disUNITY, by Anatoly Kudryavitsky, Glagoslav Publications, 274 pp, £18.80, ISBN: 978-1782671060
Magical realism: the oxymoronic genre that somehow defies explanation but remains instantly recognisable, where the impossible is rendered plausible and the ethereal everyday. A genre often most easily identified with Latin America, with the work of Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende, it is often inextricably connected with that continent; with swelter, sweat and politics.
The Russian exponent is a little more, well, Russian. The twentieth century politics of Russia are no less suited to the genre than Latin American equivalents, but bred for a cooler climate. It is into this tradition of Victor Pelevin and Mikhail Bulgakov that Russian-born and Dublin-based writer Anatoly Kudryavitsky steps with the first publication of his fiction in English. His latest (third) novel, Shadowplay on a Sunless Day, and a novella, A Parade of Mirrors and Reflections, are published collectively by Glagoslav in disUnity.
The first of Kudryavitsky’s works, Shadowplay, is the standout piece of disUnity. Set in Moscow, Germany and an ethereal underworld, the novel continues in the great tradition of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita in its blending of realism, magic and satire to depict and attack the politics of modern-day Russia and “fortress Europe”. The narrative is a true Carrollian voyage into an underworld of myth and madness, but in that great Russian way, madness prevails above ground as well as in the beautifully crafted underworld into which Kudryavitsky’s “Alice”, the émigré Swidersky, descends. Much as with Alice’s Adventures, and those of the Master and Margarita, this is a novel which defies the forcing of logic upon it – in fact, the more firmly you try and impose logic upon it the more the text will evade you, which is not to say that this is a difficult book to read – far from it.
Kudryavitsky is a natural poet, and both of the works contained in this volume have a seductive lyricism and beauty to their prose, which has the hypnotic quality of a White Rabbit, or in Swidersky’s case, a clothed ape-man, which will lure you into and through the novel’s mosaic narrative. And the novel is a mosaic – beginning with Arefiev, a biochemist working in an ill-fated Moscow lab, the narrative then moves for part two to Kudryavitsky’s main narrator, the writer Swidersky, half-brother of Arefiev. This point marks a division in the book: not only does the narrative move geographically from Moscow to Germany, and from one narrative to another, it also changes in tone from the violence and political charge of Arefiev’s episode to the melancholic philosophy offered by Swidersky. There is some awkwardness to this shift that makes it stand out, as if a second book has been begun and the first abandoned. But as with Chekhov’s gun, this division and the reasoning behind it are resolved, but it is a disturbing jolt to the narrative.
Swidersky’s labyrinthine journey from a Germany university town and through the shadow-world leads him through philosophy, comedy and satire in a series of beautifully crafted interludes, like the delightfully witty “Archive of Unclaimed Wisdom”, where lie the unclaimed letters between the greats of history, or the sequence in which Swidersky discovers a library where unwritten books burn in a bonfire, awaiting their authors. Swidersky’s narrative, above and beneath ground, is also remarkable for its skilled depiction of the immigrant experience. Swidersky functions perhaps as Kudryavitsky’s avatar in his complicated heritage of nationalities – an Irish descendant, like his creator, Swidersky views himself as a Russian writer in name only. Beneath the ground, immigration and identity are no less complex, as he encounters a parable of “fortress Europe” between the inhabitants of the shadow-world, intellectuals protected by the dominant sylvans, and the “infiltrating” forces of the of ape-like inferior creatures. Kudryavitsky explores and exposes the complexities of immigrant experience and identity, and the often arbitrary and dubious desires of a society to improve itself through selection and exclusion, and his poetic prose creates a stunning and hypnotic parable through Swidersky, both below and above ground.
Identity and immigration are ideas that also influence the second work in disUnity, the novella A Parade of Mirrors and Reflections. Kudryavitsky’s anarchically, politically charged Russian style is again prevalent in this second work, which tackles human cloning. Parade tells the story of the clones of Felix Kangar, created in a secret Moscow lab. Narrated predominantly through the eyes of one of the clones, we see his birth or awakening as an adult, without memory, without identity and without experience, and witness the processes by which he discovers and constructs himself – rendered at times with a joyfully dark sense of humour, particularly in the discovery of sex. Again Kudryavitsky focuses on dubious scientific and political intrigue; Parade, however, is less developed than Shadowplay, perhaps due to its length and the differences between the subjects of the two works. Shadowplay benefits from the strength of its central narrator, Swidersky, to hold a mosaic narrative together. Written in a similar style, Parade is less poetic, even though it offers forays into philosophy similar to those that originate in Shadowplay’s underworld. Overall, it is a fascinating, anarchic voyage through Europe charged with complex political, social and scientific issues. Through both of his works, disUnity should offer Kudryavitsky a rightful place in the history of Russian magical realism.
Alex (Alexandra) Bramwell is a graduate of Goldsmiths College, University of London and works as a librarian organising literary exhibitions and poetry readings. She holds an MA in library and information management and her poems have appeared in online publications.