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Boris Pilnyak: Голый год (The Naked Year)

Pilnyak’s first novel was about the Communist Revolution but, like his later works, it certainly was not a wholehearted endorsement of the Revolution. Indeed, though it is a novel, it does not use the formal structure of the European novel but, rather, is a series of impressionistic accounts of the town of Ordinin just after the Revolution (with a small introduction about the town before). Pilnyak supported the general principles of the Revolution but was clearly not happy with some of the results, such as starvation and indiscriminate slaughter and his comments on this no doubt helped condemn him.

Part of the novel revolves around the House of Ordinin, the former rulers of the town and now shown to be totally decadent. The father of the family clutches desperately to his religion and his religious symbols but to no avail. Boris, the eldest son, and two of his sisters have syphilis, a symbol for decadence. Gleb is the naive, virginal man searching for the truth (which, of course, he will not find). Yegor is a drunk. Only Natasha is redeemed, by both Boris (who recognises her as the only human being in the family) and by the author. She becomes a Bolshevik, rejects sexual love and is casually killed off near the end.

There are a few stories thrown in – the commune, for example, where Natasha and the others are killed off or the brief story of the Commissar Jan Laitis as well as the incursion of the Whites (which we will see again in Mother Earth) – but much of it is impressions, vignettes and commentary. Pilnyak clearly wants to push forward the idea of Russianness and, for him, Russianness is clearly, to a great extent, Asian. We see this in the excavation which he makes clear is pre-Scythian and shows the existence of an Asian tribe, long forgotten. The myth of the Persian princess is another example of what he feels is important in Russian roots and should not be forgotten. If you are looking for a conventional novel, this might not be for you but I found it fascinating and unusual.

Publishing history

First published 1922 by Krug
First published 1928 in English by Payson & Clarke