Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Ludmila Ulitskaya, "The Big Green Tent"

– e-book

Read from April 19th to August 10th 2017

My rating: 

The Guilt of the Innocent

“It’s a strange, inexplicable law that the most innocent people among us are the ones predisposed to the greatest sense of guilt.”

While looking up the Internet for possible meanings of the title of Ludmila Ulitskaya’s novel, I found this interesting information that, in the Qur’an, the martyrs are gathered in a big green tent at the shore of a river close to the door of Paradise, from which provisions are brought to them day and night. Therefore, they don’t enter Paradise but are fed by it.

I don’t know whether the author is familiar with this image, but her book convenes too, under the big tent of art this time, a world martyrized by one of the most oppressive regimes the world has known: the communism, the very regime that promised humanity Paradise on Earth. Injustice, betrayal, diverted and/ or stopped short destinies, broken wings are whirled down in the bottomless funnel of a society well-known for its dexterity in crushing citizens like bugs at the slightest sign of disobedience. A society that Ludmila Ulitskaya knew very well, since she was an active part of those who tried to oppose it then (just as she is a relentless of the Putin’s debatable democracy now). And it is this world of more or less mighty dissidents her book is about.

It is the ambiguity of either the guilt, the victimization and the oppression that makes the beauty of this amazing novel, in other words the idea that a victim is not always completely innocent, and suffering does not assure you a place among the saints, idea suggested from the very beginning, through a quote from Boris Pasternak, used as a motto: “Do not be consoled by the injustice of our time. Its immorality does not prove our own moral worth; its inhumanity is not sufficient to render us human merely by opposing it.”

And we will find under the big (green) umbrella of the narrative victims that become traitors, weak men that become stronger or even weaker than before, oppressors ashamed by the oppression they inflict, proud citizens who firmly believe that their wrong is right and so on. All traced by a sure and impartial hand, that unfailingly paints a modern vanity fair, mixing suffering and weakness, ambitions and self-sacrifice, blind obedience and sometimes equally blind upheaval.

The story begins in the ‘50s, focusing on three school-age boys, Ilya, the “class-clown”, Sanya, “the musician”, and Mikha, “the Jewish four-eyes”, who are, even as children, isolated. For now isolated from the micro-society of their class, because their intellectual passions combined with their weak physique make the others reject them as “not normal”. This is only the beginning of a life in which the LORLs (“lovers of Russian literature”) as they call themselves, will, soon by choice, stand apart from the crowd (and there is quite a big crowd the book will present the reader with).

Each of them oscillates between two worlds: the “real”, repressive world of the communism and the ideal, rarefied world of the art. Each of them will be caught in between, missing the opportunity of becoming a great writer, a great performer or a great editor, the three things art needs in order to survive.

Mikha, who couldn’t follow his dream and continue his literary studies because in 1957, Moscow State University was closed to Jews and who would be fired from his job as a teacher, despite his passion and his skills with handicapped children because of a denounce from a colleague (who was already ill and will finish in a lunatic asylum by the way) that he is reading subversive literature, is the missed creator, whose artistic wings are clipped by a society not so interested in culture. This is maybe why his poetry could never reach maturity and would always have the sincere but rather clumsy style of his childhood poems. From the latter, the quatrain written at Stalin’s death is not only involuntary comical (because of the contrast between his sincere distress that Stalin would never come back and the Poesque voice that somehow manages to imply that this very event is a blessing in disguise), but also a foreshadowing of their (lack of) future:

“Weep, people, living here and yon,
Weep, doctors, typists, workers galore.
Our Stalin is dead, and never will one
Such as he return. Nay, nevermore.”

Indeed, for all of them, together with their friends, the samizdat will be the only form of fight, and art will be the only refuge. Sanya, delicate and withdrawn, who would not become the great pianist his family dreamt of him because of an incident in school when a colleague cut his hand with a knife, represents the missed performer. Resigned to remain a theoretician, he takes his refuge in music, firmly believing that, like Plato’s ideas, it “is the quintessence, an infinitely compressed message; it’s what exists outside the range of our hearing, our perception, our consciousness”.  In a simple solfeggio he could decode “the structure of the world itself”. 

As for Ilya, the most active of them, whose controversial personality will play a role in the destiny of all around him, he is the missed publisher, or protector of arts. He is also the most practical of them, managing to make a living from the samizdat:

Contrary to most of these other heirs of Gutenberg, his intellectual contemporaries, he felt no moral qualms about material compensation. He expected to be well paid for his time and effort, and he invested his earnings in his photography and his expanding archive.

In her review  published by New York Times in 2015, Lara Vapnyarnov compares the structure of the novel with a tree whose trunk and major branches are formed by these three characters.

