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Eugene Vodolazkin: Оправдание Острова (A History of the Island)

The Russian title translates literary as Justification for the Island, a somewhat strange title so it is not difficult to see why the English has gone for a more straightforward title which does sum up what it is about.

The unnamed island is an imaginary island and as the English title tells us this is a sort of history of the island. Much of it is told in a series of chronicles. Vodolazkin’s day job involves studying Byzantine chronicles and they have presumably very much influenced him here though the island’s history does not seem too much like Byzantine history, though as that is a subject I know very little about I may be mistaken. What it does do is show some areas that we might recognise and others that are decidedly from Vodolazkin’s reading or imagination.

The first clearly imaginary issue is that much of the story is told or, at least, commented on by the island’s former rulers, Prince Parfeny and Princess Ksenia, who are 347 years old. Apparently this advanced age does not cause as much surprise on the Island as it would to us. While they tell the tale, they have recourse to other sources for the period before then and when they were young. These chronicles, as chronicles can be, bring in an old favourite literary device, the unreliable narrator, in particular, the chronicle of Prokopy the Nasal, so called because he had had his tongue cut out when young for using foul language. His chronicle is extensively quoted with the comment not everything Prokopy says in his chronicle should be considered a lie.

Little is known, of course, about the early days. We vaguely recalled dreadful hurricanes and earthquakes, fierce winters when the sea froze, and internecine wars and invasions of other tribes, but we could not specify when they were happening. Books arrived later from abroad as did Christianity though they had their own variations of some of the well-known biblical stories. (It is true that these pieces of information do not fully correspond with Darwinism but that’s more likely a problem with Darwinism). Prince Feodor made it clear that everyone should be baptised so they were. They had their own prophet, Agafon, but his prophecies were for so far in the future it was impossible to check them for accuracy. Indeed, his key prophecy has been lost and, in the latter part of the book, they will look for it and it will turn out to be fairly key, if it is accurate.

As in other countries there is a North-South dichotomy and we get the story in full detail of a medieval-type siege and how it ended, with the respective Southern and Northern princes fathering Ksenia and Parfeny. This led to a host of prince regents till the two, who were betrothed as very young children, grew up. One regent lasted just three days. There will be further North-South disputes later on.

We follow events with the regents and then when Ksenia and Parfeny take over. Inevitably there are problems, recounted by the chroniclers. The worst is when they are conquered by a foreign power under Emperor Nikifor. We know relatively little about that period, which lasted one hundred and fifty years, as the chronicle was destroyed. However, as empires do, that empire fell, Prince Parfeny is back.

We get details of various problems – volcanoes, assassination attempts, plagues of locusts, earthquakes and the like but, generally they are just mentioned in the chronicles and their long-term effects are often ignored.

During this period we follow the story in a different way. Sometime in the future the royal couple are invited to Paris as a French film director is making a film of their life. This gives Vodolazkin a chance to mock film makers because, of course, for cinematic reasons, the film is not an entirely accurate portrait of their respective lives. However, they are telling their story to the director over a large section of the latter part of the book and though the chronicles are continuing, this is clearly seen as an alternative form of chronicle.

Vodolazkin is Russian so, of course, we are going to get the Russian Revolution. We have a Lenin-like figure who is not too Lenin and ditto Stalin. However subsequent events show some similarities – famine, civil war, while others are very different. I did not, however, spot an obvious Putin. Our royal couple have to live in a communal building.

We move on to the modern era as well – oligarchs, shoddy foreign goods, the Internet, social media. immigration and the general effects of a post-Soviet capitalist society. But Agafon’s prophecy is found and warns The earth, which is sensitive to the bitterness of people, will itself become embittered.

While this is certainly a clever idea and imaginatively carried out, I did not enjoy it as much as his previous books. A lot of it is chronicles and chronicles can be interesting but can also be boring if you are not fully invested. I would have preferred Homer, the Chanson de Roland or Cantar de mio Cid style rather than the all too frequent In the fifteenth year of his reign such-andsuch happened. In short it lacks soul. Ksenia and Parfeny are worthy and fairly interesting people but, frankly, not terribly exciting. Yes, we get contradictory chronicles, improbable events, events which we can vaguely relate to our real world, strange prophecies and a large cast of the good, the bad and the ugly but, overall, it did not entirely convince.

First published 2021 by Redakt︠s︡ii︠a︡ Eleny Shubinoĭ : Izdatelʹstvo AST
First published in 2023 in English by Plough Publishing
Translated by Lisa C. Hayden