In 2012 an unlikely book exploded bestseller charts in Russia, easily outselling its close competitors. It is a collection of stories about life of the Russian Orthodox Church called Everyday Saints and other stories. In some of these, the author, Arkhimandrit Tikhon, described his path of becoming a clergyman and his early life in the Pskov-Pechora monastery. Parables and sermons are a usual part of such books, which are quite abundant in Russia. So what made Everyday Saints stand out? Arkhimandrit Tikhon gives us a clear and authentic portrayal of the monastery life with humour, drama, a very human perspective. In fact, some stories of the clergymen here are told in quite an unvarnished way. They often contain angry outbursts, foul language; they seem almost anti-religious.
The literary establishment regarded the author’s prose with a high esteem too, pointing out logical and elegant structure of these stories. A writer Alexander Prokhanov even called the book’s genre monastery prose. Everyday Saints are now available in translation in many languages, including French, Polish, German and Chinese.
Now imagine a story collection about the Russian Church yet written by a philologist and literary critic. There is one and it is Maya Kucherskaya’s Faith and Humour. It was quite a bold decision to write and publish it, knowing the daunting and opinionated Russian readership. Behind all the humour, sometimes very black, there is genuine sincerity and appreciation of the church life here.
In one of the stories, The Good Man, Kucherskaya features different priests: one – alcoholic, another – nonbeliever, there’s a thief, homophob, misanthropist, there is also a saint. Many of these miniatures are parables with a real life story behind it. For instance, there is one about an Orthodox hedgehog that was baptizing a squirrel, and it drowned. Russian Church in Kucherskaya’s stories is diverse and complex as life itself. Many considered the book’s humour is rather poisonous, I think it’s therapeutic. Perhaps, Kucherskaya simply shows that faith should not be equaled to people of faith who may sin like everybody else. A job in a church institution doesn’t make one a saint or superior human being.
Quite a different view on religion is presented in Ludmila Ulitskaya’s Daniel Stein, Interpreter. Daniel Stein was a Polish Jew who survived Holocaust by working as an interpreter for the Gestapo and after the war he moved to Israel and became a priest. What a life! The book can be considered as a fictionalized biography, as it is based on the real-life Carmelite priest. Here one can find some curious interpretations of Biblical myths and, of course, Holocaust is also discussed. The novel is mainly about people who met Brother Daniel and stories of their scarred lives.
A theme of faith is touched in Evgeny Vodolazkin’s award-winning Laurus. Set in a medieval Russia, this story tells a spiritual journey of a healer aiming to live the life for his late beloved he couldn’t save. Initially prompted to act by guilt and need for self-sacrifice to atone his sin, Laurus goes on helping people out of love and confession. This is a story of a Russian saint. An Italian translation of this novel titled Lauro is available now.
Post-Soviet Russia is an eclectic spiritual space. Officially dominated by the Orthodox Church, the country nevertheless is still very much a realm of atheism, the Soviet legacy. And what religion would find such soil fertile, – an atheistic one. Buddhism is popular not just in Russia, for it gives every person a chance for enlightenment, a chance to reach nirvana and become a superhuman, a God.
Of all modern writers, Victor Pelevin has probably done the most to adapt Buddhism to Russian mentality. The critics even say that the author’s interpretation of it is very much wrong. In Buddha’s Little Finger and The Sacred Book of the Werewolf, Russian history and politics in relation to life of ordinary person are viewed through the prism of Buddhism and Russian humor. I can only guess to what extent either of those can be translated into another language.
In Pelevin’s yet-to-be-translated novel called t, a metaphysical detective story featuring Count Tolstoy as a main hero and a sleuth, literature itself becomes an object of philosophical dissection with the tools being Zen Buddhist and Confucian doctrines. Pelevin doesn’t take religion too seriously though; maybe this is what makes him very Russian. How one can take life, this bizarre thing, so seriously?
Check out this quote from t,
Our mind is a crazy monkey, running towards profundity. And the thought that our mind is a crazy monkey, running towards profundity, is nothing else but a skittish attempt of the monkey to correct her hairdo on the way to the abyss.
If this is too deep for some, there is always another Russian mean to reach enlightenment, which doesn’t require much intelligence, – vodka.
Perhaps, you’ve noticed I’ve recently started surveying new Russian books in a systematic manner. These are the ‘sneaky peek’ materials, taken from my upcoming The Reader’s Mini-Guide to Modern Russian Literature, which I’m busy editing at the moment. I plan to release a beta-version of it to my blog subscribers in a few weeks time, so you will all have an opportunity to read it and suggest things for the final version, which will be released early next year. The print edition will be launched at the next London Book Fair. So, if you haven’t subscribed yet, this is good time to do so (in top left corner of the page under my photo) and receive this free guide first amongst other readers.
update: The Reader’s Mini Guide to Modern Russian Books is out now on Amazon Kindle/paperback here.