The Life of an Unknown Man, by Andreï Makine

While there are no right answers to the question: what are stories for? There are some answers that are more correct than others. In Andreï Makine’s The Life of an Unknown Man (smoothly translated by Geoffrey Strachan), exiled dissident, author Shutov has an existential crisis about what stories and literatures should be. Are they supposed to be beautiful? Are they supposed to ironically point out the foibles of society? Should they cater to the tastes of the reading public? Are they supposed to document the human condition? What should an author write in the middle of all of these competing questions?

At the beginning of The Life of an Unknown Man, Shutov has very firm ideas about what stories and literature should be. His girlfriend, Léa, who has just dumped him (rightly, I think) for being a pretentious ass about his opinions and loathing of everything modern, has very different ideas about what makes for good literature. Shutov, raised on the Russian classics (especially Anton Chekhov), wants to write beautiful, moving scenes that can wring tears from his readers. Unfortunately, he was born about 150 years too late and now lives in an age of irony, of cleverness, and of pervasive capitalism that just wants to sell, sell, sell. After Léa leaves Shutov and he wallows a bit in his feelings, he impulsively returns to St. Petersburg. He lived there when it was still Leningrad and he had to flee.

The Russia Shutov finds is very different from the Soviet Union he left. The city is celebrating its 300th anniversary, with a dizzying array of historical/carnivalesque events that reminded me of Russian Ark on overdrive. His old friend, Yana, has no time for him as she is working on building a hotel empire and her son is condescending. Shutov is left to his own devices until the son asks him to keep an eye on an old man who, due to bureaucracy, is living in Yana’s apartment while awaiting transfer to a nursing home. Shutov isn’t given a chance to say no, but the chore turns out to be anything but. The old man, who Shutov was told was mute, possesses a story that encompasses some of the most harrowing years of Soviet history: the Siege of Leningrad and the Great Patriotic War (World War II). Volsky’s story is not just a story of survival; it is also a love story of two people who history seems to want to keep apart but who still manage find each other.

By the end of the old man’s story—and the end of The Life of an Unknown Man—both the reader and Shutov come to a realization. Shutov finds a new mission for his writing. He wants to write the stories of people whose names have been lost to time, to restore them to life, for the sake of their stories. Everyone has a story, he realizes. For my part, I decided that the ultimate purpose of a story, of literature, is to say something true. It doesn’t matter if it’s beautiful or tragic or ugly or funny or arch or popular. What matters is whether or not a story can tell us something true.

The first third of The Life of an Unknown Man was a little hard for me to get through. Shutov is an almost stereotypical mansplainer who is so convinced of the rightness of his opinions that he takes his anger out on anyone who expresses their own ideas. It’s no wonder that Léa glazes over when he starts to pontificate. But once Shutov returned to Russia and started listening to other people for a change, the entire tenor of the novel changed for me. Even if Volsky’s stories hadn’t been about a period of history I am macabrely fascinated with, I would have been hooked by the their honesty and sharp observations. At the end, I had hope that Shutov would uncover true stories to share.

Solovyov and Larionov, by Eugene Vodolazkin

I don’t think that a lot of historians would like to have it pointed out to them that what they do with historical documents can look an awful lot like what literary critics do with the fictional texts. That comparison came to mind over and over as I read Solovyov and Larionov, by Eugene Vodolazkin (translated by Lisa Hayden in fluid, erudite English). Graduate student Solovyov is working on his dissertation about a White Army general named Larionov. So far, he has only found a few discrepancies in the only biography of the general, but his work is promising. When Solovyov receives a stipend and permission to go to a Larionov conference in Kerch*, he has the chance to answer the biggest question about the general’s life: how on earth did he manage to avoid execution by the Bolsheviks after the end of the Russian Civil War?

