovich and Anka

Vasily Ivanovich is a Joe. The Joes were once called bomzh, meaning ‘of no fixed abode’, because one of the symptoms of so-called Vasilenko Syndrome is an urge to wander aimlessly. In one of the book’s flashbacks we go back to a time when the Joes were being “treated and sterilised [and sent] from the shelters to stay in people’s homes.” Anka has finished her sixth year with top marks and a certificate of merit and as a reward her mother offers her the choice of:

…a week in Crimea or a trip to Beijing Disneyland, where you got a load of free plastic toys that broke the first day so you didn’t have to take them home. But she refused both holidays: she wanted a Joe.

After complying with the bureaucratic requirements the family visit the shelter to pick their Joe. She chooses a man in his mid-thirties:

“He’s a very good patient, he’s been with us for two years,” Maria Stepanova [the Director] said, unembarrassed by his presence and by the sudden silence. “He’d forgotten most things when he came here, but now he knows everything. He can read the newspaper!” she added proudly, as though reading the newspaper was a gift bestowed only on the lucky few.

The two bond immediately. She takes him for walks. He tells her stories of which he seems to have an unending supply. Through spending time with Vasily Ivanovich she (and we) begin to get some insight into this strange subculture. When they meet other Joes in the street they often engage in brief interchanges but although Anka understands the words she has no idea what they’re saying to each other.

By the time Anka reaches fifteen things have changed. The country is now at war and the Joes are being exterminated. Vasily Ivanovich has to leave but in order to see him safely to his destination she decides to travel with him. This is necessary because he is quite incompetent. In fact his only talent apart from story telling is making intricate little boxes though he proves useless at any other task; even hammering nails in tasks him.

The two set out for Degunino.

Gromov and Masha

Captain Gromov, formerly a poet and philologist, is the first character we meet in the book. He is in command of the troop that retakes Degunino for the twelfth time although all that’s really on his mind is the fact that in three days he will be on leave and can return home to Makhachkala to reunite with his beloved Masha. But before he can be free he is given one final assignment: Colonal Zdrok orders him to escort one Private Voronov to the village of Koposovo where Voronov has instructions to execute a man and a woman although it’s a long time before we realise whom.

On their travels the pass through Blatsk, a remote town in the north of the county where all the crooks had congregated, and spend a night in a monastery with some unusual monks who appear to have some kind of sixth sense. They know, for example, about Voronov’s mission:

About the girl and the official you mean? Not much, just that there’s an old curse that if a native loves a Khazar or a Varangian they’ll have a child who’ll be the end of the world. It sounds absurd but absurd things can happen. For me it’s all wrapped up in mystery. Christianity demand so much of us that we’ve lost all our old mystical knowledge, all the pagan deities and magic. But people knew many things before Christianity, and in some places they still do. There are prophecies and spells and all sorts of nonsense, and it’s quite possible your Gurov has some understanding of them. But he’s an ordinary man, and he's not looking in the right places.

So who exactly is Voronov supposed to kill? Well, interestingly there are two candidates: Asha or Zhenka.

Borozdin and Asha

Asha, the native mistress of Borozdin, the governor of a distant Siberian tribal area, is pregnant. On discovering that Borozdin is a Varangian she goes into a panic and then into hiding. The reason is because of a prophecy:

She had told him the legend from the time of Rurik, of a man from the North who would sleep with a Wolf-girl, and their child would destroy the equilibrium of the two gods, and history would no longer run in a circle. The natives couldn’t let the child be born. The few who had known about them had tolerated their relationship, but as soon as Asha went to her grandmother to tell her she was pregnant … the natives’ bush telegraph began buzzing with rumours of the Governor’s lineage.

The two end up fleeing to her aunt who lives in Degunino.

Volokhov and Zhenka

The other woman who may well be carrying the Antichrist is a Khazar girl Zhenka Dolinskaya, who is a political commissar in the Khazar army. She is pregnant to Major Volokhov who is leading his partisan detachment – his “slowly awakening souls” – around Russia, like Moses, in order to retrain them into freedom-loving individuals, who will start a new nation. Their ultimate goal is Zhadrunovo.

The climax of the book is the Final Battle during which the troops engage in manoeuvres specifically designed to “regulate the flow of soldiers without any risk to themselves, at a safe distance from the fighting.” But there is a third force that isn’t interested in simply playing at war: the Earth itself joins in with the battle. And this is where the end of the book gets a little strange, with the appearance of mythical birds: Finist, the bright-winged falcon; the Phoenix; Sirin, the bird of joy, with the Gamaunhead and chest of a beautiful woman and the body of an owl; Alkonost, the bird of paradise and Gamayun, the prophetic bird of wisdom along with other talking animals. Has the story descended into fairy tale or have fairy tales risen up when they are most needed? I don’t have a good answer to that.

