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Irena told me once that she went into the woods by herself with the dog to think. About literature and politics and I don’t know what all. And I felt secretly embarrassed when she told me that, because when I’m alone usually all I ever think about is girls, and I felt inferior compared to her.

Right now I am fascinated with the sudden interest in translated fiction from Europe and eastward towards the nations of the former Soviet Union. Perhaps the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson got things started, but even before the English translation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, there were books by the likes of Pelevin appearing in Waterstones.

What’s more we are in the enviable position to be able to enjoy works that were censored under Soviet rule, such as Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. Not only did the Russian novelist fall victim to censure, he even earned special attention from Stalin by demanding to be allowed defect if his book could not be published. Josef Škvorecký’s novel was also banned and this edition opens with an Author’s Preface were he pleads for understanding and clemency. It’s a strangely pathetic plea, defending the work while simultaneously apologizing for it. In the regard the events of the book seem prophetic.

Danny and his friends are waiting for the end of the war in the small Czech town of Kostelec. It is May 1945. Hitler is dead and the Germans are said to be retreating, with the Russian army on their tails and the western allied forces waiting in Berlin. Danny doesn’t care, he just wants to play jazz and sweet-talk some of the local girls. Of course he loves Irena most of all, but she is going out with Zdenek the thick-bodied Alpinist.

Of course, one thing that really impresses girls is a hero, so when the opportunity arrives to teach the defeated Nazis a lesson, Danny, Haryk, Benno and Lexa sign up to join the official paramilitary force. They are shocked when the town elders demand they hand over the weapons they had managed to scrounge during the war and then ordered to march around Kostelec unarmed. Quickly deciding this was nothing like the revolution promised, Danny tries to think of way to avoid further boredom. He concentrates on trying to woo Irena, even as the occupying German force becomes increasingly nervous, with the growing danger of a massacre caused by an angry local trying his luck robbing a submachine gun. Despite not seeming to care a whit for the course of the war, he seems to repeatedly find himself in the centre of events, attracting the anger of a frightened German soldier and even later becoming an unofficial translator and guide for bewildered prisoners of war escapees.

This is a blackly comic novel, with a wry note of suspicion towards authority. While Danny appears to care about nothing more than music, girls and American movies (nursing an enormous crush for Judy Garland), he is aware that all the folk of Kostelec are witnessing is a changing of the guard, despite the Soviets’ claims that they are a liberating force. Local boy Berty has even taken to photographing everything, with a view to selling the photos of the ‘revolution’, in years to come. There’s a significant scene between Danny and a soldier from Liverpool who asks if he would prefer if the British were in charge. Of course, he replies, but this is the situation.

Again and again the theme of the novel comes back to impotence. The title is inspired by the characters failing to live up to the heroic ideal of patriotic warriors repelling the invaders with guerrilla tactics and bravery. Yet Danny and his friends know that they are caught up in events they cannot control, any more than they can get a girl to notice them. In his head winning over Irena should be easily achieved by imitating the Hollywood lovers he is obsessed with, even affecting an American accent every now and then. It never seems to work out in real life though.

This story was written before the author was twenty-four years old. It is a young man’s book, but with an incisive degree of self-awareness and a mocking tone throughout. An excellent novel.

‘What I’m thinking is: here I am, lying under a haystack…The tiny little place I occupy is so small in relation to the rest of space where I am not and where it’s none of my business; and the amount of time which I’ll succeed in living is so insignificant by comparison with the eternity where I haven’t been and never will be…And yet in this atom, in this mathematical point, the blood circulates, the brain works and even desires something as well…What sheer ugliness! What sheer nonsense!’.

I like Russians. Oh sure, if you dig into the classics every character has triple-barrel names, there’s talk of serfs and agriculture the entire time (that bloody neverending chapter in Anna Karenina for one), and half the dialogue is in French. I still enjoy reading Russian novels though, both modern and classic, because they have a consistent dry sense of humour. Whether the author is Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Mikhail Bulgakov, Victor Pelevin, the tone is similar, to my mind at least. That’s what surprised me the most about this tale of misunderstandings between the young and the old, the regrets that crowd the space between parents and their children. It was pretty funny, in a sort of ‘a-ha’, way.

Nikolai Petrovich Kirsanov is a widower, an unsuccessful landowner and a proud father. The novel begins with him impatiently for his son’s return from St. Petersburg. The year is 1859. Nikolai Petrovich is an old man, given to daydreaming and poetry. He lives with his brother Pavel, always the more outgoing of the two, a handsome military officer with a one-time promising career, who threw it all away over a doomed love affair. They are both trapped by their pasts, country aristocrats with little understanding of how to manage the serfs who live on their lands.

Arkady, his son, arrives back from graduation with his charismatic friend Bazarov in tow. The two young men converse frequently about exciting new ideas. Poor Nikolai Petrovich is left behind by their discussions. Bazarov in particular disturbs the balance of the house. His manner towards all aristocrats is contemptuous and snide. He declares that all art is nonsense, only what we can determine through science is of value. Arkady is enthralled by his commanding friend, echoing his opinions on most everything. Over dinner the young men send Pavel into a rage when they announce that they are nihilists. All the old values must be swept away, society is corrupt and only proper reform will solve the problems of modern life. This ideological gulf between the two generations increases the antagonism between the four men and over time each of them finds their certainties tested.

