From The Record, November 24th, 2017
Ever one to challenge the staid notion of a “good read” I offer today a perusal of Sergei Lebedev’s Oblivion. Originally published in Russian, the novel has recently been translated (2016) by Antonina W. Bouis. The story centers on the legacy of the Soviet gulag (labour camp) system. Perhaps not surprisingly, the read involves hard labour!
Growing up in the thick of the cold war, I was always fascinated not only by the tense espionage thrillers offered by John Le Carré, but also by the accounts of the Soviet gulags offered by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. In works such as The First Circle, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn provided terse, harrowing stories (based on personal experience) of the inner workings of these camps, especially in Stalinist Russia. The gulags were dotted throughout the Soviet Union, many hidden in plain sight in major urban centers, but the harshest ones were situated in Siberia. And one could be sent to these camps for a good reason (murder, theft) or for a flimsy one (writing a politically incorrect letter). A lesser known fact—these camps were not original constructs of the Soviet era; one can go back to Dostoevsky for a first-hand 19th -century account in The House of the Dead.
Lebedev is almost perversely vague in geographical and chronological details. He provides no dates and refuses to localize events. The narrator (who remains nameless) grows up in a dacha (cottage) community near Moscow. Later action involves a northern Siberian city, which we are told (somewhat unhelpfully) ends with a “sk”. However, Lebedev does establish links between fictional and actual events. One occurs in 1993, marked by troop mobilization during the Russian constitutional crisis. A later event (the falling of red-coloured snow in Siberia) was actually documented in Siberia in 2007.
Events in the novel don’t occur so much as unfold. We are introduced to the narrator as a young boy. In a neighbouring dacha lives a blind old man, who comes to be known as Grandfather II. He is no relation, but he sort of comes with the dacha that the narrator’s parents have bought. Grandfather II soon establishes a relationship with the family and then with the newborn and growing narrator. The latter is not a friendly relationship, but more controlling, possessive, and somewhat threatening. (When the lad develops a case of head lice, Grandfather II is in favour of a complete head shave and treatment with kerosene!) These early events culminate when the boy is attacked by a stray dog. Grandfather II provides his own blood as transfusion, an act which grants the boy continued life, but spells the end for the old man.
The boy grows up and chooses geology as a profession. This leads him away from home, and from the vestiges of Grandfather II’s influence. Nevertheless he has the eerie and unshakeable feeling of being linked through blood. He finally inherits Grandfather II’s apartment and his dacha. In them he stumbles across artifacts, curios, and an odd series of old letters from the old man’s secret past. These lead him to Siberia, where he attempts to trace the history of Grandfather II.
Spoiler alert!! Here is where the oblivion comes in. The narrator undertakes his own Conradian voyage into the heart of darkness. He discovers that Grandfather II was a notorious gulag director, who perfected his own particular brand of mindless cruelty—and on a massive scale. The camp has now transformed into a city, striking in its harshness and ugliness, and manifesting a history spanning thousands of years, from early nomadic tribes to the miners of the modern Soviet era. Lebedev himself worked in geological expeditions for many years in the far north, and this experience grants him a unique perspective. He is able to link the geography, the ethnic and political history into a coherent whole. What he conjures up is a vision of a soul-destroying purgatory in the far north, wrought from the climate, the land, and the forces of human nature. He has a rare gift of description and rumination: “The town was named for a Bolshevik killed in the 1930’s; the name of the town communicated nothing to the place, or the place to its name. They spoke different languages and avoided each other…. It [arose] near a giant pocket of land from which riches could be mined; it was created according to the will of the regime that moved thousands or workers to the north, it grew out of barracks, temporary huts, and that spirit had not dissipated; stale, uninhabited, the spirit of a new construction, of a workshop, oiled rags, and rotting pipes.” Fair warning, the book offers masses of ore, and sometimes the resulting payoff is a bit thin. However, more often than not the reader is carried on a raw journey inward, into a realization of the almost cosmic forces involved in human memory, consciousness, and oppression.
As the story develops we encounter a bizarre cast of characters—an escaped “zek” who is insane with cold and hunger; former inmates and workers who are half-destroyed, “mineralized”, and mutated through radiation exposure, ore dust, frostbite, starvation; evil commissars and thugs who remember the glory days of the Stalinist repression; the grizzled, mad survivors of a deserted community—a village beyond a camp beyond a village far above the arctic circle.
The overall thrust of the book seems to be that it is necessary for Russians to remember the past. Thousands upon thousands of prisoners were effectively consigned to oblivion during the heyday of Soviet oppression. Lebedev, even more dramatically than his forbears, seems to carry us into a direct choking encounter with the very soul of suffering, despair, and death. Available—go figure—in the Lennoxville Library!