Solovyov and Larionov moves back and forth in time, from St. Petersburg and Yalta in 1996, to Yalta and the Crimea in 1920. We learn about Solovyo’s youth near an obscure railroad station at the same time that we learn about Larionov’s privileged upbringing as the son of military men and a railroad baron. While we learn about the two men’s biographies, we also see Vodolazkin making gentle fun of academia. Academia, it seems, is the same pretty much everywhere. There are university departments full of people who will defend their pet theories to the death or who can build castles in the air over the slightest evidence. I’m not sure what it says about me that I was nodding along with some of the papers delivered at the conference while laughing at others as ridiculous.

Because Larionov, apart from his defense of the Crimea against the nascent Red Army, led a quiet life, there’s not much information about him. Some of it, in the form of a memoir, was lost. This is part of what leads Solovyov south to the Crimea. He might be able to find more information about the general that has been overlooked before now. He even finds the dacha where Larionov lived from the 1920s until his death in 1976. (There is a blackly hilarious section about the various inhabitants of the dacha after it was divided up into apartments. Members of the Cheka keep killing each other to get a nicer place in the dacha.) Until Solovyov learns that it might be possible to recover Larionov’s memoir, all he has is what he can glean from White and Red Army records and what other historians have picked over. In lieu of documentary evidence, those other historians (and, on one occasion, a folklorist) have started to speculate about the gaps in Larionov’s history to theorize about how he managed to escape the fate of so many people who were killed by the Bolsheviks (including a lot of Bolsheviks themselves). Solovyov keeps his mind open, hoping to find out more about the hints in the general’s story that someone in the Soviet government was protecting him.

I wasn’t sure about whether I was going to stick around for the rest of the novel. Solovyov and Larionov is a slow burn with a complicated structure and heaping spoonfuls of satire and historical tangents. It took a while for me to warm up to Solovyov, though I was as interested in Larionov as the horde of historians in this book. Solovyov is more of a vehicle for plot and ideas than he is a character, at least until he learns about his own connection to the Larionov family. Readers who enjoy books about ideas—especially ones that make fun of the eccentricities and ridiculousness of academia—may like this book. Readers who want a fast, tense novel about the Russian Civil War will probably not appreciate all the discursions and tangents. Once I was hooked into this meandering, funny, interesting book, I couldn’t put it down.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

Yalta Quay, Yalta (Image via Wikicommons)

* Kerch and Yalta are located on the Crimean Peninsula, which is territory disputed by Ukraine and Russia. I am not getting into the middle of that conflict by assigning the peninsula to one country or another because I don’t want a flame war in the comments.

The Goose Fritz, by Sergei Lebedev

Kirill, the protagonist of Sergei Lebedev’s erudite The Goose Fritz, has a gift for imagining the past. Symbols on a tombstone or the sounds of thunder will transport him across time so that he can experience a bit of what his ancestors’ felt or saw. It’s a useful trick for a historian, especially as Kirill has decided to write the history of his German-Russian family from the 1830s, through the Russo-Japanese War, the Revolution, the Great Terror, and the Great Patriotic War.

A few years before her own death, Kirill’s grandmother Lina shows him the graves of their German ancestors—ancestors Kirill had no idea existed—at the Vvedenskoye Cemetery in Moscow. They had visited before, but Kirill didn’t know that he was descended from Balthasar Schwerdt. Before that day at the cemetery, Kirill only knew that his great-grandfather had been killed during the Great Terror. Everything else about his heritage was a mystery. Seeing the Schwerdt graves at the cemetery sends Kirill on an academic quest to recover the history of his family.

Very early in this novel (which often reads like a blend of nonfiction and novel), Kirill tells the story of a man who lived near his grandmother’s dacha. This man, known as the Sergeant, suffered from terrible post-traumatic stress disorder. Every year, on the anniversary of the Battle of Kursk, the Sergeant gets drunk. Everyone knows to stay out of his way. But on one of those anniversaries, the Sergeant gets drunk and ends up violently strangling a goose he’d dubbed Fritz. The goose represents all of the German soldiers who had tried to kill the Sergeant during the war. This terrible incident sticks with Kirill—and with me—as a brutal example of the deadly hatred some Russians have for Germans. As Kirill digs into the past, he sees over and over again how Russians turn on his German family in times of crisis. His family, much diminished by 1937, was only able to be “safe” when they dropped the Schwerdt name and reinvent themselves as “pure” Russians in the chaos of World War II.

