Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Book 168, Transnistria: "Siberian Education" by Nicolai Lilin

Yup, we're doing another contested nation: Transnistria, aka the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic! The UN claims it's part of Moldova, and only three other contested states recognise it: Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh. (Lord knows if I'll be able to find literature from or about those nations.)

But you know what? I'm hella glad I tried to find an author from this country that doesn't even send delegates to Miss Universe, because Siberian Education is pretty damn amazing.

It's a memoir (with admitted creative licence) written by a young writer who grew up in the organised criminal society of Bender, descended from gangsters and other outcasts deported to Siberia during the Soviet Union. He describes its intricate culture, with all its codes of honour and formality about guns and crucifixes and taboos against speaking directly to cops and its own effing criminal language—a culture which makes rival gangs, such as the oft-maligned Black Seed, seem like barbarians in comparison.

There’s several chapters to this story, detailing the gifting of his ceremonial pike (switchblade) at the age of six, his harrowing journey into enemy territory on his thirteenth birthday, a stint in a filthy juvenile detention facility, a teenage mission into other neighbourhoods to destroy the perpetrators of the rape of a neurodivergent girl (he claims that his society always respected the crazy and disabled as God’s children)—and it’s not in strict chronological order because he keeps diverging into other memories and family legends and folktales before returning to the main thread, Arabian Nights style, so that the whole thing’s a series of nested matryoshka-style tales. It’s really incredibly well told.

…In fact, the whole thing may be a little too incredible, full stop. He does come across as a bit of an all-star Mary Sue, an excellent fighter with a natural brain for poetry and archaic religious Russian, not to mention his phenomenal skills as a tattoo artist (which are legit; Lilin runs a tattoo parlour IRL). And Donald Rayfield, a professor of Russian and Georgian, straight-up calls the whole thing "a fantasist's ravings". Huge factual holes are being found in Lilin's sequel to this book, Free Fall: A Sniper's Story, about his military service in Chechnya—and the odd thing is, Lilin replies to most of these objections with an admission that he made most of it up for literary effect.

So how much of the core of these tales is true? Maybe not much—he wrote these tales in Italy, in the Italian language, far from his hometown, and he says that the Moldovan invasion's destroyed the society he documented. So there aren't that many people around who can directly contradict him.

And told up—upon further Googling, I've discovered that the book was never translated into Russian (although it was into about 40 other languages) and has been dismissed by a Russian journalist as a hoax. And even after that hullabaloo,  a 2013 film was made. Now I'm starting to wonder if Lilin actually is Transnistrian.

Ah well, it's still a hell of a book. If nothing else, it's a tale of what happens on the fringes of Russian culture, making it clear that the former Soviet Union was never as united as it seemed, with huge rivalries between those from the western, Moscow and St Petersburg-dominated side and Georgians, Armenians, Ukrainians and—of course—the Siberians. Makes you wonder about that upcoming superhero movie, Guardians, with heroes from different former republics, including a bear-man from Siberia. Would they all really have been friends?

Representative quote: "And now tell me why we should trust those who have spent their whole lives killing our brothers, locking us up in prison, torturing us and treating us as if we didn't belong to the human race? How is it possible, tell me, to trust those who live thanks to our deaths? Cops are different from the rest of humanity, because they have an innate desire to serve, to have an employer. They don't understand anything about freedom, and they're scared of free men."

Next book: Herta Müller's The Land of Green Plums, from Romania.