Friday, September 9, 2016

The Onomastics of the Russian Leaders (The History of Surnames)

[Note: this article originally published in Johnson's Russia List, May 5, 2008

                                    The Onomastics of the Russian Leaders
                                    (In Honor of the New “Bear President”)

            We can learn a lot about Russian realities by taking a look at Russian last names. My information for this article comes, largely, from the wonderful book by Boris Unbegaun, Russian Surnames (Oxford University Press, 1972). All page citations below are from the Russian translation, Russkie familii, edited by B.A. Uspenskij and translated by L.V. Kurkina, V.P. Neroznak, and E. R. Skvajrs [Squires?] (Moscow: Progress Publications, 1989).

            Surnames came late in human history to the world at large. They did not exist before the fifteenth or sixteenth century. Russia is no exception. In fact the very word for “surname” in Russian, familija, was borrowed from the West only in the seventeenth century, and a lot of Russian peasants did not have surnames right up to the day of the emancipation of serfs in 1861.[i] As you would expect, the upper aristocracy was the first social class to adopt surnames. They were based, for the most part on toponyms (place names). In other words, a prince whose domain encompassed the Vjaz’ma area became Prince Vjazemskij (most of these earliest surnames have adjectival type endings in -skij or –skoj). Among other names in this category are Obolenskij, Volkonskij, Trubetskoj, Meshcherskij, Kurbskij (Unbegaun intro, p. 20). To this very day Russians recognize these names as indicative of the origins of a person at the highest levels of the aristocracy in pre-Soviet Russia. It is noteworthy that two members of the Decembrists, who, in 1825, mounted an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the government and introduce liberal reforms inspired by the West, were Prince Evgenij Obolenskij and Prince S.P. Trubetskoj.

            As is common throughout much of the world, Russian surnames were derived, in large part, from (1) patronymics (father names, as Johnson or Jackson in English, formed by adding an ending to a given [baptismal] name) (2) names of professions or trades ( Smith, Cooper or Baker in English) (3) toponyms (see above) or (4) nicknames. Although this does not always work, there is a kind of rough class gradation involved. At the highest level (a very small category) are the aristocrats with the princely –skij/skoj names just mentioned (there is another large category of –skij/skoj names that are not of princely derivation—they are primarily of non-Russian origin: Polish, Belorussian, Ukrainian, Jewish). Next come those whose names are derived by using the patronymic suffixes (-ov, -ev, or the slightly less common –in). These names make up the most widespread category to the present day. After that come the less prestigious, lower-class names that originate in trades or nicknames. Over the course of centuries, however, these two latter categories also have frequently adopted the standard patronymic endings. For example, Tkach (‘weaver’) or Rybak (‘fisherman’) became Tkachev and Rybakov, and Medved’ (‘bear,’ nickname for a clumsy, burly type) became Medvedev (the name that Hillary Clinton recently had trouble pronouncing).

            Now we can take a look at the surnames of some of the most important Russian political leaders of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, establish their derivation, and see if any conclusions are apparent.

(1)   Lenin. According to Unbegaun (p. 83-4), this name falls into the category of “surnames formed from given (baptismal) names.” The relevant name here is Aleksandr, from which come, among others, the surnames Aleksandrov, Alenin, and Lenin. But in the case of the man once known as “The Great Ilich,” none of this information is relevant, since for him Lenin is a nom de guerre; Lenin’s real name was Ul’janov (‘Julianson’), which fits into the common category of patronymic names (“surnames derived from baptismal names”—p. 45). As for Lenin, apparently inspired by classical writers who named their characters after rivers (Pushkin’s Onegin and Lermontov’s Pechorin), he named himself after the Lena River in Siberia.[ii] The name Ilich, is not a surname, so we will not get into that here.
(2)    Stalin. Here we have another nom de guerre, meaning “Man of Steel.” His real surname, Dzhugashvili, was a Georgian name of Ossetian provenance. It came from the word dzhukha, meaning ‘garbage,’ ‘offal,’ or ‘dregs’ (p. 186): ‘Man of Offal’ or ‘Offalman.’
(3)    Khrushchev (‘Maybeetleman’) is derived from the name of an insect, the May beetle, or khrushch (p. 24). It fits into the category “surnames derived from nicknames,” in a subcategory including animal names and still another subcategory, “surnames derived from names of insects.” Two very common surnames from this subcategory (p. 151) are Zhukov (‘Beetleman’) and Komarov (‘Mosquitoman’). We may pause here to wonder what one of Premier Khrushchev’s ancestors did to deserve being nicknamed after the May beetle. Or a better question: what did the May beetle do that would suggest a resemblance to human behavior? While pollinating flowers, did he, e.g., take off his shoe and pound it on the petals?
(4)   Brezhnev (p. 224). This is a name of Ukrainian origin and, apparently, it is also in the nickname category—from berezhnyj (‘cautious,’ ‘solicitous’).
(5)   Gorbachev (p. 129, 224). Another nickname name, from gorbach (‘hunchback’).
(6)   El’tsin. This name is not listed in Unbegaun’s book, but a similar name, El’tsov (p. 151) comes from ‘a fish of the carp family’ (another nickname surname).
(7)   Putin. Also not listed. It would seem, logically, to come from put’ (‘path,’ ‘way,’ ‘road’), and it may have been, originally, a nickname: ‘Wanderer,’ or ‘Wayfarer’ (see end of this article for a different take on Putin’s name).
(8)   Medvedev (‘Bearman’—p. 146, 150). Obviously another surname derived from a nickname. There must have been a lot of clumsy, shaggy peasants nicknamed ‘bear’ all over Russia in the past, since Medvedev is a common name in present-day Russia. Unbegaun mentions two other Russian ‘bear names,’ Medvednikov or Medvezhnikov (p. 93), which may be traced back to ‘a bear hunter’ or ‘a trader in bear hides.’

The original word, medved’, with no patronymic ending added, is still used as a surname in Russia (p. 19, 29, 30, 161). These bare (no pun intended) nicknames as surnames (unlike in English and in other Slavic languages), just as trade names with no endings (Tkach, ‘Weaver’), are relatively rare today. See also Zhuk (‘Beetle’) and Sokol (‘Falcon’).

            Russians are somehow uncomfortable with un-suffixed straight nicknames as surnames; one thing that makes for confusion is the problem of differentiating such surnames in conversation from the actual name of the animal or trade. You can’t say, e.g., “We were there with the Medveds,” if you are referring to a family named Medved’, because this sounds exactly like “We were there with the bears” (p. 29-30). For Russians the un-suffixed nickname as last name often sounds somewhat “low class” as well, probably because peasants were the last social class to acquire surnames, and, possibly, those peasants who were left with just the nickname (for their surname) were the poorest and least prestigious persons in the whole society.
            Unbegaun cites an example (p. 346) indicating that the name Medvedev was more prestigious than Medved’. In 1689 the well-known Orthodox church figure, scholar and literary man, Sylvester Medvedev (1641-1691), who had become involved in a political plot, was defrocked and renamed Senka Medved’. Part of his punishment and disgrace, therefore, involved converting his surname into a nickname, which was in tune with his lowered social status. Ultimately, he was executed.[iii]

            The most remarkable thing about the above information is that most recent Russian leaders have names that derive originally from nicknames. This proves that their ancestors were common folk, not members of the gentry (dvorjanstvo) or aristocracy. One might (dangerously) speculate that the country may well have been directed onto a Western, democratic path, had there been rulers with higher-class names in power. After all, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the two/three percent of Russians who belonged to the gentry were among the most progressive and liberal. Russians with folk backgrounds haul with them through life a huge load of psychic baggage that is, basically, undemocratic and non-progressive--reeking in fatalism, superstition and irrationality. Anti-democratic tendencies are not “in the blood” or “in the genotype,” as Russians are so fond of repeating, but they are present in the hardened stereotypes of cultural mores.

