There are many different ways writers can infuse a story or novel with intensity without much in the way of incident or plot. The movement can occur on symbolic or historical levels, they can mine literary history as their character walks around Dublin or devote all their attention to the beauty of the individual sentences they are writing.
Sin by Zakhar Prilepin is presented as a novel-in-stories and the stories that make up the book are united by a narrator named Zakhar who seems to share a number of biographical features with Prilepin himself. Many of these stories, with some stark exceptions, are virtually plotless. In “Wheels” a group of friends dig graves to keep in funds so they can stay perpetually drunk, walking around their freezing town looking for a place to sip away in comfort. Virtually nothing happens, yet what makes this and similar stories so vital is a back and forth between the mostly external bleakness and occasional joy and sense of life that the narrator feels inside himself.
Then there is the non-chronological shift from one story to the other, where Zakhar is a hardened bouncer, then a loving father, then a child playing hide-and-seek,. It makes you look at previous stories differently, as if these aren’t separate stories or chapters, but flashbacks or flash-forwards, forcing you to reevaluate the character you wrongly assessed.
Then there is another kind of movement in Prilepin’s writing, in which you go almost imperceptibly from carefree innocence and joy to the most squalid nightmare, from light to darkness or darkness to light and sometimes (but not always) back again, fluidly, as if they are far closer than you could ever have imagined.
In the opening story, “Whatever day of the week it happens to be,” Zakhar is idyllically in love and almost equally enraptured with the four puppies who share his bliss. When the puppies disappear he imagines them having been abducted by some local tramps and in a state of cold fury barges into a decrepit, stinking hellhole shouting “I’ve come for the puppies!” It turns out the puppies had never been there and finding them clearly isn’t the main point. What Prilepin gets across in settings as varied as a game of hide-and-seek and a family idyll at home is that the border between heaven and hell can be crossed and uncrossed almost unwittingly in the space of a few hours.
- Zakhar Prilepin as a member of the Russian Special Forces in Chechnya, photo courtesy of Glagoslav Publications
The stories, or novel-in-stories, center around the autobiographical narrator, yet one of the book’s strongest features is its secondary characters. There is Konstantin Lvovich Valies, worn-down, chain-smoking provincial Jewish actor (that his Jewish eyes should possess a “natural cunning” is a bit much though), the “morbidly fat”, melancholic Alexei, graduate of the Literature Institute, who had served in the army, “where, in some way unfathomable to me, he had not been killed.” Hastily sketched, and only appearing over a few pages these and other similar figures seem plucked out of the depths of Russian literature.
Many of these characters seem immediately familiar, though not from books but from life, so even if you’ve never been to Russia and seen a nightclub owner like the fat Lev Borisych self-importantly rush through the entrance, though he’s only going to spend the evening sitting in his office drinking coffee and taking the occasional glance at the receipts, his reality shines through, dingy and peripheral though it is.
In a sense, being a well-formed character for Prilepin is a kind of death sentence – you are finished, fully-drawn. It is Zakhar the blank slate who will survive, the one stubbornly resisting everything from journalism to poetry to work to commitment, but who you sense is reading, feeling his way towards writing and family and is on the way to becoming the Zakhar who will eventually be capable of writing this phenomenal book.
Sin was translated by Simon Patterson together with Nina Chordas. One unfortunate feature of this edition is an abundance of mistakes in the text – from typos to grammatical errors.
Prilepin’s latest book, Black Monkey, was a finalist for the recently awarded Big Book prize. To read more about it you can read a review of the Russian edition on Lizok’s Bookshelf, which also has a review of his novel San’kya.