One of the reasons I read fiction is to learn history. Oh, I read historical non-fiction and took too many history classes in college and all that jazz, but sometimes novels make history really in a way that most non-fiction writers can’t. I’ve been reading about Ludmila Ulitskaya’s The Big Green Tent in book reviews all year long. Each review made a point of saying something to the effect of this book helping readers understand the life of dissidents during between Stalin’s death and the early 1980s. Ulitsakaya’s massive novel follows not only three main characters, but also provides tangents long and short about their wives, relatives, friends, and even friends of friends. I would call this book Dickensian because it seeks to provide an entire slice of life—but it’s not funny. I suppose I’ll have to call it Tolstoyan*.
Sanya, Mikha, and Ilya form the center of this sprawling book. The three met in school. They bonded because they were all targeted by bullies and because they all fell in love with Russian literature. The Big Green Tent begins gently compared to its later chapters. The narrative stays focused on the boys’ life at school and the travails of their literature teacher to create ethical, sensitive people. He is more or less successful with Sanya and Mikha—because they were already quite sensitive and empathetic. His results with Ilya a more equivocal.
After school, The Big Green Tent splinters into an unwieldy number of narratives. At nearly 600 pages, it’s impossible to read this book in on sitting. It took me a week to get through it. The problem with taking breaks while reading is that, when I did get back to the book, it took me some time to gain traction again. I needed a cheatsheet for the characters and their relationship to Sanya, Mikha, and Ilya. On top of the huge cast of characters, the narrative tracks back and forth through time. We visit and revisit the early days of the samizdat culture. We see the government attitude towards the dissidents thaw and freeze and thaw and freeze. Ulitskaya has given her readers a course on life in the Soviet Union in the guise of fiction.
To summarize the book is futile. Instead, I’ll tell you what I think about The Big Green Tent.
What I liked most about this book were the tangents. When the narrative turned down a road to tell me about the boys’ teacher or Ilya’s mother-in-law’s family or the woes of a cartoonist, Russian history came to life for me. The histories can’t quite explain what it would mean to be caught between one’s personal ethics, one’s family, and the dictates of a government that wants to radically transform society. Ulitskaya did this with the teacher and the priest’s daughter and the cartoonist.
What I liked least about this book was the way the ending kept getting further and further away. Without an overarching plot arc, there was no natural ending point for all the narratives. Just when I thought I had reached an end point, I would turn the page to find another chapter or an epilogue. I was done with this book before I got to the end. I suspect that I’d had enough because the last third of the book returns to tell Mikha and Sanya’s stories. By the time I got back to them, I was less interested in them than I had been in the secondary and tertiary characters I’d already met.
The Big Green Tent is a novel that one has to come to without expectations about what the book is going to be like. Ulitskaya’s book does not follow any conventions I’m aware of (because I clearly haven’t read enough Russian literature to pick up on any). Going in expecting an overall plot arc will lead to disappointment. The Big Green Tent is a book to wallow in. It is, like Sir Francis Bacon said, “to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.”
* I haven’t read War and Peace. That’s why I’m hedging a bit.