Folk mores die out very slowly; they are passed on from generation to generation. If your name is Medvedev (or even Medved’), that does not stop you from getting a good education. You may listen to Western rock music and be fascinated by the Internet, but you still have (at least subconsciously) all the detritus of your ancestors, the Medvedevs, piled up in your psyche. Can you overcome this? Maybe. Would the Meshcherskijs and the Obolenskijs (and various other people with “princely” names—the Golytsins, Sheremetevs, Vorontsovs or Yelagins) have had a better chance at throwing off the yoke of the “peasant/Asian” Russian mindset and setting off on more progressive paths? Maybe. But then again, that mindset is such a mighty source for Russian obscuritanism that even the most educated people and those with the most “high class” names often get themselves immersed in it. I have known a lot of Russians with candidate degrees (rough equivalent of the PhD), and most of these persons believe in the “Evil Eye.”

Another sad truth: Catherine the Great (whose background was far from peasant Russia) hobnobbed with the great thinkers of the French Enlightenment, but she did not direct Russia onto the path taken by Western democracies. One final example: I have never met a Golytsin or an Obolenskij with a candidate degree, but I have met (in U.S. emigration) a family of Trubetskoys whose way of thinking and behaving could serve as an exemplar for restructuring the reactionary Russian mentality and overcoming the thousand-year-old burden of stereotypical thinking. If only we could convince these Trubetskoys to return to Russia and set about propagating their mindset to the Russian masses and the new oligarchs and the ruling elite! When I suggested this to the patriarch of the family and asked him why he did not wish to repatriate himself, he answered in one word: mental’nost’ (‘the mentality’). “What, exactly, do you mean by that?” I asked, and he answered with that one word again, pounding lightly with his fist on the table: mental’nost’.

In closing we might mention one other (rare) type of Russian surname (see p. 182). In the eighteenth century certain Russian aristocrats began naming their illegitimate children by dropping the beginning syllables of their names and creating new, truncated names. Among the most famous of these are (1) Pnin-- surname of the writer I.P. Pnin (1775-1805), illegitimate son of Prince Repnin (later Vladimir Nabokov used the name for the bungling old émigré professor in his eponymous novel) (2) Betskoj--surname of the famous political figure and educator under Catherine the Great, I.I. Betskoj (1704-1795), illegitimate son of Prince Trubetskoj.

This practice has recently inspired a creative (and irreverent) Russian blogger to come up with ideas about the derivation of other surnames. According to this blogger (we will not disclose his moniker here—he probably has troubles enough already), Lenin was the illegitimate son of a certain Alenin, a swineherd who lived in a village near Simbirsk. This Alenin himself, by some skewed logic, was, ostensibly, the illegitimate son of Pushkin’s fictional character, Graf Nulin (Count Zilch). As for Stalin (Dzhugashvili), he descended (illegitimately, of course) from a certain Graf Dermóstalin, whom Peter the Great had brought to Russia from Georgia. After beginning his career as a collector of offal, this Dzhugashvili performed in the dwarf retinue of the tsar, and was, subsequently, rewarded with a new name, an estate, and a title in the nobility (“Count Krápstalin”).

Finally, Vladimir Putin, according to this anonymous Internet wag (and this is why the Russian Internet will soon be censored or closed down), is the illegitimate son of Gregory Rasputin, who did not die after all in 1916, but crawled out from beneath the ice of the Neva River in St. Petersburg, brushed himself off, and made his way, on foot, back to his native village in Siberia, where he lived on into his nineties, siring sixteen children--the thirteenth of which was Vovochka Putin.

More Russians with a sense of humor, by the way, have already assigned the new “bear president” a different nickname. He is ironically and affectionately called medvezhonok: ‘Baby Bear.’

[i] See Uspenskij’s afterword (which, in typical Russian fashion, he calls “In Lieu of an Afterword”), p. 359, and Unbegaun’s introduction, p. 16.
[ii] For more detail and further speculation on this, see p. 186 and 334. One theory about why Lenin took this name is that he was inspired by G.V. Plekhanov, the “father of Russian social democracy” and a hard-line orthodox Marxist (whose surname comes from a nickname, ‘pleshivyj’=’baldy’—p. 127). Plekhanov had named himself after the Volga River (‘Volgin’).
[iii] None of this is to suggest that someone with a plebeian nickname surname has no chance to achieve success in modern-day Russia. For example, Aleksandr Vasilievich Medved’ (born 1937) is a famous Russian athlete, who won medals at the Olympic Games three times (1964, 1968, 1972).

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Book Review, Tea Obreht, THE TIGER'S WIFE


Téa Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife (NY: Random House, 2011), 338 pp.

Like many who have read this first novel, written by a young woman still in her twenties, I marvel at the very existence of the book. How could someone this young have written a narrative this complicated, this full of insights into human nature, this teeming with art—this good? I have read several reviews of the book online and I marvel once again at the caviling, the failure to appreciate the book on the part of some reviewers. Have American readers become so inured to the genre of “domestic literary realism,” this dull, insipid stuff that dominates the publishing world these days—stories of ordinary Americans doing ordinary things, told, for the most part, in flat ordinary language—that they fail to appreciate something with genuine verve and brilliance?

Let us take, e.g., separate sentences, so many of which shine with panache: “Luka was the sixth son of a seventh son, born just shy of being blessed, and this almost-luck sat at his shoulders all his life” (191). Or separate paragraphs, consisting of lavish detail, as in this description of “the Winter Palace of Emin Pasha. . . a relic of the City’s Ottoman history”:

“The upper floor of the palace was a cigar club for gentlemen, with a card room and bar and library, and an equestrian museum with mounted horses from the pasha’s cavalry, chargers with gilded bridles and the jangling processional saddles of the empire, creaking carriages with polished wheels, rows and rows of pennants bearing the empire’s crescent and star. Downstairs, there was a courtyard garden with arbors of jasmine and palm, a cushioned arcade for outdoor reading, and a pond where a rare white frog was said to live in a skull that had been wedged under the lily pads by some assassin seeking to conceal the identity of his now headless victim. There were portraiture halls with ornate hangings and brass lamps, court tapestries depicting feasts and battles, a small library annex where the young ladies could read, and a tearoom where the pasha’s china and cookbooks and coffee cups were on display” (244-45).

The rare white frog, sticking up his head in the midst of the description, is typical; as is that skull, which inserts its eyeless self into the long narrative for just that one brief moment. A page later, in the description of the trophy room, we come upon “the mounted body of a hermaphroditic goat” (246). Not for nothing does the author, in interviews, acknowledge her debt to Márquez and Bulgakov. Throughout The Tiger’s Wife the reader is swimming in the lavish world of magical realism. I suppose that the waves are too high for some readers, who can’t make it through the ornateness and the exotic splendor—who bog down in the profusion of stories within stories. Me, I love the swim.

Here is a writer who appears already a master at pulling significant detail out of her writerly insides: “he grew accustomed to the way bears died, and the way their skin came away from the body if you cut it right, heavy, blood-filled, but as accommodating as a dress pattern” (253). You read this and you think, Yes, Téa Obreht has had experience skinning a bear—although she probably never has skinned a bear. She never has practiced medicine or studied to be a doctor, so where does she get all the convincing detail to describe the life of her main character, the doctor Natalia, and the other central character, the doctor grandfather? She has lived in Yugoslavia only for the early years of her life, so how can she be so proficient at describing nature scenes in her native land?

