Death of a Dissident

Death of a DissidentToday I finished Death of a Dissident by Stuart M. Kaminsky (1934 – 2009) .  This is the first book that I have read by Kaminsky.  I started purchasing the Kaminsky novels in the Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov series that I find at cheap prices.  Unfortunately, I do not have book two.  Death of a Dissident was first published in 1981, but I read the 1989 edition.  I picked up my copy used for $2.

I was not sure what to expect from this novel.  I was wary of trying out a new author.  I generally enjoy cozy mysteries, but am leery of bloody, crazed murderers (as you should be, too).  I was okay with the Michael Connelly novel I read, I really enjoy Agatha Christie, and I have been pleased with the few other light mysteries that I have read in the past.  I was worried, though, that this novel might be a bit too gory or dark.  That is generally one of the main reasons I am nervous about reading mysteries.  I do not like reading thriller/mysteries which are filled with depravity and gore.  Another reason I was wary was that I worried the background and setting of this novel might feel really dated.  Or that the author would try to over-write the whole USSR background.

Luckily, my fears were unfounded.  I actually really liked this novel and read it fairly quickly.  The best part of the novel is that Kaminsky did not overwrite the “dismal, politically-charged” USSR setting.  It is actually written really well and gives a really good insight into Kaminsky’s interpretation of the USSR.  The characters were also really well done, I think.  Nothing massively in-depth, but I came to like all of them.  They are all interesting and make the novel much better than it would be with flat or hideous characters.  The subtle and not-so-subtle political awkwardness of the police force dealing with the political structure made for a unique and interesting setting.

Rostnikov was worried about the girl, true, but he was also worried about how he might explain the destruction of the automobile.  His body and that of the driver could be repaired by doctors.  Doctors in Moscow were good and there would be no cost.  But to repair an automobile. Ah, thought Rostnikov, that may be much more difficult.  (Chapter Twelve)

The villain was a bit twisted, to be honest.  There was a scene toward the end of the book where I was worried things were going to cross that line into “too graphic and gory” for me to want to read.  But the whole thing turned out okay and Kaminsky did not cross the line-of-yucky.   The main character, Porfiry Rostnikov, is a big hit, I think.  He is a fairly good Russian imitation of a war-hardened hard-boiled detective.  He is patient and brooding, just as one would expect.  But he also is politically savvy – although he is not completely subservient and whipped by the political edifice.   I like the supporting characters, too, particularly Emil Karpo.  Karpo is really fun and awesome – I am glad I met this character.

This is the sort of book you want to see as a movie – but done well, not ruined by some ridiculous Hollywood interpretation.  I am giving it four stars for the writing style (dry-humor and subtle) and for the characters.  The background of the USSR is worthy and should interest those with a fondness for Russia.

Moscow begins work at five in the morning.  The few hours before are for the criminals, the police, taxi drivers, government officials at parties, and party officials working on government.   (Chapter Two)

4 stars

The Master and the Margarita

The Master and the MargaritaI finally finished this extremely well-known novel.  The Master and the Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov is easily one of the most read and discussed novels since it’s publication in Russian (1967 & 1973) and English (1967).   Interpretations of the novel have been made for graphic novels, stage, film, and various other formats.  There are icons and symbols – to include little statues, postcards, stamps, and all sorts of other artefacts that celebrate or commemorate this novel.

To say Bulgakov struggled a bit in writing the novel is true, but sounds somewhat unfair.  Bulgakov struggles continued from 1929 – 1940.  In that time period, he burnt a manuscript, moved, and made at least four versions.  This was not an easy novel for Bulgakov to write.  Some of that shows through, I think.  I understand that this is a translated version, but I do feel there are sections where the writing grows thicker and jagged.

Overall, the novel is divided into two parts over (in my copy) 400 pages.  There are bunches of endnotes that explain dozens of references that Bulgakov slips into his novel, if the reader is so inclined to learn the details.  I admit that I did this sparingly.  It’s difficult to want to do this in a fiction novel – I feel it interrupts the storyline too much to read a quick entry from an endnote/glossary.

Since the Margarita does not show up as a character until the second part, I feel the title The Master and the Margarita is only one of a number of titles this novel could have been named.  Frankly, I would have named the novel The Ordeal of Ivan Nikolayevich Ponyrev.

Anyway, it would be ridiculous to attempt any real plot summary in this review.  Suffice to say, the devil and his entourage shows up in Moscow and upends the place for about four days.  The neat thing is that the devil neither announces his presence nor hides it.  One of the things that I think Bulgakov did an excellent job with is the way he writes the antics of the devil’s lackeys.  It is downright chilling and creepy how easily the devil plays on people’s vices or how easily he leads them toward conclusions that are obviously wrong – but are what they wish to conclude. These parts of the novel are gripping and insightful.

