A Dystopian Future

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RN launches a column, Read Russia, which will feature reviews of books to be presented at BookExpo America in New York City June 4-7, 2012, where Russia will be the guest of honor. 

TITLE: "2017"
AUTHOR: Olga Slavnikova
PUBLISHER: Overlook/Duckworth Publishing 

I n the mythical Riphean Mountains, gem prospectors, called rock hounds, search for precious stones. On the streets of a Russian city, romance unfolds against the backdrop of the centenary of the 1917 revolution -- seemingly a call to repeated violence. Olga Slavnikova weaves these parallel plots and settings together in "2017," an ambitious, postmodern contribution to a revered literary tradition. Slavnikova's strange, genre-defying novel, winner of the 2006 Russian Booker Prize, finally made it into English in Marian Schwartz's luminous translation. There is a great heritage of Russian sci fi, most of it dystopian. Several recent novels have set their action a few years in the future to create a satirical alternative present: Tatyana Tolstaya's "Slynx" and Dmitry Glukhovsky's "Metro 2033" use post-apocalyptic scenarios.

Slavnikova flirts with the sci-fi genre. She winks at rejuvenating nanotechnologies and flashes a few holographic toys, but a more serious prognosis is found in ecological catastrophe, which is poisoning the Ripheans. 

The anniversary of the revolution reinforces the idea of a recurring national destiny. Many 19th-century Russian artists embraced a rebirth of folk art and Slavic heroes. For Slavnikova, this stylistic nostalgia created a "historical dreaminess in their weak and impressionable heirs." History becomes a virus and then an epidemic. Slavnikova imagines a fake but bloody civil war, as inevitable as it is inauthentic. The striving for authenticity, rejecting the superficial sparkle of wealth and the "culture of copies," is a keynote of the novel.

The protagonist, a gem-cutter called Krylov, relishes the transparency of quartz; his polishing is an attempt to reveal what he sees inside. Despite this background in a lovingly depicted trade, Krylov's aimlessness nudges him towards the ranks of Russian literature's famous superfluous men. The women in Krylov's life are disappointingly allegorical. His wife, Tamara, is fleshy and glamorous, worldly and cynical, while Krylov's lover, the mysterious Tanya, is slim and spiritual. Krylov and Tanya's poignant and fragile relationship recalls that of Anna and Dmitry in Chekhov's "Lady with a little Dog" mixed up -- in this case -- with a spy thriller. Tanya is a frustratingly elusive character, identified with the legendary "Stone Maiden," one of the rock spirits who occasionally threaten to lead the novel veering off into the thickets of magic realism.

Deep-rooted paganism and folklore are just two of the facets of Russian culture the book begins to explore. "2017" is packed so full of ideas and images it sometimes threatens to explode under the pressure. Its strength is in its linguistic subtlety and ingenuity. 

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