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Vassily Aksyonov: Новый сладостный стиль (The New Sweet Style)

So this is how a Russian novel should be or, at least, a modern one. The hero should be an intellectual, but one who is an ingrained intellectual and does not work at it. He must, of course, be Jewish and like women and alcohol, not necessarily in that order. There must be a complicated plot involving Jewish conspiracies, past and present members of the KGB, complicated (and, ideally, rich) relatives, expulsion from and return to Russia, Gorbachev, communist plots, references to Tarkovsky and, of course, loads of dark, depressive humour. Needless to say, this novel has it all.

The main character, Sasha, based loosely on the author, is a respected theatre director (and singer and playwright), having led a troupe of actors called the Buffoons who mocked the Soviet system. He is forced to leave the Soviet Union and comes to the USA, where he works as a parking lot attendant and part-time drug dealer. However, before pursuing this career, shortly after his arrival in the USA, he sees a large department store bearing his name (Alexander Korbach). He enters the store and endeavours to speak to his namesake. Unfortunately, the namesake has long since died and his descendant, Stanley, is absent. Sasha endeavours to speak to the store manager but his English embarrasses him and he beats a hasty retreat. The store manager is astute enough to pass on the good word to his boss and it turns out that the two are related (and we learn, in some detail, of how they are related and their family history). To cut a long (and it is long) story short, Sasha falls in love (and finds that he is related to his lover) and becomes entangled (gradually) with his long-lost family, talks to Gorbachev and gets drunk.

The whole book is incredible fun as Aksynov relishes in intellectual jokes (and doubtless there are a whole load in the original Russian non-Russian speakers will miss), has the plot going all over the place, brings in a variety of unlikely characters both in the US and Russia (of which Gorbachev is just one example) and yet manages, through all the humour and chaos, to make some very serious points about Russia (and Russians) past and present and how it compares to the US. Read it and enjoy.

Publishing history

First published 1997 by Izograf
First published 1999 in English by Random House
Translated by Christopher Morris