“Asan wants money. Asan wants blood.”
Within the emerging genre of “Chechen,” as in referring to the recent Chechen wars, prose, Vladimir Makanin’s “Asan” has engendered controversy. To a field zealously guarded by its veterans, the non-veteran Makanin has contributed two works: the novella “Caucasian Captive” (Кавказский пленный) and now the novel “Asan.” And to add insult to injury, if you believe that only those with lived experience can write about something, his works have received widespread acclaim and recognition, such that “Caucasian Captive” was adapted for the screen in Aleksey Uchitel’s 2008 film “Captive” (Пленный).
The poster for Aleksey Uchitel’s “Captive,” which you can stream on Amazon Video.
And it must be said that Makanin’s work deserves the acclaim it has received. Makanin appears to have done his homework, as the books have that ring of authenticity, at least as far as an outsider can tell–“Asan” strikes me as just as realistic and fully realized as, for example, Zakhar Prilepin’s “Pathologies” (Паталогии), a novel inspired by the author’s own experiences as an OMON officer deployed in the North Caucasus during the wars there.
Where Makanin’s work differs from that being produced by many veterans is its polish and literary quality. Which is not to say that authors such as Prilepin, Babchenko, Karasyov, Shurygin, and–on the Chechen side–Eldin are not producing works worth reading, but they for the most part are still young for prose authors, writing in order to process traumatic events they have experienced. While their work is in some ways highly literary, with their education in classical Russian literature, not to mention religious education in the cases of Prilepin and Eldin, fully evident, Makanin’s prose has the depth of distance and maturity to it. Unlike the veteran-authors who are attempting to convey what they paradoxically often claim to be unconveyable, the pain and trauma of having been in combat, and whose prose tends to be highly wrought, Makanin’s writing has the removed-yet-intimate quality of some of Tolstoy’s more famous works.
The reference to Tolstoy is not accidental, as both of Makanin’s “Chechen” works are obviously playing off of Tolstoy’s “Prisoner of the Caucasus” (Кавказский пленник). The connection is obvious in “Caucasian Captive,” which takes the basic plot of Pushkin, Lermontov, and Tolstoy’s works of the same name and inverts it. “Asan” is less obviously a reworking of Tolstoy’s little masterpiece, except for one detail: the main character of “Asan” is a Major Zhilin, thus sharing the same last name with Tolstoy’s Russian officer in “Prisoner of the Caucasus,” as well as the young Private Zhilin portrayed by Sergey Bodrov Jr. in the 1996 film “Prisoner of the Mountains” (Кавказский пленник in the original).
Sergei Bodrov Jr. (left) and Oleg Menshikov (right) being chained up by their captors in “Prisoner of the Mountains.”
Major Zhilin’s captivity is less overt than that of Tolstoy’s–or Bodrov’s–character, but he, too, is in many ways a captive of the Caucasus. He finds himself running a supply depot during both the first and second wars, supplying the Russian troops with fuel–and running his own little business on the side. A basically honest man, Major Zhilin is still one of those corrupt officers who used the war to make money for themselves, something that enables him to protect injured or runaway soldiers, and help desperate mothers ransom their sons who have been captured by Chechen forces. Is Major Zhilin a self-centered schemer, or a modern-day Russian Robin Hood? A bit of both, it seems.
Like most “Chechen” works, “Asan” is at its heart a tragedy, and full of the brutal details of the Chechen wars, where there were no real good guys; rape, pillage, torture, and murder were all commonplace; and even support officers in the rear could find themselves held at gunpoint or pawing through piles of dismembered corpses. But it juxtaposes that brutality with flashes of lyricism and heartfelt sympathy for the people caught up in the war. In the novel, Asan is both the name of a bloodthirsty mythological figure and of a person trying to do the most good he can in bad circumstances, and maybe stay alive against the odds. While the book has, to the best of my knowledge, not yet been translated into English, readers interested in contemporary Russian prose or contemporary war prose should seek out its Russian, Spanish, Polish, or Dutch (??) editions if they can. Asan wants both blood and money, and he also wants to live.