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Boris Poplavsky: Домой с небес (Homeward from Heaven)

Boris Poplavsky had previously written about Apollon Bezobrazov in his novel Аполлон Безобразов (Apollon Bezobrazov). While Bezobrazov certainly plays a role in this book, he is not the key character. This novel is somewhat autobiographical, dealing, in part, with Poplavsky’s tempestuous affair with Natalia Stolyarova. Polavsky was to die of a drugs overdose – possibly accidental, possibly not – soon after finishing it. As we shall see, this book relates his tempestuous affairs with two women – Tania and Katia.

The Poplavsky character, if it is indeed based on him, is called Oleg. He is not an entirely admirable character. When we first meet him he is with Apollon Bezobrazov (for some reason called Apollon Bezobrazoff in this book) who is described as not alive, ergo, not aging, not suffering, ergo, not partaking in anything, archaic and aloof. In the previous book, I concluded that Apollon was the devil. If he is not the devil, he certainly is a devil. Mentions, often cynical of the devil and God, appear throughout this book, e.g. The devil is the most religious being on earth, for he never doubts, has never doubted the existence of God, staring Him, as he does, in the eye all day long and he describes the world being God’s sinful dream.

Oleg hangs out with a group of primarily Russians throughout this book, including Apollon, though his relations with them as well as with most of the other characters in the book he is in contact with are, to put it bluntly, very much up and down. At times he gets on with them and they with him and at times, relations are far less cordial. Among his many traits, Oleg is certainly mercurial. Indeed, early in the book we learn, as he speaks to himself, that All your friends have either left or abandoned you because of your callousness.

The key plot outline is his on-off-on-off… relationships with Tania and Katia. Tania has headed South, away from Paris where most of the book is set. He tries to get some company to head South but only Bezobrazov will have anything to do with him. Bezobrazov has a habit of disappearing when things are going well for Oleg but reappearing when they are not. The devil knows when he can exploit his target. They set off for La Favière but, as they are broke, have to camp out, while the others are in various houses. They eat the stuff that Bezobrazov brazenly steals from shops. Oleg is horrified but still eats what Bezobrazov gets.

He does meet up withe the group but comments they immediately discovered that they had nothing to talk about together, since not one of them was possessed of genuine insight, that tragic and poisonous insight that is the preserve of Russian Europeans. Indeed, this issue of Russianness also occurs elsewhere in the book.

He does see Tania but, as will become the norm for this book, one minute they are close and the next, they are breaking up. He tries swimming but nearly drowns and then learns that Tania has another boyfriend. But What was it, really, that he saw in this fleshy, brazen woman? That she could bear children? That she could bear him, with his blackened ears and craven mouth? Again, his self-doubt occurs throughout the book. He will drift around looking for her, knowing she is with her boyfriend.

So it is, eventually, back to Paris. He drifts around occasionally bumping into friends. Oleg has many faults. One is laziness. He does not work and relies on handouts from the government and friends. He plans to become a taxi-driver but cannot bring himself to take the necessary exam or even prepare for it. He does try a couple of jobs but is hopeless at them and soon gives up.

Apart from drifting around, he claims to spend his time writing and reading (Hegel!) but, as we learn, he had never in fact read a single book from cover to cover.

In one of his wanderings he bumps into a group of Russians whom he knows and joins up with them. One of them is Katia and soon they become an on-again, off-again, on-again… item. Apart from sex, Katia has one other advantage. She is quite well-off and Oleg is happy for her to pay. But, as with Tania, things are all not all sweetness and light. Katia’s physical presence had turned his life into a torrent of images and torments from which he could not awaken and he alternated, now radiating a studiedly joyous, cool warmth, now truly experiencing the vague fear of something irreparable, the ascetic terror of falling into a seething whirlpool. Katia, like Tania, also has another boyfriend and they are having their difficulties.

As far as Oleg is concerned, she does have one other advantage – she does not like Dostoevsky, which, as far as Oleg is concerned is a good thing. This book seems far more influenced by French writers such as the Symbolists, the the Decadents and even the Surrealists than any Russian writers.

But things are not going well with Katia and indeed anyone else, except of course Bezobrazov, though, perhaps not surprisingly, Tania reappears in his life but there has been no improvement in their relationship.

Much of the book consists of Oleg’s thoughts – philosophical musings, self-deprecation, wondering who he is and were he is going, what he can do and why he should not bother doing it and feeling lonely and sorry for himself. Let me be someone, make me a man. After all, I don’t love anyone. I don’t know how to remember, how to take anything seriously.

He sums himself up: He truly knew how to live on the very brink of depredation and moral prostitution without ever crossing the line, rescued eternally by stipends, loans, and his government allowance. A professional beggar, an eau-de-cologned hermit without a single adventure to his name.

Oleg, as mentioned, is not a model citizen and has few admirable characteristics. Indeed, he can be said to be an anti-hero. And that is the strength of this book as we follow a man who spends a lot of time wallowing in self-doubt and self-pity as well as in philosophical musing, who we hope is finally going to make something of himself but yet never seems to have the impetus to do so.

Publishing history

First published in 1993 by Logos
First published in 2020 in English by Columbia University Press
Translated by Bryan Karetnyk