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Sasha Sokolov: Школа для дураков (A School for Fools)

Vladimir Nabokov described this novel as an enchanting, tragic, and touching book and Nabokov was not a man to hand out compliments lightly, particularly to Russian authors. Though a difficult work, it is also highly poetic and original. The book is dedicated to Vita Plyaskina, which is close to the Russian for the condition we know as St Vitus’ dance and may be meant to indicate that this work is out of control and disjointed. The unnamed narrator is a psychologically troubled young man who is looking back on his life two years ago in a special school in a small village. There is no plot, merely a mosaic of impressions of his life, the people he meets and, above all, his fantasies. It is told in a stream of consciousness style but the narrator also seems to be having a conversation with his alter ego. He wanders backwards and forward in time and place, though certain people are key to the novel.

As a young man, he, of course, has an interest in a woman and, in this case, it is Vetka, I’m Vetka acacia I am Vetka of the railroad I am Vetka pregnant by the tender bird called Nachtigall [German for nightingale] I am pregnant with the coming summer and the crash of a freight. Vetka Akatova is the local prostitute. At the school he has to deal with Perillo, the headmaster, who symbolises the repression that many adolescents feel bears down on them, though his father, a public prosecutor, is also an authority figure. Perillo is assisted by the assistant director of curriculum Sheina Solomonovna Trachtenberg. Finally, there is the psychiatrist, Dr. Zauze. On the more positive side there is Pavel Petrovich Norvegov, the geography teacher and the narrator’s mentor, who teaches them other things, such as sex and who is also known as Savl, with the Saul/Paul (of Tarsus) reference being clear. Pavel clearly also represents the Soviet dissident.

Though psychologically troubled, the narrator is not unlike other adolescent boys. He likes women and he hates school. He is a great lover of nature and there is a lot of description of the family’s summer dacha. But he also has an issue of split personality. He and his alter ego talk sometimes as though they are one and sometimes not. Indeed, they can be in direct opposition to one another. He confuses Sheina Solomonovna Trachtenberg with a witch and lonely widow called Tinbergen, who borrows his broken record player to play the only record she has, one that features her late husband. The postman, Mikheev, is the sender of the wind (a character from Russian myth but also a reference to wind as a force of nature, something positive in the eyes of the narrator).

But, ultimately, as with many novels, this is about the narrator trying to find who he is and where he is going. You see, a man cannot disappear momentarily and totally, first he is transformed into something distinct from himself in form and in essence – for example, into a waltz, distant, faintly audible evening waltz, that is, he disappears partially, and only later does he disappear totally. What does he have left? Stories, often in the form of parables, images, nature, music and dance.

This is certainly not your typical Soviet novel and it is not surprising that Sokolov had to have it published abroad and it was not published in Russia till well after the fall of the Soviet Union. It is redolent of Joyce, Faulkner and later Nabokov. It certainly is an interesting read and is fortunately back in print in English.

Publishing history

First published in Russian in 1976 by Ardis
First English translation by Ardis in 1977
Translated by Alexander Boguslawski