In the harsh winter of 1895, Tolstoy wrote a story called “Master and Man,” which tells of a merchant named Brekhunov who, on a day that threatens a blizzard, orders his servant Nikita to take him to purchase a grove from a fellow landowner before a rival bidder can beat him to it:
Sometimes they got onto a winter-rye field, or a fallow field on which they could see stalks of wormwood, and straws sticking up through the snow and swaying in the wind; sometimes they came onto deep and even white snow, above which nothing was to be seen.
After various troubles with the horse and sledge, master and man (Tolstoy’s “robotnik” is actually closer to “worker”) become lost. With Nikita suffering from hypothermia, they stop to get their bearings: “The thought that he might, and very probably would, die that night occurred to [Nikita], but did not seem particularly unpleasant or dreadful.” Brekhunov takes the reins, abandons Nikita, and rides on, only to get turned around in concentric circles and return, by chance, divine or otherwise, to the site of his suffering retainer, splayed prone on the wastes and barely conscious. As much to forestall his terror as to repent of his guilt, Brekhunov lies atop Nikita’s body, to warm as much as to be warmed. The next morning, Brekhunov is “a frozen carcass,” but Nikita has survived, and is rescued by peasants from a nearby estate, who take him to the hospital, where three of his toes are amputated — one for the Father, one for the Son, and one for the Holy Ghost, presumably.
Vladimir Sorokin, the translatosphere’s favorite contemporary Russian novelist, writes about, and with the pitilessness of, his country’s unremitting cold. In his first novel, The Queue (1985), Russia appears as an interminable line of interchangeable comrades, all waiting out in the gusts for a government office to open, or for ration coupons, or for theater tickets, or, most likely, for nothing at all. In his most famous set of novels, the Ice trilogy (2002–5), the impact of a meteorite in Siberia brings on the Bolshevik Revolution and, as if in aftershock, a near-futuristic rapture. His new novel, The Blizzard (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $23), published in Russian in 2010, is a crazed fantasia on Tolstoy’s tale, with all the moralizing ingeniously whited out.
Sorokin’s storm descends on an absurdist 1895 equipped with smartphones and beset by “the Bolivian plague”: in the village of Dolgoye, corpses are crawling out of cemeteries, while the living are becoming zombies who desecrate churches. Sorokin’s master is Platon Ilich Garin, a district doctor who possesses a vaccine. The man is Crouper, who possesses a sleigh and fifty miniature horses. The weather is predictable: “flakes the size of oats.” Garin is a classic incarnation of the prerevolutionary liberal spirit, a cultured, chain-smoking, pince-nez’d neurotic who is utterly devoted to making the hazardous winter’s journey to relieve the afflicted, on the condition that a comfy izba, with a comfy bed (and perhaps a miller’s wenchy wife “to plow”), may be found en route. Crouper, for his part, is a classic Russian drunk, though vodka is the least of the substances he encounters. There’s Vishnevsky Ointment+Protogen 17W, which can bind wounds and even a shattered sleigh runner, and Metalgin, which Garin uses to resuscitate a comatose Vitaminder — Sorokin’s term for a tribe of Kazakh junkies who roam on snowmobiles dealing their own vaporizable product in a trinity of strains: cube, sphere, pyramid. The doctor indulges in the lattermost, and the hallucinations he experiences are worthy of a Dostoevsky character coming to Christ by way of crystal meth.
This trip within the trip turns Garin into an addict, though Crouper seems none the wiser and cheerily patters on in an ersatz Cockney that is translator Jamey Gambrell’s shrewd homage to Constance Garnett: “No one’d believe it, if’n we told ’em, yur ’onor.” As the twosome, with their midget roans, approach the dead souls of Dolgoye — which in Russian means “long” — so does the reader approach the etiology of that “blasted epidemic, brought to Russia by some swine from a far-off, godforsaken, goddamned Bolivia.” Which is to say, the snow that swirls on nearly every page has become the organic version of not a few benumbing synthetic powders — sometimes slowing the travelers like heroin, sometimes speeding them like cocaine, the analgesic of choice for both the pre- and post-Soviet bourgeoisie. Sorokin’s ending swerves from Tolstoy’s, by refusing the high road of didactic idealism for the low road of reality: the workingman is the one who dies, while the drug-addled master of the culture class is rescued by peasants from China.
What the chilling steppe is to Sorokin, the hot swamp is to Rafael Chirbes: the inhospitable symbol of his nation, and of his work. The Russian freezes his emotions, the Spaniard lets them rot. Chirbes was born in Valencia in 1949, and died this past summer of lung cancer, leaving behind ten novels and four volumes of essays that have been acclaimed and reviled in the Hispanophone world. Or rather, they have been acclaimed for their revulsion — at the desecration of Europe by the E.U., at Spain’s abasement of itself and of the Maghreb. ON the Edge (New Directions, $18.95), published in Spanish in 2013 and immediately declared Chirbes’s masterpiece, is the first novel of his to have reached the shores of English, and arrives as a message in a bottle among all the cans, rusting appliances, and tangled tackle.
