Olga Slavnikova's 2017, the winner of the 2006 Russian Booker Prize, is a novel which confounds the reader at every turn: its prose style, characterization and narrative consistently refuse to conform to expectations. It stubbornly refuses to depict people or events in a way which recognizably reflects real life, a potential complaint that Slavnikova makes clear early on concerns her not in the slightest:
Realism, be it a method of art, or more broadly, a way of thinking, has been a characteristic of fundamentally superficial people, well-intentioned dilettantes who take the use of ready-made forms for a type of patriotism. (p. 31)
This makes the task of your reviewer, a fundamentally superficial person, rather problematic. It also makes summarizing the plot of 2017 a somewhat futile exercise, given its only tangential relevance to one's appreciation of the novel. Nonetheless:
The events of 2017 unfold in a fictional Russian region, the Riphean Mountains, which are closely modeled on Slavnikova's native Urals. This is a strikingly beautiful but untamed wilderness, where rugged "rock-hounds" can spend a lifetime as prospectors, risking life and limb in the pursuit of untold mineral riches. It is a place which straddles the border of the fantastic, its superstitious inhabitants showing due respect to the supernatural Mistress of the Mountains, in the hope that with her blessing they will ensure their good fortune. The novel's protagonist, Krylov, is a gem-cutter whose work brings him into regular contact with these hardy treasure-hunters, amongst them the borderline-autistic Professor Anfilogov. When Anfilogov sets off in search of a mineral seam of epic proportions Krylov, left behind to await his return, drifts into a tryst with one of the professor's associates, a mysterious woman who he knows only as "Tanya." Refusing to fall into a conventional relationship, Krylov and Tanya agree to schedule their encounters at randomly determined locations on a city-map. However, this new relationship appears to threaten the other woman in Krylov's life, his aggressively dynamic ex-wife, Tamara, and it isn't long before Krylov and Tanya's liaisons attract unwanted attention.
Despite having won a prestigious literary award in Russia, 2017 seems to have perplexed many English-language reviewers, not least when they try to pigeon-hole it into a genre: some have concluded it is an insufficiently thrilling thriller, while others have tackled it as a surprisingly laugh-free satire. I feel obliged, writing here, to add that 2017, despite being set some ten years after its original publication date, certainly isn't SF either, at least according to most conventional definitions. It makes a few fairly tokenistic gestures to futurology (rejuvenation therapy and a few other technologies are described, future fashion trends are mentioned and ethnic cleansing in Central Asia is hinted at), but these are of little consequence to the novel as a whole. The sole reason for the futuristic setting appears to be to ensure that events coincide with the centenary of the October Revolution: towards the end of the novel Russia is plunged into a vicious cycle of fratricidal violence, which it is hinted is driven by the subconscious urge to re-enact history. However, this outbreak of bloodletting does not really impinge on what passes for the plot, nor does it have a significant impact on the activities of the central characters; indeed, several of them remark on how unreal these background events seem to them. The truth is both the setting and the plot of 2017 are almost superfluous: the crux of the novel rests upon Krylov's encounters and conversations with the Tanya and Tamara.
This is a novel where no-one acts, speaks or thinks like any human being you, or anyone else, has ever met. Krylov is a man who, quite arbitrarily, decides to wholly isolate his apartment from the outside world in order to ensure that no external influence, whether human, natural or supernatural, can touch him there. Yet he agrees to meet with Tanya at randomly determined locations, well knowing that if they fail to make a connection they have no alternative way of finding each other: he places their relationship solely in the hands of Fate. Despite having no evident prospects or appealing qualities, he boasts a string of sexual conquests, while his ex-wife, a glamorous, wealthy and successful socialite, pines for his return. When he half-recognizes a spy who has been sent to observe his and Tanya's meetings he leaps to the assumption, apparently without any reason, that the man is "an unquestionable spectre, a fleshy vision born out of the depths of [his] consciousness" (p. 122).
Having characters who bear no resemblance to real people is not necessarily a problem, and is not due to poor characterization as such, but it makes 2017 a difficult and unpredictable book to get to grips with. Nonetheless, the characters are, in their own way, memorable and occasionally transfixing in their strangeness. Tanya is humorless and sickly, but her enigmatic otherworldliness has a transformational impact on Krylov:
Where she was heading, everything looked brighter and better than in the other three corners of the world: a small pharmacy was bedecked with elegant, gift-wrapped medicines; a small fountain on a wet pole looked like a toy windmill, sparkling cheerfully in its watery web; and the many empty streetcars at the last stop swayed, creating their own special dimension of rocking, windows, and reflections in windows, and the passengers stood there stock-still, their eyes screwed tight by the sun. (pp. 13-14)
Tamara, in clear contrast, is crassly materialistic, ruthless in business, and a Philistine in her attitude to art and culture: "A thin layer of emptiness had formed between Tamara and reality, and it clothed her like a beautiful dress" (p. 25). Her latest business venture is an undertakers' firm which promises clients a jolly send-off while giving mourners lottery tickets and the chance to win a Caribbean holiday. While initially coming across as a stereotypical New Russian, it later emerges that Tamara, in her blunt, unvarnished approach to issues of morality and mortality may be more honest than some of Krylov's other acquaintances.
