Novel of the week


Viktor Pelevin <em>Faber, 250pp, £9.99</em>

ISBN 0571202470

Viktor Pelevin is one of the funniest novelists writing today, and this book, impressively translated by Andrew Bromfield, is an antidote to anguished moralising over Russia and its souls. Even more than Pelevin's great satire (and first novel), Omon Ra, its tone is set in a key of detached irony - perhaps, in the ruins of the Soviet Union, the only one available to a writer with no professional interest in Russia's fate.

If the Latin Americans invented magic realism, the Russians, in this century, invented diabolic realism - with the work of Mikhail Bulgakov, especially his Heart of a Dog and his nightmarish Master and Margarita as the early masterworks. In diabolic realism, the narrative pounds along in "real" time, but takes loops into dream, hallucinations and reveries, which reappear again in the "real" life, complete with voices, other-worldly stratagems and characters who may or may not be "real". Bulgakov wrote in the early days of the Soviet experiment (and was spared from repression by Stalin himself); Pelevin is an early inhabitant of wild Russian capitalism - his theme here - and is repressed by nothing more noxious than growing fame and recognition.

With the collapse of Soviet power, Tatarsky, who had been about to settle for a Soviet literary career translating poems from the "languages of the peoples of the USSR", becomes, through a friend, an advertising copywriter - a profession, wholly new to Russians, which allows Pelevin to hold up a glass to the madness of his society.

One of the reasons why Pelevin has become so popular in the west is that, with a pin fashioned from the popular disillusionment, he bursts the illusions and rhetoric that surrounded the collapse of the Soviet Union. "Tatarsky", he writes, "hated most of the manifestations of Soviet power, but he still couldn't understand why it was worth exchanging an evil empire for an evil banana republic." When he is given a commission to write a commercial for The Gap, Tatarsky writes: "Russia was always notorious for the gap between culture and civilisation. Now there is no more culture, no more civilisation. The only thing that remains is The Gap. The way they see you." This, like many of Tatarsky's slogans and narratives, is a wonderful blend of the high banality of advertising with a sustained satire on contemporary Russia.

In Tatarsky's penultimate job, he works for an organisation writing the script for public events in Russia, in which actors, or computer-simulated models, play the required parts of Boris Yeltsin and other public figures. In one virtual confrontation, Salaman Raduev, a Chechen warlord, and Boris Berezovsky, Russia's most influential capitalist (both real-life figures), play a game of three-dimensional Monopoly. "Nowadays," Berezovsky tells Raduev, "people find out what they think from television. So if you want to buy a couple of streets and sleep well, first you have to buy a TV tower." (Berezovsky controls Russia's largest TV network, and is said to have had close connections with the Chechen gangs.)

As the book develops and the satire becomes more vicious, the anger shows through the detachment. Tatarsky, to whom things happen rather than are made to happen, acquires his status symbol of a Mercedes, and enjoys feeling above the herd. But then he reflects: "Just take a Mercedes, even . . . a great car, no denying that, but the way things are arranged round here, all you can do with it is ride from one heap of shit to another." The heaps of shit that make up today's Russia - peopled by men and women crippled by their Soviet past, a prey to the post-Soviet beasts who have taken freedom to mean an opportunity for ruthless self-enrichment - exist because neither leaders nor led tried hard enough to do better. Yet again, for the intellectual, the only escape is into the inner life, or into irony.

John Lloyd is the author of Rebirth of a Nation: an anatomy of Russia

This article first appeared in the 24 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Are the loonies coming back?

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis