Grime and Punishment

Bac1550e-c4f8-11de-8d54-00144feab49aJohn Thornhill in the FT:

The death of Russian literature has been declared many times. Russian poetry was supposed to have perished tragically early, interred with the body of Alexander Pushkin in 1837 following his fateful duel. Then along came Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, Osip Mandelstam and Marina Tsvetaeva, an astonishing quartet of poets who revived and reinvented the genre in an explosion of creativity in the early 20th century.

Epic Russian novels, meanwhile, were pronounced dead after Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy. But in describing the brutalities of the second world war and the gulag, Vasily Grossman and Alexander Solzhenitsyn proved worthy heirs of those 19th-century masters.

Once again it has become fashionable to argue that Russian fiction is over, buried under the rubble of the former Soviet Union. Critics have decreed that no classic works of Russian literature have emerged in the past 18 years.

That may be true, but green shoots are now pushing through the fallen masonry. Four new Russian novels reveal flashes of fabulous writing, at times reminiscent of the wild imaginings of Mikhail Bulgakov, the dystopic visions of Yevgeny Zamyatin or the gentle humanity of Anton Chekhov. Russian literature has long ago left Socialist Realism panting behind – now it is striding out in the company of Capitalist Surrealism.

But modern-day Russia poses particular challenges to the fiction writer: everyday life appears so outlandish, at times, that it would be near-impossible to imagine it if it did not already exist. In a country that can elect to parliament a former KGB officer accused by the British police of murdering a British citizen by slipping radioactive poison into his tea, it must be a hard job for a fiction writer to know where reality ends and fantasy begins. Even the most mundane event can seemingly be explained only by convoluted conspiracy theory. Even the most fantastical event appears commonplace. Truth is so enmeshed in fiction that fiction has had to accelerate to outstrip it.