Apollon Grigoriev Award of the Russian Academy of Literature, 2004
Rights sold to: Romania - S.C HUMANITAS S.A, Russia - VagriusThe hero of Alexander Kabakov’s novel is a man already well into adulthood who lives his life anew, going back through his small-town childhood during the Stalin years, his flirts with new freedoms as a youth during the Khrushchev thaw years in Moscow and through to today, where the sweet taste of freedom is intertwined with disappointment, lies, broken friendships and the bitterness of betrayal. The subtitle of this novel (Chronicle of a private life) fully describes its ideas; firstly, it’s the life of the country in the second part of the last century, secondly, fifty years of life of a private person in the country which was called the USSR and then Russia.
We meet the protagonist when, at the age of twelve, he suddenly becomes a witness and a participant of the tragedy of the ordinary Soviet family. The end of 1952 and the beginning of 1953, we see the antisemitism, and the death of Stalin - all these events seem to be far from a secret town where military men and prisoners live together and work together on the development of a secret weapon. But Soviet power has long fingers and can reach anyone. The night before the Communist party meeting the main character’s father, a military engineer, committed suicide and the world around the boy fell apart - he became a half orphan, left for Moscow with his mother to settle down with his uncle who had spent six months as a prisoner in the camps. At the age of thirteen Mikhail Saltykov matured before his time ñ he came to an understanding of the hostility of the state system where he had to survive, to look after his mother and to care for his life-long love.
The student youth of Mikhail Saltykov may seem to an outside observer to be full of wayward entertainments, outrageous recreations and parties with friends which he enjoyed from his school years into his old age, fartsovka (selling foreign clothes on the black market), wild love affairs.
But actually by that time this person had become a fully formed survivalist - with fartsovka money he supported his family, cared for his friends and relatives as much as he could and tried to build up a fortress to hide away from the cruel world of Khruschev’s melting, where the system fought against abstract artists and other outcasts. But the protagonist, like his father before, was caught by the system ñ and he was forced to hide away from KGB recruitment in the army.
The third book is about the maturity and old age of Mikhail. By the time of Gorbachev’s perestroika he had become a Ph.D, a chief of research in a scientific institute. An ordinary Soviet family, ordinary Soviet pals and bottle sharers, an ordinary Soviet adultery. But all the changes arose in Mikhail Saltykov his natural inclinations and energy - together with his friends he starts a business venture and eventually becomes a rather rich man and one of the bosses of an oil company, not too big but prospering. But life is hard on those who have never had any goal but survival - people who are young and ruthless wipe him out of business and once again at the twilight of his life his hopes are destroyed. His wife though tortured by his unfaithfulness remains with him but isolates herself in silence, his son becomes more and more distant too.
The finale of survivalism is an old people home, which is rather comfortable but still is an apotheosis of loneliness.
And only a thin line is connecting the old man to his life – it’s his wife’s hand. The woman who he has betrayed so many times has never forgiven him but stayed by his side up to the end. They are sitting together staring at the darkness outside, their life has passed but nothing is lost while you have a hand to hold on to.