Kirill uses his grandmother’s papers, histories of Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, and his fellow historians to create a fuller portrait of his lost family history. He learns about Balthasar the homeopath and his brother, the legendary Marinated Midshipman; Andreas the engineer and industrialist; Arseny (Kirill’s great-grandfather) the doctor and passive socialist; and about all of the multiple great uncles and aunts and his many times removed cousins. As he learns more, Kirill develops a theory about people who unwittingly become victims of history. Kirill does just what I do when I read historical fiction: he urgently wants to tell his ancestors to get out of Russia! as critical dates approach.

The Goose Fritz is, as I’ve said, an erudite book that blends history and fiction together. It’s not a typical novel at all, with hardly any dialog. Instead, The Goose Fritz is an epic. It places a family against the most tumultuous years of Russian and Soviet history. For all that it is a dense read, I enjoyed it very much because of its intelligence and humanity and because it reveals much about what life is like for a family who will always be considered outsiders—even though they were born in Russia, fought for Russia, spoke the language, and followed the Orthodox faith—because one of their ancestors came from an enemy country.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

Snow in May, by Kseniya Melnik

It’s a little black-hearted, but I suspect that we read stories about hard luck and bad decisions because they remind us that at least things are as bad as they are for the people in them. I thought about this a lot as I read the stories in Kseniya Melnik’s collection, Snow in May. I didn’t set out to read hard luck stories when I picked it up; I just grabbed it off the shelf at my library because I liked the cover. But then, I should have known that I’d get a stiff dose of hardship from any piece of fiction set in the Soviet Union or Russia.

Some of the stand outs from this collection include:

“Love, Italian Style, or, In Line for Bananas.” This story features a hard choice. On the one hand, the protagonist can choose a night of passion with a visiting Italian athlete (and face the inevitable consequences of consorting with capitalists). On the other, she can do her duty to her family in Magadan and stand in nearly endless queues to secure foods and goods that she can only buy in Moscow. Unfortunately, it appears that Fate is making things even more difficult for our protagonist: she has the worst streak of luck in her entire life.

“Closed Fracture.” In this story, a Russian immigrant to the United States receives a phone call from his best friend from childhood. The call functions like Proust’s madeleine and sends the immigrant on a long journey back through his memories to the winter he broke his leg and his life diverged from his unlucky friend’s.

“Our Upstairs Neighbor.” In this story, a young woman attends a somewhat ludicrous concert in honor of one of the Soviet Union’s greatest singers. The singer never shows. When the young woman asks about him, she learns that her grandfather knew him. Her question to her grandfather about why the singer didn’t show elicits a long, meandering story about the singer via her grandfather’s life. He argues that, to understand the now, we have to know everything that came before.

While the stories in Snow in May didn’t knock my socks off, I enjoyed how many of them linked together to share a multi-generational family story of surviving under the last decades of the Soviet Regime and the first decade of the Russian Federation. Everyone hustles to get a better life for themselves and their relatives, only to stumble or rise when Fate or Luck intervenes.

Nearly all of the stories in Snow in May are set in Magadan, Russia, between the late 1950s and the early 2000s. (Image via Wikicommons, cropped by me.)
Nearly all of the stories in Snow in May are set in Magadan, Russia, between the late 1950s and the early 2000s. (Image via Wikicommons, cropped by me.)

The Winter of the Witch, by Katherine Arden

Katherine Arden’s amazing Winternight trilogy comes to a satisfying close in The Winter of the Witch. This novel begins in the immediate aftermath of the conclusion to the previous volume and readers should read this series in order so that they don’t get lost right off the bat. Everything in the first two books has been building towards the events in this concluding installment. 

