Moskovskij gambit (The Moscow Gambit) Yuri Mamleev

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Yuri Mamleev was one of the authors that was recommended to me in my survey of Russian novels deserving translation, so I thought I’d give this one a go.  So what’s it all about.  The Moscow gambit is a chess opening: as I recall a line in the Semi-Slav where Black ends up with his position looking a bit of a mess.  But since his pieces are active and well-coordinated, and he has an extra pawn,  he probably has the advantage.

The book is not about that.  Instead we have a group of underground artists and amateurs of the occult in Moscow at the end of the 1970s.  Not much happens.  The things which look as though they are going to happen don’t.  Three of the characters are promised initiation into some higher (but unspecified) reality via a complex and obscure process.  But that doesn’t happen and they turn to more or less orthodox Hinduism instead.

A young artist finds he is dying of an incurable disease and is unable to face the news.  What the author frankly admits is a sub-Dostoievskian scene ensues where a female friend goes to comfort him and then her official lover bursts in and says if dying is what’s needed he’s dying and of course there’s a skandal.  You expect some resolution of what happens to the artist, but first of all he spends his time playing draughts incessantly with a teenage neighbour, then a ‘master of death’ in the Orthodox tradition takes him away somewhere and we never find out what happened.

Not that one--they're playing draughts anyway!

At least one character describes at length how she wants to go on living somehow, to have some awareness of an ‘I’, whatever tortures that might entail.  [Personally, I am absolute for death.]  There are the kind of discussions you might expect about When will Russians be free?  and  Is unfreedom necessary for art?  Everyone spends their time drunk and hanging round with their pals.  Maybe a former pair of lovers are about to get it back together at the end.

So this wasn’t really a novel–the characters and incidents weren’t realised with sufficient concreteness and detail for that, and I found it very difficult to remember who was supposed to be who.  Nor where the ideas people sat around swapping novel or interesting enough  to make the book worthwhile on their own, and the artistic Moscow underground of the late 1970s is hardly uncharted territory in Russian fiction.

I did enjoy the description of the characters’ artistic productions:  the love story between the girl and the bedbug and the exhibition of pictures like stars in a two-room apartment.

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One Response to “Moskovskij gambit (The Moscow Gambit) Yuri Mamleev”

  1. Luis de Miranda Says:

    Mamleev is going to be published for the first time in English (the entire Shatuny novel) by Haute Culture Books : https://www.hauteculturebooks.com/coming-soon

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