Horsemen of the Sands, written by Leonid Yuzefovich and translated by Marian Schwartz, contains two novellas. In The Storm, students are treated to a terrible (in content, form, and intent) lecture from a public safety officer while events conspire to bring about what looks like divine retribution for that officer. The longer Horsemen of the Sands is a framed story about a Russian soldier in Mongolia who is treated to possibly tall tales about the notoriously violent and unstable Baron Roman Fyodorovich Ungern-Sternberg. Schwartz’s translation is skillfully done and highly readable.
The Storm begins in a rural classroom somewhere in the Soviet Union. A public safety officer is giving a lecture about road safety, possibly in response to an incident involving one of the student’s fathers. For such a short novella, there are a lot of moving parts—which I love as a fan of books in which random events start to look a lot like fate. As the officer’s lecture continues, the students get increasingly upset. The officer starts making things up to keep their attention as they squirm, to the point where one boy is moved to vomit outside the class. That boy then makes a prayer that the officer will be struck by lightning. Ordinarily, the prayer wouldn’t do anything, but in Yuzefovich’s hands, that prayer left me wondering if what happened was an accident or a sign of something else entirely.
Horseman of the Sands is a story within a story. It begins when a Russian soldier meets a Mongolian man whose father and older brother fought for Baron Ungern-Sternberg, a historical figure who led a rogue regiment into the country to…actually, I’m not sure what he was up to because the actual history is just so weird. The Mongolian man offers to give the Russian a gau (protective amulet) allegedly worn by the Baron. The Russian then listens to the Mongolian’s strange tales about the Baron’s apparent imperiousness to bullets, his volatility, and how the Mongolian’s family members were ultimately killed by him. The stories the Mongolian tells make it seem like the Baron is just following his own off-beat drum. The conclusion, however, makes us wonder if there was a cunning sort of method to the man’s madness.
Fate takes a hand in both novellas, either by accident or by apparent design. Not knowing one way or the other provides plenty of food for thought: do the bad guys deserve what happened to them? Are they actually being punished if they don’t know that what they did lead to physical pain? Is a story less powerful if there’s a mundane explanation for seemingly supernatural events? The Storm and Horsemen of the Sands are puzzling in a way that I think could inspire interesting discussion for book groups, especially groups with a philosophical bent.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 4 September 2018.