I recently had the marvelous opportunity to talk with some professionals working in translated fiction, and one of them seemed to hint to me that the genre might be suffering from excessive stereotyping: that is, Western publishers with too many pre-conceived ideas of what to expect from different countries. France must produce novels of sexual liberation, philosophical thought, or both; Indian novels need to address either fundamentalism or Slumdog-style caste clashes to stand much of a chance at selling global rights; novels from China must focus on the fight of the little man against the communist regime.
Translations from Russian are not as plentiful as they ought to be, and a quick perusing of the “in translation” shelf at many of my local bookstores revealed a general strait-jacketing trend in translated Russian lit as well. Aside from the old masters like Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Bulgakov, the shelves are mostly dominated by either heavy gulag stories, edgy expat crime novels, or dark futuristic allegories that critique the current Russian system (think Vladimir Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik). It seemed that new stories reinforcing the image of Russia as a strange, oppressive, and dangerous country managed to find their way onto the shelves but little else did*.
Which made me all the happier to discover Oleg Zaionchkovsky’s Happiness is Possible.
This contemporary Russian novel is a gentle fable of Modern Moscow without a gulag or mafiosi murder plot in sight. (The closest the story gets to organized crime is a scam in which a yard keeper hands out keys to marked-for-demolition apartments to down-and-outs in exchange for their exploitation in his labor force.) The novel is actually a series of loosely-connected stories revolving around an ailing writer and his unusually cordial relationship with his ex-wife and her new husband. Happiness Is Possible depicts contemporary Russian life with a blend of dark and quiet humor, wistfulness, and a combination of involvement and detachment. Plenty of details from post-Soviet Russia are here: how people go to a funeral, a pricey-sounding SUV, sleeping with the realtor, and the coincidences of Одноклассники, Classmates, a Russian site like Facebook. The tales flit around the mundanities of everyday life, unveiling a host of characters, some of whom, given the narrator’s habit of drifting from real-life recollections into fanciful notions, we are never quite sure are real.
Though each different, the stories are connected by a common theme: the search for contentment (hence the name of the book). Happiness in Moscow is generally gauged against the success or otherwise of obtaining a Moscow residency permit. Replete with self-deprecating humor, Zaionchkovsky’s stories quietly expose the futility of such pursuits, and muse on the inescapabilty of fate.
One may be wondering why I gave this book three stars rather than four or five, given my mostly positive appraisal of it. This is because the book’s strengths could also be considered its weaknesses. While the novel-in-stories format is fairly creative, it simply may not work for some readers – myself included – who prefer for narratives to continue unbroken rather than be split into loosely connected, meandering episodes. And the very “normal-ness” of the book that helps separate it so clearly from its stereotype may also detract from its memorability. Many of the characters move in and out of the narrative, and those who remain constant – the narrator, the ex-wife, her husband – live unremarkable lives. For this reader, at least, there was no character with which I formed a real bond, and no story which stood out from the others.
This is not to say that Happiness is Possible is not worth reading, however. For all its mundanity, it is still a wonderfully translated, nicely written book, and it provides a refreshing break from the usual doom-and-gloom stories we get out of translated contemporary Russian fiction nowadays.
★ ★ ★
Happiness is Possible by Oleg Zaionchkovsky. Translated from the Russia by Andrew Bromfield. Pub. 2012 by And Other Stories. Paperback, 303 pages. ISBN13: 9781908276094
*This could just be my local bookshops, but who knows…