Book Reviews · 07/11/2011

The New Moscow Philosophy by Vyacheslav Pyetsukh

Translated by Krystyna Anna Steiger


Twisted Spoon Press, 2011

One Friday evening, sometime in the late 1980s, in mid-March in Moscow, an old woman goes missing. Alexandra Sergeyevna Pumpianskaya is the oldest resident among the eleven occupants of Apartment 12 and, technically, the remaining family member of the once-lavish apartment’s original owners. Pumpianskaya’s disappearance, itself precluded by a clever metafictional musing on literature and its relationship to everyday life, opens Vyacheslav Pyetsukh’s excellent The New Moscow Philosophy.

As soon as the tongue-in-cheek narrator of the novel dispatches of old Pumpianskaya, although not without first situating her literary disappearance next to none other than a certain pawnbroker’s death by a young Raskolnikov, said narrator can then leisurely entertain the reader with an exhaustive description of the ten other apartment mates, a meticulous history of the previous occupants, and the geography and topography of the apartment itself. In this way, the first chapter of The New Moscow Philosophy manages to amass a tumble of details about twentieth century Russia while setting a tone of literary reverence mixed with a kindly irreverence to the ordinary individuals mucking their way forward in Russian society.

Apartment 12 is a mini-sampling of middle-class Moscow in the late 1980s: a writer and his pregnant wife, an aging bachelor with a fondness for preserved fruits, a divorced woman and her two children, a grandmother living with her grandson, a middle-aged pharmacologist and the building’s caretaker. Most of these characters are in some way comical—flawed and bumbling specimens of humanity—although the last two, pharmacologist Belotsvetov and caretaker Chinarikov, become a focal point for the novel’s heart. Pyetsukh sets them up in a series of lengthy conversations in which they debate whether humans are innately good or innately bad.

“Evil is elemental, like a tsunami or an earthquake, so everyday reasoning tells you that all you need is to work out the appropriate attitude toward it, as with a tsunami or an earthquake, or with anything elemental.”

“I can’t agree with that, and here’s the reason why: evil is very simple—so simple, Vasya, it’s a wonder nearly everyone doesn’t commit it! The reality is that not even close to everyone commits it, certainly not the majority, and not even close to the minority, but rather an insignificant minority. This means evil doesn’t coexist on equal terms with its opposites—good and the void—in other words, it’s unnatural, illicit!”

These heartfelt conversations run alongside what is otherwise a subtle and somewhat farcical detective story. Once it becomes clear that Pumpianskaya is missing, Belotsvetov and Chinarikov, with the help of Inspector Rybkin (who, apropos to his government position, doesn’t do much), set out to discover what has happened. That “what has happened?” isn’t just about the small world of their apartment but about Russian society at this particular juncture in its history—when the country is still working through Gorbachev’s Glasnost policies and what they would ultimately bring.

There is a wonderful layering of thematic project in this novel, deftly smoothed together by the chatty omniscient narrator. Beyond the meaning of the actual events which transpire in the apartment and Chinarikov and Belotsvetov’s philosophical examinations, the novel spends many a word on an intertextual reckoning of the complicated bond between life and literature:

That any attempt, no matter how feeble, no matter how documentary, to reconstruct reality by using the tools of literary discourse inevitably turns reality into its opposite, that is, into literature, should give pause for thought. This being the case the relationships we are looking for must be strictly obligate, perhaps even fated.

Here is another interesting observation: compared to literature, life is much more mottled, incoherent, variable, detailed, tedious. What follows is a bizarre suggestion: perhaps literature is indeed life, in other words, the ideal of its construction, the standard for all weights and measures, while so-called life comprises a sketch, avenues of approach, a blank, and in the most felicitous situations—a version. More than anything it looks as if literature, word of honour, is the fair copy and life a rough copy, and not even the most useful.

This passage (along with another on the very last page of the novel in which Pyetsukh polishes the idea even further) proclaims with unabashed joy that literature and life have become equal sources of human memory, of human thought. To a convinced reader, this is nothing extraordinary except for the thrill of the thought being written down and thus sanctioned. That a fictional conversation between Raskolnikov and Sonia might carry as much truth, or better yet, a greater, more perfect truth, than one between a real-live Russian student and his impoverished prostitute sweetheart is something all committed bibliophiles believe with something as powerful as religious faith. In literature, life is refined, perfected, distilled.

Despite the seriousness of Pyetsukh’s idea, The New Moscow Philosophy is refreshingly comical. The book’s mock-historical narrative tone is self-aware enough to both embrace and poke fun at its grand aspirations. The mystery of Pumpianskaya’s death is resolved to satisfying conclusion, as are the solemn ethical investigations of the many residents of Apartment 12.

With The New Moscow Philosophy, Twisted Spoon Press and Krystyna Anna Steiger have introduced a significant new voice to the English-reading public. Pyetsukh has a vast oeuvre available in Russian, let’s hope there are more translations to follow.

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Vyacheslav Pyetsukh is a prolific writer of both fiction and essays and one of Russia’s most published and celebrated contemporary authors. His short stories appear regularly in such leading Russian journals as Ogonek and Novy Mir. For a more complete biography, please visit his author page at Twisted Spoon Press.

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Krystyna Steiger was born and raised in Toronto. A recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, she received her PhD in Russian Literature from McGill University in Montreal, where she currently resides and works as a freelance literary translator.

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Michelle Bailat-Jones is a writer and translator living in Switzerland. Her fiction, translations and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in various journals, including Ascent, The Kenyon Review, Xenith, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Quarterly Conversation, Cerise Press and Fogged Clarity. She is the Reviews Editor here at Necessary Fiction.