Myopic Books in Wicker Park is one of my favorite bookstores. It’s not just because they’ve sold more of my books than any other store by a wide margin, but that certainly doesn’t hurt. Aside from being one of those places where you can just drift and go on tangents, which are rarer and rarer in our ever more “searchable” reality, it is also a place which sometimes hosts music and poetry nights.
A couple weeks back Skyler Rowe, who I know from the Rainbo Club, performed what he called “a tantrum” on his drum kit and various electronics. Things like this can be precious or navel-gazing but by creating a lot of sounds in varying volumes and timbres, Skyler kept my attention and interest. He was also humble and gracious to his audience, the very fact of which seemed to surprise him. It’s often hard to get anyone to come watch you do your thing, so it’s a good feeling when they do.
Last weekend at the swanky restored Chicago Athletic Association Hotel, Myopic Books manager J.R. Nelson was interviewed by Tim Kinsella for a new podcast. They talked about J.R.’s childhood fixation on Peter Jennings and his many years of writing about music. These fancy new hotels like to invite art people inside to entertain their well-heeled guests. I’m happy when talented friends have an audience but sometimes these gilded settings give me pause, but I suppose it has always been so. I wrote about a new documentary about land art for the Chicago Reader. See it in a movie theater if you have the chance as the aerial views which dominate will be a lot more impressive on a big screen. Then talked to my old pal Nick Digilio on his radio show at 3am, after a work shift at the Skylark.
—This weekend the Chicago Tribune published my review of Oleg Kashin’s newly-translated Fardwor, Russia!
In 2010, two months after turning in his manuscript for “Roissya Vperde” to his publisher, Oleg Kashin was approached outside his Moscow apartment building by a man with a bouquet of flowers. That man and an accomplice proceeded to beat Kashin with a pipe, as well as their fists and boots, and left him for dead. Two of the men (a driver has also been identified) have been charged with attempted murder, but those who ordered the attack have not been held accountable in any way.
Kashin is a prominent anti-establishment journalist who has not been shy to call out those in power. He has identified the man he believes to be responsible, but Vladimir Putin’s government has shielded him from prosecution.
Now comes the English translation of Kashin’s book. Rechristened “Fardwor, Russia — A Fantastical Tale of Life Under Putin,” it is a brisk read that will nevertheless leave one with a disquieting picture of contemporary life in that cursed country.
The plot concerns a man named Karpov, who, seemingly on a whim, moves with his wife from their Moscow home to a remote settlement in the south of Russia. He has discovered a miraculous growth serum and is convinced that, given time to further experiment, they will become rich beyond their wildest dreams. He attracts the attention of the locals, most prominently the director of the local scientific institute, who has been casting about for a “something” that might net her some serious government investment. Karpov initially spurns her offers of cooperation, but after several troubling misadventures, returns to the institute just as she is showing a government representative around and telling him of the wonders they work:
“And this,” she said, gesturing in the direction of tables painstakingly detailed with magic markers showing two glued-on, Xeroxed pictures of some kinds of birds — a diagram that illustrated how with the right diet a jay can turn into a cuckoo. “Now don’t be surprised, I wouldn’t believe it myself if not for the work of our scientists. It’s all very simple. We are what we eat. A cuckoo eats these, you know, furry worms. A jay doesn’t eat them, but if we force it to — voila!”
With a single injection piglets grow into sows within a week. Local meat purveyors are intrigued and word quickly spreads. Soon a dwarf is at Karpov’s door demanding the serum. This dwarf turns out to be the younger brother of an oligarch, who has thus far managed to keep his freakish brother in the shadows. When he returns two weeks later to Moscow and presents himself to his brother as a fully grown man, ready to take part in their family’s empire, the older brother has him killed.
Absurdity is piled upon absurdity, but none of it is taken as anything but a matter of course by anyone involved. There is a long tradition of this sort of storytelling in Russia. From Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat” in pre-Soviet times to Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita” and onward, writers have had to address the insanity of their society through indirect or fabulist means. “Fardwor” is no fairy tale. Kashin grounds his story in everyday reality. Karpov finds out his wife has left him because she has unfriended him on Facebook; the oligarch, Kirill, is named to head the organization charged with making the upcoming Olympics in Sochi a success. The world of his book is not so different than the one seen from his countrymen’s windows.
There’s rarely a way to reproduce the slang and colloquialisms of another tongue. While “Fardwor, Russia” is a more-than-adequate translation, the original Russian title — “Roissya Vperde” — has the added resonance of sounding very much like “Russia’s in the Crapper” (if using family-friendly language). Despite that, the book is a hilarious and heartbreaking portrait of a country whose demons rarely pause in tormenting its populace, as its author found out before it was even published.