Paradise here and now | Samira Kawash
by eugene vodolazkin
plow, 343 pages, $26.95
Brisbane is clouded by war. When Kyiv-born Russian author Eugene Vodolazkin wrote the novel in the aftermath of the Maidan Revolution, that war had not yet arrived. For those reading the novel in English in 2022, war has come. Russia and Ukraine fight over territory and national identity, but Vodolazkin’s novel does not choose sides. Instead, it clouds our idea of the separation and difference that make a “side” or a border. As countries and bodies are torn apart by nationalisms and sectarianisms of all kinds, Vodolazkin asks the question of survival itself: will there be a future?
“Playing at Olympe de Paris, I don’t know how to play tremolo.” Vodolazkin thus introduces us to the protagonist, Gleb, a world-renowned classical guitarist. Why can’t Gleb play tremolo? Why are his hands and fingers suddenly refusing to cooperate? The diagnosis is Parkinson’s disease, a catastrophic failure of his body that will end his music career and eventually his life. Gleb’s body is at war with itself. His individual fate reflects the larger problem of the fate of post-Soviet Ukraine.
The novel alternates between Gleb’s first-person narrative, which begins in 2012, and a third-person narrative that recounts Gleb’s past life. This third-person narrator is presumably Sergei Nesterov, a famous author who is writing a book about Gleb. In an early interview, Nesterov explains his interest in Gleb’s story: “You are combining two nations, and I want to understand exactly how.” Gleb was born in Kyiv to a Russian mother and a Ukrainian father. He is theoretically “Ukrainian”, but when asked how he identifies himself, he answers: “I could say Russian, of course”. How could he solve the problem? Should he erase his Russian mother? Disavowing his Ukrainian father? Her parents “spoke different languages literally and figuratively” – a mutual misunderstanding that ended in divorce and later family complications. Gleb’s physical decline spans from 2012 to 2014 – his story ends when Ukraine transforms from Russian client to NATO contender. Two nations, and yet, as Gleb explains to Nesterov, “I don’t distinguish these nations very well.”
Brisbane deeply loves Ukraine – its land, its music, its language – but throughout the novel, Ukrainian culture cannot be disentangled from a more complex and multi-faceted context. As a child in Soviet Kyiv, Gleb moved easily between the Ukrainian and Russian poles of his family, his school and his musical education; in all these areas of his life, the boundaries between the two nationalities were blurred. In the novel’s present, that fluidity is gone, and in its place is disconnection and dislocation. Gleb is at home everywhere and nowhere, playing in concert halls around the world and spending as many nights in hotels as in his current home in Munich. The house is not only lost, the very idea of the house seems to have become impossible. When Gleb returns to Kyiv after thirty years and searches for his childhood apartment, he finds the building razed to the ground and an elite international hotel built on the site. This hotel is anyone’s home and therefore no one’s home, anonymous and interchangeable, backdrop to the uprooted life of the citizen of the world.
The resurgent nationalisms of recent decades have been a response to the homogenizing impulses of globalization, but the nation is not the solution to homelessness in Brisbane. In 2014 Gleb traveled to Kyiv to bury his father. He accidentally falls in Maidan Square and is picked up by a Ukrainian thug. Gleb carries a Russian passport and speaks Russian; he is accused of being a spy: “I ask you, Moscow bastard, why did you learn our language? Gleb tries to explain his mixed heritage, pleading, “Listen, we are one people after all.” “A person? No, not a single people. In this you are gravely mistaken. You are the enemy of my people. Gleb narrowly escapes execution. After his father’s funeral, his Ukrainian half-brother Oles again challenges him to choose a side:
“Tell me, my brother, do you miss Ukraine a little? You were born here, after all, you grew up here. Doesn’t your heart hurt you?
“It does. For me, Russia and Ukraine are one land.
“For us, they are not.”
” Do not say we so often. “I” means much more. »
“Sorry bro, that’s your fantasy.” When thousands of people are at war, “I” means nothing.
“Win the peace and thousands of people around you will be saved. . . . peace between men begins with peace in one man.
