Three Percent review
When Sankya was published ináRussia iná2006, itábecame aásensation. Itáwon the Yasnaya Polyana Award (bestowed byádirect descendants ofáLeo Tolstoy) and was shortlisted for the Russian Booker and the National Bestseller Award. Every member ofáthe cultural elite had anáopinion onáit. There was even aáhatchet job byáthe president ofáRussiaĺs largest commercial bank; the banker-cum-critic received anáavalanche ofáresponses rebuking his review. Many reviewers disagreed with the Prilepinĺs political beliefs, but acknowledged that the novel isáaáliterary masterpiece. Already widely translated ináEurope, this book struck aáraw nerve, toásay the least. The timely English edition, featuring anáexcellent translation byáMariya Gusev and Jeff Parker (with Alina Ryabovolova), and aáheartfelt forward byáAlexey Navalny, aáRussian anti-corruption activist, will introduce America toáaáunique talent asáwell asáthe kind ofáRussia very few foreigners have seen. For the soul ofáthe country isánever ináthe news headlines; itáisáináliterature. Sankya succeeds brilliantly ináplunging the reader into the psyche ofáthe young people onáthe fringes ofáthe success story Russia projected toáthe world during the Sochi Olympics.
Twenty-two-year-old Sasha TishinŚor Sankya, asáhis grandmother calls himŚand his friends are members ofáthe Founders, anáextremist right-wing group loosely based onáthe now-banned National Bolsheviks. The Founders want toátear down the corrupt government, destroy Western-style capitalism, and build aábetter countryŚone based onádignity, onáideals, one close źtoáthe soil,╗ something like the Soviet Union but not quite, not soábureaucratic. Ifáthat sounds vague, itĺs because ináthe beginning the Founders donĺt have aáplan beyond demonstrations, which often devolve into street vandalism. The book opens with one such protest. Sasha and his friends narrowly escape the riot police, but even the possibility ofájail hardly scares Sasha. Heáwill surviveáit, heáthinks, because heĺd survived his mandatory army service, aánotoriously harsh ordeal ináRussia.
Sasha returns toáhis small, dreary town, visits his grandparents ináthe dying village ofáhis childhood, then goes toáMoscow again, toáhang out ináthe źbunker,╗ the Foundersĺ headquarters, and shyly court Yana, the rumored lover ofátheir jailed leader. Sometimes heájust meanders the streets asáhis thoughts meander ináhis head. What toádo? Where toágo? Sashaĺs father had died aáyear and aáhalf before the novels opens; his father was the last ofáthree brothers toásuccumb toáalcoholism, and alcohol isáaácentral character ináthe novel: aácomforter, aáfriend, anáagitator, and aátruth-teller. Sashaĺs mother, źtired, like every Russian woman who had been alive for more than half aácentury,╗ works long shifts. The only jobs Sasha had been able toáfind are physically draining: loader, construction worker. Yet, Sasha isánot simply the drunken hoodlum heámay appear toáaápasserby. HeáisáHolden Caulfield with aáMolotov cocktail, atáonce aggressive and vulnerable, tender (especially when itácomes toáhis mother) and rude, self-possessed and romantic. But apathetic heáisánot. Just asáthe novel asks the big questionsŚWhat isáour country? What isáour history?ŚSasha constantly interrogates himself: źWho amáI? . . . AmáIábad? Kind? Hopeful? Hopeless?╗ Sometimes, heáhas dialogue with aávoice inside his head. These conversations and the way Sasha sees the world are very interesting.
The Founders stage anáaction ináRiga toáprotest the imprisonment ofáseventeen elderly Red Army veterans byáLatvian authorities onácharges ofáforeign occupation. Though Sasha doesnĺt participate, heáisápicked upáináMoscow and isátortured for information. Heábarely survives but isáproud toánot have cracked. The plot complicates when Sasha isátasked with assassinating the Riga judge who sentenced his Founders comrades toáfifteen-year sentences for the nonviolent Riga protest. Fittingly, itĺs not the surprising outcome ofáSashaĺs assignment, but rather Yanaĺs success atáemptying aábag ofáslop onáthe Russian presidentĺs head ináMoscow that sets off aáfull-scale war between the authorities and the Founders. Sasha takes aáprominent role ináthe battle ináhis hometown, leading aágroup ofáassorted Founders (aáformer member ofáthe special police, aádrug addict, and several skinny, impassioned youths) toáthe limit ofáopposition and the edge ofáreason.
Prilepin, who has served ináspecial police forces asáwell ináthe Russian military ináChechnya before becoming one ofáthe leaders ofáthe National Bolshevik group and getting arrested more than 150átimes, clearly draws from his own experience. But the novel isánot aápolemic; itáisáaápiece ofáart. Itálooks long and hard into the darkest crevasses ofáthe consciousness ofáthe young people stuck between eras, the young people who must beáunderstood rather than dismissed ifáthe country isátoámove forward. There are several instances where Sasha gets into heated discussions about Russiaĺs future and isáchallenged toáformulate and defend his philosophy.
