ELKOST International Literary Agency

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Istemi

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Rights sold to: Italy - VOLAND, US/UK - Peter Owen

2011 Russian NOS literary Award nominee

 

In 1984 Kiev, during the last years of Soviet Union's existence, a group of bored tech University students invent a game similar to Civilizations (which became popular many years later, during the computer era), which takes place on the territories of Europe and Asia divided into five imaginary states, each given invented name, statistics, diplomatic strategy, industry, etc. Each of five players named himself a ruler of his state: Istemi,  Khagan of the Zaporizhian Khaganate; Charles XX, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire; Stephan Betancour, President of the Confederative Republic of Slovenia and Russia; Caliph El-Ali, President of  the United Islam Caliphates; and Undur Gheghen, Lama of the Great Mongolia.

In the absurd reality of the Soviet life, the KGB took an interest in the game, and by a bizarre twist of fate this determines players' destinies: after two months of interrogation in KGB headquarters they’re expulsed from the University. One of them later dies in combat in Afghanistan; another decides to wait out a storm in an asylum (just as Ken Kesey’s hero Randle McMurphy), and gets stuck there forever…

The imagination of Alexei Nikitin creates a curious blend of medieval and contemporary history, where the old imperial powers begin to produce nuclear weapons. The same fictitious names of countries demonstrate the carnivalesque character of this "civilization", designed more to combat the boredom than to overturn the world. Their game, being a story of alternative world history, is just a devious maneuver of players to escape the reality that has nothing to do with heroics of legendary times. But which of two civilizations is more "real"?

Twenty years later, in 2004, their abruptly discontinued game mystically resumes, and is taken up in quite different situations, and with very different consequences. The resurrection of the phantasmagoric play in post-Soviet reality creates a grotesque reflection between the two eras. Nikitin’s rich narrative style converts reader into sixth participant to the game. The plot, especially since the middle of the novel, is tinged with obvious shades "noir" that extends until its last pages. At the same time, lovely depictions of Kiev provide a backdrop to the plot, bringing a touch of romance into the tale of moments, where passion draws the imperceptible line between game and reality.

Alexey Nikitin’s ISTEMI is a true masterpiece of storytelling, a natural union of old-school precision and subtle but poisonous present-day literary trends. Expert reader will perceive Cortazarian atmosphere of uncertainty, Nabokovian touch of magical linking, Hemingwaian laconic definition, and Perez-Revertian mystifying intrigue. The rest will just enjoy its rapidly pacing plot with relentless suspense and underhand development of human characters and relations.