Vassily Aksyonov: Апельсины из Марокко [Oranges from Morocco]
I had read a few Aksyonov books some time ago but he seems to have gone out of fashion. I had not read this one, not least because it had never been translated into English. However, it was mentioned in a book I recently read – Sergey Kuznetsov‘s Хоровод воды (The Round Dance of Water), a fascinating and underrated novel – not because of its quality but because it was a rare novel set in Kamchatka. I suspect that there are even fewer Russian novels set in Kamchatka that have been translated into West European languages.
It is not a great book by any means but a fascinating account of life in Kamchatka as well as a mildly (but only mildly) critical account of the Soviet Union. Like the Kuznetsov novel mentioned above, it is also interesting as we see no KGB agents, no-one dragged off in a car at 4 a.m and life is normal insofar as life in Kamchatka can be normal.
The novel, set in 1960, is structured around five individuals who tell their tales about a specific day. Though they are telling their tales, a host of other characters are mentioned and several characters will appear in two or more of the tales. As the title tells us, the key is a shipment of oranges that has arrived from Morocco. This is an almost unheard-of event and everyone for miles around dashes to get some of the fruit. The stories are about the background to the various people, nearly all of whom come from other parts of the Soviet Union, what is going on in their lives, specifically on that day, and how they react when they hear the news, which essentially mean dashing as fast as they can, on foot or by transport if they can find any, to the dock where the ship is.
The first story is told by Víctor Koltyga, known as Vitia, who is with a group prospecting for oil, though having no luck. Indeed, the crew are in favour of giving up but they are reluctant to suggest it to their new leader, Airapet, who seems more optimistic. Vitia is having a relationship with Lucia Kravechenko. She will later tell one of the stories. She appears to be having some sort of relationship with two other men but feels guilty about it and is mocked for it by the other women who all seem to live together in a dormitory, working various jobs. Lucia is a waitress. Both Vitia and Lucia are from Krasnodar in the sunny South.
In the second story we get one of the rare instances of Communist control. Nicholas Kalchanov has a beard and, at a meeting, he is condemned as Communists are meant to be clean and tidy. He reluctantly agrees to shave. We see an example of the criticism by Aksyonov as, when they are paid, they all rush to the food shops (on a street wittily nicknamed Broadway) which tend to run out of supplies. Nicholas, a builder by trade, is designing a new shopping centre in his spare time but does not expect it to be used. He is in love with Katia, the wife of his friend, Airapet, and, as we shall see, she is not entirely indifferent to him. We get some cultural references with him. He reads Faulkner and likes the Polish film Mother Joan of the Angels, saying that Polish films are better than Russian ones.
Herman Kovalev is a fisherman and he and his crew are often out fishing for several months. He has not seen his girlfriend – the aforementioned Lucia Kravechenko – for a while. He has written to her but she has not replied. His fellow crew members advise him to forget her. He also writes poetry, not the only character in this book who does so. He bumps into a man known as The Root – real name- Valentin Kostyukovsky – who tells his own story later. Root and Herman have a history, not least because both are attracted to Lucia. Root has been fired from Herman’s boat and, as we learn, from several others.
Lucia is the only woman to tell a tale. She likes Vitia but both she and her friends think there is something not quite right about him. She is impetuous but, of course, deep down, has a heart of gold. Root is a drinker and is lazy and is always getting into trouble. All these stories end with the main characters and others rushing off to the dock to get oranges.
The second part of the book has the same people telling their tales but this time they are on the way to Taly, where the oranges are, or actually there. Traffic is tricky getting there and the drivers are driving dangerously but our heroes manage to get there. The first problem is that the shop selling the oranges is just closing when they get there and the police are out in force to make sure there is no trouble. Fortunately, there is a nearby café also selling them and the people queue up for them. At least initially they do but, inevitably, fighting breaks out.
There are two interesting things that happen. First some people have gone there not to get oranges, which they do not particularly want, but just because they want to join in the excitement. Secondly, and more importantly, our stories from the first part, particularly the romantic ones, continue to develop down in Taly. Indeed, it soon becomes apparent that for several of our characters, love (and lust) are more important than oranges.
As I said at the beginning, this is not a great book but is certainly an enjoyable read. It was apparently something of a cult novel in the Soviet era, presumably because of its very mild criticism of the Soviet system. As mentioned the oppressions of the communist system play a very limited role, though we do learn that the women’s dormitory is built on the site of a former Stalinist gulag.
While the shortage of decent food is mentioned more than once – it seems that, a few years back, they had a ship laden with watermelons arrive, with a similar effect – it is more or less accepted though, as we see here, when there is an opportunity to get something different, everyone piles in. Aksyonov would be later driven out of the Soviet Union and ended up in the suburbs of Washington DC, teaching, but clearly not because of this book.
First published in 1963 by Yunost
No English translation
First published in 2003 in French by Actes Sud
Translated by Irène Sokologorsky
Also published in Czech
Text in Russian (which you can Google-translate)