Monday, 23 April 2012

Is Everybody Happy?

It seems that I just can't get away from translated fiction these days.  Not content to plough through the longlist for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, I have also been taking a look at some newer appearances on the market, and today's offering is a new story from an old friend.  I have already reviewed several books from the wonderful And Other Stories stable, and today they are taking us to Russia for a brief look at life in modern Moscow.  I do hope you like Vodka...

Oleg Zaionchkovsky's Happiness is Possible* (translated by Andrew Bromfield) is a collection of short reflections on contemporary Russian life, told by an unnamed writer, presumably an alter-ego of Zaionchkovsky himself.  Our friend lives in a small flat in the Russian capital, reflecting on the nature of his adopted hometown, mostly failing to get any writing done and constantly negotiating with his dog, Phil, as to the frequency and direction of their walks.  The writer gradually tells us more about his life, including his mediocre career, his visits to his hometown (just outside Moscow) and his complex relationship with ex-wife Tamara (or Toma).  The more we learn about the man and his dog, the more we are able to reflect on the statement the writer gives us to consider: is happiness possible?

While the main idea running through the book is the writer's personal life, it is contrasted with another important concept, the city of Moscow itself.  In fact, Happiness is Possible is just as much a portrait of modern life in the Russian metropolis as it is a personal journal.  As the writer says:
"If we acknowledge that a city is a living organism, we must acknowledge its place in creation.  And in so doing, we shall be obliged to cede our priority and accept that it is not we human beings who are the crown of creation, but the city."
This is exactly the view he takes, placing Moscow at the heart of the novel and describing the efforts of the ant-like people living there to adjust to - and cope with - life in the big city.  His creations (and they are often creations of both Zaionchkovsky and his narrator) struggle to make a foothold for themselves in the capital, with both residential permits and love in short supply.

Zaionchkovsky's style is laid-back and informal, the prose soaked in a dry humour which takes a while to get used to, but which suits the meandering style of the book.  In a way it reminded me of the classic Victorian novel Three Men in a Boat, both for the inclusion of the dog and for the laid-back, idling lifestyle the writer describes.  When our friend spends a day at his dacha (small country house), he writes:
"The day passes in the way that a summer day at the dacha should: in glorious idleness.  So that it will be remembered for nothing but this state of drowsy, delightful drifting."
You can almost imagine the gentle ripple of the Thames, and ducks sailing serenely past in the background...

However, Happiness is Possible is more similar to another of Jerome K. Jerome's works, Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, in its structure of short, loosely connected musings on life.  Zaionchkovsky often begins his stories with an event from the life of his character, but then drifts off at an angle to explore the nature of different aspects of Muscovite life.  Through the writer's tangential tales of people both real and imaginary (there's a lot of meta-fictional byplay going on here!), we get to learn about the hierarchy of supermarkets and who can afford them; the difficulties for career women in finding a suitable partner; the explosion of possibilities for those looking to make their fortune in real estate; and, of course, the changes brought about by the move from a Communist to capitalist system.

Understandably though, our writer often turns his sardonic eye on the literary scene, contrasting the Russian adoration of their cultural icons with the relative lack of interest in their contemporary equivalents.  The protagonist is apparently fairly unsuccessful, despite being relatively well known (when a couple of dozen people turn up to one of his readings, the surprised organisers put it down to a cancellation elsewhere by a famous foreign writer!), and his struggle to scrape together enough money for a decent meal is ironically played out against a backdrop of museums for minor classic writers...

Part of the problem is that Moscow is now a modern city (in parts at least), moving at the pace of the industrialised world, and the writer has not quite acclimatised to that change.  In a world of professional publishers and gleaming boardrooms, he is decidedly out of place, as shown by a meeting he attends after being persuaded to write a book for a company:
"While the sugar was still dissolving in my cup, I managed to make the acquaintance of a lady designer and a lady marketologist (both shorn to match their boss's cropped style), a young culturologist, an old gastrologist and a representative of a PR agency on friendly terms with Griddle (a middle-aged man with manicured nails).  Noticing that they had all come to the meeting with folders, I felt guilty because I hadn't brought anything apart from my indigestion tablets."
It is little surprise that he is unable to come to terms with the idea of literature as product...

While the writer talks a lot about the city around him, there is one personal undercurrent to the collection.  In the very first story we hear about Tamara, and it gradually becomes clear that despite the apparent friendship the writer has with his successor, Dmitry Pavlovich, and the nonchalance with which the Muscovites chalk up their failed marriages, the loss of Tamara has affected him more deeply than he will openly admit.  It is this feeling of hurt, a sore spot which occasionally reemerges from under the dry humour the writer uses to cover it up, which adds a depth to the book it may have otherwise lacked.

Happiness is Possible isn't a perfect read.  The collection of vaguely-connected tales can pall after a while, and I occasionally found it a little repetitive.  I probably read it a little quickly though, and I think it's a book which should be read slowly, the reader dipping in for a chapter or two every now and then, rather than racing through it in a couple of days.  The little pieces are made to be read and reflected on, as there's probably a lot more there than first meets the eye.  In some ways, the book is more like a short-story collection - I would certainly hesitate to call it a novel...

Returning then to the the bold statement the title makes, Zaionchkovsky's little slices of Moscow life do seem to back up the idea that despite the problems living in a modern society brings, happiness is indeed possible.  But while this is true in general, is it true for our poor love-lorn writer friend?  To find that out, I'm afraid you'll just have to read the book ;)

* I received an electronic review copy of Happiness is Possible from the publisher.