Vladislav Otroshenko: Приложение к фотоальбому (Addendum to a Photo Album)
While, as we will see, the photo album is relevant, the title of the French version of this novel – My Thirteen Uncles – seems more apposite as it is, indeed, about thirteen uncles or, more specifically, thirteen brothers. Their father, Malakh , was a Cossack but, after the birth of Izmail, his thirteenth and final son, he retires to a small cubby-hole, from which he rarely comes out. His wife, the very much put-upon Annushka, carries on, as she has always done. In fact, we first meet Uncle Semion, who has accidentally burned his sideburns – all the males in the family have sideburns, even Izmail, when he is born. Semion is the only one still living at home and his accident causes him to telegram all his brothers, summoning them to the family home. Semion had had something of an auspicious birth. The year he was born, a wall in the enormous Malakh residence fell, revealing a room no-one knew existed. Semion has since adopted it, and he frequently speaks to the thirteen cherubs he himself made and that are now in the room. Later, as an adult, he was nearly killed when a chandelier in the room fell on his head but, fortunately, he was wearing a helmet as part of a costume for a theatrical performance he had been in.
We next meet Izmail, who is simple-minded. His older brother, Porphyry, takes to him immediately after he was born and soon spirits him away to his large property, where he raises bees and where the neighbours and family visit and always walk off with something they have taken, whether a chicken or a piece of furniture. Izmail remains here, spending his time chasing insects. While Izmail and Porphyry do feature in this book, as do most of the other brothers, the focus is their father and Semion. Indeed, Semion maintains his brothers are all pretty much the same and there seems to be a certain amount of truth in this. Most of them seem to have had a military career and most of them have gone to have some sort of career, though with some more successful than others. Semion, however, is different and for a very good reason, namely that Malakh is not his biological father.
Malakh fought in World War I and, while he was away, Annushka was left to bring up the ten sons who had already been born, though several of them were already grown up and also in the armed forces. One son, Nikita, had been deemed to be rude to an ensign and had been locked up. His mother had gone to the barracks to see him and the story had been reported in the local paper, with a photo of Annushka. A Greek man (we later learn that he is called Antipatros), who owned a circus and was in town, had seen the photo and was very much attracted to Annushka. He bought the photo from the photographer and invited Annushka to the circus. She went, accompanied by Uncle Pavel (secretly armed with a revolver and sabre under his cloak!). The couple started an affair but Annushka, remembering her husband, did not let him go too far. One day, however, a wounded soldier turns up at her door, telling her that he knew Malakh and he had been killed. (In one of the many fanciful pieces in this novel, he tells how Malakh was decapitated but continued running around for some time afterwards!) When Annushka doubts this, he produces the head. Annushka now feels that she can throw caution to the wind and she is soon pregnant (with Semion).
However, another soldier arrives at the house, telling her that Malakh is not dead but alive and well and is on his way back home. We get a fanciful account of Malakh’s journey back home but still he does not arrive. Meanwhile, Semion is born but the Greek is getting worried about Malakh. He packs his bags, arranges for Semion to be transferred to an orphanage, run by a woman who will later become Uncle Pavel’s wife (I say later but, with the somewhat distorted chronology of this novel, we have learned about this before), and sets off. His fanciful travels are recounted in detail and include Persia and the Belgian Congo, before he ends up in San Marino where, after his death, a museum is nearly built in his honour. However, he will later send Annushka a complicated plan to have Malakh adopt Semion. Meanwhile, Malakh’s slow journey home continues. He is seen by various of his sons around the town, before, one day, Annushka finds him sitting in a chair in a room they rarely use.
As well as the family, there is another key character I should mention – the house. The family house is enormous. Indeed, it is so big that there are whole rooms that no-one has ever visited. It is believed that there is a horse wandering around the house. On one occasion, Annushka enters a room that is so big, she cannot get to the other side of it. As mentioned, Malakh retires to his cubby-hole after the birth of Izmail and apparently disappears for forty years. Some time later (but probably not forty years) Uncle Pavel is exploring the house, having heard strange noises. By chance, he comes across his father, fast asleep in his cubby-hole. It seems that no-one has really missed him. Malakh is not happy to see his son but he is persuaded to come out. He seems able to remember only two words – giraffe and voili-voili, whose meaning no-one knows, though Uncle Serafim does seem to be the only one who understands his father.
One family tradition is the photo of the title. Annushka likes to have a family photo taken, not just of her and all her sons (and Malakh when he returns) but all the sons’ families. This a big occasion and described in some detail. Two different photographers are used, according to Annushka’s mood – a Russian, who can be a bit casual, and a pair of Frenchmen, who can be quite voluble. Semion normally declines to participate in the photo, instead staying in his room, playing a glass harmonica that Uncle Moki won for his horsemanship, though, on one occasion, he does join in when he happens to be in the room, looking for something. Indeed, it is his stance during this photo that persuades Pavel (the only one to have met Antiparos) to say how much Semion resembles his father. Though Malakh is present, he is fortunately deaf and does not hear.
This is a relatively short book, so we learn very little about most of the other brothers. However, it is great fun, with Otroshenko not afraid to use a host of fanciful elements (what we might call magic realism, if it were a Latin American novel), to mock the often bombastic speech of Semion and some of the other characters, to go off on tangents, to jump back and forth in time and, above all, to tell us a highly entertaining story of a somewhat unusual family.
First published in 2007 by Vremi︠a︡
First English translation in 2014 by Dalkey Archive Press