A great Russian novel where the hero is a husband tortured by the demons of jealousy.
One day a man walks into Nikolai’s apartment — a small two room Khrushchev-era flat where he lives with his wife Vera. Well turned out, smiling, the man pays Vera a visit. They speak in hushed voices, he furtively kisses her hands. Nikolai sees them but doesn’t say anything. Sergeant Bertrand, the visitor, comes back two, three times. Nikolai can’t take it any more. He questions his wife, she denies everything and does not understand what he is talking about. So Nikolai hits her. “Vera was crying and he could barely hold back from striking her again. He lifted her from the floor by her hair, clenching his teeth. She was so beautiful. He loved her so much. If she could only — just for a moment — imagine the infinite agony of his love for her…” (...) With this beautiful tragic novel, Skorobogatov has carved a place for himself in the great Russian tradition.
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Gazet van Antwerpen:
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. (...) With “Sergeant Bertrand” 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. [ read more ]
Le Nouvel Observateur:
When we talk about wife abuse, we think straightaway about Afghanistan, Thailand, Somalia. But what about Russian women? Just Google “Russian women” and you will find that, like their Asian or African sisters, women from Russia and Eastern European countries in general are considered as docile objects to be manipulated. In his first novel translated into French, Aleksandr Skorobogatov describes the every day life of Vera, who is married to a pathologically jealous alcoholic. The author describes the destructive feeling reinforced by alcohol with heart rending realism and brutality. (...) But behind this story of jealousy and a submissive woman lurks a critique of the Soviet era. (...) A rather detached novel, with poignant characters, that show a small part of the Soviet reality rarely mentioned. [ read more ]
De Standaard der Letteren:
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. [ read more ]
Matricule des Anges:
The book opens like a play where from the first scene the action has already taken root and destiny marches on ineluctably. Vera’s story could have been just that of a woman who is the victim of her husband’s crazy jealousy. But Aleksandr Skorobogatov has set up a subtle immersion in his hero's deliriums, leaving the reader a few short breaths of air from time to time. Just to touch the fragile frontier between the reality that escapes Nikolai and the images that he creates that shout out they are true. The narrative goes through the hero’s and the narrator’s hands, muddling their voices. [ read more ]
Het Laatste Nieuws:
This is absolutely unique in Russian literature in general, and especially so in recent years. (...)
When you start reading Sergeant Bertrand you understand why it won this prize. It is a fascinating story that immediately grabs you by the throat (and quite honestly, by other parts of your anatomy) and doesn’t let go. The style is very concise and pointillistic without the clutter of unnecessary details. As in minimalist music, the recurring elements heighten the reader’s apprehension. And this makes the story extremely forceful. The young lion manages to captivate his reader with a story that is both malicious and voyeuristic. The reader is drawn in and almost becomes an accessory to the dramatic ending.
But there is more. The book is brimming with mysteries and enigmas. The writer seems to cultivate this uncertainty about who has done what and the tension increases as the story progresses. What is the book about? A failed marriage? Infidelity? Jealousy? Vengeance or revenge for the sensual or sexual assertiveness of women? Or is it about the personality duplication, a jealous husband who becomes schizophrenic because strange men undress his beautiful, sensuous wife with their eyes and their hands? (...) This story would make an incredible film with an atmosphere worthy of a Polanski.
All these elements make Sergeant Bertrand an extraordinarily exciting story by a young imaginative writer who takes us into a world that is ambiguous, fascinating and at times bordering on the sick and perverse. In short, Mr Skorobogatov is a stellar talent, one to keep an eye out for.
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Page des Libraires:
Wherever he looks, she is there, Vera, a dazzling woman. Nikolai is astonished that he could be her husband, the one she says she loves: a passionate, yet tragic, pathological love. (...) From the first lines he is seized by the jealousy which consumes his soul and gradually drives him mad. A dangerous madness because its fury and violence are as strong as his unreasonable and unreasoning love, a tyrannical and paranoid love. Who is Nikolai jealous of? What harm does the sweet and modest Vera do to him? Nothing? Or everything that Nikolai says he sees and hears? All the tension of the novel revolves around it being impossible to resolve: the reader is condemned to see the world as Nikolai perceives it. And the author pushes ambiguity further as some imaginary scenes seem so real and independent of Nikolai’s will that maybe his hallucinations will fulfil themselves. [ read more ]
Astounding literary debut. (...)
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. [ read more ]
It is not so much Freud who holds sway in Sergeant Bertrand, but Dostoevsky. Of course, the idea behind Sergeant Bertrand is on a far smaller scale than in Dostoevsky’s novels. It is a modest chapel compared to the monumental cathedral that Crime and Punishment for example is, or The Brothers Karamazov or The Demons in particular. However, the characters and themes are clearly related to those of Dostoevsky, as well its mysterious, thriller-like atmosphere.
With this comparison I wish only to point out the richness of the novel rather than detract from Skorobogatov’s unique qualities. He makes no secret of his source of inspiration and in no way is he derivative. On the contrary, it has been many years since such an original work found its way from Russia to this country. It is such a relief, after the everyday routine and moral indifference has seemed to dominate contemporary Russian literature, to be transported to other realms of human existence. Most remarkably, Skorobogatov not only broaches different subjects than his fellow writers, but he writes exceptionally well. I read Sergeant Bertrand, in what is a near-perfect translation, in one sitting, and after I had finished it, it continued to hold me in its grip. It is an impressive debut that whets the reader’s appetite for more to come.
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This fascinating internal monologue evokes the absurd of the best Eastern European writers. A dark masterpiece of the absurd. [ read more ]