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Sergei Lebedev: Предела забвения (Oblivion)
The book actually starts in a remote part of the Soviet Union, where both our narrator and the author worked as geologists. However, we soon revert to the early life of the narrator. The unnamed narrator was brought up in a dacha. The next-door neighbour was a blind old man, whom the narrator calls Grandfather II. He had been somewhat inherited by the narrator’s family for, though he does not need much formal care and, indeed, has a housekeeper to help him, the narrator’s family assist when they can. More importantly, Grandfather II becomes key to the narrator’s life on two occasions, as we shall see. Grandfather II was not part of the family but he did often spend time with them. On one occasion, before the narrator is born, the family is discussing the narrator’s mother. She is pregnant but has been warned that giving birth would be very risky and the doctors recommended an abortion. Some are in favour of her having an abortion, others of her having the baby. Finally, Grandfather II is consulted. He tells a long and convoluted story, involving the transplanting of apple trees and fish swimming upstream to spawn. The upshot is that he says that she should have the baby and that he will help find a good clinic and that modern medicine can surely help her without problem. She does have the baby. She does survive. And that baby, of course, is the narrator.
After he is born, the narrator becomes very close to Grandfather II. Grandfather II helps him in various ways, from getting rid of the lice in his hair to showing him the ways of nature and the world. No one could love him: he loved himself so much, says the narrator but they are very close. Though the narrator often acts as the eyes for Grandfather II, Grandfather II can function very well, hearing and smelling things others cannot. The narrator does not know why he is blind or if he participated in the War (after Grandfather II’s death, twelve medals are found, which indicates that he was very much involved). The only thing Grandfather II is private about is his fishing, which he likes to do alone, though the narrator does spy on him.
One day a dog attacks the narrator and badly bites him. He is bleeding profusely and taken to hospital. He needs blood. His family is away. The hospital does not have the right type so Grandfather II volunteers to give his. But the stress is too much for Grandfather II and, unknown to the narrator, Grandfather II dies, not least because the roads are all clogged as the Soviet Union is falling apart and there is a lot of military traffic about. When the narrator finds out, he feels that he is even more a part of Grandfather II. When the will is read, Grandfather II has left the dacha to his housekeeper but then to the narrator after her death, as well as a large sum of money to the narrator, though the money soon turns out to be worthless as the Soviet Union breaks up.
The narrator soon leaves the town as he needs a new perspective and, like his creator, becomes a geologist in remote regions of the country. Indeed, we get some grim portraits of the remote parts of the country and an area which was a former prison camp. However, when the housekeeper dies, he comes back, not because he really wants the dacha – he does not – but to see if he can find any clues to Grandfather II’s origins. Under the instructions of Grandfather II, the housekeeper had destroyed many of his papers but there was one locked drawer which still contained a few papers, specifically some letters from what seemed to be a friend in a distant part of the country. However, there is nothing that says who Grandfather II is. He leaves the dacha. Only later, after a series of strange dreams about prison camps and prison trains (The people were buried alive but did not die in their graves, wandering underground until they reached the riverbank and opened the ground like a door. They came out into a world where a note next to their names on long-ago faded lists asserted their nonexistence, and now death was completing the postponed work in just a few seconds) did he realise that he had to try and find out where Grandfather II came from and who he was. He sets off for the town from which the letters had been sent. It turns out to be a town that had been a prison camp and still looks like one. It was the site of a huge mining operation for special minerals, though he later learns that the quality of the ore they find has diminished substantially.
He does manage to find out about Grandfather II but it is not what he expected. Indeed, he manages to find out all of Grandfather II’s generally grim story. His reaction is not to go home or carry on with his life but, rather, to head out into the tundra, where he comes across various people who were in the camps and where he also finds a harsh and brutal landscape for animals and humans alike.
What makes this book such an excellent book is Lebedev’s wonderful descriptions of the people he meets and the places he visits. He gives us detailed descriptions of what he sees but these are not Dickensian descriptions, with lots of detail but, rather, psychological insights and imaginative perceptions of the people and landscapes. Much of it is grim, deeply grim, as the narrator takes us back to the Soviet era with all its attendant misery and horror, from prison camps and their cruelties to a landscape and a people without joy or happiness, where human life (and animal life) counts for nothing. This is not just because of the relentless Soviet state. Though the Soviet state is obviously there, it seems to be impersonal, almost hidden, with the suffering and misery being simply the way things are and the way people had to live then. There is only a glimpse of the post-Soviet life, with references to some modern conveniences – WiFi, foreign travel, cars – while even in contemporary Russia, at least the contemporary Russia the narrator visits, life is still unrelentingly miserable. On the whole, you do not read a Russian novel to gain a positive view of life and you certainly do not get it here. Lebedev knows how to portray the misery and grimness of his country as it was and as it still is to many people and, in doing so, leaves us with a first-class novel.
First published 2011 by Первое сентября [First of September]
First published in English in 2016 by New Vessel Press
Translated by Antonina W. Bouis