The book is in two parts, ‘Departure’, consisting of four chapters and an interlude, and ‘Arrival’ which is fourteen chapters long followed by an epilogue. It is interesting how a few times characters in the book talk about not the imminent end, although that’s also used, but an impending beginning, as if it is almost time to for history to start repeating itself again. This, of course, means that there is a lot left hanging at the end of the book but with circles there are no ends and so that had to be expected.

On the front cover of the Alma Books edition there is a quote from Elaine Feinstein: “A Catch-22 for modern Russia.” I can see why she might say that but as she herself points out “there is no character as likeable as Yossarian” for us to root for. For my money there were too many characters and too many of them had similar-sounding names; it got confusing. Of course one has to wonder how much of the problem can be laid at the door of the translator? On her blog translator Lisa Hayden who has also read the book in its original form had this to say:

The Living Souls translator, Cathy Porter, told me in e-mail correspondence that, in collaboration with Bykov, she didn’t chop but chose to prune things like repetition and untranslatable Russian word play, to keep the narrative moving without losing the book’s humour and poetry. Porter said Bykov, who encouraged a free translation, thoroughly appreciates her tightening of the text.[10]

Her overall opinion of the book corresponds with my own: “Great idea. Messy execution.” In that respect the adjective ‘sprawling’ does fit the book well. She also wonders if Bykov “couldn’t decide if he wanted to write essays or a novel” and I agree with her there too. There are lengthy bouts of exposition, some masquerading as conversations that make you feel like you’re attending a lecture rather than reading a novel for fun. It does feel as if he’s been determined to make use of every scrap of his research and touch on every aspect of Russian culture, past, present and future. What bothered me the most is that after wading through some of these conversations I found I wasn’t any the wiser. I’m sure if I had the time, energy and interest to read the book from the start I might get a lot more out of it. That is not a criticism. Who said the mark of a good book was a full understanding after one quick read? The main criticism levelled at it by the Financial Times was that “you almost need to be Russian to understand it,”[11] but having read the comments made by a couple of native Russians I’m not sure the answer is quite that simple.

Yes, there is much doom and gloom in this book, a society on its knees, where TV programs never use words longer than two-syllables, when they watch gladiatorial contests and ‘Joes’ doing tricks, where the government taxes the very language they use so that the newspapers have to misspell things or invent new words so they can afford to keep in business. But there is a ray of hope:

You can divide any society in the world into the Varangians and Khazars. You see it all over the place – the Kaganate in Gaza, the States under Bush, the French in Algeria. But people always find something bigger than their differences, It’s the same with men and women, so that the human race will survive. Everywhere else in the world people find something more important than what divides them.


Dmitry_BykovBorn in 1967 and one of the most prolific of modern Russian writers, in recent years Bykov has gained some recognition for his biography of Boris Pasternak, published in 2005. The biography broke with prior works in its account of Doctor Zhivago, and it earned Bykov the 2006 National Bestseller and Big Book awards. He later wrote biographies of Makim Gorky and Bulat Okudzhava.

To date Bykov has written eight novels and clearly has a fondness for dystopian fiction: Acquittal, his personal favourite, is an alternative history of Russia; Orthography is an intense personal saga set in revolutionary Russia and The Evacuator is a morality parable posing as an anti-utopia. Bykov's latest novel, The List, is the first instalment of a proposed grotesque fantasy trilogy. The protagonist, a young TV scriptwriter, suddenly finds himself on a secret list which includes, in addition to him, 180 other Muscovites aged 16 to 60. Nobody knows who, or what, has put them on this list. Fear, humiliation, hopes, rumours and the ghosts of the noughties – all find their way into this novel, part-thriller, part-fable and part-political satire.

As a journalist and critic, Bykov has been writing for the magazine Ogoniok since 1993. He has also periodically run a show on the radio station Echo of Moscow, running at least until early 2008. Earlier, he was one of the hosts of an influential TV show Vremechko.

In 2009, Bykov was named assistant editor-in-chief of the weekly magazine Profile. He is also the editor-in-chief of the monthly literature-focused magazine What to Read.


[1] Elaine Feinstein, Living Souls by Dmitry Bykov’, The Times, March 13, 2010

[2] Glas 40

[3] Academia Rossica

[4] Gordon Weetman, Living Souls by Dimitry Bykov’, The Literateur, April 1, 2010

[5] Minor character in ‘The Clicking of Cuthbert’

[6] Nick Harkaway, ‘In Conversation with Dmitry Bykov’,, April 14, 2010

[7] Live Souls (ZhD), Glas

[8] Live Souls (ZhD), Glas

[9] Paul Engles, Living Souls by Dimitry Bykov’, Book Geeks, July 22, 2010

[10] Lisa Hayden, Going Round and Round: Bykov’s ЖД, Lizok’s Bookshelf, April 13, 2010

[11] Paul Gould, Living Souls, Financial Times, April 5, 2010


Sangu Mandanna said...

