by Sergei Lebedev,
translated by Antonina W. Bouis.
New Vessel Press, 2016
Paper, 290 pages. $16.
“This text is a memorial,” explains the first person narrator in Oblivion, the new and at times stunning novel by the young Russian writer Sergei Lebedev, “a wailing wall, for the dead and the mourners have no other place to meet except by the wall of words—the wall that unites the living and the dead.” Set in contemporary Russia in and around 2010, although exact dates are never specified, the novel is written in the form of a literary quest that seeks to unearth the past and reconnect it with the present. The strong implication is that Russia remains suspended in a state of moral and political limbo, still shadowed by the enormous crimes of Communism. As the narrator writes towards the end of the novel, in reference to a watchman, who used to engrave tombstones for the guards of a prison work camp, “remembering means being connected with reality, even being that connection; we do not preserve the reality of the past in our memories, the past itself, having occurred, speaks through human memory, and the speech is exactly as clear as the person is honest.”
Like a fugue in classical music or a textile that combines recurring colors to create complementary designs, the novel uses extensive foreshadowing to produce compositional unity and carry the story forward. Two characters dominate. The first is the narrator—a geologist, like the author in real life—whose work has carried him to the far reaches of Eurasia. In a chilling early scene set on a fishing trip in the Arctic, he comes across a human skull that has been washed loose from a camp cemetery. The river, it seems, has changed course. Metaphorically, the narrator is mining the past. The second character, drawn from his childhood, is an old blind man, whose name he knows but identifies in the story only as Grandfather II. His real grandfathers both died during World War II; this grandfather is a neighbor who lived next to their dacha outside of Moscow. “Owning a dacha in those days and among those people was considered a kind of amnesty, an absolution of the past,” he writes. “It is unlikely that morally inexcusable acts were among the things they wanted to remember.” One day, while still a child, he recognizes something unsettling about his suburban neighbor and ersatz grandfather and announces, “I decided then and there to learn Grandfather II’s past.” It will take twenty years before he succeeds.
The connection between the narrator and Grandfather II begins before the narrator is even born. “[W]hen my mother was pregnant with me, the doctors said that giving birth was very risky and recommended an abortion,” he writes. “Mother was determined to give birth, but too many unspoken concerns, unfinished questions had accumulated in the house. The closer the day approached when an abortion would no longer be possible, the more some members of the family, who felt she should not carry the baby, watched with frightened and squeamish astonishment … as the new life … prepared to appear at the cost of the possible death of the person bearing it.” One day, while visiting their house, Grandfather II steps into this controversy, first with a meandering speech that invokes events he remembers from the past, apple trees that froze when they were transplanted, spawning Arctic fish, and then with a direct plea for her to continue the pregnancy, in part because he himself is childless. As part of the plea, he promises that he will get her “into the best hospital, an exclusive clinic for the elite.” This life bond is further strengthened when as a child the narrator is badly bitten by a dog. As an emergency measure, Grandfather II volunteers to donate his blood for a transfusion. “They took his blood, they took a lot, and I lived and he died.”
On his travels, the narrator explains, he often visited old mines that had been dug with slave labor. Back from one expedition, he learns that he has inherited Grandfather II’s city apartment, which had first been left to the housekeeper, who now had died. Rummaging through a desk there, he finds a bundle of letters and several handmade toys. The letters had been sent thirty or forty years earlier from a friend in a far northern city with a large mining complex. Leaving the apartment, he goes to his parents’ home, where, looking for a book to distract him, he pulls down a copy of The Epic of Gilgamesh, He Who Saw the Unknown. Here he quotes a passage that ends, “Let the gate of the mountain now be opened!” The symbolism is clear. Like the ancient mythical figure, he now will also descend into the underworld. He then describes three dreams; one involving guards, whose footprints leave bitter words frozen in ice; a second that describes trains that haul prisoners into exile, “where paper was more valuable than nails,” and a third where he travels through rooms full of abandoned objects but no people, until a bridge appears and he is carried along on a northern river, where once again guards and prisoners appear. “The dreams came for three days,” he writes; “on the fourth, I realized I had to go to the city, where the letters found in Grandfather II’s desk were written, I had to find the one who sent them.”
