Russia. Russia. Russia. Ever since the Wicked Witch of the West succumbed to the Reality Circus Clown, the popular press has been serving up reconstituted Cold War propaganda, declaring that the Russian “enemy” is brainwashing us through Facebook posts and massaging our malleable minds via sexy Russian public television hostesses. Clapper, former U.S. intel head, went so far as to warn us that all Russians are genetically predisposed to lying and meddling.
Before we learn to love the idea of trying to bomb them into oblivion, let’s consider the question of the Russian Soul. Who are these people? What characteristics do they share, if any, with you and me?
U. R. Bowie offers his meditation on Russianness in an extraordinary travel log through Ultimia Thule, the farthest point, exploring dreams, lectures and diaries. Hard Mother (Ogee Zakamora, 429 pages) is a challenging novel; never boring; persistently humorous, it is organized with staggering complexity, interweaving dreams with fiction with anthropology, flashing forward, back and around. The book cover warns the reader to “keep both hands on the wheel.” Good advice.
One level takes place in 1983. The narrator Russian-American John Botkins is traveling in Soviet Russia, making journal entries that take the form of short stories. John Botkins is a jester of sorts, laughing his way out of trouble with Soviet officials.
Another level takes place in a fictional plane where 1992 happened differently than it did in our plane. John Botkins, by now Professor of Russia culture somewhere in the Midwest, and his colleague Ezra MacKenzie are kidnapped by CIA-like operatives and sent to Ultimia (aka Russia). They are sent at the request of The Shriver, a charismatic leader, who promptly causes the collapse of the Soviet Union and begins The Time of Troubles, in which every radical sectarian grouplet imaginable blossoms like mold, throwing the country into chaos, pretty much just as the CIA-like agents had hoped.
There’s a plague. A new and improved Black Death wipes out much of the world population. In 2000 or so, John, now called Ivan or Ivanushka, and Ezra, along with The Shriver, who is now King of Thule, his Queen Maggie and their entourage set out on a pilgrimage to find the meaning of life, the “Unbearable Whiteness of Being” (thank you, Kundera), which is said to be in a dove egg in a box under a tree on a mountain somewhere east of here. The troupe includes a trained bear (whose heartbreaking story can be considered the center of the novel), a mynah bird, and a midget. Along the way, they have to deal with sectarian crazies who abhor the flesh, each in his own way. Members of King’s party are distracted, delayed, beaten, circumcised, and humiliated in various villages in various ways. When they reach the end of the journey, finally they are all killed or die, all except Ezra, who makes it back to the United States (which is differently named by then, I think) and lives out the rest of his days lecturing on laughter. He finally laughs himself to death.
On another level, the year is 2021 and the intradiegetic author, Rebecca Breeze, is telling her dreams to her psychiatrist, whom she treats like a potential book reviewer, a lazy, inattentive, conventional reviewer. Her dreams are the Ultimia part of the narrative. (I think she may be 1983 John Botkins’ dream director; that is, I think he dreams everything including the dreamer.) Breeze also relates the lectures on laughter presented by Ezra as well as his reminiscences of boyhood in Idyllic1950s Florida, land of the perfect blood orange, where his sister succumbs to cancer. Et in Arcadia ego. The embedded short stories about sucking the sweet juices out of oranges also function as another center (why not?) of the novel, demonstrating the power of simple pleasures that may be nevertheless or inevitably entangled with the lingering pain of the childhood death of a sibling.
What is the novel about? The author/narrator anticipates such questions throughout the story and meta-narratively jokes about her fondness for digressions (lectures/analysis) and her reluctance to stick to the plot (the King’s quest).
When he reaches the end, having failed to complete the third volume of his trilogy, the King laughs. “He laughed not the bitter laughter of satire, so prominent in his literary works. He laughed the bubbling yeasty laughter of the literary ironist, whose light and airy game seeks not to castigate the world, not to reform man—but to embrace the God-given faults of humanity and laugh along with all seven billion carnal creatures who walk and crawl our blue-green orb.”
We realize that Hard Mother is not just about Russians. It’s about us all and it’s particularly concerned about our tendency to shift toward extremes, warring with each other and against ourselves. Why can’t we just be at peace with who and what we are? Why do we willingly trade freedom for barbed wire?
For a Russian,
“the word ‘freedom’ means wide-open spaces, vagabondage, the gypsy ethos, hard liquor, debauchery and blind sensuality, highway robbery, mobs out of control, riots, despotism….Why [wonders John Botkins] am I drawn back to a land where the very definition of freedom begins with such breathtaking exhilaration, and ends with bleak irremediable gloom? Well, I like the bread and the ice cream. They haven’t gotten around to making mass-produced plastic ice cream and bread, the way they’ve been doing in the States for years.… Maybe it’s because, for all their faults, I like the Russian people. They are, after all, quintessentially human, great lovers and great haters…”
Russians “demonstrate most perfectly the chaotic turmoil in the collective human psyche. How humanity, as presently constituted, can never ever get it right. Berdyaev also has written that ‘It was only in the nineteenth century that Russians really leaned to think.’ But they still feel a lot better than they think, like everyone else in the world.”
I am not entirely sure I’ve got the details and dates right above, but I don’t think Bowie will mind a mistake or two. This is the kind of work that wants to be read a couple of times, reinterpreted and savored. I write this after only one reading and I look forward to finding more/different treasures next time around.
I was lucky to discover this strange talented novelist because he has been contributing furiously to Dactyl Review since April of 2016. His reviews are passionate, critical, precise, spot on. I said to myself, I bet this guy knows how to write a novel. I guessed right.
–V. N. Alexander, author of Locus Amoenus, 2015.