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Alan Cherchesov: Реквием по живущему (Requiem for the Living)

The introduction compares this novel to the work of Faulkner and García Márquez. It is not a view I share. If a comparison is to be made, it should perhaps be with the superb Герой нашего времени (A Hero of Our Time), another novel set in Russian-conquered Central Asia and concerned with honour. Cherchesov’s novel tells the story of an Ossetian community shortly after the Russians have conquered the country. Though there is conflict between one or two Russians and the Ossetians, this not the theme of the novel. Rather it is about issues of honour and honesty, against the background of Ossetians customs and legends and, in particular, telling the story of a somewhat strange Ossetian.

The boy called Alone – we never know his real name and nor, apparently, does he – has been orphaned when his parents were both killed in a landslide. He lives with an extended family. The family steals some horses from a nearby community and then disappears. The owners of the horses come to the village, seeking their horses and revenge. The villagers persuade them that they had nothing to do with the theft or the family. Then the ten-year Alone turns up – riding one of the stolen horses. The horse is returned and Alone stays in the village, taking possession of the family property. He makes a deal with a neighbour – the grandfather of the narrator – whereby the neighbour takes six sevenths of the harvest, in return for a gun, a sheepskin jacket and some mats. This leaves Alone with little to do but, as the narrator points out, open the door for his share of the harvest. However, Alone, as he has already shown, is very astute. He makes a deal with the grandfather whereby he will be given four cartridges in return for a hare, which Alone will shoot. The grandfather agrees. Alone manages to kill one hare for two cartridges, so he soon has a surplus of cartridges, which he exchanges back for a mule. He increases his assets by clever trades but also by gambling, at which he shows himself particularly astute, at the expense of the local men. Soon he is both disliked but admired. This admiration increases when he, still a boy, manages to kill a bear. The villagers try to gain their revenge on him but he outsmarts them every time.

Soon he is off to the Russian fort (the nearest Russian town, two days away) where he seems to do well in trade. When he is seen going off with a cartload of rocks and returning with a fine coat and dagger, the local men load up their carts and set off, only to find that there is no demand for their rocks. However, the local men learn that trading with the Russian fort can be profitable. They also learn that Alone is a talented painter and his paintings can be quite frightening. The bulk of the novel, however, is concerned with a long and convoluted story which involves murder, rape, arson, corruption and robbery and which the narrator, twenty-five years later, is trying to unravel. The narrator talks to various relatives and others who may have been involved in the story. It involves a miller who wants to get a new mill, a travelling group of foreigners – they are called Belgians, though there is no evidence that they are, the assistant to the shopkeeper, the narrator’s father, who gets caught up in a dirty plot and ends up in prison, the rape of a simple-minded young woman and the consequences of that and, of course, honour and revenge. Alone is very much involved in the whole plot and, indeed, fills in the narrator with what happened at the end of the story. Given the location, honour is, of course, key and the question remains whether that has been met. We learn a lot about Alone during the course of these events. Apart from his take on honour, we also learn that he is, like most of us, a man who needs human company and love, even if he does struggle to find it. Cherchesov tells a fine Ossetian story and, in Alone, creates a fascinating portrait of a strange man who likes his solitude but knows that there is more to life than being alone.

Publishing history

First published 1995 by Sabashnikovykh
First English translation by Glas in 2005
Translated by Subhi Shervell