His love for a Belgian student of Slavonic studies, Rose-Marie Vermeulen (who also translated ‘Sergeant Bertrand’), brought the talented young Russian writer Aleksandr Skorobogatov to Antwerp at the end of last year for a stay that lasted longer than his visa permitted, with the result that he is now stuck here.
This, however is nothing compared to the situation in which Nikolaj, the protagonist of Skorobogatov’s astounding literary debut finds himself when he falls ‘in love’. Tortured, even to the point of hallucinating, by his indescribably intense fear of losing his stunningly beautiful and devoted stage-actress wife, Nikolaj loses all control over his ego. The diabolic initiator of his irrepressible paranoia appears to be a certain Sergeant Bertrand, who unexpectedly appears one evening as a latent sickness from his youth and intrudes not only in his house but (mainly or perhaps only) in his mind. Roused by Bertrand’s flirtatious behaviour towards his wife and a series of ambiguous innuendos, Nikolaj finds himself caught up in a spiral of insinuations and begins to suffer from hallucinations in which he catches his wife, who has now become a femme fatale, with other men. In his desire (or passion) to enslave his wife, literally and figuratively, he reveals himself to be a true tyrant who spies on his possession with voyeuristic morbidity.
It is no easy task for the reader to gauge at once which part of Nikolaj’s bizarre and schizoid stream of consciousness is real. For Skorobogatov manages to interweave various levels and states of consciousness ever so calamitously: dreams, intoxication, theatricality, childhood memories and so on. These are all layers of fictional story lines in the fiction of the story itself. The challenge for the reader, therefore, is to gain, slowly but sure, some slight insight into this complex knot of events.
The most important, and at the same time most disturbing, insight with which Skorobogatov manages to sway the reader in this clever work of psychological archaeology is that below this seemingly smooth surface of rational thinking, twisted potential psychos inhabit the deep dungeons of the (macho) mind. The reader may wish to turn to psychoanalytic handbook to find his way through the novel.