Every now and then, albeit very rarely indeed, a novel or story by a totally unknown author gives a glimpse of genius that is totally unexpected and takes you completely by surprise. The surprise is so great, in fact, that you are compelled to read the work a second time, but now with the clear insight of the initiate. The debut novel “Sergeant Bertrand” by the Byelorussian writer Aleksandr Skorobogatov is a rare and truly impressive achievement.
Nikolai lives in a room with his wife Vera. She works mainly at night as an actress. He rarely leaves the room and is afraid of the light. The vodka bottle is often his only companion in a succession of empty days. Until the mysterious Sergeant Bertrand suddenly walks into his room, ‘like an old friend’, and soon becomes a regular visitor.
Who is Sergeant Bertrand? Does he really exist or is he just another personality state of the forlorn Nikolai who has never got over his young son’s death? Skorobogatov cleverly allows the uncertainty about reality and fiction to continue.
With the coming of Bertrand jealousy begins to creep into Nikolai’s mind. Insinuations about Vera’s beauty and the dissipation of show life drive him to madness and he becomes like a disoriented Othello who has lost all touch with reality.
Nikolai loses himself, follows his wife, beats up her alleged lovers and hallucinates about her adulterous acts. The innocent Vera, who gives up everything – including the theatre – to help her husband, is finally driven to actually commit adultery when a supervisor makes this a condition for Nikolai’s discharge from the sanatorium.
With “Sergeant Bertrand” the 29 year old Skorobogatov has written more than a Kafkaesque adaptation of Othello. Instead, he has created a story that is both powerful and difficult to classify in which the main character’s madness is reflected in the reader’s own frantic bewilderment as he seeks to find a hand-hold which the writer does not give him.
All this makes “Sergeant Bertrand” a hallucinatory reading experience in which the reader, oscillating between dream and reality, wholly succumbs to the story. Of course it would be far easier if his name was simply Smith or Jones, but this is not to be: the name to remember is Aleksandr Skorobogatov.