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Vladimir Sharov: Репетиции (Rehearsals)

Vladimir Sharov wrote a dissertation on the Time of Troubles (late sixteenth, early seventeenth century Russia) at university and though this novel is mainly set sometime after that period, Sharov’s knowledge of the period clearly informs this book. Alexander Etkind has described Sharov’s writing as magical historicism, (the bizarre but instructive imagery that has evolved out of postcatastrophic, post-Soviet culture) and this seems a useful term. Sharov’s writing is clearly not straightforward magic realism but is certainly not your standard historical novel.

On the face of it, a novel about seventeenth century Russia and, in particular, its religious issues, might not seem to be everyone’s taste. However, Sharov’s writing and the fascinating issues he raises make it well worthwhile and we must be grateful to Dedalus for finally making it available in English translation.

Our narrator, who seems to be called Sergei gives us a convoluted but nevertheless very interesting and imaginative exposition of what led him to the main story of this novel, namely the eponymous rehearsals. We start with Isaiah Kobylin who, apparently, is the last of the Jewish nation. We move on to Sergei Ilyin, a friend of the narrator who preaches to our narrator. Ilyin is half Jewish, half Old Believer. (The Old Believers are key to this novel and to the period Sharov is writing about.) Ilyin has a complicated thesis about Christ being really God but God coming down to man to bring goodness (primarily in the form of miracles). However, man, as we know, failed to reform. He believes that it is essential that man follow the Law and turn more to God. (This takes place in 1958, so well before the fall of Communism.)

While at Kuibyshev University, our narrator follows a course, nominally on Gogol, given by a Ukrainian, Vladimir Kuchmy. Kuchmy’s thesis is that humans are essentially phantoms as we all die out and leave nothing behind (this idea is challenged by archaeologists). The human race is senseless and talentless. He believes that sexual reproduction is bad, as it waters down individuality. Only writers are worthwhile, particularly when their characters are not just merely their creation but seem to get a mind of their own.

His father then moves to Tomsk and he attends Tomsk University where his teacher is Suvorin, great-nephew of Chekhov’s publisher. Suvorin has two interests: the Old Believers and women, with the latter often given precedence. As a result, he invariably gave teaching assistant and graduate posts to women who were sleeping with him. However, our narrator becomes the first male so favoured and accompanies him on his hunt for manuscripts relating to Old Believers. Suvorin keeps some of the manuscripts and donates the rest to the university.

When Suvorin dies, the university assumes that it will have the rights to the manuscripts he has. However, Suvorin had two children, now adults. They offer to give up their claim to the manuscripts for two thousand roubles (just over two hundred pounds or five hundred and eighty US dollars in 1963 when this event took place) but the university is sure it is going to win the case against the heirs. It loses and, in the end, our narrator buys the manuscripts for 1800 roubles. When he does, a dealer who had regularly supplied Suvorin with manuscripts offers to supply our narrator with further manuscripts. The first he receives is from the period but written by a Frenchman, Jacques de Sertan. Sertan was a travelling player. He had eventually been exiled to Siberia and died on the way there. The problem was that the manuscript was written not in French but in Breton and there were not many Breton speakers in Tomsk. Eventually, our narrator finds a Breton speaker and the manuscript is translated. We have, finally, well into the novel, arrived at our story.

While this has been going on, we have been following our narrator’s field of study and, in particular, about Patriarch Nikon. Nikon was a great reformer. He alienated and upset many people with his reforms. He was close to the Tsar and then driven away from him. He built the New Jerusalem Monastery, where a good part of this novel is set.

Two key ideas were around at this time. The first was that the world was about to end. The second was that Nikon and others had the idea that the Holy Land was or should be in Russia and they wanted to rebuild it in Russia. The New Jerusalem Monastery was part of this. The other key issue was the relationship with other faiths and the schism between them. These points are all relevant to this novel.

Finally, we are at the main part of the novel. Sertan took a group of travelling players to East Europe. Things went very wrong, not helped by the Cossack-Polish War. Despite this, Sertan somehow ends up as the Tsar’s official dramatist. However, he seems unable to get a play in production because of local politics, not least because Nikon and others considered the theatre the work of the devil.

He moves to the monastery where he gets to know Nikon, who takes him as a confidant. As part of his plan to bring the Palestine of Christ to Russia, Nikon sees mystery plays as part of the solution and gets Sertan to put on such a play, essentially the full story of the Gospel. We follow in considerable detail Sertan’s relationship with Nikon, Nikon’s background and upbringing and the production of the play. There are various complications. The three main ones are that all the actors must be amateur (professionals are, of course, in league with the devil). Amateur means illiterate which poses difficulties in learning the lines. Secondly, no-one is to play Christ, as that would be sacrilegious. But how can you tell the Gospel story without Christ? Or is Nikon planning to play Christ himself? Thirdly, no-one wants to play the bad guys, i.e. the Jews who condemned Christ.

Sertan struggles with these and other issues but it gradually seems to be coming together with the play to be set across the landscape of the monastery. The only remaining issue is who is to play Christ. There is a general feeling that Christ is about to return; indeed may already have returned but is hidden. There is also, however, a danger that the anti-Christ is also coming and it will be difficult to distinguish the one from the other. Some people think Nikon might be the Christ in waiting; others even think it might be Sertan as he is, like Christ, somewhat aloof and comes from elsewhere.

But then things go wrong. As we know, Nikon had a lot of enemies and the Synod deposed him. He left the monastery. All the people at the monastery, including the actors, were arrested and, eventually, sent to Siberia. As we know, Sertan died en route, as did many others, but this was not going to stop the survivors putting on their mystery play.

We now follow the group of actors, without Sertan, who is dead, as they settle in Siberia. Somewhat surprisingly, they continue the rehearsals for the play. Indeed, they continue it up to just after the Russian Revolution. They quickly decide that when one person dies, his/her heir takes on the role and this continues indefinitely. We follow them with their various issues in Siberia, including, in particularly, the problems thrown up by the Russian Revolution and the period immediately afterwards. But we also follow them as regards their relationships with one another. They are divided into groups according to the roles they were to play, i.e. Christians, Jews, Romans, Apostles. Not surprisingly, the apostles take charge. However, relationships between the groups fluctuate, particularly as regards the Jews on the one hand and the Apostles and Christians on the other. Sometimes, relations are good, other times not.

This is a most original novel and, in particular, in the period when they are exiled to Siberia. It is clearly, at least to some degree, an allegory of the situation in the wider world. On the face of it, it may seem a religious novel and, of course, to a certain degree it is. But if you are not religious or not interested in religion, there is much more to it. It is also about power, the use and abuse of power and secular power versus religious power. It is about the roles we play in life and how we cope with these roles. It is about Russian history, particularly the mid sixteenth century and the time of the religious reforms in Russia, but also about the Russian Revolution (there cannot be many novels that feature Patriarch Nikon and Beria). It is about Russian character and the nature(s) of the Russian people.

I judge novels in many ways but one of the ways that I judge them is whether I think long and hard about them after I have read them and whether I discuss the ideas that they raise with my significant other. This novel passed both those tests with flying colours. It clearly is a first-class novel and rather a pity that it has taken twenty-five years to appear in English but we must be thankful to Dedalus that it finally has.

Publishing history

First published 1992 by Arsisbooks
First published 2018 in English by Dedalus