Our protagonist, the beaten and weary Vasilisa Petrovna, is not allow to rest after the night when Moscow was almost destroyed by an angry firebird. There was so much destruction and confusion that the people of Moscow want someone to pay. Vasya is only just barely able to escape when an old enemy whips up a mob to try and burn her as a witch. The first chapters made me ache for Vasya. She was only trying to help. Of course, a lot of protagonists were only trying to help when they inadvertently caused all hell to break loose. Still, there’s no excuse for trying to burn someone alive. 

Her escape leads her on a series of episodic adventures that end up putting the Rus’ to rights after years of conflict between the supernatural chyerti and the Orthodox church; the warring Medved the Bear and his brother the winter king, Morozko; and the Rus’ and their Tatar overlords. Everywhere Vasya goes, she has to extract promises and strike bargains in an effort to save lives and find a measure of peace for everyone. Her tasks seem so impossible that, even though I knew things had to come out right because this was the last book in the series, I worried. Vasya has so much on her shoulders in this book between all of these struggles on top of her worries over her own sanity and for her family. The fact that she bears up under all of this had me marveling over her strength and ingenuity. 

Readers who have been following the series will be more than satisfied with this conclusion, I think. Each episode in the book is tense, with high stakes if Vasya should falter. All the loose ends are tied up. Nothing is easy and the ending is more than earned. Arden treats us to plenty of magic and headstrong characters drawn from Russian history and folklore, with new creatures we haven’t seen before. I savored every page of The Winter of the Witch. 

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 8 January 2019.

Vita Nostra, by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

There are some research topics that are perennial at the library. Most of the time, I don’t mind these. One of the ones that I regularly struggle with is the value of a liberal arts education. I struggle with this because I don’t understand why students don’t just naturally see the point of it; it’s hard to rhapsodize about critical thinking skills, adaptability, and so on to someone who isn’t getting it. But when I read Marina and Sergey Dyachenko’s wrenching contemporary fantasy novel, Vita Nostra (translated by Julia Meitov Hersey), I suddenly saw why they had a hard time understanding why their professors had them slave over obscure, difficult texts for hours. Sasha Samokhina, our protagonist, has absolutely no idea why she’s been coerced into attending Institute of Special Technologies in a remote Russian town. And, until near the end when the purpose of it all is spectacularly revealed, neither do we.

Sasha’s plans for college are vague when the unsettling Farit Kozhennikov finds her while on vacation at the beach with her mother. Using the threat that “something terrible will happen” if she doesn’t comply, Farit gives her a series of tasks to complete before informing her that she will attend the Institute of Special Technologies instead of a normal university. Once at the Institute, Sasha is set to studying incomprehensible texts and trying to perform seemingly impossible mental exercises. It’s only after a full year of this rough education that Sasha starts to see its possibilities. We, like Sasha, have to trust that there really is a point to it all. 

But even though there is an objective—which her professors repeatedly tell her that she has to learn on her own and that they can’t just tell her—I had to wonder if it worth the struggle and the transformation Sasha experiences. Sasha has to content with her bizarre and rigorous education in addition to figuring out her feelings for Kostya Kozhennikov (the son of her “advisor,” Farit) and the scorn of girls who bully her. In that sense, Vita Nostra shares some of the tropes of the growing genre of magic school novels. Vita Nostra strongly reminded me of Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy because these mundane concerns are given just as much time as the magical elements; the fiendishly complicated curriculum heightened the similarities. This book had so much emotional weight that there were times I didn’t think I could bear it. I shouldn’t be surprised that this is what happens when Russian language writers got their hands on the genre.

Vita Nostra felt like a paradox while I was reading it. On the one hand it’s a slow burn that encompasses the first three years of Sasha’s career at the Institute. I wrestled with the strange texts and exercises along with Sasha, eventually achieving an awareness of what the school is teaching its coerced student body. It really is an extraordinary course of study. I know I wouldn’t be able to hack it, but I am a little bit tempted because of what the students might be able to do once they graduate. On the other hand, I felt like I was racing along with Sasha as she devoured her magical training. The curriculum at the Institute is just as much about transformation (literally) as it is about training young minds to see the world for what it really is and Sasha wants as much as she can handle and more—to the frequent exasperation and occasional horror of her professors.

