NRC Handelsblad: Religion is for wimps

Helen Saelman

Sergeant Bertrand, a short novel by Aleksandr Skorobogatov (1963), was published in the Moscow magazine Joenost in 1991. In a recent interview with a Flemish periodical the writer related how the magazine editor had condensed the work to such a degree that he initially decided not to allow his work to be published. However, the writer Andrej Bitov, who teaches at the Moscow Institute for Literature, where Skorobogatov was once a student, and whose work, like Pushkin House, is also well-known in this country, managed to convince him that a new writer should never miss the opportunity to have his work published by a publisher with a wide circulation.

Naturally, the Dutch translation, which was published in Antwerp, includes all the passages that the editor deleted. Although many of them are erotic or cruel, you can’t help but wonder about the decision to omit them, as Moscow had already been flooded by a veritable wave of pornography for a number of years. Most of all however, you question the literary insight of a magazine editor like this who seems to miss the point that these passages are not merely an ineffective or destructive embellishment, but an essential component of the work itself. For they flow from the theme and play a key role in defining the oppressive atmosphere of perversity and obsession that is characteristic of the story.

In fact obsession is what Sergeant Bertrand is about. The introvert and inconspicuous Nikolaj, who drinks and has nothing to do, is married to a strikingly beautiful actress. One day he receives an unexpected visit from a certain Sergeant Bertrand whose insinuations about Vera’s attractiveness and the licentiousness that generally dominates the world of the theatre fuel Nikolaj’s jealousy. The Sergeant’s visits continue and gradually Nikolaj becomes a captive of his own fantasy. He spies on his wife, sees every man as her lover and repeatedly beats up both his so-called rivals and his wife. Through his paranoia he finally lands up in an institution for the insane and alcoholics, from which Sergeant Bertrand helps him to escape, before finally bringing the course of events to a disastrous end.

This is the story line that lies closest to the surface. Yet, it is but one of the many threads which together form a complex, maze-like web in which it is unclear what is real and what only takes place in Nikolaj’s diseased mind, where the boundaries between the various characters lie, or where the past ends and the present begins. Several motifs, such as the death of a newborn son ten years earlier, or the dream about a naked woman with sharp white teeth, invite a Freudian elucidation of the story in which Sergeant Bertrand personifies the unconscious (the Id) in man. Indeed, it is this interpretation most of the critics in Flanders have opted for and one that is justifiable to a certain degree. Nevertheless, I believe that they are ignoring one important point.

Devil

‘Nikolaj seeks God but instead finds the devil on his path’, — says the text on the book jacket. Just as Mephistopheles takes possession of Faust’s soul, so Sergeant Bertrand takes over the soul of the defenceless Nikolaj. He is responsible for Nikolaj’s distorted view of reality, he takes sadistic pleasure in harassing him, and revels in Nikolaj’s suffering and the evil that he generates outside himself.  He is the devil who destroys man and the world. There are too many indications in the story which suggest that its mystic and religious aspects are no accident. In the first place there is what I consider to be the central passage in the story — a passage which is placed precisely in the middle of the book and for good reason — in which Nikolaj finds himself in a church without knowing precisely what he is seeking. The atmosphere of holiness and the priest’s words only rouse his irritation and as he leaves the church he spits behind him. During the conversation following the visit to the church, Sergeant Bertrand ridicules religion as being something for wimps, and through his cunning words he truly gets Nikolaj irrevocably under his spell. In the battle between God and Satan it is definitely the latter who has the upper hand. Nikolaj’s wife, who embodies self-sacrificing love and increasingly resembles a martyr, actually dies a terrible death. It is not without reason that she is referred to somewhere as a ‘goddess’, and it is no coincidence that ‘Vera’ is the Russian word for ‘belief’.

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 particularHowever, 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.