Life with an Idiot by Victor Erofeyev
As translator Andrew Reynolds explains, quite clearly, in his introduction to this extraordinary collection “it is as the author of the novel Russian Beauty that Victor Erofeyev is best known in the west…” (Pg xiii) Life With An Idiot was written between the years 1978 and 1990. All these stories precede the UK publication of his infamous novel, most have already reached classic status in his native Russia and its title story Life With An Idiot has been called, amongst other glowing tributes, the greatest short story of the 21st century. So it was with mouth-watering anticipation I picked up this book. And upon reading does it live up to its prodigious reputation? Well, put quite simply, it certainly does – and then some.
Admittedly, it does take the reader quite a while to get there but in the end it’s certainly worth it. To regurgitate Andrew Reynolds further: “Erofeyev is a difficult writer both in Russian and in translation.” (pg xxi) And I can understand why. Erofeyev’s narrative is one of choking intertextuality, multifaceted metaphor and tongue-in-cheek literary tomfoolery. Each crafted tale demands further investigation, each needs to be unravelled bit by bit – because the social history, circumstance and psyche of the Russian individual lays beneath each dexterous sentence. Erofeyev’s landscape is this very underpinning, this collective human condition, set against an autumnal backdrop of deep blood reds, sumptuous yellows and aching orange. Sex, death, torture and cruelty is rampant throughout and the Russian dead fall silently, like leaves from a rotten tree, on every page. The whole book radiates with such devastating cruelty, such maddening human folly it is simply impossible to ignore its impact. And why would you want to?
If all this isn’t enough for the reader we must also take into account Erofeyev’s other narrative device, known in his national tongue as Skaz. Skaz is a topsy-turvy reusing of different era’s, mixing classic literature with modern parodies, resulting in a effervescent jumble of current pot-boilers with their idiosyncrasies, vernacular and argot and the classical Russian canon with its seriousness, meaning and standing. Nowhere is this technique more evident than in The Parakeet where the reader is treated to a sonorous homage/aping of Dostoyevsky’s polyphonic narrative, a seriousness of style mixed with a youthful, modern argot that Reynolds himself found hard to translate. Erofeyev’s Life With An Idiot is intertextuality with a capital TEXT. The influence of Dostoyevsky, whilst being one of many (such as Gogol, Mayakovsky, Herzen et al), is the key stimuli in this gathering. In Life With An Idiot, the first of nineteen stories, Erofeyev adroitly compares his notion of the idiot with Dostoyevsky’s similar Holy Fool in The Idiot (as exemplified by Prince Myshkin). Life With An Idiot is a none-too-subtle parody of the Russian idealization of the Holy Fool – the madmen who were literally admired for their madness.
It has been noted that in order to understand the Russian one must understand the Holy Fool. Erofeyev’s idiots are all around us, they are not just leaders, but our friends and lovers, the media, the cultural movers and shakers and sadly, yet predictably, we are in awe of them all. Erofeyev hits the Russian soul on the head and by doing so this touches us all, unravelling the “thin veneer of civilisation” (Pg xxiii) and showing us for the uncontrollable animals we quite ostensibly are. Continuing this astute disentanglement of façade is the marvellous Shit Sucker - a loosely veiled attack on Stalin’s bureaucratic tendencies. Whilst using Gogol’s Dead Souls as its exemplar Shit Sucker attacks the numerous apparatchiks (various heads of military, allies of Stalin, deputies and Party ideologists) and their blatant toadyism endemic within the administration and is, in all honesty, a tremendous gem and a pleasure to read. Such outrageous outing of society’s ills and reading of the Russian mindset is the crux of Erofeyev’s writing.
But we don’t all have to be budding Russian literature/politics undergraduates to gain anything from this collection. Each story reads with a wondrous fluidity and motion, all are packed with beauty and intrigue. Erofeyev is everything a short story writer should be: his colourful prose is as sharp as a tack without jarring, concise yet weighty, hilarious but never for humour’s sake, vulgar and shocking without explicit contrivances and, above all, relevant to us all regardless of nationality. Erofeyev’s stories mean something, they can be put into larger historical context, they can be used against, or for, political manifesto; they are of the people and for the people – but never against.
Above all these stories stand alone in their originality, from the surreal Persian Lilac, the melancholic How We Murdered A Frenchman to the sheer temerity of The End Of Everything. Andrew Reynolds’ clear translation helps, it seems fresh and current and has not been weighed down by Erofeyev’s heavy metaphor, reference and allusions. He has kept it simple and, it seems, wasn’t daunted by the books original tricky style. Quite frankly, Penguin and Andrew Reynolds should be commended for introducing Victor Erofeyev to a new generation of readers and I beseech you to read this book - you won't look an idiot.