Which brings me back around to the question of whether or not a rigorous, bewildering education is worth the struggle, especially when students can’t see the end point. The things Sasha learns are firmly in the territory of things we shouldn’t mess with. To say that this kind of knowledge is worth having and using seems like something Faust would argue and look at what happened to him. But Vita Nostra responds to this question by having Sasha’s professors repeatedly stress restraint, warning Sasha that she’s not mature enough to exercise her new abilities. The question at the end of Vita Nostra is not why; the question is should. We have a lot to look forward to in the next books in the series because I strongly suspect that, even at the end, Sasha still hasn’t learned caution. 

I hope that Hersey keeps translating these books. Her work seems perfectly faithful and imperceptible. Her translation never gives things away too soon, just like Sasha’s professors.

Horsemen of the Sands, by Leonid Yuzefovich

40168569Horsemen of the Sandswritten 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.

baron_ungernruem.jpg

Ungern-Sternberg in 1921. (Image via Wikicommons, cropped by me)

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.

Sentimental Tales, by Mikhail Zoshchenko

36906165I am a staunch advocate of New Historicism. This school of thought argues that, in order to understand a text, one has to understand its social, historical, and cultural contexts. I don’t think this has ever been more true than when I read Sentimental Tales, a short story collection by Mikhail Zoshchenko and translated by Boris Dralyuk. This strange and blackly funny collection is written from the perspective of a frustrated writer who doesn’t know how to tell a story that will please himself, his potential readers, and the Soviet Writers’ Union.

After a series of introductions to the collections editions (which reminded me of the opening credits notes in Monty Python and the Holy Grail), our narrator gives us a series of stories that are as much commentary on writing under the Soviet Union as they are portraits of scoundrels. Each story begins with the narrator lamenting his latest problem. Sometimes it’s not being able to write beautiful language to set the scene when lovers are sighing at each other under blooming lilacs. Sometimes it’s not coming up with characters worthy of writing about. Mostly it’s about not being able to write the way the Union wants while also writing in a way that pleases the narrator. I’m glad I at least knew something about the Writers’ Union. It’s possible I would have been so frustrated by what these stories were doing without knowing their context that I would have given up after the first story.

The stories are difficult to summarize—which is odd considering that not a lot happens. Each story in the collection is a portrait of a man who also doesn’t fit in the new order of things. These men who don’t fit aren’t outsiders because of their philosophies; they don’t fit in because they’re scam artists and dreamers. They don’t want much, in general. They want their creature comforts: warmth, food, a decent place to sleep. The wastrels mostly achieve this by marrying and scamming a woman with a steady income. These stories are completely different from anything I’ve read from an early Soviet writer. Zoshchenko’s characters aren’t heroic in any way, shape, or form. They’re not even anti-heroes, as in Babel’s stories.

I found the narrator’s metafictional whining hilarious. Reading the introductions to the stories was like sitting on the writer’s shoulders while he tears his hair out in frustration, before cracking open a bottle of vodka while he tells you half-formed stories about what he has seen lately. I was entertained and intellectually challenged by Sentimental Tales. I would recommend it for readers who like to see inside writers’ processes—especially readers who might want to be writers themselves.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 31 July 2018.

A Million Drops, by Víctor del Árbol

36755919There is a maxim by Francis Bacon that lodged itself in my head as I read A Million Drops, by Víctor del Árbol and translated by Lisa Dillman. The maxim is, “He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune, for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.” In this novel about human monsters, characters are constantly stymied when their children are threatened. Great wrongs are allowed to go unavenged for a long time because no one has the strength—or the arrogance—to tell their enemies go to hell.

This achronological novel takes place in two different times. In 2002, in Barcelona, Gonzalo Gil is dreading having to merge his fledgling law firm (consisting only of himself) with his father-in-law’s rich and powerful firm when he learns that his sister has committed suicide after being accused of killing the man who kidnapped and killed her son. In 1933, in the Soviet Union, Gonzalo’s father, Elías, is sent to the gulag after being betrayed by men he thought were his friends. On the train to far eastern Russia, he encounters a psychopath who will emotionally torture him for the rest of his life. These plot-paced sentences should be a good indication of just how much happens in A Million Drops. So much happens between 1933 and 2002 that it’s little surprise it took del Árbol almost 700 pages to describe the conspiracies and revenges that connect Gonzalo to his father, as well as explain the decades of violence that Elías and his nemesis caused.

