The Morning News has decided to play Reading Roulette with six Russian authors, shooting a new one into the American blogosphere each month. And because I can't get enough of translation,
I'll be writing about this year's selections — and linking to each
story so you can read it yourself. Fourth up is Olga Slavnikova and her
Slavic satire, "A Light Head."
As the Reading Roulette stories have shown, Russia as a whole teems with warring texts and subtexts,
bald-faced lies and withheld truths, and dark explorations of the mind/body divide. There's precedent enough: the narrator of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment obsesses over the split between his easily cleansed body and his vile, intractable mind; Dmitri Medvedev insists that democracy reigns even as an election rife with fraud ushers his predecessor, Vladimir Putin, back into the presidency and two Pussy Riot members remain in jail.
Olga Slavnikova has given us an early section of her novel A Light Head. What makes the eponymous head and its bearer, Maxim T. Yermakov, so special? The fact that, more or less, “it wasn't there”; we learn that this head bears an “apparent lack of all physical boundaries.” His head isn't invisible — there are descriptions of his cheeks and eyes — but he weighs four kilos less than he should, since it isn't clearly on his shoulders. And at the end of this excerpt, he's told by government agents: “Your head happens to cause a certain slight, just a tiny, little disturbance in the gravitational field.” The ramifications aren't particularly pleasant.
Body parts have a special place in Russian literature, from the disembodied proboscis in Gogol's The Nose to the decapitated head in Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. Assuming Maxim's head is divided from the rest of his body, Maxim T. Yermakov is starting to sound an awful lot like the Russia we know.
But Maxim T. Yermakov wants something different. He doesn't yearn for a resolution between his mind and his body. He isn't particularly bothered by his head's vague absence. “He insists on his freedom and his rights,” Olga Slavnikova says in the subsequent interview, “even just the right to live.” This is an idea that could only be articulated in Russian after the fall of the USSR and Communism as a foundation of morality.
Olga Slavnikova has already made a name for herself with 2017 and by directing the Debut Prize, which brings promising young Russian writers to an international audience. It almost seems like she's found the freedom her protagonist so deeply desires. Maybe A Light Head will give her country another small push past the vexations of the mind/body divide.
image credit: quartier-latin.fr
By Jeffrey Z.