Sunday, 23 March 2014

'Captain of the Steppe' by Oleg Pavlov (Review)

I like Russian literature, and I'm pretty keen on small publisher And Other Stories too - it's a surprise then that it took me so long to get around to today's book.  Still, I got there in the end, so let's head off to the Kazakh steppe, to spend some time in the company of a certain army officer with a liking for potatoes.

No, really...

Oleg Pavlov's Captain of the Steppe (translated by Ian Appleby, electronic review copy courtesy of the publisher) takes place in the final years of the Soviet Union, out in the vast, open wilds of the steppe.  We join Captain Ivan Yakovlevich Khabarov, a man who has somehow ended up as a lifetime soldier:
Ivan Yakovlevich Khabarov had wound up in government service neither through calculation nor through coercion; mind you, his own free will hadn't played much part either.  So they had shaved his head and taken him as a soldier, as they did everyone.  He served out his time.  But when his term as a conscript was up, they persuaded him to stay on as a sergeant major.  'Stay put, Ivan, carry on serving.  This is the right place for you.  You're not one of them civvy bastards, are you?'
(And Other Stories, 2013)
Having decided, then, to stay in the army, Khaborov rises slowly through the ranks, ending up in charge of his very own prison camp.  However, if you think that Khaborov is a success, you're sadly mistaken.  For a man of his advanced years, only having reached the rank of Captain is a bit of an embarrassment, and the camp he is in charge of, a shambles of a place in the middle of nowhere, is the ideal location to bury a man nobody really cares much for.

Still, it's his responsibility to look after the camp, and his men, a task made harder by the lack of food sent on the trucks from the main barracks.  Fearing another winter on starvation rations, Khaborov takes a brave decision, one which causes dissension in the ranks - and makes waves all the way back to headquarters...

The concept of Captain of the Steppe initially had me thinking of something along the lines of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich; however, at times it's more like a Russian version of Hogan's Heroes (although the prisoners are conspicuous only by their absence...).  The soldiers are men stranded in the middle of nowhere, robbed of part of their wages, and consequently unwilling to do their duty properly.  Of course, the officers then use this as an excuse for reducing their wages further.

Trapped in the vastness of the Steppe, the reader sympathises with the soldiers - it's big, remote and depressing, and surviving on starvation rations doesn't exactly help matters.  Thus, Khabarov's simple idea, planting some of the potato rations, causes an uproar.  The men are horrified, but the captain, determined to do something to break up the tedium, stubbornly pushes through.

This is the Soviet Union though, and (inevitably) bureaucracy intervenes:
"One boring morning, dull as the reflection in a puddle of rainwater, a regimental lorry scraped along the full length of the clumsy gate and wobbled its way into the barrack square, where it stood snarling or belching, one of the two."
In its noisy belly, this lorry contains a secret service man, Skripitsyn.  He has come to tear strips off Khaborov for his temerity - how dare he think for himself?

What follows is a confused, farcical story which moves back and forth between the camp and HQ.  There's miscommunication, intrigue and betrayal (with the odd fire too) as the little Khaborov is caught in the middle of office politics, suffering as a result of other people's jealousy.  He's not the only one who suffers though:
"Suddenly, the lorry began rumbling mournfully in the steppe, scaring away the deathly hush.  It was then that the captain broke down.  It looked for all the world as though the man had reached complete collapse, and he fell prostrate.  It hit him in the side, at first; he crumpled, although without a single groan, then sank to his knees and planted himself in the ground."
Even the poor potatoes get swept up in the bad will pervading the Steppe...

The novel is an interesting look at what was happening over in the East during the Cold War - for these men, caught in the Kazakh winter, it was very cold indeed.  Over the course of the story, Khabarov develops into a minor hero, standing up to the mindless authorities, pushed to the point of breaking, but refusing to bend.  It's humour of the gallows variety, but it can be surprisingly effective (and funny).

The humour is mixed with a more serious side though, and to be honest, I'm not really sure that it always works.  I missed a consistency of tone throughout the book, and I was never quite lost in the story.  I also felt that the frequent switch of location was a little distracting (I would have preferred more from the camp and less from the petty squabbles at HQ).

Still, there's enough here to interest most readers, and this is an early Pavlov book.  And Other Stories are releasing a (loose) sequel in English later this year, The Matiushin Case, and I'll be interested to see what else Pavlov has to say about the period, and whether his later work is better.  Of course, in literature as in most areas, timing is everything - in the current political climate, Captain of the Steppe is actually acquiring even more of an edge...