In 2010, in the seaside town of Olba, the fumes of the lagoon mix with the lingering sulfur of the Atocha railway-station bombing; the Spanish economy has all but collapsed. The construction sites stand idle, and each foundation pit dug out of the muck now seems like the grave of neoliberalism. Natives vie with foreigners for whatever jobs remain: la crisis is even worse in Arabic. The book opens with Ahmed Ouallahi, a Moroccan laborer, fishing for his supper in the lagoon — “an unhealthy, fetid place, stagnant water that can’t be trusted, liquid that grows warm and putrid in the spring sun and is only washed clean again when the first cold drops of rain fall in the autumn.” About to cast his net, he finds a severed human hand, which points the way to three bodies half-buried in the pollution — and the beginnings of a plot:
Probably immigrants like him, people just passing through, or maybe mafiosi fallen victim to some settling of scores: Moroccans, Colombians, Russians, Ukrainians, Romanians. Perhaps a couple of prostitutes, their throats cut by their pimps, women nobody will take the trouble to look for.
Who, or what, is to blame for these murders? Chirbes’s novel accuses everyone, from Barcelona financiers to Brussels bureaucrats. At the center of the investigation is a family without a mother. One son, Germán, who before his death was an underemployed mechanic, fixed things; Juan, a failed entrepreneur, sells things; the third son, Esteban, an unemployed carpenter and the novel’s principal narrator, makes things, or did. He’s also the sole caretaker of his father, an elderly mute who was imprisoned for his soft socialism during Franco’s regime and now contents himself with providing incontinent commentary in italics. A prodigal sister sends letters with photos of her own children, like reminders to pay a bill: the meek may inherit the earth, but they always get screwed out of the real estate and the furniture. As for Esteban’s own assets, they were invested, and lost, in a property-development scheme perpetrated by a childhood friend who’s now on the lam from creditors and the Moldovan — or maybe the Bulgarian — mob. Esteban wastes what’s left on whores and low-stakes tute. The whores he picks up on the roadside, the tute he plays in a pickup game at Bar Castañer, where the news is either Merkel’s austerity or Muslim rage. When Ahmed is reintroduced as Esteban’s former assistant, the tides begin to turn, in a brackish confluence of chronologies and regrets:
In its neglected state, the marsh restores some sense of privacy to me, makes me think of the “houses” we used to build as children to shield us from the eyes of our elders, places safe from prying adult eyes, where we could set up our own system of laws, play more or less forbidden games under the tablecloth, under the bed, or inside a large wardrobe. In the marsh, you can create your own world outside the real one.
The Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik conjured her own world from the dark: “The night closes in like water over a stone,” “The night is shaped like a howling wolf,” “The night in your mask carries bolts of lightning,” “On this night in this world / where anything is possible / except for / a poem.” Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962–1972 (New Directions, $18.95), the first comprehensive English-language collection of Pizarnik’s work, is a book to be read by the light of a single swinging bulb.
Pizarnik was born to Russian Jewish refugees in Buenos Aires in 1936, and she died there, of a deliberate overdose of Seconal, in 1972. Her brief life was dedicated to study and shame: Universidad de Buenos Aires, the Sorbonne, journalism, chapbooks. She was a depressive insomniac who spoke Spanish with a Yiddish accent and a stutter. Paris was a bright spot: she spent four years there in the Sixties, translating Aimé Césaire (who championed Négritude) and Henri Michaux (who championed mescaline), and carousing with feminists and Octavio Paz. On a cursory read her work can seem to evanesce, in that purple-prose-poetry haze that attends the work of even the most talented devotees of Baudelaire, Nerval, Rimbaud, Verlaine — along with anyone enamored of the wayward rage of Artaud and the cruel morbidities of Lautréamont. But to bear down on Pizarnik’s scant lines is to find their essential rigor: nothing is brittle, nothing breaks. The continental perfumes have all been diffused to bare the corpus delicti.
Stones, bones, coffins, and effigies: throughout her poems images recur until they acquire the status of relics. She’ll mention “an animal” but refuse to specify which. The only flower that exists for her is the lilac. A score of poems combine three pronouns: an “I” she claims confessionally, a “you” of changeable gender but unchangeable yearning, and a “she” who tries, and fails, to bridge the distances between. The beauty of some poems depends on their verbs, which shock the repeated nouns out of their blankness: air is “tattooed” by an absence, hands “want to dusk me, they plan to death me.” (“Me quieren anochecer, me van a morir.”) The beauty of others depends on their titles, which have to be reread for a belated, or posthumous, surprise:
The absent figures are sighing, and the night is thick. The night is the color of the eyelids of the dead.
All night long I make the night. All night long I write. Word by word I am writing the night.
The poem is called “Deaf Lantern,” which suggests that a lantern — or even a poet — might perform an intended role so naturally that no one ever notices what it — or she — is incapable of.
Pizarnik’s autobiographical impulses all relate to frustration: her “she” contends with prison, exile, sciamachy, “time like a glove upon a drum.” Being blocked seems to have been a mode of life, which she endured by converting it into a mode of writing. Nouns, as possessions, had to be weighty, burdening; verbs, requiring action or engagement, had to cause vertigo; adjectives (“deaf,” “blind,” “black,” “forgotten”) would obliterate the senses; metaphors would be “a trap, or simply another scene in a play”:
Winter the hound was gnawing at my smile. On the bridge. I was naked and wore a hat with flowers, and dragged my dead body, also naked and wearing a hat of dry leaves.
I have had many loves, I said, but of all these, the greatest was my love of mirrors.
After three years of writing these columns, that’s how I’ll close my last — with a poem entitled “A Dream in Which Silence Is Golden.”