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Gods of the Steppe Paperback – 3 Sep 2013
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About the Author
Andrei Gelasimov was born in Irkutsk, one of the largest cities in Siberia, in 1965. He went on to study foreign languages at the Yakutsk State University, as well as directing at the Moscow Theater Institute. In 2001 he came to popular literary acclaim in Russia when his story “A Tender Age,” which he originally published on the Internet, was included in an issue of the journal Oktyabr, and his novella and collection of short stories, Fox Mulder Looks Like a Pig,was released. Gods of the Steppe is his third novel to be published in English, following Thirst, for which Booklist praised “Gelasimov’s spare prose and pointed dialogue,” and The Lying Year, which was developed into a motion picture. Gelasimov’s work has garnered the Apollon-Grigorev prize and a Belkin prize nomination. Gods of the Steppe won the 2009 National Bestseller award in Russia.
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Gods of the Steppe is, however, several shades darker than The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. It is set in Trans-Baikal (i.e. East of Lake Baikal), in the south of Siberia, alongside the border with China, a border defined by the river Argun. The timing is the month of July and the first days of August 1945. Victory over the Nazis has been secured - and Petka is well-informed about some of the battles, especially the tank battle at Kursk; also that Hitler has 'gone missing' - but further action against Japan is still pending.
Close to the village in which Petka lives is a Prisoner of War camp. The prisoners are a mix of Japanese and other nationalities. Imported American tanks and other weaponry are being prepared for the expected invasion of Japanese occupied China. American whiskey and canned meat are also to hand.
Petka is of course drawn to the camp and with liquor stolen from his grandfather, a smuggler, he ingratiates himself with a couple of soldiers stationed there. Various adventures follow.
Meanwhile, we learn something of two of the Japanese detained in the camp. Hirotaro is a doctor and an expert on herbal medicine. He is writing a story involving Shoguns and Samurai; the history of the demise of his own clan. His native city is Nagasaki. A saintly character, Hirotaro opted out of a prisoner exchange so as to provide medical care for those of his fellow prisoners who were too ill to be exchanged. The sick included Masahiro, with whom Hirotaro has suffered a difficult relationship for most of his life. It seems unlikely Masahiro will ever thank Hirotaro for his sacrifice.
The various threads of the story are brought together when Petka co-opts Hirotaro to treat his sick friend Valerka, whose perhaps inevitable death is being brought rapidly closer by a woman whose ministrations are pure sham.
The book is strong on the imagery of the steppe, the wolves and the skylarks, and draws on the traditions of the indigenous peoples of Siberia displaced by the Soviets. Petka's whole world is surrounded by and is subject to violence. This is in accord with Mikhail Sholokhov's fiction of the steppe, Tolstoy's too; and with Vasily Grossman's and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn's accounts of the 1942-45 'Great Patriotic War'. Gelasimov's descriptions of violent scenes are never excessively lurid, but are no less effective for that.
This is a much more ambitious novel than The Lying Year, an earlier novel by Gelasimov also translated by Marion Schwartz and published by Amazon Crossing. Interested as I am in Russian literature and the history of the Soviet Union, I found this a satisfying read.
I also had some problems with the "American" translation, as there was quite a lot of vocabulary with which I am not familiar, especially with relation to children's games. This slowed the narrative a little for me but I'm sure will not be a problem for too many readers.
The storyline is disjointed and somewhat bizarre with readers facing a form of `Russian roulette' as the outcome of episodes is unclear or unimaginable. Action limps along with writing clumpy and staccato, but perhaps something has been lost in translation. As with many Russian novels there is a high degree of brutality that extends to a near lynching by children, and in particular for `Gods of the Steppe' it is implausible that young Petka should be so well aware of what is happening on war fronts and generally knowledgeable, even though he has contacts with troops and Japanese prisoners. These relationships are yet further unconvincing, and though author Andrei Gelasimov injects humour and poignancy into his accounts of Petka's experiences it still leaves `Gods of the Steppe' as very average - hence 3-star rating.
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