“A greenish stone canal ran up past the campground, and this was the route I took. Green shutters, flower boxes in the windows, here and there a garage with a tarped car and maybe some chickens huddled on the hood. There were wheelbarrows full of patching bricks or cement or manure; one or two houses had gutting stations for fish set up, and laundry lines hung from house to house, heavy with sheets and headless shirts, pegged rows of socks. A soft-muzzled, black donkey was breathing softly, tied to a tree in someone’s front yard” (85).

The setting appears to be Yugoslavia in present time, dismembered by the collapse of Socialism and the wars of the nineties. The complexities of a thousand years of bloody Balkan history lurk in the background of the narrative, but the author chooses to write not exactly about Yugoslavia. She writes, rather, about a fictional place very similar to Yugoslavia. Some reviewers have faulted her for the way she fictionalizes Serbia and Bosnia, the way she manipulates historical realities to make them jibe with her narrative. But she has other fish to fry, and that’s fine with me. Her story depends on the realities of a mythological land that resembles what’s left of Yugoslavia; her story is anchored in folk superstition and the gossipy tales peasants tell, which, when repeated over and over, take on a reality of their own.

The NATO bombing of Belgrade (Mar. 24, 1999 to June 10, 1999) is featured in a wonderful description of how it feels to be bombed on the part of civilians, but Belgrade is not mentioned (it is always referred to as “The City”). The doctor Natalia lives in Serbia, but the word never appears in the book. The fictional town of Zdrevkov, where her grandfather goes to die, is apparently on the Croatian coastline. Looking at a map of Yugoslavia, you can trace the mercy mission of Natalia and her fellow doctor and friend Zóra. They cross the border near Belgrade into Croatia (which is always referred to as “the other side”) and drive to a fictional town on the Adriatic Sea.

Why this hedging around with reality? Well, for one thing, if you’re looking for a way to get your (already long) novel totally bogged down, try describing the background facts of Balkan history. Rebecca West had already done this in her monumental Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, and how many pages did it take her? She, of course, wrote her book on the eve of WW II, so she never got to the depressing rehash of the same old story—murder, rape, genocide—in the nineties of the twentieth century. Or try explaining the complexities of those recent Yugoslavian wars. Try ironing out the details of all sorts of atrocities and Western interventions in those wars. Just treating the times when NATO bombed various parts of the moribund Federal Republic of Yugoslavia—why they bombed, who the bad guys were and who the good guys, who the war criminals and who the victims—forget about it.

This is not to say that the war is not involved in Natalia’s story. The war and its consequences are everywhere. Here is the author on the breakup of Yugoslavia: “Once separate, the pieces that made up our old country no longer carried the same characteristics that had formerly represented their respective parts of the whole. . . The Nobel Prize winner was no longer ours, but theirs” (161). This same sense of surrealism also prevailed in the minds of people right after the collapse of the Soviet Union: “we’re not quite us anymore; we’re somebody else now.” With Russians that sense of unreality was exacerbated by what might have been notices posted all over what had only recently been an inveterate atheistic country: “By the way, we were wrong. There is a God after all, and you can have him back now. Enjoy.”

The grandfather’s take on Balkan wars is instructive: “This war never ends. It was there when I was a child and it will be here for my children’s children” (301). Téa Obreht accomplishes what appears to be something like an acrobat’s trick. She puts aside one thousand years of Balkan history and writes a book of magical realism, which book, however, is still firmly based in Balkan folklore, and which book constantly takes fleeting glances back at Balkan history.

The two main characters in The Tiger’s Wife are mythical rather than realistic: the deathless man and the tiger’s wife. Both of them come, at least obliquely, out of folklore. Natalia’s grandfather, one of the main realistic characters—and a finely delineated, highly sympathetic man of probity—is a medical doctor now, whose life is steeped in science and rationality. But he has grown up in a small village where superstition counts for everything. You have that mindset pounded into your head as a child, and you have a cat in hell’s chance of ever ridding yourself of it.

The peasants believe firmly in folkloric characters such as the witch Baba Roga, with “her skull-and-bones hut on its one chicken leg” (106). How far back in Slavic folklore are to be found the origins of this character? In Russian folklore she is Baba Yaga and her hut has not lost one of its chicken legs. On the same page the wood demon (леший in Russian) shows up. The villagers of Galina (the word is a woman’s name in Russia) are storytellers, as is the author of this novel. Everyone is all eyes in the village, watching incessantly from windows and doorways. And then all tongues, blathering around, gossiping, making up stories. They gossip and their gossip is transformed, folklore-style, into what for them is truth. They come to believe in the fantasies of their own superstitious souls—they believe that a woman could marry a tiger, that a man could be immortal.

Pagan superstition runs the narrative in this book. “Like everyone in the village [Galina], he [the blacksmith] had faith in the rituals of superstition. He gave money to beggars before traveling, put pennies in the shrines of the Virgin at crossroads [see below: syncretism], spat on his children when they were born. But, unlike his fellow villagers, he was renowned for having a deficit. He had been born in a lean year, without a ducat under his pillow. To make matters worse, an estranged aunt had once allegedly lifted him from his crib and praised heaven for what a beautiful baby, what a gorgeous, fat, blessed, rosy child he was—and had sealed, forever, his destiny to be impoverished, crippled, struck down and taken by the devil at some unexpected time, in some terrifying way” (120-21). Note that word “allegedly.” Maybe the aunt is a fiction, maybe she never committed this outrageous act of praise, but she is in the village said to have done it. Words have magical force. Once the story is created, then repeated incessantly, the idea of the “allegedly” is gone, and that is enough to seal the doom of the poor blacksmith—who accidentally shoots himself in the head in the midst of the tiger hunt.

Right smack in the middle of this crazy pagan world is grandfather as a young boy in that village. Educated later as a medical doctor, he steeps his life in scientific logic, but deep down in his soul, one part of him still believes in the myth of the tiger’s wife, the woman he befriended as a child. He fights valiantly against accepting the story of the deathless man—whom he has personally encountered several times in his life. But in the end, when he knows he is dying of cancer, he goes off in search of that deathless man—who is also what they call a mora, a kind of psychopomp who cares for dead souls for forty days, then guides them to the other world.

The best stories in the book involve these two mythic characters, the tiger’s wife and the deathless man. There is the wonderful description of grandfather’s first encounter with the latter. This comes subsequent to an attempted murder. The deathless man is not only immortal, but he also has the ability to see the deaths of others. Making the mistake of telling a peasant in a village that he will soon die, the deathless man is assaulted, drowned. Then, at his own funeral, he sits up in the coffin and asks for water. Whereupon he is shot in the back of the head (58-62). When grandfather comes upon him in the church, still in that coffin, the deathless man, of course, having been drowned and shot, is still not dead.

Téa Obreht has a wonderful way of weaving descriptions of such mythic proportions into the realistic narrative. At one point the deathless man tells of how the wandering souls of the dead sometimes get lost, cannot find their way home again, and “begin to fill up with malice and fear,” which extends to their loved ones (186). Grandfather’s wife believes thoroughly in such superstition, insisting that the family observe the proper customs for assuring that (1) his soul does not take offense and (2) properly finds its way to the next world. American readers may have difficulty believing that even educated Serbians are so enveloped in superstition, but anyone who has studied the Slavic world realizes that this is the way things are. Of the many educated Russians I know, many with the equivalent of the Ph.D., seldom do I find one who, e.g., does not believe in the evil eye, or in omens.

We are two thousand years into the era of Christianity, but pagan superstition is still paramount all over the world. The Slavs, it sometimes appears, value pagan beliefs as much or more than Christian beliefs, but the most common practice is to blend the two. In the Balkans as well as in Russia syncretism (this dual belief) is rife. For example, when Natalia arrives at the town on the Adriatic, she comes upon a group of fellow Serbians who are digging in a vineyard. It turns out that they are searching for the body of one of their countrymen, the cousin of one Duré. During the recent wars Duré had to abandon his dead cousin, whom he buried in this vineyard. Now some old conjure woman has informed him that the cousin’s ghost is dissatisfied and vengeful; the spectre is spreading disease over the whole family.

