This is the work of an extremely talented writer whose prose is spare and exact and has an authenticity that marks him as the real thing.
The Year of the Comet by Sergei Lebedev. Translated by Antonina W. Bouis. New Vessel Press, 245 pages, $17.95.
By Roberta Silman
Sergei Lebedev is a Russian writer in his mid-thirties who made a splash with his first novel Oblivion, published just last year. I have not read it but the reviews were stunning; thus, I approached the new book a little warily. Second novels are often hard. But I am happy to report that The Year of the Comet, billed as a “coming of age novel as the Soviet Union approaches collapse,” is the work of an extremely talented writer whose prose is spare and exact and has an authenticity that marks him as the real thing. He also seems very lucky in his translator, Antonina Bouis. There was never a moment when I felt I was reading a translation.
An essayist and a journalist as well as a fiction writer, Lebedev worked for seven years on geological expeditions in northern Russia and Central Asia, and that experience has served him well. For in this book his unnamed narrator digs deeply into a childhood concomitant with the troubled years after Chernobyl (1986) and Glasnost and Perestroika, leading ultimately to the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. He gives us a clue as to what to expect with his epigraph from Cavafy which refers to the Lares, the deities who guard Rome, as “faint with fear . . . because they know what kind of sound that is,/ know by now the footsteps of the Furies.” So, even before we read the first page we know that this is a childhood filled with a particular kind of yearning and loneliness and apprehension.
I am not a fan of unnamed narrators because I find it precious — one of the few precious things about this book — and also because it’s hard to write a review when the protagonist has no name. So for the purposes of this review I will call him “our hero.” The novel has four parts and begins with a rather long description of our hero’s birth during an earthquake and then goes back to the story of his conception and his welcome as an only, late child by his not so young parents and his two widowed grandmothers, the deaf Tanya, who came from nobility, and the more blunt, almost ruthless (even in her kindness) Mara, who came from peasant stock.
An only child in a society that struggled as much as Russia had to struggle after the Second World War is a breed unto itself. Without siblings or even friends— unlike their American counterparts, these parents and grandmothers don’t encourage our hero to mix with his peers outside of school — he leads a lonely, claustrophobic existence in which his sensitivity leads to disquisitions reminiscent of Proust or Walter Benjamin in A Berlin Childhood. There are some beautiful set pieces in this first part about his identification with “objects that had lost their companions—a single mitten, a shoe left alone while the other was being repaired, a domino dropped in the playground,” about his sense of himself (after a trip to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow he wonders if he really exists), about spending so much time in the company of grown-ups whose only recreation was a sparse meal accompanied by vodka around a table with friends, about his joy when his toys come alive, about the differences between the two grandmothers’ houses, about the competition between the two women to make him “their” grandson, and about absorbing the values of these two women who were so different but were the real source of the love he needed.
The highlight of his hypersensitive existence comes when he discovers in a washtub in Grandmother Mara’s storeroom the 1920s-1930s edition of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia. This is a revelation to a child who has spent so much time trying to make sense of the world, who (perhaps because of his closeness to deaf Tanya) is so alert to “the power of language, where every word contained a backward glance at itself.” Through the discovery of the GSE, and the promise of knowledge it contains, he is able to leave the hard daily life of necessity that the adults lead. Here is a passage in which you see Lebedev at his best, still locked into our hero’s childhood, but also looking back to that time as an adult. He assesses the terrible price that was paid by the citizens of the Soviet Union in the 70-odd years they were told that they were the most advanced country in the world but were actually impoverished in every possible way:
My parents’ life appeared to have an abundance of desires; much later, as an adult, I understood that what I had taken to be the grown-ups’ desires was not that at all.
The substitute for desire was necessity; the necessity of finding food, buying clothing, getting me into Pioneer summer camp; necessity and not desire was the spur to action. When, for example, there is an inescapable task—you must buy oil whether you want to or not—and there is a total deficit of everything that could be of any value, desires fade and are replaced by needs. . .
Whatever difficulties my grandmothers and grandfathers suffered in the thirties and forties, whatever deprivations befell them, the nature of those difficulties and deprivations were different. They could come in an endless succession, they could destroy you or break you, but they were serious, threatening, large-scale, directly related to the historical fate of the country and the world, they bore personal and general meaning.
The quiet absurdity of life, on the contrary, destroyed destiny and grandeur, mocked steadfastness and courage, and demanded that you make yourself commensurate to it, reduce your dreams and become one with hard-to-get items. The world of needs and deficits spun a tiny web of the power of circumstances, in which people got trapped.
The remaining parts of The Year of the Comet are less ruminative. Our hero goes through puberty, becoming more independent and then rebellious, his father goes to Chernobyl and witnesses the effects of a terrible earthquake and begins to unravel. Grandmother Mara remarries, the older people become ill, and illness becomes another urgent necessity in lives that are so stretched its effects can barely be endured. But must be endured. Needs must. The coming of Halley’s comet, which was observed from space by the Soviets, becomes a lynchpin for the memories of Grandmother Tanya who, by relating it to its last appearance in 1910, reveals more and more of her past to our hero. Spending time in the summer with the grandmothers at their dachas, our hero also makes friends, becomes more adventurous and even has an encounter with a sinister character named Mister who may be a serial killer, thus alerting him to the extraordinary dangers of modern life that have nothing to do with the historical dangers that also lurk in the background.
The book ends, literally, with the end of the USSR, when Dzerzhinsky’s statue is toppled and there is chaos in Lubyanka Square. As Americans, we often think of the fall of the Soviet Union with the fall of the Berlin Wall, but this happened later, and our hero is a witness to all the chaos and subsequent hope that it engenders.
This novel feels a little lopsided on first reading , thoughtful and slow in the beginning, a little rushed at the end. (Let this be a caveat to those who read the summary on the jacket – the action comes quite late in the book.) Yet the strategy made more sense on second reading, because it mimics life. Remembers those long days of childhood time seemed to go so slowly? And how life itself speeds up as one matures and grows older? So there is an inner logic to the quickening build-up to the climax of the book: the literal fall of Soviet Moscow. As it approaches, our hero announces that he “was to be born anew,” which is an accurate hope, given all that has happened and all that the family has gone through. And how bitterly ironic this dream turned out to be, twenty five years after promising events in which a freer, easier society seemed to be in the offing.
But that is the point. This is a period in Russian history which needs witnesses with the talent and perspicacity of young Lebedev. And that is why his book is so welcome and why we await eagerly his next foray into fiction.
Roberta Silman‘s three novels—Boundaries, The Dream Dredger, and Beginning the World Again—have been distributed by Open Road as ebooks, books on demand, and are now on audible.com. She has also written the short story collection, Blood Relations, and a children’s book, Somebody Else’s Child. A recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, she has published reviews in The New York Times and The Boston Globe, and writes regularly for The Arts Fuse. She can be reached at email@example.com.