Three Percent review

When Sankya was published inRussia in2006, itbecame asensation. Itwon the Yasnaya Polyana Award (bestowed bydirect descendants ofLeo Tolstoy) and was shortlisted for the Russian Booker and the National Bestseller Award. Every member ofthe cultural elite had anopinion onit. There was even ahatchet job bythe president ofRussias largest commercial bank; the banker-cum-critic received anavalanche ofresponses rebuking his review. Many reviewers disagreed with the Prilepins political beliefs, but acknowledged that the novel isaliterary masterpiece. Already widely translated inEurope, this book struck araw nerve, tosay the least. The timely English edition, featuring anexcellent translation byMariya Gusev and Jeff Parker (with Alina Ryabovolova), and aheartfelt forward byAlexey Navalny, aRussian anti-corruption activist, will introduce America toaunique talent aswell asthe kind ofRussia very few foreigners have seen. For the soul ofthe country isnever inthe news headlines; itisinliterature. Sankya succeeds brilliantly inplunging the reader into the psyche ofthe young people onthe fringes ofthe success story Russia projected tothe world during the Sochi Olympics.

Twenty-two-year-old Sasha Tishinor Sankya, ashis grandmother calls himand his friends are members ofthe Founders, anextremist right-wing group loosely based onthe now-banned National Bolsheviks. The Founders want totear down the corrupt government, destroy Western-style capitalism, and build abetter countryone based ondignity, onideals, one close tothe soil, something like the Soviet Union but not quite, not sobureaucratic. Ifthat sounds vague, its because inthe beginning the Founders dont have aplan 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 ofjail hardly scares Sasha. Hewill surviveit, hethinks, because hed survived his mandatory army service, anotoriously harsh ordeal inRussia.

Sasha returns tohis small, dreary town, visits his grandparents inthe dying village ofhis childhood, then goes toMoscow again, tohang out inthe bunker, the Founders headquarters, and shyly court Yana, the rumored lover oftheir jailed leader. Sometimes hejust meanders the streets ashis thoughts meander inhis head. What todo? Where togo? Sashas father had died ayear and ahalf before the novels opens; his father was the last ofthree brothers tosuccumb toalcoholism, and alcohol isacentral character inthe novel: acomforter, afriend, anagitator, and atruth-teller. Sashas mother, tired, like every Russian woman who had been alive for more than half acentury, works long shifts. The only jobs Sasha had been able tofind are physically draining: loader, construction worker. Yet, Sasha isnot simply the drunken hoodlum hemay appear toapasserby. HeisHolden Caulfield with aMolotov cocktail, atonce aggressive and vulnerable, tender (especially when itcomes tohis mother) and rude, self-possessed and romantic. But apathetic heisnot. Just asthe novel asks the big questionsWhat isour country? What isour history?Sasha constantly interrogates himself: Who amI? . . . AmIbad? Kind? Hopeful? Hopeless? Sometimes, hehas dialogue with avoice inside his head. These conversations and the way Sasha sees the world are very interesting.

The Founders stage anaction inRiga toprotest the imprisonment ofseventeen elderly Red Army veterans byLatvian authorities oncharges offoreign occupation. Though Sasha doesnt participate, heispicked upinMoscow and istortured for information. Hebarely survives but isproud tonot have cracked. The plot complicates when Sasha istasked with assassinating the Riga judge who sentenced his Founders comrades tofifteen-year sentences for the nonviolent Riga protest. Fittingly, its not the surprising outcome ofSashas assignment, but rather Yanas success atemptying abag ofslop onthe Russian presidents head inMoscow that sets off afull-scale war between the authorities and the Founders. Sasha takes aprominent role inthe battle inhis hometown, leading agroup ofassorted Founders (aformer member ofthe special police, adrug addict, and several skinny, impassioned youths) tothe limit ofopposition and the edge ofreason.

Prilepin, who has served inspecial police forces aswell inthe Russian military inChechnya before becoming one ofthe leaders ofthe National Bolshevik group and getting arrested more than 150times, clearly draws from his own experience. But the novel isnot apolemic; itisapiece ofart. Itlooks long and hard into the darkest crevasses ofthe consciousness ofthe young people stuck between eras, the young people who must beunderstood rather than dismissed ifthe country istomove forward. There are several instances where Sasha gets into heated discussions about Russias future and ischallenged toformulate and defend his philosophy.