The only way to appease the ghost of the cousin is to find the corpse, dig it up and give it a proper burial. Certain pagan incantations (also provided by the conjure woman) must be read over the remains.  As the diggers clean the bones, they intone these ancient chants. Meanwhile, the local Catholic priest tosses a censer about, censing the pagan ritual with Christian incense (more syncretism). The diggers also take care to break the thigh bones, thereby insuring that the ghost can’t walk about and return to haunt them. Later the remains of the heart (or what is a symbolic representation of the heart) have to be buried at a crossroads, where the mora-psychopomp can come to retrieve them, care for them for the requisite forty days, and then transport them to the other world. Natalia the doctor keeps watch in the night at the crossroads, and when a figure appears to dig up the jar with the “heart” she too—despite her education in science—half believes that this is the deathless man whom her grandfather has told her about.

“Even before he handed me the jar I had admitted to myself that my desire to bury the heart on behalf of his family had nothing to do with good faith, or good medicine, or any kind of spiritual generosity. It had to do with the mora, the man who came out of the darkness to dig up jars, and who was probably just someone from the village playing a practical joke—but who was, nevertheless, gathering souls at a crossroads sixty kilometers from where my grandfather had died, a ferry ride from the island of the Virgin of the Waters. . . Or it would be the deathless man, tall and wearing his coat, coming down through the fields of long grass above the town—smiling, always smiling—and then I would sit, without breathing, in some bush or under some tree while he dug up the jar, probably whistling to himself, and when he had it in his hand, I would come out and ask him about my grandfather” (266-67).

All of this narrative line—concerning death and the deathless man and fear of the dead—has its foundation in the ancient and atavistic fear of the dead worldwide, endemic in human society from time out of mind—and by no means extirpated when the Enlightenment came along.

As the author tells us, there are two stories “that run like secret rivers” through grandfather’s life, and through the whole book: the story of the tiger’s wife and the story of the deathless man (32). The tiger’s wife shows up early on (p.4), when grandfather tells little Natalia, “I once knew a girl who loved tigers so much she almost became one herself.” It’s as if the whole story is conjured up out of the imagination of a four-year-old girl who goes with her grandfather to see the tigers at the zoo. It is based on tales told her by her beloved grandfather, and an event at the zoo sparks the tale: the day she and grandfather saw a tiger maul the arm of a careless employee.

The main story line of the novel is supplemented by tales of minor characters, as if the author just had so many resplendent stories to tell that she could not resist getting them all into the book. Some readers have complained of the superfluous accessories, but I love reading all the different side narratives.  About the butcher in the village, about the apothecary who is a secret Muslim.  About Mića the Cleaver, he who distributes cadavers to the medical students (154-56). Another tale, that of Dariša the Bear, begins with a story that is not true (238), as do so many of the stories told throughout the book. Without the untrue tales, the fantastications, the novel would be much shorter, and much less intriguing.  A subtheme of the novel is storytelling, the power of words.  

The tiger’s wife (while in love with a tiger) is legally married to the butcher Luka, a kind of weird intellectual in the midst of pagan superstition, who, despite his education, takes up wife beating.
I find it interesting how we get this description of violence wreaked upon a woman from the point of view of the abuser. How many American woman writers could/would write it this way? Then again, one of the book’s few weak points—and it is glaring—is the treatment of the title character. We have a book called The Tiger’s Wife, which suggests that she is the central character, but it turns out that she is not. Not really. A big problem is that she is consistently portrayed as a vague, unrounded figure. We see absolutely none of the action from her point of view. We never even learn her real name. We have no idea what she is all about, who she really is inside. In showing this deaf-mute character to us the author as if makes us, the readers, deaf and mute in our perception of her. She does not speak to us.

The other main mythic character, the deathless man—in contrast to the tiger’s wife—is vibrantly alive and accessible. The tiger’s wife exists only as a piece of village folklore. The village gossip tells tales, invents her—she is a creature of mythmaking, storytelling, not a real person. She is said to have been impregnated by the tiger. As if aware that this narrative line would take the book too far off into fantasy, the author does not follow it to its logical conclusion:  the birth of a half human/ half tiger. The fetus dies with the tiger’s wife when the apothecary poisons her. Given the limitations of this vaguely delineated character, I think that the book could have done with a different title.

To me the main character of the novel is the grandfather. He is the only real person who has encountered both the mythical deathless man and the mythical tiger’s wife. All of the narrative proceeds with constant sideways and backwards glances at the grandfather, who—despite his concourse with chimerical creatures—is thoroughly based in the reality of everyday Balkan life. “All along my grandfather had hoped for a miracle but expected disaster” (240). What better way to express the feelings of a denizen of the Balkans?

The Tiger’s Wife has so many good sentences, good paragraphs, so many good stories within stories about stories. What more could a lover of literary art ask of a book?

Sunday, July 10, 2016


This is not a book review; just a few comments on Roper's book.

He gets two or three things badly wrong. Examples: (1) At one point he has Nikolai Gogol dying in Rome; Gogol died in Moscow (2) He buys James Laughlin's tale about how he and Nabokov climbed a mountain in Utah and were nearly killed during their precipitous descent. Laughlin apparently made this story up, as a way of getting back at Nabokov, for the the way he mocked his publisher (Laughlin) in the book, Nikolai Gogol, made him a comic character in that book, and the way he consistently disrespected Laughlin, patronized him.

Roper makes a few telling remarks about Nabokov's prospects for future readers: "Readers of Nabokov-style books are not increasing in numbers the way video-game players are." Too true.

Roper comes up with an interesting take on the episode of the "burning" of the manuscript for Lolita, suggesting that maybe the whole thing was contrived, a dramatic gesture that links Nabokov up with Gogol--who was known for burning his manuscripts and, famously, burned the continuation to the first part of Dead Souls in 1852, before taking to his bed and starving himself to death.

Roper imagines Vera waiting in the wings, rushing out just in the nick of time to save Lolita from the flames, and from the author who was playing at Gogol. Nikolai Gogol, unfortunately, never had a wife to intervene, so all his burnings were successful.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

"GOOGLEGOGOL" 'product descripton' on Amazon

U.R. Bowie. Collection of short stories. Googlegogol: Stories from the Database of Russian Literature, Inc. [published July, 2016]

Available for purchase on Amazon:

U.R. Bowie writes in the grand tradition of Russian literature. "Googlegogol" consists of thirteen short stories, based (thematically, biographically, or stylistically) on Bulgakov, Bunin, Chekhov, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Nabokov, Tolstoy, and others. The entire production is refracted through the consciousness of that quintessential deranged master of Russian prose: Nikolai Gogol.

Some of the stories are set in Russia, others in the U.S. Some are written in purely realistic style, but the collection as a whole owes much to Russian modernism. An example of the realism is “The Death of Ivan Lvovich,” which tells the tale of the brief life of Tolstoy’s last and most beloved son, Ivan, as narrated by Ivan Bunin—winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1933. Bunin, who is eking out a poverty-stricken life in the south of France, while Hitler’s forces are invading Russia, looks back on the year 1895—when, as a young writer, he visited Lev Tolstoy in Moscow and found him grieving over his dead son. “Running Thoughts” is a stream-of-consciousness tale that takes the reader into the mind of Tolstoy, on the evening in 1910 when he made his decision to flee his Yasnaja Polyana estate and his intolerable life—and ended up running into the arms of Death.

