An old relic of the Tsarist regime – Alexandra Sergeyevna Pumpianskaya – disappears from a Moscow communal apartment in what turn out to be the dying days of the Soviet Union, while her neighbors scheme over who gets the newly available square meters. A detective appears on the scene, as does an acquisitive, chess-playing locksmith and a certain Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin seemingly conjured up out of the pages of Crime and Punishment. A horrible crime might have occurred, but then again maybe not.
Any attempt to describe what takes place in Vyacheslav Pyetsukh’s recently translated 1989 novel will fall well short of the descriptions offered by the characters themselves, most especially by the loquacious, utopian-minded pharmacologist Nikita Ivanovich Belotsvetov, who bursts out at one point saying:
“Here’s what I think: some incredible, Mephistophilean sort of story has emerged, one that is out of sync with our times and ways. Such stories were conceivable in the age of the Barbarian Invasions, or in the Bulgakovian twenties, but they’re not possible today, they’re as out of place as the Wars of the Roses…”
The pharmacologist turns out to be wrong. These Mephistophilean sort of stories are as common in the era of Glasnost as they were during Dostoevsky’s days. This repetition is one of the main themes running through the book and plays a role in Pyetsukh’s by turns satirical and serious attempts at defining the nature and purpose of literature and its relation to life. And if you want to witness the interlinked relation between literature and life then a communal apartment in Moscow is a good place to look, as Russians are a people who “not only write what they live but in part live what they write.”
Good and Evil
Beneath the wordy tirades so reminiscent of the 19th century Russian novels that keep getting mentioned throughout the New Moscow Philosophy, Pyetsukh deftly plays with other serious issues as well; in fact some of the same big issues taken on by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, such as whether people are inherently good or evil and whether man is nature’s ultimate goal. Determining what is satire and what ideas deserve more serious consideration is as difficult as it is probably unnecessary in reading this storehouse of ironic wisdom.
When Belotsvetov is not trying to solve the mystery of Pumpianskaya’s disappearance he engages in extremely involved philosophical conversations on the nature of evil with the building’s womanizing, well-read caretaker and veteran of the Afghan war, Vasily Chinarikov (who presumably unlike the majority of Moscow caretakers, has a large photograph of Ernest Hemingway on his wall, a picture which will play a significant role in the mystery’s resolution). Belotsvetov even manages to unite his profession and passion in a plan to eradicate evil through medication.
Besides the comically dizzy intellectual heights these conversations reach they also take place in hilariously inappropriate situations. One debate occurs while the pair are clearing ice from a sidewalk, their back and forth over the goings-on in Apartment 12 and the transformation of good and evil in the Soviet Union briefly being interrupted by the stares of two puzzled passersby and a stray dog:
“The trio of onlookers had their reasons, by the way. Like it or not, you come to a halt when you encounter a couple of guys armed with yard implements who, instead of clearing ice from the pavement are waving their arms like madmen and expounding at the top of their lungs on pills for evildoers.”
Apartment Number 12
Not every writer or generation of writers is granted that perfect metaphorical space in which to set their novels. Melville and Conrad found it aboard ships. Isolated manor houses have been used effectively but are problematic for most writers in lacking originality and being generally very expensive.
One of the silver linings of the horrendous housing situation in the Soviet Union was in giving literature the communal apartment, what are described by the novel’s aspiring writer Genrikh Ivanovich Valenchik as “universities of newly structured human relations. Bitter universities to be sure,, but they’ve left us more than kitchen brawls and kerosene-tainted cabbage soups …”
Carrying on an illustrious tradition found in Bulgakov’s sinister Apartment Number 50 on Sadovaya as well as Communal Apartment Number 3, known as the “the Rookery,” where Ilf and Petrov’s Ostap Bender briefly takes up residence (until it burns down), Apartment Number 12 becomes a world in itself, a microcosm of Russia and human life.
The New Moscow Philosophy by Vyacheslav Pyetsukh
Translated by Krystyna Anna Steiger
Twisted Spoon Press – Prague – 2011