And how does this new-well-forgotten-old society contradict the idea ofthe nations future that irks you somuch? Sasha asks Lev, his roommate atthe hospital, where Sasha isrecovering from his beating.

Because the idea ofthe nations future, Sasha, has been slipped toyou bythe angry and slovenly Slavophiles and contradicts anthropology. Itcontradicts evolution! Its this idea that perpetuates the eternal circle wejust discussed-from violence tochaos.

Later Sasha says: But Idont live inRussia. Im trying tobring her back. She was taken away fromme, and Lev replies: Some executioners took Russia away from other executioners. And noone knows which ofthe executioners isthe better. The current ones let you live, atleast.

These passages continue the dialogue that has been going oninRussian literature for centuries, with notable contributions from Ivan Turgenev inFathers and Sons onthe topic ofWesterners vs. Slavophiles toWhat IstoBeDone?, Nikolai Chernyshevskys response toTurgenev, and ontoLev Tolstoys own What IstoBeDone? During most ofthe twentieth century, when Soviet literature was censored, the dialogue proceeded underground, inChronicle ofCurrent Events, along-running samizdat periodical, and inbooks byRussian writers inexile abroad, such asAlexander Solzhenitsyn.

But itisnot somuch Prilepins engagement with politics that compels comparisons tothe Russian greatsone prominent Russian critic called him the next Gorkyit ishis language and his ability tovividly portray everyday life. Prilepin imbues everything with its own mood and secret history. Heres how hedescribes the dying village ofSashas childhood:

Like apockmarked, hardened, dark ice floe, ithad separated from the shore and was drifting away quietly . . . Farther along were the stables, where Granny hadnt kept agoat for the past year, nopigs for three, and ten years since Domanka the cow was led away onher last walk. The stables emitted noscents oflife, nomanure smell. Not asingle furry soul shuffled its hoovesnothing chewed, breathed noisily, nothing was frightened bySashas steps. Only the smell ofrot and dirt.

Prilepin applies anequally nuanced and sensitive brush tohis portraits ofpeople. Interestingly, atplaces anauthorial voice peeps from behind the third-person narrator close toSasha: Hesat inthe corner, slept sittingup, deeply, easilyyoung bones dont care where they are thrown. However they fall, sobeit. Inthe middle ofSashas love scene with Yana, anepisode that would not benominated for one ofthose gleefully beloved worst-sex-scene contests, Prilepin writes: She lay there, panting, quivering like asmooth lizard, some little-known, regal breed. Perhaps some kind oflunar lizard. Hepays vigilant attention toSashas inner life, often introducing passages ofintrospection inaway that would besneered atinsome MFA workshops. Here isSasha inthe hospital, recovering after the beating: asudden realization simply descended upon him . . . Atthe same time, the author isalways alert toSashas physical body, the persistent sentience ofitthat ismore honest than Sashas unquiet, often drunken mind: Sasha felt asifsomeone had taken out all his organs, boiled them, and put them back inovercooked and trembly.

Imust note one scene inparticular that left medevastated. Init, Sasha recalls his fathers funeral. His father istobeburied inthe village sothat his parents, Sashas grandparents, can visit the grave. However, the road tothis village issobad that its only accessible bycar and only during the warm and dry May. Other times, you need atractor, orahorse. Sasha gets avan driver toagree todrive the coffin tothe village bynot telling him where exactly they are heading. The only other people inthe mourning party are Sashas mother and Bezletov, aformer student ofSashas father. Asthey set out from the town, the lightly falling snow turns into asnowstorm. About two-thirds ofthe way tothe village, the car gets stuck inthe snow. The driver refuses togoany farther, and Sasha and Bezletov end updragging the heavy coffin for several hours while his mother follows with abag offood meant for the wake. AsIread this tragic, absurd, darkly humorous scene, Icringed and thought: now this isatruly Russian funeral. The mourners, who are themselves about toexpire from cold and exhaustion, are saved inanunexpectedly heartwarming fashion.

This isanovel ofideas, anovel ofaction, and anovel ofheartbreak and beauty. Many might consider Sasha ananti-hero due tohis political beliefs and his destructive tendencies, yet itisundeniable that heistrying tofill the well deep within himself with meaning. Tome, that makes him ariveting character, and with him atthe helm, Sankya takes its place among the best coming-of-age and political novels.

Kseniya Melnik, Three Percent, 04.2014