‘The Man Who Couldn’t Die’ by Olga Slavnikova (Review)

After a trip back in time to Korea’s Chosŏn period, we’re keeping a little closer to the present day in today’s #WITMonth post, and leaving royal affairs far behind.  This time around, we find ourselves in Russia, where the Soviet era, while over, still lingers in the memory, and the common folk are working out the best way to survive now that socialism has exited the building.  But what if you’re not ready to move on?  That’s a question for the family described in today’s book to consider, especially as the head of the family isn’t really in any condition to make major life changes…

Olga Slavnikova’s The Man Who Couldn’t Die: The Tale of an Authentic Human Being (translated by Marian Schwartz, review copy courtesy of Columbia University Press) drops the reader straight into the middle of the book’s setting, with a brief introduction to the man the story’s about:

World War II veteran Alexei Afanasievich Kharitonov had been lying in the farthest and probably coziest corner of their standard-issue two-room apartment, immured in his enfeebled, emasculated body, for fourteen years.  “A very good heart, a very strong heart,” Evgenia Markovna, the aging district doctor, who looked like nothing so much as a wise rat, murmured.
p.1 (Columbia University Press, 2019)

Despite the massive stroke that has kept him bedridden for well over a decade, the former war hero shows no signs of dying from his condition, and even if that makes life tough at times for his wife, Nina Alexandrovna, she and her daughter, Marina, are keen for him to stay alive, partly for the monthly pension the old man receives.  For this reason, fearing that news of the massive societal changes that have engulfed the country could cause Alexei Afanasievich’s condition to deteriorate, the two women keep up a pretence of a continuing Soviet state, censoring the stories they read from the newspaper and making up stories about the successes of the defunct communist regime.

Outside is a very different story, though, and the two women begin to realise that life can’t go on like this forever.  Nina Alexandrovna slowly starts to adapt to the challenges of shopping and other interactions in the capitalist era while Marina throws herself into a new project, hoping to make a success of herself.  Back at the apartment, among the dust and dirt, there are hints of change, too, but of a very different kind.  Alexei Afanasievich seems to be taking a turn for the better, but he intends to use his returning strength for just one reason – to put an end to his miserable existence…

The Man Who Couldn’t Die is the third title I’ve read from CUP’s ambitious Russian Library project, but it’s the first modern work I’ve tried from the series.  The premise reminded me instantly of the German film Good Bye, Lenin!, and in his excellent introduction, Mark Lipovetsky mentions Slavnikova’s belief that the movie makers took her idea.  In truth, though, Alexei Afanasievich is a relatively small part of the story and more of a background presence, even if we do see more of him as the book progresses and his retuning energies allow him to pursue his death in earnest.

In fact, the book is less about the man who couldn’t die than the women who care for him and rely on his pension.  The first of these is Nina Alexandrovna, a timid woman ill-suited to the brave new world she finds herself in and struggling to get her head around the idea of Russia’s nouveaux riches:

Knowing very little about that bizarre species of apparently synthetic people who had gold threads sewn into their faces and money inserted into their metabolism, incorporating it into their own biology through wine cellars and expensive restaurants, Nina Alexandrovna imagined the community of “new Russians” as the one place a person becomes inaccessible by joining, interacting with the world exclusively through ingested and secreted sums of money. (p.95)

As time passes, she finds herself increasingly caught between two eras.  Her instinct is to hold tightly onto the old one in her apartment (with her immobile husband, the picture of Brezhnev on the wall and the fake news), but she realises that the new one is threatening to race off without her, leaving her to struggle along alone.

Marina, however, is a very different story.  The daughter is a hard-bitten, hard-working, ambitious woman who somehow never quite manages to get ahead.  Having been used by her boss at the TV station, she sees in an impending election a new opportunity she latches onto like a limpet, deciding to canvas for one of the candidates.  Unlike her mother, Marina is only too happy to leave the past behind, shedding her husband, her old clothes and her hairstyle like a skin she’s outgrown, yet as she is to learn, even in the modern era, success is still hard to come by.

The Man Who Couldn’t Die is a wonderful depiction of a society in flux, and of the people caught up in these waves of change.  There are echoes here of other works by women in translation, such as the Georgia of Nino Haratischvili’s The Eighth Life (for Brilka), or the Ukraine of Żanna Słoniowska’s The House with the Stained-Glass Window, with a description of the initial vacuum after the fall of the Soviets, one that some see as a time of opportunity. On one side we have the election and the ‘canvassing’, a Trollopian activity of ‘encouraging’ voters to back their man.  On the other side, we have nostalgia, with some afraid of the rapid societal changes, clinging to the comfort blanket of a familiar past.

What sets Slavnikova’s story apart from those mentioned above, though, is the the writing.  Initially, there’s a definite feel of classic Russian literature coming from the use of the characters’ names, the lengthy sentences and the languid pace of the novel.  I also sensed more than a nod to the likes of László Krasznahorkai at times, given the depressing setting and the futile struggles of poor people in a dead-end provincial town.  The writer also experiments with clever changes of pace and perspective, which has the effect of sometimes making things seem out of focus; many of Nina Alexandrovna’s dizzying experiences have these slightly unreal touches of the grotesque:

From a distance, all the people looked blurred and slightly translucent to Nina Alexandrovna; as a person got closer, he firmed up, acquired a flush to his cheeks, a fur coat, sometimes even a beard, at the same time losing a captivating haze, as if he’d emerged from the fog of his own soul.  This odd effect was observed at a distance of about ten paces and came about in two indistinct stages – a right and a left – like someone taking clothing off or putting it on; Nina Alexandrovna, who had always seen this but only now realized it, thought that perhaps a human soul really could be seen at a distance – this was the gentle miracle of myopia – so all people were better far away than up close. (p.162)

Another classic influence here could be Andrei Bely’s Petersburg, but whatever Slavnikova’s writing brings to mind, it’s all wonderfully done, and credit must, naturally, go to Schwartz for bringing all of this into her English version.

In many ways, The Man Who Couldn’t Die is a slightly unusual work, a mix of classic literature and modernism, and a simple tale that’s one to savour, not rush through.  The novel seems to explore whether it’s better to cling to the past or gamble on an uncertain future, all the while watching the present melting away.  Appropriately enough for Women in Translation Month, while we come for the old man, it’s the women you’ll be staying for as they reflect on their lives.  Having dwelt in the past for so long, it might just be time to move on and face the future…

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