Several stories describe events in the life of Fyodor Dostoevsky.  “Man Beating Man Beating Horse” relates an episode that occurred in 1837, when Dostoevsky, his father and brother were on their way to St. Petersburg, where he would enroll in the Academy for Military Engineers. “Something in the Way of a Parricide” tries to get a handle on the story of the “murder” of Dostoevsky’s father in 1839, while “Executed (Almost)” relates how Dostoevsky was put through the ordeal of a fake execution in St. Petersburg (1849).

Other stories range far from the style of traditional Russian realism.  Owing much in its themes and style to Gogol and Bulgakov, “Shoes Run Amuck” describes the misadventures of a man who—much to his subsequent chagrin—robbed the grave of Nikolai Gogol in 1931, on the day when Gogol’s body was disinterred for reburial at Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow. “Hobnob” uses Nabokovian tropes to recreate a pale version of the great Nabacocoa and describe his proctoring of an exam in Ohio, 1952— and his interactions with the mind of one of the students taking that exam.

Several stories are written in a Chekhovian vein. “The Lady from Berdichev” is the tale of an old lady living out her life in Brighton Beach, while ever yearning back toward her birthplace of Berdichev, as Chekhov’s three sisters yearn for Moscow. In “Divertimento for Strings and Structure,” a story into which Raymond Carver pokes his nose briefly, Chekhov makes a personal appearance in the flesh (or at least in the mind of the hapless protagonist).

Other stories feature highly unusual characters or narrators. “Anteayer” is a modern tale of schizophrenia, a story of a young woman who leaves Russia for the American Dream, only to find that the only dreams she knows how to dream are Russian dreams. The lead story, “Recruiting,” describes obliquely  how Russian Literature goes about gathering its personages and images, while its companion story, “Chimeras,”—the last in the collection—is a tale of Russian nesting dolls; open one up, and whoops, there’s a new narrator or author inside, and then open that one up and whoops, there’s still someone else. “The Riddle of the Duck” is, primarily, about Russian mentalities, the way Russians can hold simultaneous contradictory notions in their minds. It features a man who may or may not be Lee Harvey Oswald, still alive on the fiftieth anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination.

A brief word about the cover art. The front cover depicts a scene from the famous fabulist Ivan Krylov, his tale (“Quartet”) of how a nasty and uppity monkey decided to organize a string quartet. The monkey recruited an ass, a goat and a bear, and they all set about sawing away on their instruments; only to discover that none of them had ever learned to play an instrument. The back cover shows three of Russia’s finest writers—Lermontov, Pushkin, and Gogol—mulling over life in general, while cogitating over the back cover copy beneath them and the way Russian literature is presented in Googlegogol.

Monday, July 4, 2016

"GOOGLEGOGOL (ГУГОЛЬГОГОЛЬ): Stories from the Data Base of Russian Literature, Inc." NEW BOOK BY U.R.BOWIE

Series: The Collected Works of U.R. Bowie, Volume Nine
Ogee Zakamora Publications, 2016

Copyright © 2016 by Robert Lee Bowie
            All Rights Reserved

ISBN-13: 978-1534676961
ISBN-10: 1534676961

Cover image: Detail from base of statue, monument to Ivan Krylov, St. Petersburg, Russia, photograph by Alexsey Sergeev

Да косолапый Мишка
Затеяли сыграть квартет.

Cover design by Christy Sanford


All the stories in this collection come, in one degree or another, out of the grand tradition of Russian literature. Some have direct connections (stylistically, thematically, or biographically) with certain prose writers: (1) “The Death of Ivan Lvovich, ” Lev Tolstoy and Ivan Bunin; (2) “Running Thoughts,” Tolstoy; (3) “Shoes Run Amuck,” Nikolai Gogol and Mikhail Bulgakov; (4) “The Lady from Berdichev” and “Divertimento for Strings and Structure,” Anton Chekhov; (5) “Hobnob,” Vladimir Nabokov; (6) “Man Beating Man Beating Horse,” “Something in the Way of a Parricide,” and “Executed (Almost),” Fyodor Dostoevsky.

As the title suggests, the entire collection has been refracted through the head of that quintessential deranged genius of Russian literature—the man about whom the critic D.S. Mirsky once wrote the following:
            “If mere creative force is to be the standard of valuation, Gogol is the greatest of Russian writers. In this respect he need hardly fear comparison with Shakespeare, and can boldly stand by the side of Rabelais. Neither Pushkin nor Tolstoy possessed anything like that volcano of imaginative creativeness.”

Recruiting (Набор)                                                                  
           The Death of Ivan Lvovich (Смерти нету)                              
           Man Beating Man Beating Horse (Бьет Россия, бьет)
           The Lady from Berdichev (Дама из Бердичева)                  
Running Thoughts (Бегство)                                                    
           Something in the Way of a Parricide (Отцеубийство?)       
The Riddle of the Duck (Уткина загадка)                               
Shoes Run Amuck (Башмаки вдребезги)                               
Divertimento for Strings and Structure (Дивертисмент)          
           Hobnob (Междусобойчик)                                                   
           Executed (Almost) (Приглашение на почти)                        
           Anteayer (Позавчера)                                                
           Chimeras (Химеры)                                                               

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Book Review, CORMAC MCCARTHY, "The Road"

Cormac McCarthy, The Road (NY: Vintage Books [Random House]), 2006

I’m ten years late getting around to reading this book, but since it has to rank among the most powerful pieces of American fiction written in the past ten years, it remains more than worthy of discussion. McCarthy here tells a tale of “nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before” (3). We’re in the genre of post-apocalyptic fiction. Bad times have descended upon the U.S. and the whole world, consequent upon some enormous Catastrophe. We are never told what happened—it could have been a nuclear war—but one thing is obvious: something really big has blown, leaving ash all over the earth and floating through the air. Apparently most animals are extinct, and the few human beings who survive face fellow humans who are, largely, living beastly lives.

Incidentally, I happened recently to have reread, for the first time in fifty-five years, Pat Frank’s early classic in the same genre, Alas, Babylon (1959), which tells of a nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and describes how a town in Central Florida copes with the disaster. Although most of the country is obliterated, Frank depicts the small group of survivors as doing rather well at coping. The book concludes with the U.S.A. slowly picking itself up after the disaster, preparing to go on with its country and its human lives. McCarthy’s dark tale seems, at least to me, rather better at showing how things would be in the era of Post-Catastrophe.

The action of the The Road describes a father and son wandering through the devastation, on their way somewhere in search of survival. They have an old road map, which they consult periodically, but the author never lets the reader have a look at that map. Descriptions of the flora suggest that they are wandering in the Appalachian Mountains, through Tennessee and the Carolinas to the Carolina coast. Since they are bearing south most of the time, and since they are oppressed by the cold, we assume that they are making, eventually, for Florida. At one point they come across an old sign reading, “See Rock City” (21), but no other place names are mentioned. The reader and the protagonists are just “out there somewhere,” in a dead land that has no name. Sometimes it appears that they are on the road not really to get anywhere, but just to keep in motion, one step ahead of death.

The characters as well, have no names—or, rather, they must have names, but McCarthy prefers not to reveal them to the reader, and, in so doing, he makes them broadly symbolic of the everyman generic father-son. At one point midway in the novel the boy and father meet an old man, who tells them his name is Ely (167). The reader thinks, “Aha, finally somebody with a name,” but four pages later the father asks, “Is your name really Ely” and the old man answers, “No.” No one in this dim post-apocalyptic world trusts anyone else, and people revert to age-old superstitions: give a man your name and he might conjure with it to do you harm.

You don’t have to read far into this book to realize that if something like this conflagration ever descends upon our world, then the most fortunate of human beings will be those who die quickly. Of course, we prefer, or rather the neurons deep in our brain—in charge of creating defensive mechanisms that enable us to go on living—prefer not looking at the possibility of such a thing. In writing this book, McCarthy forces the reader to look, although even after reading the whole novel most of us will fall back on those defense mechanisms and put the matter out of our minds. The anodyne ending of the novel (more on this later) suggests that McCarthy himself could not quite do without certain false consolations.