I love a good dystopia and this sounds especially relevant and intriguing. Thanks for the great description and analysis, Jim!

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

I enjoyed this review. The book sounds like it has some interesting characters, but I’m afraid that it may be beyond my attention span these days.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks, Sangu. I’m the same. In fact I’ve just written a review of another one for you to look forward to. The real problem with dystopias these days is that so many have now tackled the subject that every one seems derivative when the simple fact is that when a society collapses it’s always the same things that go. The reason for the collapse will be different but the results will often we strikingly similar. The real question facing an author is where in the time stream to jump into the fray, near the beginning, as in this book, or at the very end, as in The Road.

And, Jane, yes, it’s a bit on the long side – thank God we have a condensed version in English – and it does take a while to see what’s happening – having four distinct stories plus a history lesson is a lot to take in – but I do like his take on Russia’s possible future. Like all good imagined futures it rests on a single event, in this case the discovery of a new fuel source – in Children of Men, for example, it’s the inability to procreate and in The Man in the High Castle it’s a change in the result of WWII – and that’s something that’s totally believable. What I personally with struggled were with the magic realist elements. He handles them well enough but they weren’t to my taste. As I was saying to Sangu I’ve just read another book which is much shorter which may be more to your taste but it’ll be a wee while before I post it as I’m getting my stockpile back to what it was before I took my break.

Dave King said...

I think I must get this book. Th five points you mention sound like a possible jumping off point for some more existential literature! Next to which (probably) I appreciate magic realism. If I read you aright, I have only read one or two books a s good as this in the last year or two. A great critique. thanks for it.

Jim Murdoch said...

I don't think you'd be wasting your money, Dave. Think of it as a flawed masterpiece. There are some great ideas in here and I bet I only got a fraction of them. Without putting in the research for instance I really wouldn't have appreciated the relevance of the book's odd title for instance. The magic realism elements don't really come into play until towards the end of the book but they felt appropriate although again I think a Russian would have got a lot more from them.

Art Durkee said...

I've read enough dystopias to last a lifetime; it's just porn by this time, the pornography of despair. As you say, they're all very strikingly similar in the end.

This author reminds me of Julian Schnabel: occasionally a gifted artist, but his real genius is at self-promotion, and at performing Himself. he's always "on stage," always performing and promoting himself, no matter what else he's doing.

Jim Murdoch said...

I think a lot of people who've read the classic dystopias might be a little disappointed with this one, Art, because it's really more of a future history than anything else. I do have another more traditional dystopia coming - sorry.

Art Durkee said...

You're right, Jim, I HAVE read most of the classic dystopias, years ago, and indeed, most of the classic apocalyptic literature, too. I think you and I talked about this when you reviewed "The Road," that I saw nothing original in it, only derivations. That's because I've been reading science fiction, and its post-apocalyptic genre, since I was a teenager. Most of the recent stuff just doesn't hold up, in my opinion, as anything new or different. Sorry to sound jaded, but there is an issue of freshness to any literary genre or sub-genre; if you keep seeing the same ideas and scenes getting recycled again and again, it becomes all just variations on a familiar theme.

At this point, I don't care about any more variations on the theme of the end of the world—that's actually a very popular and easy genre to write about. Perhaps too easy. i'd love to see a fresh take on what happens after the end of the end of the world, about rebirth and regeneration, about life going on, not all this near-pornographic fascination with the fall and destruction. The best example that comes to mind, at the moment, about fresh starts after the end of the world, is John Crowley's "Engine Summer." Which is also one of the most sublime, beautiful novels I've ever read, BTW.

Jim Murdoch said...

That's the thing here, Art, this is not an apocalypse, not the end of life as we know it. The point I think Bykov is trying to make here is about the cyclical nature of Russia's history and that what he's proposing in his book is inevitable in some form but so it the restitution of the 'true Russians' at the end of it. I think perhaps that's why he incorporates the magic realist / fairy-tale elements into the book.

I've just read In the Country of Last Things by Paul Auster and these books are poles apart. Living Souls certainly has its faults and its biggest one is that it's really only going to make sense to Russians and probably well-read Russians at that, them and Professors of Russian History.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely absorbing, Jim, and another sale! Like Sangu, I'm always up for a convincing dystopia and this looks to fit the bill. I'm also a sucker for the mighty Russian epic - Sholokhov was a major discovery for me in my teens. Amazon again. But this time I'm sending you the bill!

Jim Murdoch said...

It does sound like this is a book you’d appreciate, Dick, despite its failings. Personally I’m not a fan of the epic and I don’t think I’ve ever finished a novel over 500 pages in my life. This book felt quite intimate actually – there are no protracted descriptions of battles which I would have ended up skimming or skipping over completely – there are, however, many conversations in rooms with just two or three people present and I think that’s why I managed to stick with it. That all they seemed to talk about was politics (both past and present) I could have done without personally but then I’ve never been passionate about politics.

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