Igor Eliseev: One-Two
The narrator of this novel is called Vera in Russian but Faith in English and Faith is the name used after the beginning of the book. Her sister is Nadezhda, which is Hope in English. The two sisters are conjoined, i.e. what we used to call Siamese twins. Their mother, when she saw them, had a fit and was easily persuaded to sign a death certificate. Their father was away so was notified of their death. The sisters became experimental subjects, first at the institute of pediatrics and then at the institute of traumatology.
It was at the institute that they met Lizzie. Lizzie was much older than them. She had had an affair with a black Cuban athlete at the Moscow Summer Olympics in 1980. She got pregnant and her parents had made her have an abortion, which led to a breakdown. She was a skilful artist and drew the twins in different ways and was very friendly with them. She ended up killing herself, though the institute claimed that she slipped and had fallen through the window. As a result of her death and the resultant complaints, many of the patients, including the twins, were moved.
The twins were taken to a dismal place, where many of the patients were sufferers from cerebral palsy. The staff were unpleasant – the director was called Adoter but was nicknamed Adolf’s Daughter by the others, the place was cold, the food was dismal and the twins were bullied (the more miserable a victim was, the more ruthless was the attitude towards him or her. But there was nothing to be done about it.) Instead of using their real names, they were, like the other patients, given other names, in their case One and Two. As Faith said In their eyes, we are not poor cripples deserving compassion, but just a two-headed freak they hate and fear.
They spent considerable time there during their school years. Our life turned into one long, meaningless day, and every following year was no different from the previous one. They had spoken to the only sympathetic member of staff about getting separated but he pointed out that, as they shared a liver, this would not be possible. Nevertheless, they felt sure that, out in the real world, this could be possible. When it looks as though they might be able to leave, Adoter stops them from doing so. However, they find a way to escape.
Out in the real world, they meet an old lady living in the cottage. She is the first really kind person they have met and she looks after them. It is here that we see the real theme of the book. She had been brutalised by the Germans during the war but, when liberated by the Soviets, had been sent to a Soviet camp where she had also been brutalised.
However, they still need to be separated and they move on to the city. We follow their life in the city. It is now the post-Soviet era but things are no better than they were. Indeed, for many, they are worse. Hospitals are overcrowded and staff are overstretched. Bureaucracy still reigns supreme. There is considerable poverty and unemployment. There is a lot of violence. Moreover, exploitation by the state has been replaced by exploitation by capitalism.
The twins are employed by two different unscrupulous men who hire the handicapped to beg and then take the money, giving the beggars a minimal amount to live on. This idea, of course, was famously used in Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera. While begging, the twins try to find suitable accommodation, search for their parents and meet various people, many victims of the system. Apart from Rosa, the old lady who looked after them when they first escaped, they only really meet one other kindly person.
There is no question that Eliseev is following in a long tradition, namely damning the Soviet/Russian system which brutalises and exploits its citizens. In the book he mentions The Gulag Archipelago though the more obvious comparison might be Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, though there are many others. He has cleverly divided the novel into two halves. The first half, set in the institution, shows the state control of the Soviet era. The children are brutalised and, in turn, often become brutal themselves. Any opposition is brutally repressed. Justice is arbitrary and cruel. They do have shelter and, though it is poor quality, they are fed. There is, however, no heating and they are, essentially, trapped in the system, unless the system wants to free them.
The real world is no better or, perhaps, worse. Once again they are exploited but this time by the new capitalist system. Moreover, there is no guaranteed shelter or food and still no heating. Perhaps the only advantage of the capitalist system is that there are one or two kind people to help them. Of course, this kind of approach applies to everybody and not just to conjoined twins or handicapped people, even though this group not surprisingly fares much worse in both systems. However, the fact they are conjoined twins makes the book much more interesting than the straightforward allegory/satire of the Soviet/post-Soviet system. They have their own special problems and issues. We follow their relationship, which is not always smooth. They are somewhat different from one another and do not always share the same view of the world. They are twin sisters but, despite being conjoined, they are separate individuals with their own identity. In short, what would otherwise have been an interesting and worthwhile book becomes a highly original book which I can thoroughly recommend.
First published by Glagoslav in 2016