Sergey Kuznetsov: Хоровод воды (The Round Dance of Water)
When asked in an interview to describe this book, he said he felt it was important to write about my contemporaries who are trying to understand themselves by looking at the past of their families and their country and he hoped to inspire readers to take another look at the Soviet past, without the dichotomy of executioners and victims.
This book, as he says, is about an extended family over three generations, though mainly focussing on the late twentieth/early twenty-first century, i.e. post-Soviet. The book is partially narrated in the third person but also partially in the first person by various characters, which could have been confusing. However, it is normally clear who is narrating.
The book opens with a quotation from Russian poet Mara Malanova:
Many films start with a funeral,
you have to start somewhere,
and there’s no better beginning than somebody’s death.
I have to agree with her and, indeed, this book starts with a funeral which takes place in February 2005. The deceased is Alexander (Sasha) Melnikov, who was born in 1949, aged fifty-six. He lives on his own. He had been married but was divorced. He had a daughter and may have been the father of one of the key characters in this book. Indeed, the issue of paternity is important in this book. He is discovered by his cleaning lady, Oksana. As the name tells us, she is Ukrainian. She had left her alcoholic husband back in Donetsk and come to Moscow, where this book is mainly set, to find a job. She has long conversations with Alexander. However, when she arrives on this occasion she finds him dead though does not realise this initially. Once she realises that he is dead, she continues the one-sided conversation. We will learn only later that the conversation never took place but is imagined by another character. Indeed, none of the family ever meet her, as she does not come to the funeral and disappears from their lives and this book. However it is indicative of the fact that this book looks in depth at quite a few characters, with no one character totally dominating.
Apart from Alexander (Sasha) Melnikov, we do have a few key characters. Alexander Vasilyevich Borisov was born in 1975. He is also called Sasha, a common shortened form of Alexander. He is also known as Moreukhov, which I shall use to avoid confusion with Alexander (Sasha) Melnikov, who is officially his uncle but may be his father. Alexander Sr has a brother called Vasiliy (Vasya), who has a son called Nikita while Alexander Sr had a daughter called Elvira Alexandrovna Takhtagonova, who later changed her name to Anya. (All is explained). Yelena (Lyolya) Borisova is Moreukhov’s mother while Tatyana (Tanya) Takhtagonova was, briefly, Alexander Sr’s wife and is the mother of Elvira/Anya. I should also mention Rimma Leonidovna Takhtagonova, Elvira/Anya’s cousin. The matter is made more complicated by the fact that most of them barely know one another and there is the issue of paternity.
Like several characters in this book, Moreukhov, is an alcoholic. He had been a successful artist. I was a young artist, the critics loved me, girls gave it to me “just like that. But it all went wrong, caused by drink and debauchery. And now I’m a vagrant, a snow-covered drunkard, an alkie, a lush. He survives on handouts, petty theft and the like. He has lost most of his teeth, mainly by having been beaten up by both the police and others whom he insults when drunk, which is often. Moreover, he can be and often is violent with women. An artist has the right to violence, Moreukhov told himself.
During the course of the book, Moreukhov tries to get his life back on track, with the help of a friend, Dimon, who thinks Moreukhov is a genius. Dimon, a comic book illustrator, gives Moreukhov work.
Nikita, who barely knows Moreukhov, is married to Masha. They have no children (we learn why she is unable to do so). She is devoted to him and he loves her very much. After various casual and unsatisfactory jobs, he has landed on his feet by setting up an aquarium business, which is very successful. Despite his devotion to Masha, he is having an affair with Dasha, a woman quite a bit younger than Masha and, almost as important, with much bigger breasts. Nikita will spend much of the book agonising over the morality of having an affair while he still – allegedly – loves Masha. Indeed, he almost starts a second affair.
Anya has a young son, Gosha, to whom she is devoted. His father is no longer in the picture. By dint of hard work she now has quite a good job at Ikea though her boss is making various approaches to her which she has so far managed to resist. She has a boyfriend, Andrey, though she does not seem too keen on him. There is one episode when, in the space of a couple of hours, she cheats on him once and almost does it again with someone else a second time. Like other characters in this book, sex is seemingly more important to her than love.
Vasily plays a smaller role than his brother and son though, of course, he is cheating on his wife. He too could be the father of Moreukhov – all is explained in the book and very messy it is too.
