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Leonid Girshovich: Прайс [Preis]

During the 1950s, Stalin sent large numbers of dissidents and, in particular, a large number of Jews off to Siberia. There have been many novels of the sufferings of those in gulags, such as Верный Руслан (Faithful Ruslan) and, of course, the works of Solzhenitsyn. This novel takes something of a different approach. The novel is set in the apparently fictitious Ijma, in Siberia. There is, in fact, a real Ijma near Archangel but this is not it. The area is populated by a native people, the Evenks, though, in this book, the locals are referred to as Fijmians which may or may not include other native populations. However, the majority of the people, at least as far as this book is concerned, are the Jews who have been sent here (or whose families have been sent here) by Stalin. Unlike those in gulag novels, however, they have set up a society, modelled to a great extent on the life they left behind (a life they scarcely mention), particularly a life in St Petersburg/Leningrad. We get a brief introduction on the arrival of the Jews and the reaction of the Fijmians (mixed, bemused.) As the title of the novel indicates, the focus is on a character called Preis, though the novel is richly peopled with a large cast of characters, mainly but certainly not all Jews.

Preis is Leonti Preis, a schoolboy when we first meet him. Initially, he lives alone with his father Aron. However, Girshovich normally uses the designation Preis to refer to the son and not to the father. Aron had married a seventeen year old, Mussia Talroze and they had had just the one child. Initially, we learn only that Mussia has died. Later we learn that she seemingly drowned in a lake but there is a suggestion that Aron murdered her. She had wanted to name their son Sergei. Aron was strongly opposed. The tradition is that a Jewish son should be named after his father’s father but Aron did not really like the name Luitpold so chose another name beginning with L. After Mussia dies, Aron initially remains single, till he is approached by Darima Linkhoboyevna, the headmistress of the school Leonti attends and a native, not a Jewess. She has some evidence of Aron’s complicity in the death of his wife and the price of her silence is marriage. Aron agrees. The marriage puts him beyond the pale, as far as the local Jewish society is concerned, but this does not bother either father or son.

Just as Ijma seems something of a microcosm of a Jewish town elsewhere in the Soviet Union, so the school is something of a microcosm of the town. I say something of because it is certainly not a replica in miniature, in either case, but the activities and people seem to mimic to a certain degree the larger unit. All the teachers at the school are, in fact, women and, as in any good school and any good town, are divided into factions, often battling one another while, at the same time battling the pupils. The pupil they seem to have to battle most is Preis. We are introduced to most of the teachers but the one who has the most problems with Preis is the substitute who takes over the Russian language and literature class when the normal teacher, Nelly Naoumovna Roubinton, is accidentally shot (but not fatally). Alexandra Arievna cannot cope with him, particularly when he tries to rile her. (Girshovich has just told us, tongue in cheek, that Preis is a model pupil.) However, the teachers are often complaining about him, as do others. It is not that he is wicked. Indeed, some say he is mad, while others call him the village idiot. He just goes that one step too far, pushing the rules just too far and then cleverly defending himself.

Preis himself wants to be an artist and we follow, to a certain extent , his career as an artist at school. The views of his talent are decidedly mixed. However, despite the comments of his teachers and others, he does go to Leningrad, where, albeit with a touch of irony, he is hailed as the New Rembrandt. But we also follow him as a son – he is not averse to criticising his father, when he thinks it necessary and there is certainly no strict father-son relationship here – and we follow him also as a stepson.

Girshovich gives us a very detailed picture of the social structures of the town. The school, in particular, as I have mentioned, is well covered but we also learn about the bath-house, the house of culture, the Bohemians, the habit of the people of wearing casual and decidedly strange clothes at home, how the law is enacted and enforced, the (very limited) role of the military authorities, the relationship with the native population, sex (according to Girshovich, young people are only chaste in novels, not in real life; they certainly are not chaste in this novel) and the hierarchical social structure. We also learn that there is no geography. Ijma does not exist on maps. Indeed, according to Soviet maps it ceased to exist well before the Revolution. Moreover, there are no maps or atlases showing the rest of the country or the rest of the world. Ijma is their world.

Naturally, as well as the story of Preis, we get the story of many of the other characters as well as some interesting anecdotes. For example, Meta Arkadiavna Broverman, the ugly teacher, invents a grammar for Fijmian. She then insists the teachers should learn it and use it. One of the teachers, Levit , insists it would be impossible to teach Pythagoras’ theorem in Fijmian. She goes so far as to suggest that she would write to Poskriobychev if this was imposed. (Poskriobychev was Stalin’s assistant and Russians would write to him when they needed help. Very occasionally this would work but there was the risk that the writer would pay a price for writing.) We also hear about how Preis and his father broke into the third-floor flat (with a ladder) of Nelly Naoumovna, on the assumption that, as she did not answer her door, she must be ill. In fact, she was just trying to avoid both father and son Preis. However, because of this, she had to feign illness and the father and son were credited with saving her. There are many other such stories throughout the book.

This is something of an unusual book, whose interest lies in a wonderful portrait of a society completely cut off from the rest of the world, which has to more or less establish its own rules and way of life, which it does, to a great extent by mimicking the society it came from, i.e. Soviet Russia, yet, at the same time, going, to some extent, its own way. But it is also a Bildungsroman, telling the story of a young man who sets himself apart from his peers, for which he is considered mad or the village idiot but which is, in fact, a reflection of what we would call an artistic temperament. This artistic nature is proved later in the book, when he is the only person to escape from Ijma and go to Leningrad. Girshovich tells his story very well. It is a pity that this is yet another book not available in English.

Publishing history

First published 1998 by Ivan Limbach
No English translation
Published in French as Apologie de la fuite by Verdier in 2004