Book Review

Give Me (Songs for Lovers) by Irina Denezhkina

Give Me (Songs for Lovers) by Irina Denezhkina I suppose there is only one tangible British comparison we can really cling onto when discussing this new Russian darling of the literati: our very own Gwendoline Riley. Not a bad thing at all, but where Riley fails in her rather contrived aping of past European (predominantly French) voices and literary traditions, Denezhkina succeeds in reinventing and cleverly conveying the imbalanced youth within the stark constraints of literary form - only Denezhkina chews them up and spits them out before deciding to use them. Denezhkina is no pouting mock-existentialist. She reads into the youth of her country effortlessly, the same generation as herself who were once tied, ball and chain to their parent's communist past, taking the worst and the best from each individual and assaulting our senses with a rapid-fire burst of achingly current fiction.

This collection of short stories (don't get me started on how important I feel the genre is) is both loud and violent, but still buried beneath this nefarious façade is a subtle tenderness, the sweat and toil of a generation lost, stuck in limbo and continuously trampled on as they try to reclaim their identity - an identity they never had in the first place. The collection is also uber-fresh and modern, but never slick in its design. It's almost in telling it like it is Denezhkina has unknowingly given Russia a new voice. Give Me (Songs for Lovers) is Russia's new adolescent voice, a voice previously quashed and dampened by the history that preceded it and it is the first inkling of a new Capitalist mass cultural and literary identity. These are Russian's with more in common with the Wu-Tang Clan and British indie-stalwarts such as The Verve than the old Russian grey-beards so influential in previous generations.

However, the one thing Denezhkina does share, to return to Gwendoline Riley for a moment, is a propensity to allow photographers to capture her pout through the lens, seductively and aloofly in various publicity shots. She, just as Riley, is easily marketable because of her good looks. Yet, where such a look backfired on Riley (I'm thinking of labels such as the now infamous 3:AM interview in which she was labelled "Camus in hotpants"), it seems Denezhkina strides through literary pastures without much flak. Denezhkina has not, as yet, been branded with such double-edged aplomb.Only time will tell.

Anyway, onto the bare bones. The first story in this gathering, Give Me starts as it means to go on. It follows a group of teenagers at college, some in bands, some dropouts, most trawling the streets for sex with other teenagers. Give Me is unforgiving, streetwise, violent and brash; there is a knowing intelligence within this urban tale. We see characters forced to react against their changing/crumbling world. I don't know whether this is due to an inspired translation, but this story (and the entire collection) is unlike any other Russian fiction I have hitherto read. The relentless cultural referencing is thoroughly un-Russian for a start, it is street fiction with teeth, slicing through a multi-media age of American culture - the new faces of Russian youth embracing all that MTV has to offer, it is referencing born out of late American Capitalism. Gone are the big theoretic diatribes of yore and in brazenly sweeps the instant, the now, the reactionary, mass/popular-culture obsessed voice. This story and those that follow are a myriad identities being born. But, being Russian, this is a different kind of disposable American Capitalism, this is I-don't-give-a-fuck-about-you consumer misanthropy brought on by the Chechen war, by oppressive despots and military rule. Denezhkina's characters would eat you alive given half the chance, spitting you into the sodden gutter when they're through. These are the once crouching characters battered senseless, clinging on to bitter emotion, subjected to the atrocities of war, tethered by communism, by collective failings and inertia. These are the embittered children who have given up their parents ghosts: whatever they were. The horrible reality being that a life can actually have more meaning if one went to war and was "killed there" (Pg 18). This is the exact mentality the youth have been left with, their permanent scars visible to all; the same old story of the ordinary working class searching for its identity within a constant state of flux and turmoil.

Yet, this is a sad state of affairs. It isn't the answer. The very fact that American Capitalism is spreading around the globe, creeping into communities and smothering each individual's dreams with MTV endorsed propaganda, whispering in each ear that life is better elsewhere, is the ruination of all - even if the life projected from each TV screen doesn't exist in the first place. Such images are meat and drink to a young bored, impressionable teenager. But, regardless of this sour intrusion, what actually is important here is how Denezhkina uses these falsehoods, images and phoney signifiers. Twisted within Denezhkina's innovative prose they are regurgitated anew giving them a reality and life of there own based in and around the real lives described and, I suppose, this is just what makes this collection tick, lifting it out of the relentless clutches of hackneyed existential cliché and literary diatribe.