Rimma has a relatively small role. However she shares one family characteristic – her paternity is in doubt . She has no desire to have any contact with any of her relatives. Moreover she is proud that she has no friends though she has many acquaintances She believes that love doesn’t exist, that it only exists in the movies. She has sex, like her cousin Anya, but no love but does not particularly enjoy it and is bisexual.
We do delve back into the past. Moreukhov is interested in the past (most of the modern-day characters are not). If you know the itineraries, you can travel between the Moscow of the nineties, the eighties, the seventies … You can go all the way up to the start of the last century, break new ground on an abandoned islet of prerevolutionary parquet that has survived all the remodeling projects. He enjoys finding bits of Soviet Moscow.
However, we also meet the ancestors of our main characters and learn a bit about life in the Soviet Union. Nikita’s grandfather, for example, was expelled from his farm as a result of collectivisation and he is very bitter about it but manages to get his revenge. Another character comments revolution is an endless flood. The entire Soviet regime is a flood. Valentin Rasputin’s instincts were on the ball! Others more or less accept the Soviet system. However we also see one ancestor was a member of NKVD with all that that implied. One of the many fascinating accounts is an episode in the war which resembles a Russian Magnificent Seven (Moreukhov is keen on the cinema and makes the comparison).
We also see the war and how the characters were affected, such as starvation diets and the Germans getting into the suburbs of Moscow. There is one fascinating account of a Soviet expedition deep into Iran. Going further back we get the story of a man who executed counter-revolutionaries and how his one desire is to execute a genuine countess. It does not quite work out. More recently, one couple is very much involved in the building of the Moscow Metro.
There is a host of characters that make this a most a colourful work – a witch, a woman who is a highly successful sniper, various demons, a Buddhist, a nuclear scientist, a girl who dies of starvation and a variety of relatively ordinary people. As mentioned quite a few of the characters are not sure who their father is or have little or no contact with their father.
We also get a lot of stories, some of which seem irrelevant but turn out to involve some ancestor. However, we have an unreliable narrator in Moreukhov who recounts many of these stories and, in some cases, he says that he simply imagined what might have happened. Many of the stories are told by him and, to a lesser extent, Nikita, his possible half-brother
Not everyone is happy. If I understand you correctly,” Lyolya took umbrage, “then everything in the world is shit. What’s left?”
“Nothing,” Aunt Lida sighed, “there’s nothing left. Simply living.
This view seems to be shared by several of the characters as many of them drift through life and struggle to get through, particularly those in the modern era. While several of them accept that things are getting better, economically, at least, life, on the whole is difficult, while during the war and elsewhere in the Soviet era, there was a goal – to improve the country.
The title is somewhat odd. The Round Dance is a traditional Russian dance whose role in this book is explained at the end. Water, however, is key. There are numerous references to water, from Atlantis and the biblical flood to a burst cistern, from the murky depths inhabited by odd and often dangerous creatures, from Nikita’s aquarium business to a water mill that plays a key role. It presumably has a symbolic role in that it represents the flow of life, which we very much see, but also with the warning that beneath the surface, danger lies.
When I first started reading this book (it is very long) I thought it was going to be about normal Russians having casual sex and getting drunk and not much else. However, I gradually discovered that there was a whole lot more in it. Kuznetsov himself mentioned in the quotation at the beginning what it is about and, towards the end of the book says The story of any family is simple: men and women were born, lived, and died; they made love, gave birth to new children, and ultimately gave us life. Yes, it is about families and how our ancestors but also our current families are what, to a great extent, make us and are also what are important to us. This family may well be split, with limited contact, and lack of knowledge of who is related to whom and how. However, ultimately, as he shows us, we cannot deny the important role they have played and still play in their lives. Several of the key characters move more towards this realisation during this book.
For the reader, its is a superb and very complex novel which shows relatively ordinary Russians and how they live and though we do see, to some extent the nasty side of the war, the revolution and the Soviet era, this is not one of those Russian novels where the main characters are expecting the KGB to swoop down in the early hours of the morning or torture and gulags are routine. Yes it happened but for most of the characters, it was not terribly relevant.
Kuznetsov has been deservedly praised as a foremost contemporary Russian writer and he has been translated into into ten languages. This is his second book translated into English. I am sure we will hear more of him.
First published in 2010 by AST
First English publication in 2022 by Dalkey Archive Press
Translated by Valeriya Yermishova