Assassin of Reality continues the strange and wonderful story of Alexandra “Sasha” Samokhina begun in Vita Nostra (2018). In my review of the latter, I called it a “remarkable example of dark philosophical fantasy and psychological horror” (Foundation, 2019), and Assassin of Reality continues in this vein, extending Sasha’s story in unexpected ways and encouraging us as readers to question how we read both texts and our own place in the universe.
We’re thrown into confusion almost immediately in Assassin. The Sasha we thought we knew from the previous book gets into an accident on the highway at night, takes a cab to her mother’s house, and then encounters what appears to be her doppelganger, upon which she wakes up in her car just before it is struck by a bus, killing her. On the next page, we see another Sasha touring the crash scene and mourning for her other self. Given that this all takes place within the first ten pages, one would be forgiven for feeling disoriented. Indeed, disorientation is a hallmark of these two books, since Sasha is in a constant state of fluctuation, existing on the point of transforming from a human into a part of the Great Speech. We learn in Assassin that she is not simply a verb or a pronoun but a Password, one of the most powerful forces in the universe. As one of Sasha’s professors tells her near the end of the book,
[P]rojecting onto your predestination, Sasha … Singularity is a point that encompasses matter, information, gravity, inflation, the taste of honey, multiplication tables—in other words, everything—all in one place, time, and possibility. When you reverberate, you will condense the universe—not even into a pea, but into a mathematical abstract notion. (p. 193)
But back to the beginning … Sasha realizes that the version of her that was killed in the accident had rejected the offer of exploring her inner potential at the Institute of Special Technologies years before. That Sasha got married, had a child, divorced, and was moving on with her life as a regular human being. The Sasha that continues on in Assassin is the one that actually went to the Institute, apparently failed her final exam, and has lost several years. After leaving the scene of the accident and returning to the Institute, Sasha realizes that more time has passed than she even realized, and she’s thrown back into exams, classes, and mind-twisting pictures on whiteboards.
This time, however, she falls in love with a pilot (Yaroslav), and this love leads her to desperately do what she feels she must to keep him safe from the manipulations of her eerie and powerful advisor, Farit Kozhennikov. As we know from Vita Nostra, when students at the Institute fail their exams, their family members reap the consequences. Sasha is determined to do anything to keep Yaroslav safe, going as far as manipulating time in order to go back to the past and save his father from dying in a fire. Sasha’s constant fear that Farit will make Yaroslav die in a plane crash means that we read several times about Yaroslav’s plane crashing into the ground, only to read on the next page that he’s perfectly fine.
Time loops, physical transformations (Sasha sprouts wings a few times), doppelgangers—these elements make Assassin of Reality as potent and meaningful as Vita Nostra, but this time we see Sasha all the way through to her full transformation into a Singularity. So is she God? Is she a god? Is Farit God? Is this “reverberation” the thing we call “God”? The ambiguity is what makes Assassin so fascinating. It’s like when Stanisław Lem in His Master’s Voice (1968; tr. 1983) imagines the various ways that a signal from another life form or universe could travel into our universe. Who/what is the force behind the signal, and does it matter that we know the answer?
We might imagine these major questions as a glass jar containing the substance that is one of the most powerful forces in the universe—love. Love—familial, sexual, spiritual—cannot exist without the universe, but the universe would be a cold, dead place without it. Sasha may no longer be human by the end of Assassin, but she spends her time in the story worrying about those she loves—her mother, Yaroslav, her friends, even her instructors who take the fall for her actions. She warps time to save Yaroslav’s father, and then moves in with him to make sure he’s safe when Yaroslav is away for his job. Her hatred she reserves for Farit, despite knowing that he is the only one who can cure her of her deep fear and help her “reverberate” to take her place in the dance of the universe.
As with Vita Nostra, translator Julia Meitov Hersey expresses Assassin’s disorientation, love, fear, and sense of possibility quite brilliantly. The best translations read like books originally written in the reader’s native language, and Assassin is as smooth and unselfconscious as any English-language book to this Anglophone reader. Hersey shows us what language can do by translating a book about words and meaning, where grammatical constructs are not just a subject in school but the actual building blocks of life.
Sadly, Sergey Dyachenko passed away before Assassin was finished. His wife, Marina, carried on through to the end of the book herself, writing an exquisite ending that is a testament to their own love and the strength of their bond with each other. The universe may return to its abstract beginnings, but with its rebirth, love will once again flourish with life.