źAnd how does this Ĺnew-well-forgotten-oldĺ society contradict the idea ofáthe nationĺs future that irks you soámuch?╗ Sasha asks Lev, his roommate atáthe hospital, where Sasha isárecovering from his beating.
źBecause the idea ofáthe nationĺs future, Sasha, has been slipped toáyou byáthe angry and slovenly Slavophiles and contradicts anthropology. Itácontradicts evolution! Itĺs this idea that perpetuates the eternal circle weájust discussed-from violence toáchaos.╗
Later Sasha says: źBut Iádonĺt live ináRussia. Iĺm trying toábring her back. She was taken away fromáme,╗ and Lev replies: źSome executioners took Russia away from other executioners. And noáone knows which ofáthe executioners isáthe better. The current ones let you live, atáleast.╗
These passages continue the dialogue that has been going onáináRussian literature for centuries, with notable contributions from Ivan Turgenev ináFathers and Sons onáthe topic ofáWesterners vs. Slavophiles toáWhat IsátoáBeáDone?, Nikolai Chernyshevskyĺs response toáTurgenev, and onátoáLev Tolstoyĺs own What IsátoáBeáDone? During most ofáthe twentieth century, when Soviet literature was censored, the dialogue proceeded underground, ináChronicle ofáCurrent Events, aálong-running samizdat periodical, and inábooks byáRussian writers ináexile abroad, such asáAlexander Solzhenitsyn.
But itáisánot soámuch Prilepinĺs engagement with politics that compels comparisons toáthe Russian greatsŚone prominent Russian critic called him the next GorkyŚit isáhis language and his ability toávividly portray everyday life. Prilepin imbues everything with its own mood and secret history. Hereĺs how heádescribes the dying village ofáSashaĺs childhood:
źLike aápockmarked, hardened, dark ice floe, itáhad separated from the shore and was drifting away quietly . . . Farther along were the stables, where Granny hadnĺt kept aágoat for the past year, noápigs for three, and ten years since Domanka the cow was led away onáher last walk. The stables emitted noáscents ofálife, noámanure smell. Not aásingle furry soul shuffled its hoovesŚnothing chewed, breathed noisily, nothing was frightened byáSashaĺs steps. Only the smell ofárot and dirt.╗
Prilepin applies anáequally nuanced and sensitive brush toáhis portraits ofápeople. Interestingly, atáplaces anáauthorial voice peeps from behind the third-person narrator close toáSasha: źHeásat ináthe corner, slept sittingáup, deeply, easilyŚyoung bones donĺt care where they are thrown. However they fall, soábeáit.╗ Ináthe middle ofáSashaĺs love scene with Yana, anáepisode that would not beánominated for one ofáthose gleefully beloved worst-sex-scene contests, Prilepin writes: źShe lay there, panting, quivering like aásmooth lizard, some little-known, regal breed. Perhaps some kind ofálunar lizard.╗ Heápays vigilant attention toáSashaĺs inner life, often introducing passages ofáintrospection ináaáway that would beásneered atáinásome MFA workshops. Here isáSasha ináthe hospital, recovering after the beating: źaásudden realization simply descended upon him . . .╗ Atáthe same time, the author isáalways alert toáSashaĺs physical body, the persistent sentience ofáitáthat isámore honest than Sashaĺs unquiet, often drunken mind: źSasha felt asáifásomeone had taken out all his organs, boiled them, and put them back inŚovercooked and trembly.╗
Iámust note one scene ináparticular that left meádevastated. Ináit, Sasha recalls his fatherĺs funeral. His father isátoábeáburied ináthe village soáthat his parents, Sashaĺs grandparents, can visit the grave. However, the road toáthis village isásoábad that itĺs only accessible byácar and only during the warm and dry May. Other times, you need aátractor, oráaáhorse. Sasha gets aávan driver toáagree toádrive the coffin toáthe village byánot telling him where exactly they are heading. The only other people ináthe mourning party are Sashaĺs mother and Bezletov, aáformer student ofáSashaĺs father. Asáthey set out from the town, the lightly falling snow turns into aásnowstorm. About two-thirds ofáthe way toáthe village, the car gets stuck ináthe snow. The driver refuses toágoáany farther, and Sasha and Bezletov end upádragging the heavy coffin for several hours while his mother follows with aábag ofáfood meant for the wake. AsáIáread this tragic, absurd, darkly humorous scene, Iácringed and thought: now this isáaátruly Russian funeral. The mourners, who are themselves about toáexpire from cold and exhaustion, are saved ináanáunexpectedly heartwarming fashion.
This isáaánovel ofáideas, aánovel ofáaction, and aánovel ofáheartbreak and beauty. Many might consider Sasha anáanti-hero due toáhis political beliefs and his destructive tendencies, yet itáisáundeniable that heáisátrying toáfill the well deep within himself with meaning. Toáme, that makes him aáriveting character, and with him atáthe helm, Sankya takes its place among the best coming-of-age and political novels.
Kseniya Melnik, Three Percent, 04.2014