It is always a pleasure to introduce Indian readers to a new novel by a writer who is not as well known in our country as he deserves to be. Vassily Aksyonov enjoys a formidable reputation as one of Russia’s leading satirical novelists, a master at capturing the poignant absurdities of his country’s dizzying post-Soviet condition. His ninth novel, The New Sweet Style, takes its title from literary Florence in the 13th century, when the dolce stil nuovo (whose most magnificent exponent was to be Dante) flourished. In a time of comparable political and spiritual ferment, Aksyonov implies, he too has evolved a new sweet style to depict and transcend the world he lives in. It is a conceit this clever but flawed novel never quite manages to justify; but Aksyonov gives the reader a great deal of fun in the attempt.
Aksyonov’s principal protagonist is Sasha Korbach, a dissident Russian theatre impresario, director and actor, the leading spirit of a counter-cultural Moscow troupe called the Buffoons, who emigrates in 1982 to the United States.
Korbach is a curious protagonist, a disoriented figure wandering cluelessly through the American maze. This may well reflect some of the numbing effects of emigration, but it saddles us with an unmotivated cardboard cutout of a hero, ready to do whatever his creator decides.
Korbach arrives in New York without any fanfare and falls in with the Russian emigre‚ underclass of the city, sitting ‘‘for entire evenings around cramped tables among engineers working as unskilled laborers, doctors who could not get their Soviet qualifications accepted, journalists, lawyers and university lecturers who had become masseurs, waiters, pretzel vendors, T-shirt printers’’. One evening, while overcome by his own insignificance, he sees his name up in lights in Times Square: Alexander Korbach, it turns out, is a major department store chain. He goes in, revealing his name to the manager, who in turn brings him to the attention of the Korbach patriarch, the larger-than-life Stanley.
It takes Stanley a while to track Sasha down, for Korbach moves to California and finds work as a parking lot attendant. Since he is famous in various international circles, having flown to the US on a special visa, it is never clear why Sasha doesn’t simply go on to work in the theatre, but then Aksyonov’s characters rarely seem to be motivated by predictable or rational calculations. ‘‘Not everything is complicated here,’’ Sasha Korbach thinks early on, ‘‘you’ve just got to fumble around until you find the key to the secrets’’.
But Aksyonov obliges him to do a lot more fumbling than is credibly necessary, including bafflingly financing a transcontinental affair by selling drugs out of his parking lot. That affair, with Stanley’s older daughter, the beautiful and wanton (and married) Nora Mansour, is a maddeningly elusive relationship, punctuated by inexplicably long absences, mutual infidelities and absurd misunderstandings, all made a mockery of by the too-pat resolution. Halfway through the novel, the affair founders, and it takes Aksyonov another two hundred pages to bring the lovers together again.
Meanwhile, the novel revels in the billionaire Stanley, who is known for his periodic disappearances, the fourth of which occurs in this novel. His clash with the partner and rival who is cuckolding him, Norman Blamsdale, becomes more and more bizarre, until the ‘‘Battle of Norman and Stanley’’ takes on epic military proportions in the second half of the novel, with a surreal battle raging around Carnegie Hall in New York while 57th Street hums with the bustle of shopping and tourism.
The New Sweet Style begins more or less as a realist novel with a faint touch of absurdism, then becomes less and less realist as it unfolds. Vivid descriptions of real scenery and places occasionally and inexplicably give way to locales in non-existent places. The curious unevenness of narrative is all the more striking when certain set-pieces stand out — an intensely-felt, precisely-rendered realist account of the events around the Moscow ‘‘White House’’ on the nights of August 19-21 , 1991, when the unsuccessful coup against Gorbachev was mounted; or the stunning, fantastical concluding section where all the novel’s various characters converge in Israel, where the mummified body of their common ancestor has been found.
Aksyonov is a prodigiously inventive writer, with a vivid and fertile imagination and a lust for the lives of his characters. Indeed, like sprawling Russian novels of old, this one is replete with characters. While it is often impossible to be unaware one is reading a translation, some phrases leap out in any language: a woman’s ‘‘sky blue hair is flying in the wind like the flag of the United Nations’’. Or, marvellously: ‘‘She had the sad gaze of a woman with a past worth remembering.’’
But Aksyonov is not an undemanding writer. There are abrupt shifts between first person and third person narrative forms, often in successive paragraphs, and baffling changes in perspective. The ups-and-downs of the narrative are leavened with frequent asides to the reader: at one point the author even exclaims, ‘‘Whew, what a paragraph!’’ The literary self-consciousness often seems an end in itself. The result is a curiously lumpy, uneven, discursive and inconsistent work, full of breathtaking delights and frustrating digressions. At one point Aksyonov acknowledges the unreasonableness of what The New Sweet Style is doing to its readers: ‘‘another wave of authorial arbitrariness is rising, the tired reader will say’’.
But then — in a passage freely confessing that all his female characters are impossibly beautiful — he has already reminded the male reader ‘‘that he is the co-author of a work of prose, and if he has a need for realism, then he can lengthen the noses of our heroines, or make their ears stick out’’. So there you have it — an interactive satire for our post-modernist times!