We see touches of the surreal embedded within Denezhkina's urban backdrop too. No more so are such hallucinogenic murmurs prevalent than in the allegorical Vasya and the Green Men. Yet again we see a tale of extreme violence and repugnant detail. This is a human cruelty, a reality transported and put on display in an apocryphal landscape where green monsters roam free terrorising the local community - it doesn't take too long to work out who these green monsters are supposed to represent. The military are dehumanised into one homogenous mass of vile filth and degradation, an alien species, but the prose is familiar, the story startling and quirky, reminiscent of the language of fairytales. A clever device underlining the loss of innocence when faced with real life monsters.

In The Children's Collective, about a children's summer camp, Denezhkina touches upon her central theme: youth in search of identity whilst living amongst a crowded and confused society. A sorry mish-mash of differing cultures, classes and race eking out the same miserable existence in close proximity. No one can escape Russia's Communist past, it hangs above and below:

"A collective, she must be part of a collective. Of little kids like herself..." [Pg 49]

It seems this mechanic, regimented spectre has never really left them. Serving as an invisible barrier and causing untold obfuscation and misery for the youth who just want to be themselves, who just want to escape a past they are intrinsically linked to but never a part of. This just causes more bitterness and alienation of course, and this attitude, echoed throughout the whole book, is exemplified by a by a thirteen year old boy heard singing at the camp:

"I'll fuck over any ugly cunt or wanker/I'll shaft the junkies with their needles and their grass/Pay back each look that's even slightly crooked/That comes my way from any slick smart-ass/My life's all gym and sex and milk/I don't take put-downs from any mean bitch/ You, with your stink of booze and fags, you sleazy/Lowlife, step out, and I'll fuck you over easy!" [Pg 40]

Harsh words indeed, especially coming from a thirteen year old boy at a summer camp. The children are out of control because they have nothing substantial to cling onto, they have no footing, all they have is the filtered images from the TV screen in their bedrooms - and none of it can be touched so they take this out on each other in basic bravado and one-upmanship. It is all very petty and basic, but sinister all the same.

Probably the most accomplished story in the collection is A Song for the Lovers a longish tale about teenage yearning and rejection. It is a dirty, grimy tale following the usual suspects [university students, members of bands, loners, drunks] as they stagger from bar to kebab house, gig to party, bed to another's bed. The prose is stylish and terse, processing a crudeness that manages to be refreshing; the characters are brash and unforgiving:

"Samson smelt of dog food. The smell made Sveta feel sick. Especially when he stuck his nose into her face in the morning and licked it with his long pink tongue as if he was wiping it with a rag. Samson's coat smelled too, and in the morning it made Sveta gag." [Pg 139]

"A Song for the Lovers" is, yet again, awash with western references [the title itself taken from a Richard Ashcroft single]. This is a story for all those young males who sit staring at their TV's longing to be in a band just like their hero's up on the screen - only they know it's never going to happen, yet they try anyway as there's nothing else left to do. It all goes terribly wrong of course. Music [especially western European and American] is an important narrative tool which Denezhkina uses wisely. Song lyrics are interspersed throughout offering a slick, often demented, chorus to events. Denezhkina's teenagers are teenagers who want to belong but know they never will or, for that matter, can - this is not pampered alienation, this is the real thing. Most express themselves via alcohol, drugs or glue - the lucky few are in crappy, little bands that offer nothing but a spiralling decent into, yet more, oblivion, if they're lucky along the way they may receive a smattering of notoriety and, ultimately, some sex with a desperate groupie. That's about it really. This wanting to belong is common in most cultures, but what differs here amongst Denezhkina's wastrels is that it is a different kind of wanting, these are youths who, through the alcoholic haze and cigarette smoke, see the wider picture, they not only want to belong in their own cities and country, but they also want to be recognized the world over - only they know they never will be. The West isn't interested; it is too busy doing its own thing. They are force-fed this other, more colourful, world each day, the music, language, fashions and life-styles pump relentlessly from the speakers of TV's wherever they roam - a constant mocking, a constant reminder that most people lead better lives. So they take what they can, and in spite of all this, paradoxically, they are just like the teenagers they see on the other side of the world, regardless of race and culture: they just want other teenagers to like them and to be, ultimately, loved.

Irina Denezhkina's Give Me (Songs for Lovers) is a mighty crack of the whip and should alert the literary establishment that pouting, young good-looking female authors who, through no fault of there own, are immediately categorised and slickly marketed can process a bite of their own as devastating as the next. Some, at least, have got what it takes and leave their hotpants at home.

Lee Rourke (Lee is the founder and editor of Scarecrow)
-- Reviewed by Lee Rourke on 02/08/2005

Further Information
ISBN-10: 0701176741
ISBN-13: 9780701176747
Publisher: Chatto & Windus
Publication Date: 05/08/2004
Binding: Paperback
Number of pages: 176
URL: http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/search?keywords=9780701176747&index=books&linkCode=qs&tag=marksbookrevi-21

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