Gleb quotes Saint Seraphim of Sarov, a revered and beloved Russian Orthodox mystical and spiritual teacher. His words can be read as a simple and fundamental affirmation of the Christian faith: Peace among men begins with the peace of one man, Christ. The type of “we” defended by Oles (“I” means nothing”) is a collectivist illusion, achieved at the cost of a total erasure of the individual. Such claims to collective identity have led to much violence and warfare in the history of the land and its people, whether it be the collective “perfecting” of the Soviets or the continuing nationalist conflicts between the ” Russians” to “Ukrainians”. In contrast, the Christian faith recognizes the importance of both “we” and “I”—peace between people and the peace of individual repentance and transformation.
But Gleb’s Christian faith has given way to the pleasures of fame, and peace eludes him. As his condition worsens, he succumbs to despair. His marriage is heavy. Family members die. Gleb is overwhelmed by his own fear of illness and death. Redemption sparkles in the form of a carrier girl, a talented musician with a fatal disease, whose care and patronage will give his life new meaning. But too soon, she dies. Broken, he tells the girl’s mother, too fragile to hear the truth, that the girl is gone, to Brisbane, Australia.
Brisbane is the title of the novel and its apparent destination. Gleb tells Nesterov that “in our family this place was considered heaven”. For Gleb’s mother, Brisbane has always been “the city of her dreams”, a place as far “from here” as possible, “on the other side of the globe”. The last pages of the book tell how Gleb’s mother finally left for Brisbane. And what is it? “Happiness,” she told the taxi driver on the way to the airport. The driver subsequently abducts her and delivers her to be killed by a criminal gang working the airport roads. Needless to say she will never see Brisbane. Later, a character tells Gleb: “A Swedish girl has proven that Australia is a fiction, a mirage. Who has already seen it with their own eyes? Do you?” “No,” replies Gleb. “I haven’t.” “Do you still believe Australia exists? “Now I don’t know,” he says. there is no Australia.” For Gleb and his mother, Brisbane functions as an imaginary destination, a fantasized non-place, a utopia.
Elsewhere, Vodolazkin has argued that the modern era is characterized by a particular idea of time as progress, with society continually moving towards perfection; modernity is therefore essentially utopian. Vodolazkin warns: “It is wrong to consider utopias as harmless dreams. Combined with the idea of progress, utopian thinking is a dream that motivates action. He sets a goal so high that it cannot be reached. The more ideal it becomes, the greater the obstinacy with which it is pursued. There comes a time when blood flows. Oceans of blood. Vodolazkin names two particularly virulent utopian forces: “Marxist utopia in Russia has given rise to terror, [and] the globalist utopia in the West has inspired “democratizing” wars and so-called “color revolutions”. From Soviet to post-Soviet to “democratization,” Ukraine is a particularly powerful place where modern utopian visions have converged and exploded.
It is perhaps for this reason that the final image of the novel is not reassuring. Gleb, asked if he has any final words for Nesterov’s book, recounts a memory from when he was two years old: his mother holding him to the edge of a precipice above a smoky void , facing a dangerous path but no other way to go. The “terrible descent” is imbued with dread, fear, horror. Despite her own fear, her mother “protects her baby from the abyss with her hand”. Thus, the story of Gleb’s life ends in the abyss, “shrouded in smoke.”
Yet it is in this memory that Gleb locates his first experience of music, “born from the rhythm of this clumsy and terrible descent. Does anyone other than Gleb hear it? Maybe something beautiful can still rise from the terror and the smoke – if there is any hope in Brisbane, it is not in Australia, in some other place of perfection yet to be achieved. It’s more here, in this still unpublished music. “Is music eternal? Gleb asks a priest, Father Piotr, at some point in the novel. “Father Piotr shook his head. “Music is not eternity. But it reminds us of eternity. . . the lack of time. The absence of death. . . . In the end, it’s God, the One you’re looking for.
Utopia kills. But the paradise of the eternal, the presence of God, is here and now, if only we can hear it.
Samira Kawash is professor emeritus at Rutgers University.
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