“The Monastery” (Обитель) by Zakhar Prilepin

The Monastery

Obitel

Zakhar Prilepin

“Humanity is dark and terrifying, but the world is human and warm.”

So ends Zakhar Prilepin’s massive historical novel “The Monastery” (Обитель), about the Solovki monastery-turned-prison-camp, the seed of the GULAG system. Following the fortunes of Artyom Goryainov, a prisoner in the camp, the novel charts all the aspects of prison life as Artyom floats back and forth between stunning good fortune and deadly danger.

“The Monastery” is in the tradition of enormous Russian novels–my hardback copy weighs in at a respectable 746 pages–and is no quick, light read. Indeed, the slack Western reader may wonder what the point of the whole thing, although since it’s not available in English, slack Western readers are unlikely to read it. The book is framed with historical background given by the author, who presents it as a story inspired by his grandfather’s own time served at Solovki. How much truth there is in that I don’t know: the line between autobiography and fiction in Zakhar Prilepin’s work is nearly nonexistent.

In any case, Artyom’s story is one of wild reversals of fate that will leave the reader gasping in shock or scratching their head in puzzlement and frustration as to why anyone would act like that. On the continuum from spontaneity to consciousness, Artyom is the quintessential “spontaneous” character, who acts without thinking, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. Even his final action in the novel, one that seems to mark him as hero, is curiously unmotivated.

This is not to say that Artyom’s character is poorly drawn. Quite the reverse. It’s just that, while he spends a fair amount of time in rumination, he can never predict or explain his own actions. He, like the book and all its characters, is caught up in something much bigger than his own small self. Characters like Galya, the female Chekist who in fact triggers and organizes much of the action–it should be noted that Galya not only holds a position of temporal power, but is also highly competent and decisive, much more so than the male characters–who try to direct events end up being directed by them just as much as Artyom. The Revolution was a wild beast because it was the work of the wildest beasts of all: humans.

And that is where the book ultimately leads us: to the human soul. All of Artyom’s wanderings are there not to take us to any particular physical or logical location, but to the understanding that, indeed, humanity is dark and terrifying, even if the world can be human and warm.

Amazon link here.

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