— Svetlana Alexievich
SERGEI LEBEDEV’S NOVELS seek intersections between biography and history. In a post-Soviet context, this often means digging up graves. The writer becomes a modern version of the pilgrim in the underworld, sojourning among the dead to give them ear. But like the pilgrim, the writer faces a problem of interpretation: the dead appear as subjects of history, in possession of meaningful stories, but they also don’t care about him or his mission. (In the Greek myths, what they really want is blood.) If the dead speak, it is for their own sake: the pilgrim’s task is to listen and be transformed. If he stays too much on mission, if he tries too hard to make sense, he won’t hear a thing.
Lebedev’s third novel to be translated into English, The Goose Fritz, descends into the German section of Russia’s mythical underworld, and stumbles on the pilgrim’s problem. Fritz is a family saga located within the larger story of Russia’s Volga Germans: ethnic Germans who settled along the Volga River beginning in the 18th century, continued to speak German and maintained German cultural traditions, and suffered sweeping repressions as the USSR entered into World War II. The novel’s hero, Kirill, is a modern-day historian with Volga-German roots that his family has tried to keep secret. When offered a fellowship at Harvard, his hand is forced: he turns down the offer and decides instead to research his own mysterious history, to explore family secrets whose existence he has suspected since childhood.
Kirill’s decision, like much of his resulting investigation, carries a feeling of predestination so palpable it seems magical. One bloody portent in particular seems to herald his fate, and the novel’s. As a boy, Kirill is regularly taken by his grandmother to Moscow’s “German Cemetery” (officially the Vvedenskoye Cemetery) to help care for a family plot. Here the boy encounters mysterious foreign symbols (the Latin letters on the tombstones, for instance) and begins to feel the pull of history. On one visit, that pull is made objective as he pricks his finger on a thorn above his German ancestor’s tomb:
Kirill stared at the blood — for the first time it was not simply a physiological substance, the crimson, innocent moisture of the body, but the concentration of dark secrets. […] He now saw it as a mixture of bloods carrying different inheritances, different possible destinies, boiling from contact with one another, eternally arguing for primacy.
These allegorical excitements are a replica of the narrator’s own speaking style, granting the child a language (and maybe an interest) that doesn’t seem his own. The narrative voice thus acts, here and throughout the novel, as irruptive and fateful. Images serve the same purpose: years later, Kirill’s grandmother’s gravestone will be literally cleaved in two by unknown forces. The adult Kirill understands from this sight that he must ditch his fellowship and research his family history, or else “that crack would run through the lines of his life like a black snake of meaninglessness.” Fate, the book claims, is making itself known. Yet something is missing: an exchange, a dialogue, which in classical modes would place the seeker in relationships as he navigates his fate. In the graveyard, Kirill’s blood is displayed but not sacrificed. The black snake, an animal messenger from the underworld, is not allowed to speak. The modern nightmare of history is revealed as an inability to converse with the dead as one wanders among them. Magically, Kirill is untouched by this failure. He reads everything correctly, both his family’s fate and his own.
As Kirill traverses German lands to see where his people came from, the narration solidifies its mode of insistent vagueness. Kirill retraces his ancestors’ travels toward and through Russia, reconstructing them out of details he discovers about their lives, with the help of his knowledge of historical events and forces — but he hardly converses with anyone. Passing through setting after setting, he enters no scenes. The novel contains remarkably little dramatic tension; interpersonal stakes are rarely articulated or even made palpable. Incomprehensibly large and complex historical trajectories take the place of discernible psychological motivations. Kirill does what he does, thinks what he thinks, because he is in thrall to a larger psychology, a suprapersonal ethics that belongs to the narrator. And the plot finds itself in the same claustrophobic thrall. In one climactic scene, Kirill is granted access to the vast, chaotic storerooms of the Museum of the Battle of Stalingrad (an apt image of the underworld), and out of pure luck walks straight to a box containing the effects of his great-uncle. The text is rich with sentences like “Kirill solved the puzzle” and “what happened later confirmed his hypothesis.” No puzzle goes unsolved, no hypothesis fails. Domino follows domino as Kirill’s investigation coasts down the sluice of (as one standalone paragraph puts it) “Fate.”
Of course, claustrophobia might be the proper mode for a book about trauma. The hint of alien voices in one’s history and blood — voices that have also been officially suppressed — might well create a cramped psychology, receptive to dream-images but unable to trust them. Images from the Soviet past are often so surreal and horrid (see Svetlana Alexievich’s journalistic collage Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets), they weaken the border between waking and dream. As a boy in his grandmother’s village, Kirill witnesses the slaughter of a family of geese by a psychotic World War II veteran who mistakes them for enemy soldiers. Later, Kirill will muse that this veteran “had removed something important for achieving adulthood from him” as he committed his weird murder. It’s never clear what the important missing thing is, but I would guess it’s the confidence to accept the irrational — the fruits of the unconscious, the image — as part of his psychology. Dream-images are not supposed to occur before opened eyes. As Alexievich’s books make clear, such images witnessed in waking life remain radically alien, yet irrecoverably part of oneself. Her interviewees claim a bad or disordered memory, then eject nightmare visions: “Where was it? The transit camp? They were crawling around a large yard on their hands and knees eating grass.” Like shrapnel lodged deep in the body, such images can be neither outlived nor incorporated.
