Alla Gorbunova: Конец света, моя любовь (It’s the End of the World, My Love)
Alla Gorbunova is primarily a poet and this is certainly one of those books that you can tell was written by a poet. It consists of many linked stories. In some cases, characters that make a fleeting appearance in one story will get fuller treatment in a later one.
The stories are initially narrated by an unnamed female narrator who lives in a small Russian town in the period after the fall of the Soviet Union. It is not a positive portrait. Our narrator shows that, post the Soviet Union, the world (or, at least her world) has changed and not for the better. We start off the book with concerns about the end of the world and it does not get any more cheerful. Her grandfather telling her about entropy and increasing chaos and seeing a film about the death of the Sun does not help her fears. Later I’d learn that Russians have been expecting the end of the world and the final war for hundreds of years, in the most varied, wild, and ridiculous sectarian variations. So in the nineties we had this, too.
She and her boyfriend (both aged thirteen) are expecting the war to end all wars at any time and are mildly disappointed when it does not happen. After all, all of us, ages thirteen to nineteen, died in the war that never came.
The town where she lives is not a great place. Drinking and drugs seem to be prevalent at all ages as does violence. Gangs of men randomly seize young women and rape them with impunity. If there are police, they keep a very low profile.
She hangs round the market, getting wasted, along with the various drunks, whores and loonies. We were also almost always drunk, or a little buzzed. When it comes to men, she makes some poor choices, though it seems that there are not many good choices available. Willy, for example, is twenty-eight when she is fourteen. He has been married three times, has been a bootlegger and hired killer. I realized that I was in love with Willy. He was lying near the market stands in a stupor, his pants soaked with piss, and I looked at him and thought that he was unlike anyone I had ever known.
She has a series of dubious boyfriends and a somewhat erratic education. She also consumes lots of drugs and alcohol. But she does start writing poetry and soon amasses a large amount of poems. She joins a literary organisation where she meets Marta with whom she has a a Lesbian affair. We were Rimbaud and Verlaine, Van Gogh and Gauguin, Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas.
So far we have been concentrating on our narrator but at this point we cover others such as her strange aunt Bedya, an unfortunate person who suffered from repressed sexual desires and with whom the narrator and her mother live. We also meet Nastya and Olya. Regarding Nastya we learn it was clear that in order to obtain true, deep insight, in order to bring her heart to life, there was no point in fucking nice boys she liked.
It is also at this point that the book starts getting stranger. Nastya has a copy, which means that there are two of her. The Nastya copy seems to be stuck in the forest and if she tries to leave, she fades away. The nature of the two Nastyas is both complicated and imaginative. The forest, as elsewhere in Russian literature, plays a key role in this book. We get magic realism, fable and horror as various characters go into the forest and suffer various fates. In short the earlier realism has given away to what we might call a more poetic and imaginative approach.
Another key event is the wasted youth party. Various characters are invited to an ultra-mega-hype-party for wasted youth. Those that do attend seem to represent the various character types we have met earlier in the book. There is a drug addict, an alcoholic, someone who is mentally ill, a woman in love with a married man who will not leave his wife, a cult member and others, including, of course a poet. They talk about their issues at the party and are given a chance to break free from their problem. All decline, saying if they had to live their lives again, they would do the same thing.
We continue to get strange stories, including a more or less non-fiction one – the story of Tenevil as well as plenty of fictitious ones such as a story about the making of porn snuff films or the story of three murderers who meet and tell each other why they murder, with a non-obvious explanation from one of them. Yes, all tastes are catered for in this book.
I particularly liked the one about the New Age psychologist and the handyman philosopher, both of whom decide to write a novel and outline their philosophy for doing do. The handyman philosopher’s precepts are:
I. Life is shit.
II. Life has no meaning.
III. Everyone’s gonna die, and good riddance.
Inevitably neither of their novels turn out as planned.
However, we again change focus as the later part of the book deals with her family, including their lives during the Soviet era. Some we have come across before but we now get more details, including their various psychological problems and there are, of course, some colourful ones.
She concludes with Every person contains two beings: the being who lives in Wonderland and is always silent, and the being who has taken over everything and possesses words. The first being, the one from Wonderland, will never learn to speak the language of the second being. They have nothing to say to each other anyway. An interesting idea.
If you like a straightforward conventional, linear plot, this may not be for you. However, if you enjoy a certain amount of chaos in your novels, you will really enjoy this. Gorbunova gives us a not very flattering portrait of post-Soviet, small-town Russia, where drugs, alcohol, casual sex, violence (and violent sex) and debauchery are the norm. The old Soviet era people may try and control it but are fighting a losing battle. However, we are then plunged into magical realism, myth/legend/fairy story, horror, poetical evocations of Russia and its forests and quirky stories sometimes linked to the earlier characters but often not, before ending up with the stories of the narrator’s family. I found it thoroughly enjoyable not least because you never know what is coming next. As with other contemporary Russian novels, it does not exactly paint a flattering traitor of Putin’s Russia but gives us a wonderful evocation of it as seen through a poet’s eyes.
First published in 2020 by New Literary Review (Новое литературное обозрение)
First English publication in 2022 by Deep Vellum
Translated by Elina Alter