Russia

Day of the Oprichnik

“One of The Telegraph's Best Fiction Books 2011

Moscow, 2028. A cold, snowy morning.

Andrei Danilovich Komiaga is fast asleep. A scream, a moan, and a death rattle slowly pull him out of his drunken stupor—but wait, that's just his ring tone. And so begins another day in the life of an oprichnik, one of the czar's most trusted courtiers—and one of the country's most feared men.

Welcome to the new New Russia, where futuristic technology and the draconian codes of Ivan the Terrible are in perfect synergy. Corporal punishment is back, as is a divine monarch, but these days everyone gets information from high-tech news bubbles, and the elite get high on hallucinogenic, genetically modified fish.

Over the course of one day, Andrei Komiaga will bear witness to—and participate in—brutal executions; extravagant parties; meetings with ballerinas, soothsayers, and even the czarina. He will rape and pillage, and he will be moved to tears by the sweetly sung songs of his homeland. He will consume an arsenal of drugs and denounce threats to his great nation's morals. And he will fall in love—perhaps even with a number of his colleagues.

Vladimir Sorokin, the man described by Keith Gessen (in The New York Review of Books) as "[the] only real prose writer, and resident genius" of late-Soviet fiction, has imagined a near future both too disturbing to contemplate and too realistic to dismiss. But like all of his best work, Sorokin's new novel explodes with invention and dark humor. A startling, relentless portrait of a troubled and troubling empire, Day of the Oprichnik is at once a richly imagined vision of the future and a razor-sharp diagnosis of a country in crisis.”

(A special thank you to book club member, Andi McCraine for the suggestion.)

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Hard to be a God

“An enjoyable, exciting, and gratifying novel.”  —New York Times

“A thoroughly good book . . . robust, imaginative, satisfying.”  - Ursula K. Le Guin

“Don Rumata has been sent from Earth to the medieval kingdom of Arkanar with instructions to observe and to save what he can. Masquerading as an arrogant nobleman, a dueler, and a brawler, he is never defeated, but yet he can never kill. With his doubt and compassion, and his deep love for a local girl named Kira, Rumata wants to save the kingdom from the machinations of Don Reba, the first minister to the king. But given his orders, what role can he play? This long overdue translation will reintroduce one of the most profound Soviet-era novels to an eager audience. ”

Note: This translation by Olena Bormashenko is the one we recommend. Other versions are English translations of a bad German translation.

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The House of the Dead

“In January 1850, Dostoyevsky was sent to a remote Siberian prison camp for his part in a political conspiracy. The four years he spent there, startlingly re-created in The House of the Dead, were the most agonizing of his life. In this fictionalized account, he recounts his soul-destroying incarceration through the cool, detached tones of his narrator, Aleksandr Petrovich Goryanchikov: the daily battle for survival, the wooden plank beds, the cabbage soup swimming with cockroaches, his strange ‘family’ of boastful, ugly, cruel convicts. Yet The House of the Dead is far more than a work of documentary realism: it is also a powerful novel of redemption, describing one man’s spiritual and moral death and the miracle of his gradual reawakening.”

Note: This Penguin Classics translation by David McDuff is the one we recommend. Other translations are often considered poor (e.g., where “the house of the dead” was translated as “the dead house”…how can a house be dead?) or overhyped translators who offer oddly, stilted writing as in the case of the co-translation by Richard Pevear/Larissa Volokhonskyan who write of an “alive dead house” instead of “a house of the living dead”). Only one note to be aware of with the Penguin Classic translation—read the introduction after reading the novel because it may contain some spoilers as most Penguin Classic intros do.

(A special thank you to book club member, Sheena M. for the suggestion.)

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Night Watch

"Night Watch is an epic of extraordinary power." - Quentin Tarantino

“Brace yourself for [an adult version of] Harry Potter in Gorky Park. . . . The novel contains some captivating scenes and all kinds of marvelous, inventive detail.” -The Washington Post Book World

“An international bestseller [as] potent as a shot of vodka. . . . [A] compelling urban fantasy." -Publishers Weekly

“They are the ‘Others,’ an ancient race of supernatural beings—magicians, shape-shifters, vampires, and healers—who live among us. Human born, they must choose a side to swear allegiance to—the Dark or the Light—when they come of age.

For a millennium, these opponents have coexisted in an uneasy peace, enforced by defenders like the Night Watch, forces of the Light who guard against the Dark. But prophecy decrees that one supreme ‘Other’ will arise to spark a cataclysmic war.

Anton Gorodetsky, an untested mid-level Light magician with the Night Watch, discovers a cursed young woman—an Other of tremendous potential unallied with either side—who can shift the balance of power. With the battle lines between Light and Dark drawn, the magician must move carefully, for one wrong step could mean the beginning of annihilation.”

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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

The novel that won Alexander Solzhenitsyn the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature "for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature."

"First published in the Soviet journal Novy Mir in 1962, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich stands as a classic of contemporary literature. The story of labor-camp inmate Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, it graphically describes his struggle to maintain his dignity in the face of communist oppression. An unforgettable portrait of the entire world of Stalin's forced work camps, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is one of the most extraordinary literary documents to have emerged from the Soviet Union and confirms Solzhenitsyn's stature as 'a literary genius whose talent matches that of Dosotevsky, Turgenev, Tolstoy'.”

Note: This translation by Harry T. Willetts is the one we recommend. This is the original, unexpurgated novel brilliantly translated by someone who worked closely with Solzhenitsyn to fully capture the power and beauty of the original Russian. This is the only English translation authorized by the Russian author. All other translations are censored versions."

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We

“The inspiration for George Orwell’s 1984.

Yevgeny Zamyatin's We is set in an urban glass city called OneState, regulated by spies and secret police. Citizens of the tyrannical OneState wear identical clothing and are distinguished only by the number assigned to them at birth. The story follows a man called D-503, who dangerously begins to veer from the 'norms' of society after meeting I-330, a woman who defies the rules. D-503 soon finds himself caught up in a secret plan to destroy OneState and liberate the city.

The failed utopia of We has been compared to the works of H.G. Wells, George Orwell, and Aldous Huxley. It was the first novel banned by the Soviets in 1921, and was finally published in its home country over a half-century later.”

Note: This translation by Mirra Ginsburg is the one we recommend. A good second choice would be the translation from Clarence Brown. Other translations are considered poor or awkward.

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Cancer Ward

"One of the great allegorical masterpieces of world literature, Cancer Ward is both a deeply compassionate study of people facing terminal illness and a brilliant dissection of the 'cancerous' Soviet police state. Banned in Russia, it became, along with One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a work that awoke the conscience of the world. As Robert Service wrote of its appeal in the Independent, 'In waging his struggle against Soviet communism, Solzhenitsyn the novelist preferred the rapier to the cudgel'."

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The Handmaid's Tale

"The Handmaid's Tale is a novel of such power that the reader will be unable to forget its images and its forecast. Set in the near future, it describes life in what was once the United States, now called the Republic of Gilead, a monotheocracy that has reacted to social unrest and a sharply declining birthrate by reverting to, and going beyond, the repressive intolerance of the original Puritans. 

The story is told through the eyes of Offred, one of the unfortunate Handmaids under the new social order. The Handmaid's Tale is funny, unexpected, horrifying, and altogether convincing. It is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and tour de force. It is Margaret Atwood at her best."

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