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translated by Marian Schwartz
The Overlook Press ($26.95)
by Yevgeniya Traps
Olga Slavnikova’s Russian Booker Prize-winning novel 2017 is set in the Riphean region, an imaginary mountainous area in Russia’s north, in the eponymous year, the centennial of the Russian Revolution. Once the repository of extraordinarily valuable gems, the Riphean Mountains are now presided over by the Stone Maiden, who appears to gem hunters, or “rock hounds,” in the guise of an ordinary woman, her dull appearance a remarkable contrast to her ability to drive men to suicide. Even those who survive the encounter experience a death of sorts; they inevitably turn away from their lifelong pursuit of gems. And yet the Stone Maiden is not finally interested in the minerals that are her official domain; “she, like any woman, needs love.”
At once supernatural and frailly human, the Stone Maiden presides over the novel as a phantom guiding spirit, the origin and the culmination of the various strands that make up the plot. The story’s official protagonist, however, is one Krylov, a Riphean gem cutter whose lifelong obsession with transparency acquires ever-increasing symbolic import. Krylov, who fancies himself a “romantic criminal,” works for Professor Anfilogov, a ruthless rock hound who has discovered a ruby deposit in a remote area. The action begins as Anfilogov departs for an expedition to the site, a place known only to himself and his assistant, a lanky illiterate with a mouthful of steel teeth. While seeing his mentor off, Krylov encounters a woman with an unknown connection to the professor. Drawn to this stranger without fully understanding the attraction, Krylov follows her after the train has departed, eventually approaching. The two spend the day together, making sure that no identifying information is exchanged; the woman tells Krylov her name is “Tanya, let’s say.”
Tanya and Krylov embark on a heady, passionate affair, one deliberately designed to be precarious. Armed with a city atlas, the couple agrees on a meeting place by randomly choosing a street and a number, appearing at the designated spot at a designated time. Since no back-up plan exists, each kept appointment seems destined. Of course nothing can be so simple, no course of love so smooth. Tanya has a husband; Krylov himself has an ex-wife, Tamara, who is not entirely out of his life. Tamara is a ruthlessly determined, fabulously wealthy businesswoman, whose latest project—the reformation of burial services—has encountered significant resistance from the local population. When Krylov notices a spy lurking at his and Tanya’s meeting places, he immediately suspects Tamara’s involvement, and when he and Tanya are separated from each other during a suddenly violent clash between actors at a celebration of the Revolution’s centennial, Krylov must seek Tamara’s help in locating his mysterious lover.
Tamara’s help involves, for the most part, the revelation of business schemes and conspiracies and personal vendettas; it also allows for lengthy philosophical and political discussion. Krylov, who from a young age suspects that his world is made up of copies with no originals, feels increasingly despondent at a society filled with types, with embodiments and representations:
All the politicians presented themselves as art projects: The president of the Russian Federation looked so much more like the president of the Russian Federation than anyone else that afterward people kept electing the same kind of blond security-agency types. The mayor of the Riphean capital . . . was reelected soon after, and soon after that he was replaced by someone exactly like him, and then another—so that people talked as if the memorable politician, and his successor . . . were one and the same person. . . .
In some way everyone must have felt the world’s falseness; helping one’s neighbor in his inauthentic sufferings made no sense. A new culture had taken shape that had an internal unity, a culture of copies without originals.
Through Krylov’s quest, we are made privy to his Russia, a country that, in its Riphean microcosm, is buffeted by restless striving after empty ideals, best embodied by a “maskers’ revolution” that parodies history. The Russia of 2017 is stagnant, its possibilities mere placeholders and hallucinatory mirages.
Krylov’s story parallels and coincides with Anfilogov’s increasingly terrifying expedition. It is here that we come to see the full effects of the corruption that has left the Riphean Mountains perilously bereft. Poisoned, literally and figuratively, by unscrupulous business practices, the natural world becomes a reflection of the culture that has tragically altered it: vicious, empty, haunted by phantom spirits demanding human sacrifice in the face of insatiable greed for resources—gems, money, real love—in very limited supply.
Slavnikova’s novel has been compared to the work of Mikhail Bulgakov, a master satirist of Russian politics with a magical realist touch, but the more relevant comparison is perhaps George Orwell’s 1984, to which the title of 2017 alludes somewhat unwisely. Slavnikova is a talented writer, one capable of fantastic (and fantastical) description, given to lovely flights of fancy and unexpected analogies, easily superior to Orwell as a prose stylist. But Orwell’s much shorter, leaner book is more compelling as a satire and as a critique, more forceful and more single-minded in the pursuit of its vision. There can be little doubt about what Orwell believed at the conclusion of 1984, but at the end of 2017 there lingers a sense of something not quite resolved. While its narrative is propelled forward by engaging turns of plot, the ideas the tale has suggested intrigue the reader but ultimately remain opaque.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010