Victor Sonkin

Friday, May 26, 2006. Issue 3419. Page 104.


Zakhar Prilepin, a young writer from Nizhny Novgorod, a Chechnya veteran and a member of Eduard Limonov's radical National Bolshevik Party, has had his second novel, "Sankya," shortlisted for the prestigious National Bestseller award.

"Sankya" is the village nickname of the novel's hero, otherwise known as Sasha. Sasha belongs to a fringe political group led by the charismatic Kostenko, who is in jail on a fabricated firearms charge. As Kostenko serves out his sentence, his followers -- mostly young, testosterone-pumped men and delicate, ethereal girls -- wreak havoc in Moscow and stage flashy, though harmless, stunts in Latvia. Prilepin convincingly shows that such seemingly senseless actions require real guts, because police often respond to them violently, sending young offenders to jail or just beating the living daylights out of them. But the activists' worst nightmares come true only after one of them, a girl called Yana who happens to be Kostenko's lover and Sasha's romantic interest, throws a bag of stale ketchup, pasta and vegetables at Russia's president. After that, the authorities shed all pretenses of legality and start killing off the party's leaders one by one.

The novel interweaves three threads. One depicts fights, chases and showdowns with the police. I have not read anything written with such vigor in a while; this is really the book's strong point. Another thread consists of political discussions between Sasha, his friends and their political antagonists, who are unconvincing and two-dimensional. The third thread goes into Sasha's roots. And this is where it gets scary: Sasha's relatives, and by proxy all of Russia -- for Sasha aspires to be a new national hero -- are aimless alcoholics, or at best, mute and patient nobodies. Sasha and his comrades drink a lot, too.

Booze and violence: That just about sums up Sasha and his politics. Although the author tried to give his hero an ideology, intellect is not Sasha's strong suit, and the book's "political" conversations are like most Russian political conversations: dull, circular and uninformed. Burning down McDonald's is the most creative thing that Sasha's friends ever do.

Politics aside, it cannot be denied that "Sankya" is the work of a very confident writer with an eye for detail. But we can't leave out the politics altogether -- and the fact that Sasha and his friends are about the only people in Russia who dare to resist the authorities is perhaps the scariest feature of today's political landscape.

«The Moscow Times»

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