To knock us modern-day civilized Americans altogether on our ears it would not even take a nuclear conflagration.  We are so inured, e.g., to the comforts of electricity, that were terrorists to launch a cyberattack, knocking out our electric grids for months, or even years, we would, alas, probably quickly find ourselves in something like the horrendous situation described in this novel—in which everything is dog eat dog, cannibalism is the norm, and the most beastly types are most likely to survive.

Here is that same old man they meet on the road, describing his take on preparation for the disaster (168).

                I knew this was coming.
                Did you try to get ready for it?
                No. What would you do?
                I don’t know.
                People were always getting ready for tomorrow. I didn’t believe in that. Tomorrow wasn’t getting ready for them. It didn’t even know they were there.

Now tomorrow has arrived, and it still doesn’t know that people are there. Maybe that’s the biggest difference between the way people would think before and after the Catastrophe. Before the event they think tomorrow might know they are here, but after the event they know that tomorrow, or today, or yesterday—or God, if there is a God, which most likely there is not—have no inkling of their existence. The world of The Road is a dead world: “The ashes of the late world carried on the bleak and temporal winds to and fro in the void” (11). Indeed, it appears throughout the book that God is dead as well, at least until the very last pages.

All the old rules by which people live their lives have been abrogated. When the father and son share some food with that old man whom they encounter on the road, he never thanks them. “Thank you” has gone out with the going out of the world. “You won’t wish us luck either, will you?” says the father. The old man replies, “I don’t know what that would mean. What luck would look like. Who would know such a thing?” (174).

We meet the mother of the boy and wife of the main protagonist only for one brief scene, but that scene is powerfully written, and it rings true. The unnamed woman tells her husband she is about to commit suicide, and she departs with no loving words for him, or for the universe.

“We’re not survivors; we’re the walking dead in a horror film” (55). “I didn’t bring myself to this. I was brought. And now I’m done” (56). “My only hope is for eternal nothingness, and I hope it with all my heart” (57). She goes on to insist that surviving only for oneself is impossible: “You can’t survive only for yourself. A person who had no one would be well advised to cobble together some passable ghost. Breathe it into being and coax it along with words of love.”

Why is she so insistent on dying? Because the world she knew is dead, and not likely to somehow resurrect itself. “Sooner or later they will catch us and they will kill us. They will rape me. They’ll rape him [the son]. They are going to rape us and kill us and eat us and you won’t face it. You’d rather wait for it to happen, but I can’t” (56).

We are provided few glimpses of what human society, to the extent that it even exists, is like in this new world of the dead, but one brief scene, describing the marchers of a ragtag army, provides all the detail we need. “…the marchers appear four abreast. Dressed in clothing of every description, all wearing red scarves at their necks. Red or orange, as close to red as they could find. . . . He wallowed on the ground and lay watching across his forearm. An army in tennis shoes, tramping. Carrying three-foot lengths of pipe with leather wrappings. Lanyards at the wrist. Some of the pipes were threaded through with lengths of chain fitted at their ends with every manner of bludgeon. They clanked past, marching with a swaying gait like wind-up toys. Bearded, their breath smoking through their masks. Shh, he said. Shh. The phalanx following carried spears or lances tasseled with ribbons, the long blades hammered out of trucksprings in some crude forge upcountry. The boy lay with his face in his arms, terrified. They passed two hundred feet away, the ground shuddering lightly. Tramping. Behind them came wagons drawn by slaves in harness and piled with goods of war and after that the women, perhaps a dozen of them, some of them pregnant, and lastly a supplementary consort of catamites, illclothed against the cold and fitted in dogcollars and yoked each to each.” (91-92).

Slaves, catamites and pregnant women. At first one thinks, Well, at least in face of all the beastliness of the new dead world, they are concerned with propagating the species, but then, later in the book, there are hints that fetuses are cooked and eaten as delicacies. The constant question of the boy when he and his father encounter other humans, “Are they the good guys or the bad guys?” At least until the very end of the book the only good guys in this whole universe appear to be the father and son. They are, it seems, the last real human beings still left on earth.

The dogs and cats have all been eaten; there are no more birds in the skies. In fact, most animals are extinct; the only trace of cows is “a lingering odor” in a barn (120). The boy hopes to see a blue sea when they finally reach the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, but that sea, so it turns out, is as gray as the sky and the earth. To paraphrase Wallace Stevens, in the world of The Road, the only emperor is the emperor of I scream. Here’s what the world looks like when it’s gone:

“He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe” (130).

Oddly enough, it is incantatory descriptive passages like these, depicting a dead world in beautiful language, that somehow save the reader of this book from descending into total despair. It is what one critic called “this violent grotesque world rendered in gorgeous, melancholic, even biblical cadences.” Another declared that “the book announces the triumph of language over nothingness.” As Anthony Burgess once wrote in a different context, “The denial of human joy is made through language that is itself a joy.” Before watching the film of this novel (2011), I assumed that it would be oppressive, since it would, of necessity, be devoid of that redemption through language. The very process of filming, relying mostly on graphic imagery, militates against the redeeming verbiage of the printed book. But I didn’t find the film depressing. It, like the book, is certainly no joy ride, but the director of the film uses creative artistic graphic imagery to take some of the pain off the production.

The book is a road book, and the movie of The Road is a Hollywood “road movie,” a tale of travelling from place to place having adventures. This is a tried-and-true Hollywood genre, but it has its origins in the picaresque novels at the dawn of the literary age. It is certainly fitting that The Road should be a picaresque, since here we are reading something like the last novel ever to be written. It is, therefore, somehow appropriate that its structure should resemble the first novels ever written.

I’m not sure anyone has commented on something I find interesting in McCarthy’s novel: words applicable to the situation of the dire tragedy depicted here can also be applicable to the human condition in general. The wife’s words about how, if one wishes to survive one needs someone to live for (cited above), are equally applicable, say, to old men and women in our un-apocalyptic world who lose their spouses late in life. As the wife says, one “would be well advised to cobble together some passable ghost. Breathe it into being and coax it along with words of love.” This is exactly what bereaved spouses are doing when they spend time talking alone to their dead loved ones.

Then again, even if we never (God grant) have to see the world end before our eyes, as the characters of this book see it, each of us individually must face the trials and tribulations, the hurts and pains and losses of any life. We also must face the ending of our own personal world; and, like the wife of the novel, none of us have brought ourselves to any of this—we were brought.

Here is another typical passage describing what is left of a once familiar world after the coming of the Catastrophe:

“Along the interstate in the distance long lines of charred and rusted cars. The raw rims of the wheels sitting in a stiff gray sludge of melted rubber, in blackened rings of wire. The incinerate corpses, shrunk to the size of a child and propped on the bare springs of the seats. The thousand dreams ensepulchred within their crozzled hearts” (273). [Webster’s Second International Dictionary: crozzle—“to shrivel or cake with heat; to burn to a cinder,” listed as dialectical English]

As I’ve mentioned several times, there is no place left for a God in the crozzled hearts of the characters. There is little or no trace of a Deus around for most of the action of the novel. When father and son stumble upon a stroke of stupendous good luck, finding an underground bunker full of food (138-39), they never even think of thanking God—although they thank the missing people who left them this cornucopia. Then, right at the end of The Road, Deus out of a machine suddenly shows up. The father finally gives up his struggle to survive, tells his son to go on without him, and dies. Then, abruptly, God is back.

