The characters in the experimental short stories by the Russian writer Anatoly Gavrilov subsist on a bland diet of propaganda slogans, doggerel, and popular superstition. Their lives are lived out on the periphery of burnt-out landscapes amid blast-furnaces, abandoned warehouses and tumble-down barracks.
The Russian writer Anatoly Gavrilov was born in 1946 in Mariupol, now part of Ukraine. After graduating from Moscow Literature Institute in 1978, he moved to Vladimir, where he worked as a postman. His works were not published in the USSR until 1989.
The well-known poem by e.e. cummings, anyone lived in a pretty how town, may serve as an excellent introduction to the seemingly bizarre world of Anatoly Gavrilov’s fiction. This is not to say that one sums up or paraphrases the other. Gavrilov stakes out a territory that is in many respects very different from cummings’s. Its topography is less abstract and far more intricately textured. Gavrilov’s characters have names and addresses. After all, he writes prose, not poetry.
But the similarities are perhaps more fundamental than the differences. Gavrilov’s industrial wasteland is subject to the same natural cycles (“spring, summer, autumn, winter”), his characters abide by rituals, not laws, and their names, when they do have them, are often so outlandish (to the Russian ear) that in their absurdity they become interchangeable. And sometimes they even migrate from one story to another, with entirely new characters, in a profane gesture that demotes them to being mere tags, used for convenience’s sake.
Gavrilov’s topography, on the other hand, is very real: Debaltsevo, Gorlovka, Mariupol (in southeastern Ukraine, where the writer was born and grew up), Vladimir (where he now lives) may, with some difficulty, be located on the map of the former USSR. But how come a streetcar goes back and forth between towns separated from one another by hundreds of miles (in the short story Now I know what to say)? And why is the landscape, wherever you go, so recognizably squalid and hopeless? We enter the definitive boondocks, the late-/post- Soviet periphery, graced here and there by relics of industrialization: blast furnaces, abandoned warehouses, invariable smokestacks on the horizon. Gavrilov conjures up a flat world without an axis or a way out. The background takes center stage, and the very distinction between background and foreground becomes meaningless.
In this world, even the intrusions of history seem somehow unnecessary and superficial. Historical wrongs add little to the misery caused by some unnamable primordial trauma, and the day-to-day drama of existence leaves no room for tragedy. Is there room for culture? Sure there is. Gavrilov’s characters subsist on a diet of propaganda slogans, doggerel, and popular superstition. But in light of this, aren’t they like “anyone” of cummings’s poem, or dare I say it, like you and me? Whenever they try to achieve ideological certainty, it slips away or turns into gibberish, as when the narrator of the short story What should I do? can’t choose between the obscure jargon of dialectical materialism (the vulgate of Soviet philosophy) and Christian dogma. He is at a loss for words, struggling to make sense of dissonant ideological claims, but his rambling monologue is not an affirmation of radical doubt. It only demonstrates radical bewilderment and so, ultimately, radical humanity.
For a long time Anatoly Gavrilov had a reputation of a writer for writers, a reclusive master, widely known in narrow circles, whose rare appearances in print exposed the breezy chattiness of much of contemporary Russian prose. The recent edition of Gavrilov’s collected works, put out by a major publisher (Berlin Flute, Moscow, Kolibri, 2010), is sure to introduce a much wider audience to his writings. The volume opens a new book series that will focus on what may be loosely termed “contemporary experimental prose”. Short story collections by the no less idiosyncratic authors Dmitry Danilov, Alexander Sharypov and Oleg Zobern have followed right after.
Inscribing Gavrilov into the modernist tradition may be illuminating but does not explain or exhaust him. Kafka, Joyce and Borges are among his influences. Russian “alternative” or “underground” authors, some famous, some barely known in the West, are no less important for tracing his genealogy. Platonov, Dobychin, Vaginov, Kharms, and Kholin are some of the names worth mentioning here.
Unlike many modernists, Gavrilov refuses to play the role of the creator who has the final say in the world he fashioned (in his own likeness). Nor does he claim privileged access to his characters’ minds. He is observant and sensitive but essentially occupies the same plane of being as the people he watches. He speaks their language and tries not to take sides because much of what he learns about them he learns from hearsay. His characters long for a way out but escape is impossible, so eventually they either embrace the world they live in and give up (as the protagonist of the short story In Italy) or are plunged into infinite despair (as the narrator in But where are the roses?).