Germany itself can seem like shrapnel in the Russian psyche: internalized but alien, suspect and a bit mysterious. Along with the French, the Germans hold an outsize place in Russia’s conceptions of self and other. If France has represented class and culture, offering Russians self-definition through aspiration, Germany has embodied the technical and scientific (including the esoteric and occult), offering self-definition through opposition. Such ambivalence is heightened because Russia literally has Germany in its blood — beginning with Catherine the Great, who was Prussian, the ruling House of Romanov was closely tied to German aristocracy. It was Catherine who invited Germans to settle in Russia; it was also she who laid the official groundwork for Russia’s literary, artistic, and scientific culture. Since then, Russia has both respected and distrusted Germany, like a well-to-do cousin whose help it has neither solicited nor refused, and whom it therefore despises. (One of Alexievich’s interview subjects recalls the ambivalence of the USSR’s western reaches when the Nazis invaded: Soviet life had been chaotic and destitute, and here the Germans were going around town planting flowers…)
For all that, there is little unease in the course of The Goose Fritz: its sense of destiny is too strong, its hero too bound up in his narrator to allow for internal distance. This hermeticism results in a kind of interpretive dogma. “Someone must have been burning falling branches nearby,” goes a typical observation, “but to Kirill it was the smoke of history…” Each detail of narration is an occasion for a meaningful sign to appear, and the purposiveness of these signs is never second-guessed. When the voice goes for distance, building bridges across minds and generations, the result is often opaque and overdetermined: “Kirill wondered whether Andreas would have understood the fears of the girl who would become the wife of his great-grandson.” This is monologism in dialectical form — it displays forces in tension in order to produce an inevitable resolution — and thus would have been at home in a work of socialist realism. In official Soviet literature, plot was engineered to echo Marxist dialectics; if asked why a character did this or that, an enlightened reader might say: because that is how the laws of history operate. Lebedev’s ethics are of course quite different from those of socialist realism, but they are comparably hermetic. The lack of room between Kirill and his narrator leaves no space for dialogue, which is a mistake in a book about heeding the stranger within.
Near the book’s finale, Kirill finds himself in Berlin, where Lebedev has turned the largely restored Tiergarten park into a Hades of mauled statues fresh from the war: “Beethoven shot in the chest […] A fingerless harpist […] Gods, corpses, maidens, heroes all bearing the mark of death, all dead twice.” The incoherence of this place with the real-life Tiergarten, along with Kirill’s insistently lonesome passage through it, suggests that he is between worlds, half in daytime and half in dream. The book has entered the province of magic, rather than socialist, realism, but without acknowledging it. After two days of wandering the park alone, Kirill concludes: “The marble wounds, scrapes, cracks, holes, voids, and caverns turned into Braille for Kirill; it was the language of the past here, speaking of the losses, and he studied the language so that he could ask his questions.” The metaphor of Braille illustrates the limits of Fritz’s course. In a traditional underworld, we are blinded and need a Tiresias or Virgil to hold our hand. If the Tiergarten statues offer themselves in Braille, it means they don’t inhabit an underworld so much as an exhibit. It’s no wonder that we don’t learn what Kirill’s “questions” are: he has no opportunity to articulate them, because he finds no one to ask. The price of accessibility is solitude.
It’s also no surprise that Lebedev’s prose is lyrical as a rule: cast in assonant patterns, attentive to rhythmic weight, responsive to the habits and desires of language. Antonina W. Bouis’s translation is both faithful and inspired, spinning the story out in a tirelessly beautiful English. In fact, the aesthetic triumphs of the prose might have something to do with the flatness of the tale it tells. It is one thing to have a fancy prose style, but even Nabokov (especially Nabokov) never lets up on the irony, never gives up on the reader. A good novelistic lyricism should despise itself, or at least invite a peek behind the veil every so often. Lebedev’s language never achieves character status; it never takes part, and so there is only the veil.
The Goose Fritz is a book written against monologism. History cannot be an official affair, it argues; history cannot be monolithic, leaving out all unofficial voices. One of the projects of magic realism is to write against repressive monologisms: to preserve voices neglected and stifled by the official dialectic, and to instantiate the counterfactual and fantastic as a reparative mythopoeia. (One can find echoes in the Russian postmodern: Olga Slavnikova’s metaphorical anarchy; Vladimir Sorokin’s chronotopic Wild West; Victor Pelevin’s omnivorous imaginary.) The Goose Fritz seems to be in line with these liberations, arguing that the alien parts of one’s culture and oneself should be given air and not paved over. But there is no magical intervention, save the prose style itself. Lebedev forces the real to mouth the language of repair, leaving no space for dialogue. Kirill binds his wound as the dead clamor for blood.
Leeore Schnairsohn holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from Princeton University, with a dissertation on Osip Mandelstam. He teaches in the Expository Writing Program at New York University.