God shows up in the person of a “good guy,” who ambles into the book and adopts the boy, saving him from a certain death (281-87). This good guy also has two children and a wonderful wife, and none of them eat people. In light of the bleak reality that McCarthy has been describing for the first 280 pages of the book, the Deus ex machina ending is totally unbelievable.  I’m not sure exactly what the author is up to here. With his consummate feel for the artistic integrity of the structure, he could not have believed he could get away with this ending. Any yet there it is, staring us in the face, something like the ending of Huckleberry Finn. No, please. Don’t stick this not-good-at-all ending on a very good book.

Is the appearance of the miraculous family that takes the boy in one of the boy’s dreams, or that of his dying father? Could be, and maybe that is the only way to justify the ending, but McCarthy gives us nothing dreamlike in this descriptive passage—nothing to suggest that the scene is other than reality. I don’t get it. But since those pages are there, we can only accept the ending, look past the final six pages, and exult in the artistry of the first 280 pages of this brilliant book.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Book Review: ALEKSANDAR HEMON, "The Making of Zombie Wars"

Book Review:

Aleksandar Hemon, The Making of Zombie Wars (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 2015


A literary truism: good comic writing, any comic writing that professes to call itself literary fiction, must be undergirded with a firm foundation in seriousness. Nikolai Gogol was/is the greatest comic writer in Russian literature; his works are profound. Vladimir Nabokov wrote the following about Gogol’s long story, “The Overcoat,” widely considered the best story ever written in Russia: “The diver, the seeker for pearls, the man who prefers the monsters of the deep to the sunshades on the beach, will find in ‘The Overcoat’ shadows linking our state of existence to those other states and modes which we dimly apprehend in our rare moments of irrational perception” (Nikolai Gogol, New Directions, 1961, p. 145).

Too many contemporary American writers of literary fiction are under those umbrellas on the beach. If they are swimming at all they are swimming in the shallows. There are depths to be plumbed through the art of writing creative fiction. Why not plumb them? Is it too risky? Is it easier to wade into tepid waters and potter around there? Time to take a deep breath and dive down deep now, modern American author. Time to stop your “shit-swimming” (Hemon’s term, taken out of context) in the literary shallows.

The Making of Zombie Wars begins with Hollywood silliness—amateur screenwriters pitching ideas to one another in a Chicago workshop—the idiocy and mindlessness of Hollywood (and of the whole U.S. A.), lurks in the background all the way through to the end. Practically all of Hemon’s books with American characters in a U.S. setting present a picture of our country teeming with idiots. This novel is set in 2003, just as we were embarking on what will surely go down as one of the most idiotic foreign-policy decisions of the twenty-first century: the invasion of Iraq.

Note the title: not Zombie Wars, but The Making of Zombie Wars. The book is about writing the screenplay for a movie, so it fits in the proud tradition of metafiction: a book about writing a book. In this case a screenplay. But this book features probably the worst writer who has ever appeared in a novel, and the worst screenplay.

To paraphrase Spinoza, who makes desultory appearances throughout the text, the mind can neither imagine nor recollect a more hapless and woebegone main character in a novel than Joshua Levin, the “hero” of this book. In his early thirties, Joshua lives in Chicago, works as a teacher of ESL, tries to write Zombie Wars, struggles with his love life, thrashes about amidst his equally hapless relatives.  He is a young man who “can’t even remember what okay looks like” (250). What are Joshua Levin’s redeeming virtues: (1) he appreciates good wine (2) well, yeah, he likes good wine, and he, uh, like, I mean…

That’s it. No more virtues, and the novel makes for itself an insurmountable problem from the start: the book is about a nonentity of a character and about “the continuous fiasco of his [Joshua’s] writing” (59), which is not interesting. Which is, in fact, colossally boring. “There was a time when he could conceive of a life that would permit him to wake up happy in the mornings. Such a life was now beyond the reach of his imagination” (91). Perhaps all of us come to this point in our lives, regrettably, but someone as young as Joshua should be far from having reached that point.

In a supreme irony, Joshua Levin has the same surname as the main male protagonist in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Konstantin Levin. Of course Joshua is a Jewish Levin, while Konstantin is of the Russian landed nobility. Some admirers of Tolstoy, such as Nabokov, have insisted that the name should be pronounced Lyovin, rather than Levin. Tolstoy himself is said to have said (and I suspect that this is apocryphal), “It’s not Levin, but Lyovin. Levin is a dentist in Berdichev.” The veiled anti-Semitism is apparent here to any Russian reader. You have your Levins and Levines, and they are, largely, Jewish.

Does writer Josh appreciate Tolstoy? Of course not. In a conversation with the Bosnian woman Ana—who is practically the only sympathetic character in the whole novel—Josh declares Tolstoy’s work (the greatest novel in the history of world literature) “too drawn out for me. I could never remember all those names” (200). Ana replies, “It is beautiful. It is about real life.”

You could concoct an imaginary dialogue between the two characters named Levin, when they meet some day in the Heaven for literary personages.

Konstantin: I was the main guy in Anna Karenina.
Joshua: Oh, yeah, I hear that was a good book; I never could get into it though. Too complicated for my pin brain.
K: It was a book about real life. I had a lot of trouble with that all my life: real life, I mean.
J: Me too. Looks like you and I have much in common.
K: Tell me. What was the name of the book you were in?
J: The Making of Zombie Wars.
K: I see. What was it about?
J: Zombies and wars.
K: (eyes glaze over; he looks around for a cloud to hide behind): I see.

Hemon’s novel is, indeed, about zombies and wars. The main wars under discussion are the 2003 American war against Iraq, the previous “Desert Storm” police action, and the wars in the Balkans of the nineties. As for zombies, they wander about attacking people throughout the book (in the scenes from Joshua’s screenplay and elsewhere in his imagination). There is endless discussion of what it means to be undead, whether zombies can have sex, and so on. Facts are checked in The Zombie Encyclopedia. At one point I thought my problem with this book is that I care not one iota about a single zombie who ever un-lived. I wonder what zombie-lovers think about this book.

Then again, the main theme of the book seems to be, once again, American idiocy. Typical of the American characters (a crass materialist) is Joshua’s brother-in-law Doug, “the manager of some shady money-laundering fund that made him spend a lot of time in Dubai” (239). After puzzling over the zombie theme I finally came to this conclusion: the characters populating this novel, Americans, Bosnians, Russians, Hispanics, Japanese are really all zombies themselves. Is that the point? Are we all undead?

An odd irony (the book is full of ironies): President Bush senior makes one appearance, addressing the nation on TV at the time of “Desert Storm.” While he is speaking a leaf falls in the background behind him, and “the deciduous leaf suddenly made Bush look terribly old [why? I don’t get it] and getting older [how can a leaf do that?]. Mr. President was going to die and no troop deployment could ever stop that” (106). The irony is that as I read this passage in the novel Bush One is still very much alive, while this book about zombies and nonentities, while only recently published, is already on life support. Gasp.

I suppose the reader has gathered by now that I don’t like this novel, that this is Hemon’s worst book yet. You read along and you keep wishing that the author were writing a different book, not this one. Anything other than the story of idiot zombie Joshua and his idiotic zombie friends amidst zombies. The meretricious and cretinous leader of the writers’ group, Graham, inadvertently provides a description of Hemon’s favorite characters: “The triers, the failures, the shit-swimmers. . . . the dung beetles of the American Dream” (9).

We are told that Joshua has an intelligent Japanese girlfriend, Kimmy. We never believe that such a woman would have the time of day for him, at least not until she mentions “a chance for us to take our [hers and Josh’s] relationship to a new level” (127). That’s when we say, aha, she’s as dumb as all the rest of them.

What about the Bosnian characters? Of them, only Ana Osim is sympathetic and redeemable (her daughter Alma somewhat less so). By now Hemon has begun recycling his lowlife Bosnian male characters. They have new names in this latest book (Bega, Esko), but we’ve already met them in previous works: losers all, shell-shocked by war and PTSD-ed into monsters. When we encounter the Begas and Eskos, along with the ex-KGB despicable Ponomarenko and many other immigrants (not only in this book, but in many other of Hemon’s works), the main questions we Americans find ourselves asking is this: Why did we ever let these jerks into our country? What purpose do they serve here? What can we do to make our immigration laws much stricter? Do we need Donald Trump after all?

