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Yuri Mamleyev: Шатуны (The Sublimes)

I have read some fairly gruesome and repellent books in my time but this one, if not at the top of the list, is very high indeed. The main character, Fyodor (Fedya), is a serial killer, who kills random people for no apparent reason. His reasons seem to be to prove to himself that he exists and also to find out about death. Sonnov divided up his victims into ordinary, “irritating” ones, whom he killed just because of the general characteristics of his soul, and “blessed” ones, whom he also loved very much, having felt a languorous attraction for them while they were alive, through his sullen and otherworldly soul. But those he had already killed, those who had gone “into the emptiness” — whether ordinary or blessed — Sonnov loved with a different, even, sweet, almost religious love. As soon as a person he had killed disappeared, that victim was gradually transformed for Fyodor from an object of irritation or puzzlement into a quiet and holy, albeit incomprehensible being. Fyodor hoped for his intervention in the next world. After killing them, he sits and talk to them, seemingly having more profound conversations with his victims than with the living. Previously, he had frequently beaten his mother and then worked with a group who were nominally rescuing drowning people but actually drowned them, in order to get money from their families.

Fyodor’s unmarried sister, Klavdia, well aware of what her brother does, spends much of her time grabbing the genitals of any male who comes her way, including those of her brother. When she is not doing that, she is inserting goslings into her vagina for a sexual thrill. Fyodor was conceived when his father tricked his mother into thinking he had a lot of money to steal. She took his axe, with the intention of killing him and stealing the money, but he was prepared for this so he kicked her in the belly and raped her. Fyodor was the result. The father was so impressed with the woman’s bravery, he married her. Klavdia lives next door to Pavel and Lidochka. Pavel and Lidochka prefer having sex on rubbish dumps. Pavel, however, does not like children so, whenever Lidochka gets pregnant, he pushes hard with his large penis against her when she is in the seventh month of her pregnancy, thereby destroying the amniotic sac and killing the child. Lidochka is upset for a couple of days but soon gets over it. Lidochka is finally killed when she tries to resist but fails. Fyodor, who has a dream of having sex with a dying woman and coming just as she dies, digs a tunnel into her room, rapes her and gets his wish. Her brother subsists entirely on a diet of a soup made solely from the scabs he peels off his body. Finally, Ipatievna, Fyodor’s elderly friend, lives by drinking cats’ blood.

Klavdia takes a lodger, Anna Barskaya, who introduces Klavdia and Fyodor to Anatoly Padov and his associates. Fyodor had become interested in Anna, not to murder her, but because she seemed to have an entree into the sphere of death. This is certainly the case. The three associates take great pleasure in cruelly killing animals while one of them, Pyr, carries a noose with him, to strangle women with (though, to be fair, the two women he does try to strangle, manage to survive). But then, as Anna puts it, The old-time Russian, slumberingly folk obscurantism I discovered here is mingling with our “intellectual’ mysticism. Anna, Anatoly and their friends take a more intellectual approach to the issue of death and what is beyond death. It is not quite as simple as that. Ordinarily he [Anatoly] lived by a self-destruction mixed not infrequently with an insane terror at life beyond the grave and the next world, a terror that forced him to advance delirious hypotheses—one more delirious than the next—about posthumous existence.

Gennady Remin, a friend of Anna and Anatoly, was considered one of the best underground poets. He had encountered the religion of “I” and his soul caught fire. He had a deep sense of certain theoretical nuances within this underground metaphysics. He was enraptured, for instance, by the new religion’s main tenet that the object of worship, love, and faith should be the believer’s own I. However, this “I” referred, above all, to an immortal, eternal principle, like the spirit. In this way, the I was the absolute and transcendent reality. At the same time, it was the believer’s personal I, now realized spiritually. Consequently, one’s being as a person was understood merely as a moment in one’s own eternal objective reality. Their friend Izvitsky takes this one step further – he distinctly saw the true object of his love—himself. Even Klavdia joins in the fun. Wherever death is, you’ll find truth, she says. However, Fyodor does not join in this intellectual approach. Indeed, he wants to kill this group, whom he calls the metaphysicals.

Is Mameleyev just trying to shock? This is, of course, a valid approach for art. Or is he trying to explore the dark side – the very dark side – of human nature, of life and death? Given that he lived in the Soviet Union, we can fully understand why he would have a gloomy outlook on life and death. Whatever your view of his approach, unless you enjoy revelling in the grim, the macabre and the repellent, I very much doubt that you will enjoy reading this book. However, you may take something from it, about the dark side, about the issues of mortality and immortality, about, doubtless, the need to find some escape, however repulsive, from the grim side of Soviet life. I am afraid that I did not.

Publishing history

First published in 1966 in samizdat; in 1988 in complete form by Tretʹi︠a︡ volna
First English translation in 2014 by Haute Culture