Let me start again. I have tried to write this review about three times and stumbled each time. There is something about Prilepin’s writing that is so effortless and direct that it seems wrong to over-compose. So, in keeping with this spirit, I’m going to bash this out with as little thought as possible.
This is not a bad thing. There are all kinds of ways of writing. Some are tortuous, sinuous, knotty. Others flow like a brook, albeit one whose borders have been artfully tended. And others, as Shelley or Keats, might have said, fall like an apple from a tree. There’s a glorious, pure romanticism to Prilepin’s tale of a young Russian who is so disaffected with his society that he takes up arms against it. It’s a romanticism which is tied to a specifically Russian tradition which the novel itself recognises. At one point, in his reflections, Sankya, the protagonist, says that Russia is condemned to a cycle of state-ism and revolution. In the face of Putin’s moribund society, he opts for revolution. It’s in no way an idealistic or even, perhaps, a political revolution. It’s more of a way of expressing the existence of his identity in the face of a society that doesn’t seem to care if he exists or not. In this, of course, Sankya has much in common with Dostoyevski’s more tortured heroes or, more pertinently, the protagonist of Bely’s radical and neglected novel, Petersburg.
Sankya’s revolution involves various stages. He goes to Riga to shoot a judge. He goes to Moscow to protest violently. He is beaten up and left for dead. He joins an armed insurrection. And, at one point, he leads the trashing of a Macdonalds. Here is the point where Sankya’s quest for identity through violent revolution tallies with that of a broader, global dissatisfaction. The process that Russia has embraced as it slipped from corrupt Communism to corrupt Capitalism is particular to its historical circumstances. But, in Sankya’s embrace of fatalistic glory instead of a slipshod treadmill, there are echoes not only of a nascent Western resistance to the forces of capital, but even the instinct expressed by young men and women towards Islamic extremism. Better to die for a cause than stagger forward through life like a zombie. It’s here that Prilepin touches a dangerous, romantic nerve which throbs far beyond the borders of mother Russia, the banner that Sankya adopts as the totem of his personal revolt.
With its rat-a-tat prose and driving narrative, each chapter another step in Sankya’s journey towards doom, Prilepin’s novel seems to declare its indisputable significance without really trying. Apparently it has become a cause celebre in Russia, and one can understand why. In contrast to Pelevin’s aesthetic complexities, this is a visceral declaration of war. The novel as blunt political instrument, in a society which flirts with Stalinist repression whilst presenting itself as a new model capitalist state.
(Note. In 1993 I read Bely’s Petersburg. We were still at the tail end of the Tory oligarchy which had shaped my whole sentient political life. Unemployment was at 3 million. A degree seemed like more of a hindrance than a help, particularly a degree in english and philosophy. When I came to write my first play, Mickey Valid, Bely’s novel was my model. Mickey, an everyman, decides that the only way to give meaning to his life is through an act of political violence. The play opens with a dialogue between two bullets, the two bullets Mickey will later fire in order to assassinate a member of the royal family. The royal family being the ultimate representation of an alienating societal order. The play had a workshop at the National Studio. In the process, to my mind, it was chopped around and diluted. The original version of the play is lost. I only have the weaker, revised version. Nothing else happened to Mickey Valid. It sunk into the quicksand. I would not be surprised if one of these days, Prilepin’s hero Sankya acts as a similar inspiration to a writer seeking a model for a figure on the brink of falling off the edge of his society.)