Of course, according to the viewpoint of these more-than-flawed new residents of America the Beautiful—who, by the way, spend most of their time complaining about their new country, or trying to run some swindle rather than work—we naïve Americans are the flawed human beings, somehow automatically inferior because we lack the Russian, or the Ukrainian, or the Balkan experience of a thousand years of bloody history (some of it quite recent). You see, we dolts can never properly understand life, because we have not sufficiently suffered.

Is there any chance that one day the people of the Balkans will stop suffering? Decide to be flawed human beings, like us ingenuous Americans? Not likely. In her monumental Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West wrote the account of Balkan history: the perennial bloodshed, the atrocities, the rapes, genocides, etc. You read her book now, thinking, ah, yes, this was written between the two world wars, but, were she alive, Rebecca could add another chapter, describing how the denizens of the Balkans carry on in the nineties of the twentieth century with their same old same old. “History [read the history of Yugoslavia]: the first time a joke, the second time a badly translated joke” (87). Add: the third time and countless more times, a badly translated piece of bloody gibberish.

What about the plot of Hemon’s novel? It teems with improbabilities. What would a vibrant fifteen-year-old girl like Alma, already hopelessly Americanized, see in the vulgarian lowlife Bega? Not believable. Would the madcap Stagger, Joshua’s buddy—and one of the most screwed-up characters in a novel in which nearly everyone is screwed up—get his nose broken twice by the same antagonist (the redoubtable Esko) in a novel of only three hundred pages?

What about the interpolations? Take the scenes featuring Major Klopstock, Joshua’s hero of the screenplay. What purpose do they serve in the book as a whole, other than to reinforce what we already know: that Joshua is a cretin and his screenplay is B-film Hollywood at its worst? Other interpolations, some from Spinoza, some sounding like prayers out of the bible, are equally useless. We’re supposed to believe that Joshua has the smarts to appreciate Spinoza. We don’t.

Then again, read out of context even Spinoza sounds like a blockhead. Is this done deliberately? Take the epigraph: “The mind can neither imagine anything, nor recollect past things, except while the body endures.” Well, yeah, Baruch. Duh. By the time you are fifty pages into the book you are fed up with the little tag-on sentences at the end of the paragraphs. They recall Vonnegut’s cutesy tag-on, used to the point of utter repletion in Slaughterhouse Five: “And so it goes.”

Hold it, now, hold it (says the defender of Hemon); can’t you find anything good to say about this book? Actually I can, but it has nothing to do with the main characters or the plot. Hemon has a gift for verbal imagery, for incisive turns of phrase and metaphor. This has been his strongest attribute since the beginning of his writing career. “Stagger had offered to show him his samurai sword, so sharp, he’d said, it could slice a running dog in half and both halves would still jump at the same time to catch the Frisbee” (33). Later on, this sword is described as “my weapon of ass destruction.” Nice pun. “The before was no longer available, nor would it ever be, while the after was mercilessly launched between the glad ding of Kimiko’s bell and its despondent dong” (34). Very nice. Spring had arrived, and “the trees were taking their leaves seriously” (153). Nice.

Hemon has a certain quirkiness of imagination that I appreciate. “She sneezed as she was coming and he actually said, ‘Bless you’” (140). Has this ever happened before, in the history of world literature or in reality? Is it even possible to sneeze and come at the same time? Then again, can you be choking to death and coming at the same time? See p. 151. Hemon has a feel for the quotidian quandaries of humanity, like getting your testicles in a bind while sitting, thereby giving yourself “an inadvertent self-wedgie” (9). He does have a good sense of humor, so why does the aggregate of this comic novel end up being more aggravating than amusing?

Furthermore, Hemon has a good eye for detail, and amidst the mess that is the plot of this book, fine little scenes poke their noses in: (1) At the hospital. “An old man, thin as a stick, regressed down the hallway, pushing very slowly the walker on which his half-full colostomy bag hung. His hospital gown was not closed in the back, so his withered doughy ass was there for all to behold” (233). (2) In the ER room. “A rail-thin guy in full Bulls regalia was interrogating the water cooler (‘Whaddya want? What da fuck ya want? Whaddya want?’), which refused to cooperate. . . . [he] was focused on the cooler releasing defiantly an occasional bubble. He tried to kick the blue water bottle as if it were a head, but the Bulls sweatpants fallen halfway down his ass prevented him from connecting with it” (166). (3) In a restaurant. “The waiter, too large and slow to be a professional—easily cast as the laziest sibling in the family, the prodigal son who came back from college as a stoned failure—approached them gingerly, his pen at attention” (213). (4) In a bar. “The frat boys emptied the shots into their gullets then slammed the glasses down on the bar dramatically, as if they’d just accomplished a brave and rare feat. Paco poured them another round. One day these wide-shouldered boys will be running mutual funds into the ground, loyally voting Republican, and supporting foreign wars while watching the Wildcats football games, their hands stuck into their sweatshorts” (123).

 Maybe it would have been better, had Hemon written a comic novel about zombies—rather than about zombified human beings. If we can read between the lines there are glimmers of such a book. Mention is made of monkey zombies and bird zombies (101), about zombies dancing in a disco club. One undeveloped scene has a zombie pitching in a Cubs game. Just imagine what comedy you could make of that.

Full count. We’re tied in the ninth, folks, two out. Zombrel’s on the mound, leans in for his sign. Nods his zombie noggin. Grabs at his crotch to adjust his crotch-cup. He’s into his stretch. Checks the runners on first and third. Wipes blood off his brow, under the peak of his cap. And then, huh, what’s he doing, folks? He’s lumbered down off the mound, it’s a balk! He’s staggering toward the plate, he’s, he’s…he’s eating the face of the batter!

Here’s the supreme irony of all the ironies in this book. The novel treats an amateur writer who is trying (and failing) to write something significant, while, simultaneously, at a deeper level, the subject is a professional writer who is trying (and failing) to write something significant.

What is the Hemon Phenomenon? It is this. Here is an acclaimed writer, much acclaimed almost from the first English words he put down on a page. Welcomed with open arms into the top levels of the Eastern literary establishment, published in The New Yorker and practically anywhere else he wishes to submit his works. Every time he writes a book the Eastern establishment, or whoever is in charge of editorial reviews in the big-name places—The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, etc.—drags out the blurbery and encomium machines. It’s as if the blurbers and the encomium-spewers don’t even have to read the new book. All they have to do is dredge up the same compliments as before and wax enthusiastic. So every book that comes out is favorably reviewed where it counts, and so it goes, on and on, and the non-perspicacious reader is led to believe that the career of the writer Hemon is progressing well.

The end result is that lots and lots of people are deliberately deceiving themselves—or are led astray by the favorable reviews, which neglect to mention the lugubrious facts: that Hemon’s books do not appear to be getting better as his career progresses. That the zombie book is the worst one yet. That his best stuff was fiction he wrote right at the beginning of his career. As one recent reviewer on Amazon puts it: “He’s had nothing to write about for some time. . . . Being overpraised probably hasn’t helped him reload.”

What next for the writer Aleksandar Hemon? We have grounds for hoping for better things in the future, maybe even great things. People have come out of slumps before. He does have talent. He can write. Let’s hope he finds a way to do things differently. Maybe some day soon he’ll develop a preference for “the monsters of the deep to the sunshades on the beach.” Could be he’ll put on his diving gear and descend into the depths of profundity—and write a profound new novel or short story collection. Let’s hope so.