Around them is recreated, in flash-back and flash-forward movements that seem to put together often in an aleatory way, like patches of different colours and dimensions sewn on the big canvas of the narrative, a society with its entire hierarchy, from the high officials and their KGB protectors to the shadowy opponents whose activities are more or less known by the upper class.

Among these characters a special attention deserves Olga, Ilya’s wife, whose destiny took the inverted road from privileges to shortcomings, from political obedience to rebellion. Born in a high class family, cheerful and pretty, liked by everybody, she takes at first very seriously the communist education at school and home, she is at first the embodiment of the good Soviet girl, honestly believing in the righteousness of the communist society, and proudly promoting its values like the priority of the collective good over the personal one:

From her parents she inherited a hatred for the rich (where were they, anyway?), as well as respect for the working man (or woman)—Faina Ivanovna, their housekeeper, for example, or Nikolai Ignatievich, who chauffeured her father’s official Volga automobile, not to mention Evgeny Borisovich, the chauffeur of her mother’s gray one. (…) She was guilty of nothing, before no one, and she loved Lenin-Stalin-Khrushchev-Brezhnev, the Motherland, and the Party, with a love both joyous and serene. She was morally stable and highly politically aware, as was noted in her letter of recommendation upon entering the Komsomol in seventh grade.

But an incident at school changed her beliefs forever. When she was about to finish University, one of the most loved and respected teachers was arrested and accused of publishing anti-Soviet works abroad. Together with some fellow students, she signed a letter in his defence with the only result that it got her expelled. The only good part of the story was that she was finally accepted in a group of sympathizers with the accused she had admired for a very long time but could not make friends with, probably because they were afraid of her political status. And that she met Ilya.

It is Olga who dreams of a big green tent she wanted to get into because it already contained all the people she knew:

I look around and see that all the people in the line are people I know—girls from Pioneer camp that I haven’t seen since we were kids, teachers from school, friends from college, our professor… it was like a demonstration!

Is this tent a metaphor of the “real” world or of the world of art or of both? Your guess is as good as mine. One thing is for sure: it generously shelters everybody, for everybody has a story that could blacken the white a little and whiten the black a little, like the story of Olga’s father, a general who couldn’t or wouldn’t risk his safety to protect his mistress despite his love for her, or of her mother, who, born in a family of priests, renegades it in order to succeed in life but will never be happy.

Sometimes there are characters that seem episodic but leave nevertheless the reader with a lasting impression. One of them is Vinberg, a Jew who fled from Germany to the USSR for protection only to be arrested in Russia and sent to Siberia for twenty years, another, Boris Ivanovich, an artist who hides in the house of three old women in the country because some political drawings he drew made him wanted by the police. After four years, when he thought nobody was looking for him anymore, he sent, with the help of Ilya his work abroad. Among them, the nudes of the three old ladies he sketched once when he surprised them bathing (the description of the old women, from which I’ve quoted below, is one of the most beautiful pages of the book):

Their long, loose gray hair streamed down over their bumpy spines. Their hands and feet seemed enormous and even more misshapen. Broken by working the earth, twisted like the roots of old trees, their fingers had taken on the colour of the soil in which they had been digging for so many decades. The skin of their bodies, however, was so white it looked bluish pale, like skimmed milk.

The artist was of course arrested – under the accusation of pornography.

Other times it is difficult to remember the characters but the story, that rings true despite the anecdotic, remains with you forever, like that one of the girl who bought new boots with the money she should have given to her grandmother, hid them in a box and because they were “a tad too tight” stuffed them with some papers. Without knowing it, she thus prevented her family from being arrested, for the papers were a clandestine copy of The Gulag Archipelago that the police came after that very night and were unable to find. And of course, always memorable is the story of the samizdat (the books that clandestinely circulated in the Soviet Union) and the tamizdat, (the books in Russian published abroad), a whole literature focused on the truth:

And there was the great truth of literature—Solzhenitsyn wrote book after book. They came out in samizdat, passed from hand to hand in the time-honoured pre-Gutenberg manner, on loosely bound, soft, hardly legible pages of onionskin paper. It was impossible to argue with these pages: their truth was so stark and shattering, so naked and terrible—truth about oneself, about one’s own country, about its crimes and sins.

In his Globe review,  Anthony Domestico justly observes that even though Ulitskaya’s characters do not have the strength of Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy ones, because they are not souls with a rich inner life but rather “players in the drama that is Soviet history”, they help to create an incredible vivid world, “messily plotted yet historically textured, sometimes flatly written yet always sympathetically imagined — a patchy, vibrant mass.” A green oasis in the desert of a very bad era, I would add.

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