Елтышевы (Eltyshevy) Roman Senchin


Taken at face value, this book tells the story of the Eltyshev family.  The father, Nikolai, is a policeman and the mother, Valentina, works in a library.  They have two sons: Artem, who hangs around all day doing nothing and Denis, who is in prison after inflicting serious injury on someone in a brawl.  Nikolai has failed to successfully fish in muddy waters in the confusion following the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the family has a flat and a car.

In an attempt to improve his fortunes, Nikolai gets a posting to a sobering-up station, where he can steal money from prisoners who are too drunk to notice.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t manage to make very much this way and on one occasion he treats the prisoners so badly that several suffer serious damage.  It proves impossible to hush this up, and Nikolai is sacked and given a suspended sentence.  The family also lose their flat, so the family decide to move to the country to live with Valentina’s Aunt Tatyana.

The book is essentially about how the family and its members disintegrate in the new milieu.  Nikolai pays in advance for building supplies that do not appear while Artem finds himself married to the girl the local youth say is not already spoken for, and she turns out to be the village…slag.  Nikolai fails to make progress in building a house.  Artem fails to make progress at all, except he does manage to go to town and work as a builder with colleagues from the criminal world.  Valentina finds herself selling honeysuckle berries in a market where formerly she used to shop, and a former colleague of hers declines in the end to buy from her…The family first of all refuse, and then agree, to make a living by selling illicit alcohol.

The author manages to maintain interest in all of this by an economical and taut style.  It’s very well done, and I found myself wanting to know what would happen next.  Indeed I kept on nurturing the hope of a turn for the better, even though I knew it would never happen.  And I believed it all–the depiction of the awfulness of life in the Russian countryside, the impossible climate, stupid lazy and dishonest inhabitants, and absence of everything that makes life at all tolerable was completely in accord with what I know about the subject.

The question then is what does this mean.  A simple (even simple-minded) answer is that Nikolai and Valentina are people of the Soviet period, which kind of worked in a rather uninspired way.  Then the next generation are either thugs (Denis) or completely ineffectual (Artem).  Nikolai’s combination of long periods of drunken inactivity with outbursts of fatal violence is also freighted with associations, since like Ivan the Terrible he kills his son accidentally in a brawl and other people as well…Again the policeman and the librarian seem to be symbolic of the Soviet period–on the one hand, ordered violence and controlled corruption and on the other cheap diluted institutionalised culture (which she immediately forgets all about in the village).  Sounds a lot like good old symbolic realism to me.  It’s got a bit of that William Golding air:  they’re bad and weak and bad things happen to then and their faults and feebleness destroy them.

There’s surely a lot to think about here!  The Russian criticism as reflected here apparently falls into two camps:  either it’s a realistic depiction of things falling apart in post-Soviet society or it’s a study of the destruction of the characters just because Senchin felt like it.  Well the first can’t be entirely right  because you wouldn’t choose such inherently unsympathetic characters as a dishonest cop who oversteps the line and the inhabitants of a Russian village in that case.  So the second one is probably nearer the mark.  But it’s important to note that it’s very well done.  There really are no positive characters or moments, apart perhaps from unreliable transient instances of beauty and fertility in the countryside; but it’s not at all flat or uninteresting, as could easily be the case.

Later:  I see that I am in complete and independent agreement with Lizok’s Bookshelf on this one.  Though I can’t say I share her enthusiasm for Happiness is possible, which is being published in English.

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One Response to “Елтышевы (Eltyshevy) Roman Senchin”

  1. Words new to me: квёлый « XIX век Says:

    […] It’s wonderful so far, if dark. Here is her post on it at Lizok’s Bookshelf and another review from the blog Notes of an idealist. Like this:LikeBe the first to like this. from → words […]

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