Zakhar Prilepin’s Sin was first published in Russian in 2007, and published in English in 2012. Prilepin, like his namesake Zakharka in the novel, has worked as a security guard, a journalist and a captain in Chechnya. He was a writer for the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta. This novel is full of patriotic ambivalence and there are many references to the “Homeland”, whether it is a pastoral idyll, urban nightmare or suburban wasteland.
Sin is a connected series of short stories mostly told in the first person. They are not in chronological order, which I found frustrating at times. The stories begin with adult Zakharka as a young man, happy in a relationship; then jumps back to his teenage encounters with sex and death; then forward again to his time spent as a hard-drinking grave digger. Like Boris Pasternak at the end of “Doctor Zhivago,” Prilepin includes a sequence of lyrical poems by his narrator.
For readers used to the enforcedly pacey narratives of more commercial, western literature, Prilepin’s atmospheric vignettes might seem strange. I think Prilepin’s work in Sin is very similar to Anton Chekhov’s short stories, in which evocation of place and feeling also often take precedence over plot. As so often in life, there is a sense throughout these picaresque episodes of waiting for the story to begin until, facing death in Chechnya, we realize that it could be almost over.
Prilepin shows us patiently that life is what happens in those snatched moments of emotional connection, be it love at the family dacha, anger outside a nightclub, or yearning for home from the front line.
Prilepin’s obsession with exploring the nature of Russian identity is one of the strands that roots the book firmly in a particular literary tradition. Mundane details of Russian life are transformed into icons: “When you come in from the cold, a pot of red borsch quite rightly seems to be an aromatic miracle, or even something divine.” Two characters discuss literature (a popular topic in postmodern fiction); a wannabe-novelist tells the narrator: “many Russian novels are revolting because of the narrator … a person like you.” This is also very much a modern novel, both in its narrative format and the portrait of the society it draws, yet it is also very much in the headlong, sensual, experimental and surprising tradition of Russian literature. Life-affirming yet not optimistic, joyous yet very much aware of pain and sin, it is the story of a young man living in a society traumatized by the crashing of a system and the subsequent confusions of the new order, who snatches moments of true happiness which are not in any sense negated by the harder aspects of things.
The main reason I myself found the book so definitive is that it is essentially an exploration of the pain of human existence (perhaps a stereotype of Russian literature), but also of the joy, pleasure and love of it. The bliss provoked in the characters by life’s simple pleasures – a bite of sausage after a slug of vodka, feeding pancakes to stray puppies, a baby son’s breath as he sleeps – lend the book an intense, but never cloying, sweetness. Prilepin particularly enjoys exploring how kindness to those weaker than ourselves can be edifying.
Sin is not only a very well written book, skilfully translated, but an enjoyable one that adroitly moves between different moods and settings. It is a fairly short novel, but doubtless one of the best to come out of Russia in the past decade.
★ ★ ★ ★
Sin by Zakhar Prilepin. Translated by Simon Patterson. Pub. 2012 by Glagoslav Productions. Paperback, 258 pages. ISBN13: 9789081823937
-Surprisingly soft writing coming from a writer belonging to the radical (and outlawed) National Bolshevik Party.
–There’s a lot less room for ideology here (as compared to Sankya, Revolution, and any of his post-2014 books). Perhaps that’s part of why I enjoyed it so much.
-Wow. Can’t believe I read this start to finish in the original Russian!