Sure, there are depths of satire and humor here as well.  But it’s almost a darker humor than most Americans in 2012, for example, would be used to.  Still, there are some quite amusing moments.  Without a doubt, there are, too, some very creative scenes – the Ball that Woland forces Margarita to play hostess at is intense and creative.  But the magic show at the Variety Theatre is definitely one of those must-read/must-know chunks of world literature.

For my tastes, though, this is not my favorite Russian classic.  I really liked the opening sections of the novel – with Berlioz and Ivan at Patriarch’s Ponds.  The chapters there and following are awesome.  As I said, I loved the Variety Theatre show.  But I lost a lot of attention and care with the sections dealing with Margarita and (more or less) anything after Chapter 25.  Margarita (self-sacrificing? devoted? courageous?) is still not a likeable character (to me) and I had a difficult time caring about her and the Master’s relationship. The last chunk of the novel is where the reader is supposed to start piecing together how thorough Woland has been, the morals of the entire storyline, and the connections between the manuscript of the master and the thoughts and dreams of Ivan Nikolayevich.   However, it lost a lot of steam for me – got a bit too slow, or uninteresting, or something. I really do think it’s because I am not a Russian in 1940.    Sometimes, Woland seems lazy and maybe gets more credit than his due – his lackeys seem to cause more havoc than he does.  Woland is a brooding sort of devil.  Overall, four stars for the majority of the book.

4 stars

Ward No. 6 and Other Stories

Ward 6 ChekovI, for better or worse, really hate reading plays. I really hate it. I loathe it. But I wanted to read Chekhov and so I searched around for an edition of Chekhov’s short stories.  I found many – but this was one of the few editions to contain a larger variety of stories as well as the “standards.”  By standards I mean The Lady With the Dog and Ward No. 6, which are the best known of Chekhov’s short stories.   This is the Barnes & Noble Classics edition.  It contains an introduction by David Plante with translations by Constance Garnett.  Garnett translated most of Chekhov’s works in the early 1920s. I realize that in different editions the titles of the individual stories may be slightly different.

Contents and My Rating:

The Cook’s Wedding – 4*

The Witch – 2*

A Dead Body – 2*

Easter Eve – 3*

On the Road – 4*

The Dependents – 5*

Grisha – 5*

The Kiss – 5*

Typhus – 3*

The Pipe – 3*

The Princess – 3*

Neighbors – 3*

The Grasshopper – 4*

In Exile – 3*

Ward No. 6 – 4*

Rothschild’s Fiddle – 3*

The Student – 3*

The Darling – 3*

A Doctor’s Visit – 2*

Gooseberries – 3*

The Lady With The Dog – 3*

In the Ravine -3*

The Bishop – 3*

As can be seen, I gave three of the stories 5 stars and four of the stories 4 stars.  In fact, it should be noted that the “traditionally favorite” stories are ones I only gave 3 stars to.  Once again, I realize that “classic/standard/literature” has to evolve with time, is extremely subjective, and need not be selected just because everyone else selected them. For example, I know that The Lady with the Dog is considered by many to be Chekhov’s best story.  Frankly, it was just okay. But I dislike adultery and I do not like either of the main characters at all. The setting is done well, but overall the story was nothing special whatsoever.  Another example is Ward No. 6.  It is in this story that Chekhov is the most overtly philosophic.  However, it is nothing amazing.

As is typical of Russian writers, most of the stories are a bit depressing. They involve struggle, misery, and ruminations on the community. It seems like many of Chekhov’s characters are aware of their lifestyles and the hard life of Russia, but many also keep one eye on the glimpse of something else, something better, something beyond.  The characters ooze the sturdy acceptance of life in Russia, but yet they cannot help but be aware of something beyond the drudgeries of their existence. Rothschild’s Fiddle is a really great example of this sort of struggle for the light through the dark struggle.

One of the stories that I gave 5 stars to is The Dependents. Some readers may find it to be a cruel and dark story.  I can see why they would respond like this. However, I feel like I could relate to the main character, Mihail Petrovich Zotov, in a lot of ways. He’s a 70 year old solitary craftsman who lives alone in poverty with a variety of miserable and decrepit animals.  It seems like every day is the same for him and all days are full of a suffocating and frustrating tedium.  He’s lonely, exasperated, and frustrated. In fact, the frustration and exasperation drips from the story. Anyway, the actions that Zotov takes are drastic and brutal, but yet understandable – he just seems so frustrated and lonely. This is definitely my favorite Chekhov story because here the author shows how deeply he understands the human pysche and the depth of an aged-Russian’s despair.

The story Grisha is amazing.  It was originally written by Chekhov in 1886, so when Chekhov was 26 years old.  Grisha is a little boy and we see the story through his eyes and his perceptions – and this is so well-written it is fabulous. Chekhov’s understanding of Grisha is remarkable. Few authors write children well. This is a masterpiece because not only does Chekhov write a decent short story, but the character’s perspective is flabbergastingly awesome for an adult to have written. I love the story and I love the little boy, Grisha. Once again, I felt that Chekhov had some preternatural ability to show the soul of a character.  Now, is Grisha autistic? It’s something I wondered when reading the story. If so, Chekhov did a heckuva characterization!

