Monday, November 21, 2016

oh my god - that ending! Whoa! The Matiushin Case, by Oleg Pavlov

and other stories, 2014
originally published as Delo Matyushina, 1997
translated by Andrew Bromfield
249 pp


The Matiushin Case is second in a trio of stand-alone army novels known as the Last Days trilogy, which begins with Pavlov's Captain of the Steppe (his first novel, shortlisted for the Russian Booker Prize in 1995) and concludes with Requiem for a Soldier.  The Matiushin Case won the Russian Booker Prize in 2002, which is how it came to my attention (and thanks to and other stories for translating it, to my home).  Pavlov has also been awarded a number of other honors: the Solzhenitsyn Prize in 2012, a spot on the shortlist for the Russian National Literary Award "Big Book" in 2010, three literary magazine prizes, and he was a nominee for the Russian Booker Prize of the Decade in 2011.  His first novel was published when he was just 24.

Well, it's a good thing that I don't mind bleak in my reading, since no light seems to shine through anywhere in this story. That's not a bad thing -- on the contrary, sometimes people in books don't have happy lives, just as in real life there are people for whom life isn't always lived on the sunny side.  And while several literary people have pointed out what they see as this novel's flaws,  I don't care -- I was very taken with this novel.  For me this was one hell of a reading experience. When I feel like I'm locked into a claustrophobic, hazy hell along with an already-damaged character and that there's no possibility of escape until the end, well,  to me that's a sign of a good book. Disturbing, yes, but if I'm that disturbed as a reader, well then the author's done his job.

The reality is that it is not a happy world Matiushin is living in here, which we discover as the book follows him from childhood to his time as a young Soviet Army soldier, where he ends up as a guard at a horrific Soviet labor camp aka The Zone.  As a child he grew up in an unhappy, unstable home with his mother, a brother and an overbearing, often violent and drunk military father; as a young recruit he finds himself in a world of corruption, mind-numbing routine, violence, and brutality among his fellow soldiers.  But it's the aha-moment ending that really got to me, one I never saw coming, and one that afforded an entirely different perspective on some earlier parts of this novel.

Obviously I haven't really given much away here, and it's better that way in case anyone decides to read it sometime down the road.  I'll post two reviews but I'd suggest refraining from reading anything that gives away too much.  Anyone at all interested in literature reflecting the Soviet era should not miss this book -- while it has many of the same thematic elements as a lot of other literature of its time, there's something different in this one, causing the story to worm its way into my brain and refuse to leave.

review: Phoebe Taplin, The Guardian, 08/21/2014
review: Brandy Harrison, Three Percent

fiction from Russia

No comments:

Post a Comment

Say what you will, but at least try to be nice about it.