“Sin” by Zakhar Prilepin



Zakhar Prilepin represents much of what is confusing and contradictory about contemporary Russia. And on the other hand, it’s all absolutely simple. He’s a pro-Stalinist member of the anti-Putin opposition, a writer who exposes the dark side of modern Russian life while volunteering in the army of the pro-Russian Donetsk People’s Republic. Western readers may find these apparent contradictions frustrating, just as casual readers might find the organization of this “novel,” which, like its spiritual predecessor “A Hero of Our Time,” is composed of a series of short stories arranged in non-chronological order. But what this seemingly haphazard organization reveals is not the bare bones of the main character’s life story, but the increasingly strong sucking pull of violence in his life.

The opening story, “Whatever day of the week it happens to be,” is largely a lighthearted story of young love. Wrapped up in their infatuation with each other, the main character and his “darling” feel protected from everything, so that “Nothing could touch us to the extent that it evoked any other reaction but a good, light laughter.” When they adopt some stray puppies, their bliss seems complete. But then the puppies disappear.

Suspicion falls on some tramps squatting in an old apartment building, who, the main character and his girlfriend fear, must have taken the puppies in order to eat them. The main character invades the tramps’ apartment and threatens them, but fails to find the puppies. He and his girlfriend try to reassure themselves that their puppies have not been eaten. And then one day they reappear. Everything seems idyllic again. Until someone else’s dog attacks the smallest and shyest of the puppies. The main character explodes in rage, attacking the woman’s dog and then threatening the woman herself while his dog runs away, this time for good.

This sets up the pattern for the subsequent stories, in which violence, first against animals, then against women, then against the narrator himself, is initially threatened, and then actualized. Zakhar the narrator seems to have many good things going for him, but violence keeps bursting forth, both from the outside and from within him.

War itself, however, does not appear until the penultimate section of the book, which is not another short story, but a collection of poems presented as written by the young Zakharka-the-character. There violence that has been coyly hinted out in the previous stories finally explodes into full-on mayhem, and

Plunging their nails in blood,
the entire dense army howls.
Butchery until night
or fighting since morning.

This leads the poet to speculate that:

sometimes I think:
perhaps everything happened
otherwise and what is happening now
is just tatters of post-traumatic delirium
a spatter of ruptured memory
idle running of suspended reason

Which is a good prism through which to view the previous stories. Their fragmented, disjointed, high-highs-and-low-lows nature, where everything is wonderful except that violence and death can come exploding out at you and from you from any angle, at any moment, could certainly be interpreted as “tatters of post-traumatic delirium.”

It is in the last story that we finally reach what Prilepin calls “the most powerful experience of my life”–the war in Chechnya. This time, it’s not some “Zakharka” who is the main character, but an unnamed Sergeant, who has fled to the war to escape from the mortifying realization that strikes him after the birth of his children that “he no longer had the right to die when he felt like it.” In this short but powerful story, the main character confronts not so much the brutality of war–he’s fine with that–but the question of human freedom, which he understands rather differently than many Western liberal humanists would. In the end, it’s a question that’s decided for him.

“Sin” is a short read, and much of the language is simple, so in some ways it’s a very quick and easy read (I finished it in a couple of afternoons). In others it’s highly challenging, both formally and thematically: while the violence is less graphic and over the top than your average Hollywood thriller, it is all-pervasive in its everyday hiddenness, and threatens the defenseless–puppies, kittens, women in strip clubs who have to choose between their lives and making a living–as much or more than it does the macho men who perpetrate it. Prilepin is a controversial figure (to put it mildly), and rightly so, but he has produced a highly accomplished piece of writing here, and, maybe more importantly, it may not be possible to understand contemporary Russia, and certainly not the mess currently taking place in Eastern Ukraine, where old insoluble disagreements are being played out and Chechen veterans are re-enacting their trauma once again, without reading him.

Amazon link here.

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