The action now relocates to this desolate and polluted city, surrounded by guardhouses and barbed wire fences. He soon learns that Red Kolkhoz Street, which had been listed as the return address, does not exist anymore—it had been redeveloped during Perestroika. He goes into town striking up conversations on the street to see what he can learn. Near the large quarry, he comes across a group of old men sitting on logs, drinking vodka. Here he writes, “One, quite old, sliced up a sausage and thenstuck the knife in his leg—no one winced, they all knew it was wooden.” Fortuitously, this man is the head of the mining archives, and from the records kept there, he is able to reveal the truth about Grandfather II and his past. “He was the warden of the camp.… He was in charge of it all. Fifteen thousand people. Two thousand guards and employees. The rest were prisoners.” In response to this revelation, the narrator writes, “What had happened to them—accidents, wounds, the life of a cripple—had happened to me; it was no longer the fact that the blood of Grandfather II who had started this place was in my blood; I had come here to rid myself of the shadow of Grandfather II, had come with an approximate idea of what I would learn, even though I had not imagined that Grandfather II was a warden of a prison camp.”
Continuing his quest, he goes to the local address bureau. There, a shady police official is able to tell him where the old correspondent of Grandfather II now lives. Entering the apartment, he recognizes the stick that Grandfather II had used to kill the dog that had mauled him as a child. More of the past is revealed. Grandfather II had a wife and a son, both of whom had died. The old correspondent freely recounts that he had been head of the execution squad. He clearly has no regrets. The narrator writes, “He, who had outlived not only his victims but those who could have served as witnesses about and for them, was alone; all the executions, all the murders were forgotten, an entire era had settled to the bottom of memory … he had killed, and the world had finally shut its eyes and when it opened them again it was as if nothing had ever happened.” During their brief encounter, the old correspondent directs the narrator to a faded black and white photograph that shows the original groundbreaking of the mine. Apparently, Grandfather II had dug out the first shovelful of dirt.
Having tracked down the person who wrote the letters to Grandfather II, the narrator decides to visit the cemetery, where the wife and son are buried. The story unfolds further. One batch of prisoners brought to the camp were mental patients. More pliable, it seems, than regular prisoners, they were allowed greater freedom of movement, and one, a former carver who had come to the home of Grandfather II, gave his son a wooden bird whistle. The toy enchanted the boy, but when the father learned about it, sensing that it had changed him, he took the toy away and discarded it. When the child later fell ill, the father recanted and perversely ordered other prisoners to make a new toy, a miniature version of the camp. But rather than play with this, the boy rebelled, destroying the camp on the night that he received it. He ran away soon after and drowned in the quarry. The handmade toys the narrator found in the desk were remnants of the camp the boy had smashed. Reflecting on this strange gift, in what should be taken as a reference to Kirilov, the famous character from Dostoyevsky, the narrator writes, “Grandfather II in his own estimation was not a god, not a master, he was himself, a man, and the fact that he was master of life and death over other men, without considering himself something more simply proved to him that in fact he was truly greater.”
The book’s final section recounts the story of another group of prisoners, mentioned by the engraver, who were exiled to oblivion on a far northern island. The narrator will follow their trail as well. “I remembered my dream, the island of faces, the barge with prisoners and convoy guards.” He continues: “I did not think about how I would return; the thought of returning would have turned my search for the island into a round-trip. But you couldn’t reach the island and then come back the same way.” In this part of the quest, he meets an old man searching the tundra for old petroglyphs, stone carvings from the Neolithic age. In a village, he finds three old men who had managed to survive in part because of soil that had secretly been brought there. Three apple trees still stand. The narrator finally locates the island. Here, the bodies are still visible in the permafrost. “I was in the belly of the earth,” he writes; “my brothers lay here, and their imperishability was not the incorruptibility of sainthood, but the absence of death. They did not follow the path of corruption; they merged with the earth without becoming it.” His quest complete, he can now write, “and the blood of Grandfather II … there was no more of that blood in me.”
As a literary performance, Oblivion is an undeniable success. It is not perfect. Some passages could have been shortened or excised. Mannerist is a term that occasionally comes to mind. But the parade of compelling images and dramatic events that he depicts all attest to the artistry of a significant literary talent. A larger question is the book’s political significance. Some novels change the course of history—Uncle Tom’s Cabin is perhaps the most famous example. The Jungle helped rewrite state and federal legislation. Others, like Hard Times, affect how we see the past, while Demons, alluded to above, has been celebrated in part to contend that the consequences of atheistic socialism were predictable from the start. Oblivion argues that history casts a long and enduring shadow, and if we fail to bear witness to the past, we forfeit our ability to control the present and influence the future. To cite a matter of contemporary concern, is the current rapprochement between the United States and Cuba an attempt to help the residents of that impoverished country, or far more likely an attempt to help its leaders erase the memory of the crimes they have committed? Lebedev has created a literary memorial to argue that Russia has not done enough to acknowledge its past. The value of this exercise is universal.
Eamon Moynihan, a financial consultant, lives in New York City.