Medieval theologians, borrowing from Empedocles, described God as a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere. Gavrilov’s characters live in a godless, fragmented and infinitely peripheral world, where each one of them might well be a different kind of circle – one whose center is nowhere and circumference everywhere… Their lives begin in obscurity and end in a whimper whose echo may be heard in the final lines of Brodsky’s famous love poem:
You and I are now parting forever, dear.
Grab a pen and paper and draw a sphere.
That’ll be me. Inside it – complete
emptiness. Look at it closely – and then delete.*
The following are four short stories by Anatoly Gavrilov: “And the Sun Rises”; “In Italy”; “Glass” and “What Should I do?”.
“And the Sun Rises…”
… A minute earlier than it did yesterday; spring floods, intensified by the sunlight, remove the last grimy remnants of winter’s makeup.
Worms are not out yet. The clay beneath the surface is still frost-bound. Many bushes and trees still wear last year’s leaves. The temperature dropped last night, encasing puddles in ice, in token of an early fall, but it is spring.
A plane is flying somewhere. Soldiers are walking somewhere. A man wearing dirty faux leather is plodding along in an unknown direction. His swollen, beat-up face resembles a plate of beetroot salad.
The black cross on the red coffin lid looks like an antenna.
A boy with a stick is chasing a mangy cat.
An old hag in felt boots is keeping a watchful eye on her chickens, let out for the first time after a long winter and rummaging energetically through the ashes by the picket fence.
My classmate’s elder brother was released from prison. He is smoking pensively by the gate. He had robbed his own aunt.
There are many beautiful women in town.
Flowers are being sold.
Something is being distributed at the railroad store. The people in the queue are agitated. A cripple aims his crutch at the saleswoman. The police are on their way. The cripple scampers off.
The riverbank is damp and dirty. The red eye of a diminutive traffic light is blinking in the distance. Someone’s wet scarf dangles from a riverside willow. Nobody is around. The silence is broken only by the brush of waves and cries of gulls. Suddenly a railroad car rolls out from behind a heap of gravel. A puny railwayman in huge rubber boots is running after it.
He throws stones, sticks, rags, bones, and paper under the wheels of the runaway car, trips over something, falls down. The car rattles out of sight and sinks into the fog bank.
The grass around steaming manholes is bright green, like the turf of Spartak football stadium, like the seedlings on my classmate’s windowsill.
Snowflakes cut across the thickening twilight like chalk stripes across slate and melt as soon as they hit the ground.
Lights come on in the windows. And shadows spring up, disintegrate, and fall back to the ground.
I survey the golden horseshoe of electric lights from the hilltop. They blink, recede into the distance, draw near, fade out, and merge with the lights of the spring sky; behind my back, the bare, black plain trembles with cold; I smell blossoms in the faint breath of the south wind; the road, blanketed by frost after sunset, seems to be covered by fragments of stars.
Mimosas in a vase on the round table twinkle in the dark, a bare branch swings outside the window, the sound of the wind has become louder, and I keep listening to this nocturnal music, and for some reason I want to cry, and I cry….
Today the sun rises a minute earlier than it did yesterday; spring floods, intensified by the sunlight, remove the last grimy remnants of winter’s makeup, and a plane is flying somewhere, and soldiers are walking somewhere, and teenagers practice throwing an axe at the front door of the truckers’ dormitory, and a boy with a stick is chasing a mangy cat, and my former classmate is selling kiwis and pineapples in the street, and her eyes are teary from the wind, mascara and pinkeye, and the ash from her cigarette falls on the kiwis and pineapples, and the wind blows the ash away, and I enter a café and sit down in a plastic chair at a plastic table, and have a whiskey, and a beautiful girl is sitting by the window, and I already have the first sentence by noon – “and the sun rises” – and I get the second sentence from the man who has just cut off the ears of his dead friend, and the third one will be handed over to me by a young municipal cop patrolling the dark alleys behind Ryabinka Bar.*
*All translations by Constantine Rusanov