Oleg Kashin is one of those people you’d probably only find in Putin’s Russia. An ardent opposition journalist who was severely beaten for his statements and who has subsequently spent much of his career abroad, Kashin walks a line somewhere between freedom and non-freedom, between bravely standing up for his convictions and just being a crank. The existence of writers like him shows both how far freedom of the press has come in Russia over the past few decades, and how far yet it still has to go before becoming truly free.
“Fardwor, Russia!” which was completed shortly before Kashin’s infamous assault, also walks some kind of a line. It’s a bizarre tale of contemporary political satire, with a side of science fiction and magic realism. Fans of Russian literature will recognize it as being one in a long line of such works produced by Russian authors struggling to describe the surreal situations in which their society found itself. “Fardwor, Russia!” is more than a little reminiscent of Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Fatal Eggs,” but if anything even zanier.
The plot is simple–but it isn’t. Karpov, a scientist, has created a serum that causes creatures to grow. He uses it on a couple of human midgets before branching out into agricultural animals, and then finally human children. The consequences for all are disastrous.
The writing style of the book is somewhere between exuberant and…over-exuberant, let’s say. The plot moves at a breathless pace, hurried along by Kashin’s use of incredibly convoluted sentences. Although Russian sentences tend in general to be rather more interesting than the bland, over-simplified structure that has become the stultifying rage in American prose over the last century, Kashin’s style is particularly unrestrained. English-language readers unused to the experience of reading in Russian may feel as if they’ve been whacked in the head as they try to follow along.
Speaking of stylistic things, the translation varies between brilliant and wobbly, and the editing of the book leaves a little to be desired. While I’m thrilled to see all these small presses putting out translations of contemporary Russian authors, I’ve noticed that the production values of these editions tends to be on the low side. “Fardwor, Russia!” isn’t terrible in that regard, but it could have used another round of close reading by a copy editor to pick up the occasional stray typo and make decisions about the consistent use of Russian vs. Ukrainian spelling for the Ukrainian names in the book.
Those nitpicking issues aside, I do recommend this book to anyone interested in reading some contemporary Russian fiction and trying to understand the current zeitgeist of a certain aspect of Russian society. Russian literature has expressed itself and its society through the use of the absurd at least since the time of Gogol; in “Fardwor, Russia!” Kashin is continuing that line.