Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Big Green Tent, by Ludmila Ulitskaya

This sweeping novel opens with the death in March 1953 of Stalin, and through its three principal characters, schoolboys at the time, carries us up to the collapse of the Soviet Union, without giving the reader any sense that the empire could ever fail. They become friends as they rescue each other from bullying, and their underdog status - Jew, musician, child of yesterday's aristocracy - channels them toward empathy. Their literature teacher, a veteran who hates war, opens their eyes to the world of poetry and Russian history, and they grow up into the underground of artists and writers persecuted by the Soviet regime. Ulitskaya's choice of the death of Stalin to begin the book emphasizes that once the machinery of repression is in place, those who built it are no longer necessary to its function. Beria is gone, but the Lubyanka, the notorious prison in Moscow, is bustling.

"For so many years Mikha had studied Marxism, trying to work out how such wonderful ideas about justice could become so misshapen, so distorted, in their implementation; but now the truth was laid bare -- it was a grandiose lie, cynicism, inconceivable cruelty, shameless manipulations of people who had lost their humanity, their human dignity and self-worth, out of fear. This fear enveloped the whole country like a dark cloud. One could call this cloud Stalinism; but Mikha had already understood that Stalinism was only a singular instance of the evil of this enormous, universal, timeless political despotism."

The informants, spies, secret police, and their bureaucracy maintain deadly efficient means of suppressing free thought, whatever forms it might take. Owning a typewriter is cause for suspicion. You might think that studying Lenin would be encouraged - but those who look deeper than the official version of his thought and rise to power, as taught in schools, are informed on, interrogated, denied jobs then labeled parasites for not working. A middling painter becomes a savage political cartoonist because he cannot keep silent, cannot continue to crank out meaningless portraits. Inquiring minds resort to secret and innovative means to disseminate the novels and poems outlawed by the government. The samizdat (underground publishing) movement sweeps up many people and nourishes a society starved for reflections of truth through art. As one character tells another:
"[Samizdat] itself is remarkable and unprecedented. It's vital energy that is spread from source to source, establishing threads, forming a sort of spiderweb that links many people. It creates passageways that conduct information in the form of books, magazines, poems, both very old and very new..."

One character is imprisoned for publishing a magazine whose circulation at its height is 20 copies - this is how deeply threatening creative work is to those in power.

Ulitskaya brings to life the sense of urgency this artistic minority feels to hear Pasternak's poems, listen to records of performances by great musicians, to read Nabokov and Solzhenitsyn and Brodsky. They all know they are being followed, spied and eavesdropped on, and they have gestures and phrases to stand in for the things they cannot say aloud. Stints in prison camps undermine their health and spirits then render them unemployable.
"On the eve of his departure [for prison]...he was feeling... guilty, guilty for all that had happened... Guilty before [his pregnant wife] Alyona, since he had left her alone; before his friends, for not being able to do anything that would change the disposition of things for the better; before the whole world, to which he was indebted...
     It's a strange, inexplicable law that the most innocent people among us are the ones predisposed to the greatest sense of guilt."

But the essence of this novel is that along with the horrors, Ulitskaya's characters find unexpected moments of connection - the cartoonist, having fled Moscow, shelters for the winter in a tiny village with an old peasant woman. When she invites her two ancient friends over for their annual bath, he sees them naked, and discovers in their grotesque time-ravaged bodies more honest beauty than he has ever witnessed - the beauty of old women who have suffered all their lives, but who still cavort like children, delighted, mischievous, and without shame.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Beet Queen, by Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich’s 1986 novel The Beet Queen tells a story of intersecting lives through different voices, from 1932 to 1972. Our primary narrator is Mary Adare, an eleven-year-old abandoned by her mother, her baby brother snatched from her arms in a crowd, her older brother Karl hopping back on the freight train that brought them to the tiny North Dakota town where their aunt Fritzie lives with her butcher husband and a daughter, Sita - who also contributes her point of view. Sita’s best friend, Celestine, whose affection Mary steals, is half Indian, tall and wild.

The jealousy that runs through these characters’ lives is less an undercurrent than an underground river, sweeping them into actions whose sole purpose is to hurt each other.  Mary is jealous of Sita’s long blond hair and good looks; Sita is jealous of her parents' welcoming Mary, and the interloper's friendship with Celestine. Later Celestine has a child with Mary’s mostly-absent brother Karl, and the way Mary interposes herself between mother and daughter makes Celestine wild with jealous anger. But as spiteful as they are to each other, they remain connected: Celestine and Mary work in the butcher shop Fritzie and her husband leave to Mary when they retire to a warmer climate. Mary hates Karl for abandoning her when they were desperate children, but Karl takes up with Celestine, driving Mary to fits of rage.

Celestine and Karl’s daughter, named Wallacette in honor of Karl’s onetime lover Wallace, who shelters Celestine on a frigid night and helps bring the baby into the world, is immediately called Dot by Mary. The name sticks, and Wallace can only stand on the sidelines, longing for recognition. Dot, meanwhile, is demanding, selfish, and vengeful, a terror at school. Celestine’s attempts to parent the girl are thwarted by Mary’s interference - no matter how outrageous Dot’s behavior, Mary takes her part, ignoring every version of events but the girl’s. And Dot, latching on like a starveling to Mary’s defense of her, pushes away her mother who would force a reckoning.

The story has fantastical elements - when Karl visits Sita at her lovely home, he sits in a painted wrought-iron chair on their manicured lawn conversing with her second husband. And while they eat tiny sandwiches, Karl’s chair sinks steadily into the grass till finally the earth swallows him altogether. For the Christmas pageant in which Dot plays Joseph, Celestine brings a jello salad full of old bolts and nuts, having labeled the pan “MARY” - this act of spite arises from Celestine’s dislike of the sliced radishes in Mary’s jello salads.

Who are these people? you may ask. But they make some penetrating observations. After leaving Celestine’s brother Russell, a scarred and decorated veteran who has suffered a stroke, Celestine asks,
“Everything that ever happened to him in his life,” she said, “all the things we said and did. Where did it go?”
            ...I [Mary] could not help drawing out Celestine’s strange idea in my mind. In my line of work I’ve seen thousands of brains that belonged to sheep, pork, steers. They were all gray lumps like ours. Where did everything go? What was really inside?... I felt the live thoughts hum inside of me, and I pictured tiny bees, insects made of blue electricity, in a colony so fragile that it would scatter at the slightest touch. I imagined a blow, like a mallet to the sheep, or a stroke, and I saw the whole swarm vibrating out.
            Who could stop them? Who could catch them in their hands?

Reading Erdrich’s books is a visceral experience - I find myself wanting to shout at characters, or their duplicity wrenches my guts, or the traumas they must endure spark tears in my eyes. Her feral imagination provides us with extreme examples of people we encounter, and helps us recognize the instincts that trap us.