Especially in its open chapters, 2017 is also somewhat challenging stylistically, although it can be immensely rewarding. Slavnikova seems to have an almost pathological urge to apply an unexpected and vivid simile or metaphor to every person, object or occurrence which crosses the page. These can be either memorably elegant (puddles are "Matisse dancers in extended poses who had confused left and right") or humorous (an acquaintance is described as "an imposing man with a bosun's beard and a face like a flounder in a bony bathing suit"). However, too much of a good thing can be a little overwhelming, and many of the descriptive passages run the risk of strangeness for its own sake, a potential problem which is compounded by the fact that many of these descriptions hint at deeper meanings which can go unexplored for several chapters. There is also a tendency to long sentences, tied up in multiple clauses:
On the front steps of the train station, where they should have parted, since they hadn't been introduced, Krylov suddenly felt he simply couldn't face the solitude of the day, which was still as fresh and radiant as if the sun's warmth had just dissolved its minty, sleepy hazy but which already held its fill of the heavens' void. (p. 13)
All this makes reading 2017 an occasionally frustrating experience; for every passage of striking, pitch-perfect prose there is a sentence which requires multiple readings to render its meaning clear. Ultimately, it is impossible to read this book without both pitying and admiring its translator, Marian Schwartz, who has clearly been faced with a near-Herculean task.
But what exactly is 2017 about? As far as it can be said to have a discernable theme, it is the David-and-Goliath clash between authentic, old-fashioned virtues (as represented by the Riphean rock-hounds) and the impersonal forces of modernity and globalization. Swipes are taken at the increasing homogenization of everyday life: there is some discussion of how literature has been reduced to a meaningless mass-market commodity and the way in which the pressure to stay young reduces all women to near-identical "dolls." Tamara is the one who describes the relentless pressure of modernity in the starkest terms, terming it a "single world molecule":
It's international. The only rules that exist for it are its own. And the people who aren't integrated into it don't exist either. You and your friends are blank spots on humanity . . . the molecule I was telling you about possesses instincts. Believe me, it's dangerous. It doesn't tolerate blank spots, even if the terra incognita is only on the soles of your outrageously muddy boots. (pp. 165-6)
The forces of globalization are portrayed as vast, opaque and somehow unreal, to the extent that one character can absolve themselves of responsibility for the damage caused by a company they owned and ran, by claiming that they had no idea that the company actually existed, other than on paper. Tamara also goes on to suggest to Krylov that all progress, whether technological, artistic or social, is being deliberately stifled by the forces that control the world:
. . . the sick, the cripples, and the disabled look even more ridiculous than I do. The ones who don't have enough money to pay for an apartment or send their children to a decent school where they might get taught something. What's their problem? What are they complaining about? You see, this is all on purpose. In fact, a marvelous new world is being kept somewhere in the central scientific flask, a world where everyone is healthy, educated, and secure. True, no one told them that. So here they are playacting and looking awful. (pp. 337-8)
Quite what the reader is supposed to make of this is unclear: is it intended to be taken metaphorically, literally or simply as a reflection of Tamara's own deeply cynical personality? Certainly, her suggestion is not explored in depth anywhere else in the novel, and one is therefore left at something of a loss as to what to make of it.
Reading the first two-thirds of 2017 is undeniably hard work: I speak the absolute truth when I say I took occasional breaks from it, in order to relax with an account of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The opening chapters, in particular, are notable for their stubborn rejection of any form of stylistic cliché or narrative convention. Despite this, once the novel's plot begins to cohere it proves surprisingly conventional and feels almost surplus to requirements. What pleasure there is to be derived from this novel, and there certainly is much to be had, comes from some passages of startlingly beautiful and refreshing prose and its undiluted strangeness. While I'm not sure I would have the courage and stamina to tackle another novel by Olga Slavnikova, should a collection of her short fiction appear in English, I would not hesitate to snap it up.
Michael Froggatt lives in Oxford, UK.