As I have said, I was surprised at how funny this book can be. Pavel has a particularly wicked tongue and his debates with Bazarov are extremely witty – However, we are unable to understand one another. I, at least, have the honour not to understand you.’ The nihilist’s young ward in training Arkady is naieve and easily shocked by his friend’s cynicism, although he tries to hide it. Bazarov in particular is contemptuous of intellectual women. For all his talk of ‘reform’, and criticizing of old values, he is peculiarly conceited in many ways. His nihilism is an extravagantly inverted form of egotism. Only provable scientific theories are of value and as he intends to become a doctor, he reduces everything in life to biological drives, pronouncing himself an enemy of romance. Which makes it all the more amusing when he falls in love. Bewildered and angry at these strange emotions, he becomes curiously sympathetic, despite his abrasiveness. Apparently Turgenev was viciously attacked by members of both the political Left and Right for his caricature of nihilistic views. Personally I think Bazarov is a well realized character who happens to claim to be a nihilist, but is in fact simply very confused by life.

My edition of Fathers and Sons was translated by Richard Freeborn. He choice of phrasing distracted me occasionally from the flow of the novel’s language. Bazarov often says ‘mate’ in an almost contemporary fashion and the dialogue of the serfs appears to be imported from Yorkshire. Still the warmth and empathy Turgenev feels for Arkady and his father is retained.

It’s a simple tale, one that repeats itself with every generation. I enjoyed it very much.

To the left of this blog’s main page, there’s a display of the most commonly used terms in the last thirty two reviews. With every reoccurrence of a search term, the display of that particular word or phrase begins to grow, to indicate how often I have mentioned it. Alan Moore’s name has been growing I noticed, so I thought I should actually write about something he has done.

A Small Killing was welcomed as a departure for the comic writer sometimes referred to as the Northampton Magus. No superheroes, no deconstruction of American comic book tropes, just a simple story about a man who works in advertising looking back on his life. Oh and giant insects.

Timothy Hole has landed the contract of a lifetime, marketing a major cola in Russia. A successful advertising creative based in New York, he decides to go on a holiday to his hometown of Sheffield, so he can recapture his spark and come up with some ideas for the campaign. While he’s managed to achieve a lot in his professional career, his marriage to his college sweetheart failed, due to an affair he had with an artist named Sylvia. Timothy obsesses about whether or not he was at fault, more troubled by his later being dumped by Sylvia than his betrayal of his wife Maggie. Going over and over the events of years ago in his mind, he finds himself unable to focus on his job. Then a mysterious boy appears and Timothy is compelled to follow him. At first he catches glimpses of the figure in the distance, but soon he begins to suspect that the boy is trying to lead him into danger, even kill him. When Timothy flies to London he discovers the boy is somehow already there, a phantom presence taunting him.

Timothy’s troubled thoughts are relayed to us by Moore’s precise prose, while Zarate conjures up nightmarish crowded scenes – a party filled with advertising colleagues, a long queue at customs, a packed plane journey, a London pub exploding into violence – to contrast with the main character’s inability to think about anyone else. The people in his life are excuses for his own failings, somehow always at fault regardless of what he has done. The title refers to the little sins in our past that we cover up, never revealing to anyone no matter how close we are, in the hope that the guilt will somehow disappear.

This being Moore there’s a healthy amount of intertextuality as well. Timothy finds himself relating to Nabokov’s Lolita, although he can’t decide if he’s the predatory Humbert Humbert, or the eponymous innocent girl. Nabokov’s book was written as a twisted love letter of sorts to America, summing up the Russian émigré’s feelings about the country he had come to call home. Timothy, conversely is going to Russia to sell images of capitalist excess to the Russians, marketing Americana to them and disregarding the socialist imagery he was so fond of as an over earnest teenager –

“Blue jeans. That’s it, isn’t it? Blue jeans is it. Whatever the West means to them, that’s what we associate Flite with…They want to be American. It’s obvious. No point second-guessing their needs. We just sell them ours. Our culture. Our appetites, our..”

A Small Killing itself was Moore’s break from the over commercialised American comic’s scene, so choosing an ad-man as his protagonist is certainly interesting in that respect. Babylon by Victor Pelevin is an interesting contrast, being a Russian novel about the divide between advertising and art.

Zarate’s artwork is beautiful, matching the reflective tone of the writing by resembling the drawing of an adult who never stopped using crayons. The imagery is childlike, yet disturbing also. The abovementioned crowd scenes are filled with freakish grotesques and animalistic facial expressions. Timothy himself is a needle-thin adult version of Harry Potter (although this predates Rowling’s books by some time), surrounded by overweight bodies and skinhead boozers. The boy he keeps seeing is depicted with a wicked, mocking smile, that perfectly captures the puckish spirit of the character.

Alan Moore is one of the most important creators of the last thirty years. If you want to avoid the cape and tights brigade in sampling his work, you should check A Small Killing out. A confident, heartfelt reflection on past mistakes and the broken promises we make to ourselves when we are young.

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