Побежденные (Pobezhdennye, The Defeated)


This is an excellent book.  It is also unfortunately something like Holy Scripture for extreme nationalist-mystical tendencies in present-day Russia.

At the level of a novel, this one answers the same question as Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise:  What happens once you’ve been defeated?  How do you go on?  What do you do?

So the book follows the fate of an interlinked group of former nobles and gentry in post-Revolutionary Leningrad as they survive by selling heirlooms and find they have members of the lower classes billeted on them and they are excluded from labour and higher education.  Even if one is making oneself useful–indeed indispensable–at work, one is only ‘safe’ until the next denunciation. So we see the characters at various stages:  trying to continue life as normal; forming strained communities when exiled to the countryside; in prison and in camps; at the point of death.

There’s a great deal of very high-grade novelistic description of the relationships and arguments in a communal apartment, and the way in which hostile reality seeps into the heroes’ attempts to maintain their values and relationships as they were, at least in their own apartments, at least in their own rooms…Author Irina Golovkina was the grand-daughter of the composer Rimsky-Korsakov, and members of her real family make episodic appearances in the book.  She also like Vassily Grossman goes to the edge in saying what it is like to be be executed and I think she does it rather better, since it comes more from the inside than being imposed from the outside as something that has to be included.

You can raise objections.  The characters sometimes have something of the schematic about them, as though they are representing natural or hidden forces rather than themselves.   But Golovkina does deal with the experience of bearing and rearing children in difficult–near-impossible–circumstances, which is a level of realism that even women writers tend to shy away from.

The mystical-nationalist and anti-Semitic views expressed by the positive characters, together with the extreme length of the book (570 pages in my large-format edition) and the sheer Russianness of the subject-matter probably mean that the book is not a suitable case for translation into English–I don’t believe that there are any translations in existence.  Which is a pity.

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