Het Laatste Nieuws: Aleksandr Skorobogatov: a young Russian literary lion

As we know, Russian novels are not only thick but they also teach us important lessons about life. Many works in classical Russian literature and in the 20th century contain great fundamental truths and an essential message. Recently, however, things seem to be changing.

Prof. Dr. Emmanuel WAEGEMANS

In the perestroika period, several literary works were published which flouted all these expectations, often deliberately: there was no important message let alone any fundamental truths, and the writing often left a lot to be desired on the purely literary front. Many of them described the general chaos that enveloped Russia – the often complex tangle of knots located in the minds, and nether regions, of the Russians. In this sense you could of course see them as a reflection of the whole post-communist mess and therefore significant.

Most of the work being published today has spent several years tucked away in a drawer. Often they were too shocking, innovative or daring for the time of their writing, but written in a form or style that no longer appeals to us in our day and age. The  controversial writer Viktor Jerofejev’s ‘shocking’ novel ‘Russian Beauty’ is a clear example of this: although written in the early eighties and therefore in a period of complete stagnation under Brezhnev and the many taboos associated with it, it has only recently been published.

The situation is quite different for Sergeant Bertrand, a story by the young Russian writer Aleksandr Skorobogatov. This is absolutely unique in Russian literature in general, and especially so in recent years. The writer is a ‘handsome young literary lion’ who managed to publish this story in Russia last year. This in itself is an extraordinary feat, firstly as Russian publishing houses are inundated with manuscripts dating from before perestroika, and secondly because Russian publishers are having to survive under the miserable conditions of today’s Russia (high cost of living, galloping inflation, shortage of paper) and are therefore only interested in publishing blockbusters (all sorts of scandal books on the licentious monk Rasputin, the countless lovers of Catherine the Great or books about sex or astrology). Despite all this, Aleksandr Skorobogatov managed to win a prestigious literary award for this story (“the best story of 1991”). Which is quite an achievement in a huge country like Russia!

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? Even a first cursory reading will make us realise that we are dealing not only with a prose writer but also a future scriptwriter. 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. Dedalus (the publisher) has once again struck gold, but this time not with a handsome local lion, but one that comes from Russia. The translation and  the design are excellent. And if the Russians are coming, as they say, then may they come in droves!