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“What does it mean schmuck?” “Somone who does something that you don’t agree with is a schmuck.” “Teach me another.” “Putz.” “What does that mean?” “It’s like schmuck.” “Teach me another.” “Schmendrick.” “What does that mean?” “It’s also like schmuck.” “Do you know any words that are not like schmuck?” He pondered for a moment. “Shalom”, he said, “which is actually three words, but that’s Hebrew, not Yiddish. Everything I can think of is basically schmuck. The Eskimos have four hundred words for snow, and the Jews have four hundred for schmuck.” I wondered, What is an Eskimo?
Five years ago I went to see Liev Schreiber’s excellent film adaptation of Safran Foer’s novel. If you have yet to see this movie, I would strongly recommend you get the dvd. It manages to be many things at once – comic, witty, stunningly shot and finally heart-breakingly sad. Everything Is Illuminated also introduced me to Eugene Hütz lead singer of gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello. Hütz was hired by director Schreiber to consult on music for the film. Indeed his irrepressible song ‘Start Wearing Purple’, is featured on the soundtrack. However, so impressed was Schreiber by Hütz that he hired the singer to play the role of Alexander Perchov. Alex is one of many interpreters, or story tellers, challenged with unravelling the mystery presented to us by Safran-Foer in the novel.
‘My legal name is Alexander Perchov. But all of my many friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name.’ Immediately Safran-Foer throws us into the company of yet another unreliable narrator, one for whom English is not even a first language. Hired by a young man named Jonathan Safran-Foer to act as translator on his trip to the Ukraine, Alex regales us with his impressions of the curious American Jew. Why would anyone leave America to travel all the way out to Odessa, when everyone wants to travel in the opposite direction? Why would someone actually pay to do so? This strikes Alex as the act of a very stupid person.
The book acts as an investigation of Safran-Foer’s own family history, tracing the origins of a small community known as Trachimbrod and its fate during the events of World War II, as well as Alex’s growing awareness of how his family’s past is tied to the strange American’s. The two narrators of this tale are joined by Alex’s grandfather and his ‘Seeing Eye bitch’ Sammy Davies, Junior, Junior. Safran-Foer is of course deadly afraid of dogs, but their gruff driver insists upon her presence in the car as he is convinced he is blind. They travel out of Odessa across the Ukrainian countryside, but are unable to discover any clue as to the location of Trachimbrod. Everyone they speak seems either not to know, or strenuously insists that no such place ever existed. The three men and a dog continue until they find the one person willing to ‘illuminate’, what happened to the community of Jews that once lived at Trachimbrod, a secret that changes the lives of the three men forever.
Safran-Foer skips through time and memory lightly, hinting at the eventual reveal of the book, while also distracting us from the grim fate of Trachimbrod with the comic narration of Alex. There is much to laugh at in this book and even the family history of the Safran-Foers proves to be an absurdist account that is half cabbalist fugue, half preordained tragedy. When the truth finally is revealed, it is gruesome, tragic and powerfully captured. The jumps through history suddenly coalesce into a grand narrative that is part condemnation of the horrors of the Holocaust, part meditation on the role played by memory in Jewish culture.
The film made me cry and sure enough the book did also. This is self-aware writing that embraces post-modern tropes, but also manages to retain a heartfelt emotional core.
So tell me, comrade commissar, what does Marxism/Leninism say about headless mutants? It has bothered me for a long time. I want to be ideologically strong, and I’m drawing a blank on this one.
In one leap I jump from aristocratic London, to post-apocalyptic Moscow. I have very broad taste in books. This is certainly quite different. As the quote above attests though, Glukhovsky brings some welcome humour to this usually dour fare. The world has ended! Let’s joke about communists.
The last remnants of humanity huddle together in the Moscow subway system, the surface of the earth scorched by nuclear war. Many years have passed and the survivors have built communities around individual stations along the Metro line. At first they were confronted with radiation sickness, birth mutations in the next generation, plague. Then there were additional threats – starved rats attacking the communities at night, territorial conflicts over control of the line, diverging ideologies taking over each station until finally an uneasy peace was declared when people could no longer afford to fight and die. Then the dark ones came.
No one knows who or what they are, but they’re thought to have come from the surface, hunting the surviving humans underground. When the attacks on the northernmost station VDNKh suddenly increase, young Artyom is sent on a mission to warn the remaining communities of the danger should the dark ones break through. Along the way he meets different guides, experiences strange dreams and visions, and begins to wonder if some greater purpose is working through him. Could he be the chosen one who will save mankind?
Immediately I was reminded of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere while reading this book. But Glukhovsky offers a meatier treat. While it is exposition heavy, with the various characters Artyom meets offering their own take on the situation and giving clues as to what led to the destruction of the surface, the author loads these philosophical discussions with a degree of richness and verve. Of course he’s Russian!
For a horror novel, Metro 2033 is unusually metaphysical in its concerns. What would happen to man if the world ended? Is the human race capable of survival, of transformation into a new form of life? Each of Artyom’s guides mark a different stage in the argument. He meets the self-proclaimed last incarnation of Genghis Khan, who insists that the Metro is a prison for the souls of the dead, heaven and hell having been obliterated by nuclear war. An elderly academic whispers of a hidden University that preserves all the greatest annals of culture and history and that will restore to humanity what it has lost. He even encounters a revolutionary cell of dogged Che Guevarrists, who insist that the battle to achieve true socialism must still be fought.
Within the cramped confines of the Metro, humanity has turned in on itself and Artyom has to contend with Neo-Nazis, communists and cannibals, all staking their own claim to territory along the line. Mutants, Nazis and rats are all well and good, but there is something simple and terrifying in walking along a pitch-black tunnel, where every unexplained sound is a possible threat. Glukhovsky understands this and does not overdo the gore quotient, instead allowing the reader’s imagination to share in Artyom’s growing unease.
At times the pace of the novel slows to a crawl, which is a shame for all of Glukhovsky’s world-building is thrilling in itself and would have been sufficient had he thrown in a few more surprises. Instead towards the end familiar landmarks and destinations are rushed past, with the characters racing to catch up with the plot. Certain passages feel like padding and this is certainly quite a thick book. Nevertheless there is dry wit and even occasionally a surprising degree of poignancy here alongside the claustrophobic horror of mankind being herded into the darkness below the surface of the Earth. On two occasions characters mention how similar their dilemma is to that of the Morlocks in Welles’ The Time Machine.
This is a thoughtful and rewarding addition to the dystopian sub-genre of horror fiction. You can even buy a game based on the novel now for the X-Box/Windows. Just wait, there’ll be a film next.