De Standaard der Letteren: All consuming jealousy ⎮ Magic Realism by Aleksandr Skorobogatov

Jealousy is an insidious poison. It drives the main character in Aleksandr Skorobogatov’s novel ‘Sergeant Bertrand’ to madness and murder. Or is it all just a figment of his imagination? Skorobogatov does not say.

JOHAN DEPOORTERE

The world in the novels of the Russian writer Aleksandr Skorobogatov is a hallucinatory universe populated by demons and cruel, violent men. Their partners are self-sacrificing, gentle, stunningly beautiful women. It is a world in which the characters oscillate effortlessly between dream and reality, madness and lucidity.

We see this in Skorobogatov’s previously discussed book ‘Earth without Water’ (DSL 21.11.2002) and in his debut novel ‘Sergeant Bertrand,’ now reprinted by The House of Books. In ‘Sergeant Bertrand’ obsessive jealousy brings the main character to ruin. Nikolai is married to Vera, a beautiful, talented actress. He convinces himself that she is every man’s willing plaything. When he attends one of her performances he has a hallucinatory experience in which he sees her standing naked on stage. Nikolai’s love explodes into an all-consuming flame of jealousy fuelled by Sergeant Bertrand who is the main character’s sinister, Faustian, alter ego. The result is madness and murder.

This process in which characters split up and play various roles is one Skorobogatov finds deeply interesting and frequently uses in his work. It enables him to present the story from different viewpoints, thus creating a fascinating cycle of recurring events: Leonid murders the schoolgirl just as Nikolai kills his beloved Vera. Or perhaps not? The author gives nothing away and non-committal statements like ‘They say that…’, keep the reader guessing.

Skorobogatov has extensively revised his debut novel which dates from the early nineties. Nevertheless, the inspiration and background of the story are still closely associated with the turbulent beginnings of post-communism in Russia. The characters are tormented, traumatised figures in a world in which war and social disruption are a part of everyday reality. The text on the dust cover mentions Aleksandr Skorobogatov in the same breath as great masters like Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Poe and Polanski. Whether or not this is so is for the reader to decide. However ‘Sergeant Bertrand’ is without any doubt an absolute must for readers interested in Russian magic realism.

THE WRITER
 The Russian writer Aleksandr Skorobogatov (b. 1963) has lived in Antwerp since 1992. Apart from his first novel ‘Sergeant Bertrand’ he has published ‘Audience with the Sovereign’ and ‘Earth without Water’ in Dutch. He is regarded as one of the most remarkable post-communist Russian writers today.