Thirst by Russian novelist Andrei Gelasimov is the story of a Chechen war veteran who returns home with a face disfigured in a grenade attack. He seems content to remain holed up in his apartment with a plentiful supply of vodka, staring at the TV until the search for a former comrade pulls him out of his numbness and isolation.
There are countless novels written about art and becoming an artist. Some of them are highly biographical and hitch their own artistic ambitions to a Schiele, Van Gogh or Vermeer, hoping the aesthetic value of that particular artist’s work trickles down to the words used to describe them. Other novels invent an artist from scratch and aim to depict the essence of making art, if not the essence of seeing the world with artistic eyes.
What results is usually an unbridgeable chasm between lofty goals and actual writing, with the more words written to close this gap often only accentuating the difference between these writers and the master painter or sculptor they are trying to bring to life.
In Thirst Gelasimov manages to get at the essence of making art and what it means to see the world with fresh eyes through an impressive subtelty that belies the novel’s harsh and darkly comic subject matter. Art seems to hold no place in the chaotic lives of Kostya and his hard-drinking army buddies, nor in that of the estranged, womanizing father he comes back into contact with.
For the most part Gelasimov leaves Kostya’s drawing skills in the background where they belong, yet as the disfigured veteran grudgingly returns to this talent of his youth, a taste for life appears to be rekindled in his damaged soul. The man who at the book’s beginning is content fix his blank gaze on a TV screen now insists on opening his eyes, not merely looking either, but seeing:
“So we drove. And I drew. I liked drawing even better than looking out the window. I wanted to get the whole world down on paper. When I went home again. Because the television wasn’t showing it right at all. I suddenly realized that it was all completely different. The lines, the color, even the light.”
And Kostya’s drawing goes beyond what he sees, but aims to express abstraction (“How do you draw waiting? A continuous line that never runs into anything?”) and an imaginary present in which the death and damage of the Chechen War have been undone by an artist’s sleight of hand.
Like a master sketch where an object is rendered with a minimum of lines, Thirst achieves what many novels four and five times its modest length (112 pgs.) can only reach for from a distance.
Return from war novel
If there is a subject novelists have been drawn to even more than art it is that of soldiers returning from war and determining how and where to re-enter their former lives. From the abundance of books by and about veterans returning from Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya and Vietnam, to Joseph Roth’s haunting novels of Austrian POWs returning to a vanquished empire, all the way back to Homer’s Odyssey it has become an archetypal subject.
Kostya and his friends’ particular odyssey is to find their faltering, often homeless former comrade-in-arms Seryoza, who has gone missing. The search is simultaneously an aimless, parodic road trip and a deadly serious quest, though a quest not carried out in a ship but Moscow-style in an SUV with tinted windows.
Seryoza was the one who pulled his fellow soldiers out of their armoured personnel carrier after it was hit by a grenade, leaving Kostya for last, burning, because he thought he was already dead. As they drive around Moscow and further afield Gelasimov seamlessly blends the search for Seryoza and Kostya’s encounter with his father together with Kostya’s memories of childhood and of the events of the war.
Singular first person
First person narration is often and justly criticized (such as here). If a writer is going to write a highly personal self-indulgent novel, or a book which prioritizes “voice” over every other element (like, for example, the story) then first person is ideal. Gelasimov’s first person narration relies on stripped down simplicity for effect:
“The world out the car window looked slightly flattened, but I still enjoyed looking at it. Though it did keep running back and off to the right. Then it started running off to the left. And that was fine, too. Because Pashka had finally changed places with me. I don’t know what he and Genka talked about that night I cut my hand in his kitchen, but evidently they did talk about something.”
And though Kostya’s childhood memories are recounted in a more sophisticated voice, and his war experience packed with drama, you never notice the shifts, credit for which is certainly also due to the book’s translator Marian Schwartz.
Amazon Crossing will be bringing out three more novels by Gelasimov and translated by Schwartz: The Lying Year, The Gods of the Steppes and Rachel.
For a look at different international book covers of Thirst and other books click here
Photo – 1) Russian soldiers in an armoured personnel carrier (in Kosovo not Chechnya, but you get the idea) 2) A Chechen man prays during the battle for Grozny, by Mikhail Evstafiev