The Kiss is the only other story that I gave 5 stars to.  As with the other 5 star stories, Chekhov’s character-personalities are excellent. I feel like he put some solid effort into developing the inner thoughts of his characters and pondering their thought-patterns and reactions. The Kiss has this touch of romanticism to it that is often absent in the typical stark Russian stories, and this makes it endearing. Also, like many stories, the characters seem trapped in a life that knows the dismal grind of daily life and fruitless labor, but yet they catch moments of idealistic imagination.  The Kiss is a story somewhat easy to imagine and it contains elements of magic that pull it away from typical stories of Russian struggle.

Although, there are plenty of instances in Chekhov’s stories wherein one can find the complaint and utter pessimism of the Russian government official or peasant.  The worst story in the batch was probably The Witch. Yuck.

Median:  3

Mean:  3.04

Most:  3

Red Cavalry and Other Stories

Red Cavalry

“Red Cavalry and Other Stories” – I. Babel; Penguin Classics

I am not as familiar with Eastern European and Russian literature as I am with the usual Western European classics.  This ignorance seems to be common.  We, in America, are spoonfed Charles Dickens, amused by Cervantes and Dumas, badgered by Jane Austen, and bored by Thomas Hardy.  No one ever introduces us to Pushkin or Babel.  If you’re especially lucky, you might meet a drama by Chekov or one of Dostoyevsky’s works briefly.  Needless to say, I knew Isaac Babel was a Russian-Jew who liked being mysterious and was executed by “The State.”  So, I read Babel’s “Autobiographical,” “Odessa,” and “Red Cavalry” stories.

I did not take away, so to speak, a whole lot more than I started with.  The stories (which blur the line between historical fact and fictionalized history) are all in media res, confusing, and abrupt.  The “characters” are impoverished and sometimes immoral.  Their dialogue is nearly incomprehensible at times.  Overall, the tone of all the stories is dark, miserable, and mad.  I feel that much of what Babel wrote would make a lot more sense if the reader was a Russian-Jew living in, say, 1915.

The first story I read was “Old Shloyme.”   It is a very “Jewish” story. But more important, it’s the most morbid, dismal, miserable, and unhappy story ever written.  It’s not even “tragic,” it’s just depressing to the core.  I describe the characters as despondent, desperate, and utterly bereft of joy.  Strangely, nestled in the core of the story:  the indefatigable Russian spirit full of determination and willpower.  Tucked inside the awful impoverished reality is this kernel of the absurd.  The word that I want to use is “supra-sane.”  Supra-sane is that misty area that occurs after the all-too-sane devolves into madness and the insanity is so thoroughgoing that it becomes sane, or normal, again.  It’s the yin/yang concept.  This is one of the greatest short stories ever written because it is so miserable and abrupt, but also contains the trademark Russian stubbornness and willfulness. The character Shloyme is both mad and completely sane, but moreso, he’s Russian.

“Red Cavalry” continues with the same feeling of bordering on insanity.  By this I mean situations that are so strenuous and chaotic that the only response that helps survival is a response of equal madness.  I suspect the Polish-Russian war was like this for Babel. Call Joseph Heller up and tell him to cite Babel as a reference for Catch-22. Babel had been assigned to the first cavalry, under the marshal Semyon M. Budyonny.  Budyonny actually has quite a history in the Red Army, with Stalin, and with horses.  I can also see why he took issue with Babel’s depictions in “Red Cavalry.”  But, if reading these pieces by Babel inspired anything in me, it was to learn more about Budyonny.  So, of course, I want to read Budyonny’s The Path of Valor, which, as I understand it, is a five-volume memoir.  I doubt it’s as colorful and unique as Babel’s “Red Cavalry.”

Maybe Babel is not writing supra-sane stories.  Looking at “Red Cavalry,” I wonder if Babel did not witness one or two “people/events” and then spent his time working and re-working what he witnessed into a narrative.  Babel cannot tell us the exact truth, but he also cannot lie.  The stories are historical narratives from the Babel-filtered ink.  No wonder Babel seemed mysterious.

The most famous piece of “Red Cavalry” is the story “Salt.”  I feel I would be remiss not to mention it.  It is both startling and muscular.  If anything, the story really typifies Babel’s writing.  What does it mean to be a member of the Second Platoon? Who/what are they fighting for?  Who suffers justly and who suffers unjustly? These are the questions the reader will be confronted with in this piece. Also, there is the very Russian concept, or Zeitgeist, of labor/toiling/work.  In my reading, I felt there was an undertone of salvation through work. I do not know if that is accurate, but it is my reader-response. It is not surprising that “Salt” is so famous. The wartime noir-feeling heavily resonates throughout the story.

3 stars