In addition to all the plot (seriously, guys, there is so much plot in this book), A Million Drops gives us numerous portraits of men who face horrible choices about what they would be willing to do to get what they want. Elías wants to be a good Communist, but he quickly realizes that the Soviet leadership are more interested in power and bloodshed than they are about building the Worker’s paradise. His nemesis, a truly monstrous individual named Igor, takes full advantage of the chaos in the Soviet Union of the 1930s. In 2002, Gonzalo has the chance to finish the good work his sister started, but only if he can find a way to stop people from ruining his family. Over and over, men are asked to compromise their ethics. Some struggle. Some gleefully compromise. Some make what they think is the right choice, only to be twisted by guilt and anger.

A Million Drops is, I think, a good read for characters who like thrillers blended with historical fiction, served with a big spoonful of ethical and moral dilemmas and plenty of evil machinations. Some of the dialogue is a bit clunky and there are some things that could probably have been cut. Unlike some of the other books I’ve read lately, I can promise that this book has an ending in which all questions are answered and we get to learn what happened to everyone. I ended up being more satisfied by this book than I thought it would as I was making my way through all that plot. This book was grim and fascinating at the same time.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 15 May 2018.

Book v. Movie: The Death of Stalin

Last week, I caught the last showing of The Death of Stalin—a satire I’ve been wanting to see since I saw the reviews. I liked it so much that I bought the graphic novel the movie was based on immediately after I got home (and before I spent two hours on Wikipedia finding out what really happened). I hardly ever go to movies, so seeing the movie and reading the book gave me the rare opportunity to compare the two.

MV5BMDhkMjdkNjEtMDExMi00MzRhLTgyMWUtNWRmZTdhZThhMDNhXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTIyODMzMzA@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_The film The Death of Stalin is one of the most brutally funny things I’ve ever seen. I laughed a lot as the characters—the members of the central committee and various members of the Soviet public—race around in the power vacuum after the death of Joseph Stalin. Stalin had created such a sense of terrified obedience to his will that the characters have to turn constant mental somersaults to avoid being considered a traitor (and consequently shot or sent to the gulag). The movie constantly flirts with going to far. For some viewers, I’m sure it does go too far in making jokes about how easy it was to die for no reason in the Soviet Union. And yet, the actors do such a great job at overplaying their characters just enough that the whole thing has a tone of frantic farce. I really, really enjoyed it.

34437954The original graphic novel, by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, I did not enjoy. Perhaps it was because I had just seen and liked the movie so much, that I wasn’t ready for the more historically accurate sinister atmosphere. This version of the story shows the central committee in all their dubious and paranoid glory. In the film version, the scurrying these men do makes it easier to forget the monstrosity of their actions. There is no forgetting in the book version. It is very clear that all of these men have committed crimes against the people they claim to be working for.

One is not better than the other, although there’s a version I absolutely prefer. After all, there’s more than one right way to tell a story. From a critical standpoint, it’s fascinating to see how much tone can affect the way a reader perceives a story and how it’s little things that create that tone. In both versions of The Death of Stalin, it’s characterization that has the biggest impact on the tone. The actors in the film version deliberately chew the scenery and use their incredibly mobile faces to express panic and scheming. The faces in the book version are cruel, hard, and much less expressive. They look like monsters and it’s impossible to empathize with them at all. (Not that they deserve it. They are monsters.) Empathy made it possible for me to watch the characters scurry around in the film while I was just waiting for those characters to receive some kind of just punishment.

The two versions of the story offer very different experiences. For readers who want a manic farce, I would recommend the film. For readers who want historical accuracy (if in brief), I would recommend the graphic novel.