Monday, December 28, 2009

The Labyrinth

"The human heart has never accepted the idea of total evanishment from the earth. We have always wanted to leave at least a particle of ourselves, at least a brief mention in a requiem prayer. We want to at least scratch our names on the dungeon wall before we are led out to the execution."

The great thing about used book sales is that you sometimes uncover the most fascinating, quirkiest, obscure, or otherwise unusual books. The Judgment Day Archives by Andrei Moscovit, pen name for Igor Markovich Yefimov, was one such find. Yefimov is a Russian-American writer and philosopher who has been living in the United States since 1978. He is also the founder of Hermitage Publishers. The Judgment Day Archives was initially released Arkhivy Strashnogo Suda in 1982; Robert Bowie's English translation came out in 1988. The jacket copy compares it to Bulgakov's Master and Margarita and promises a "heady brew of espionage, mysticism, political satire, and philosophy, laced with romance and earthy humor." Well, I thought, Bulgakov's been on my TBR list for literally years now and this one sounds like a sure winner!

Leida Rigel is an Estonian-Russian scientist with an interest in faith healing and shamanism whose underground research has been suprisingly successful. It has also led her to be stalked by a pair of KBG agents who have succeeded in making her a paranoid near-wreck. Then their higher-ups get wind of a mysterious corporation, known only as the Enterprise, and its interest in a defrocked Orthodox priest, Father Averyan, known for his heretical sermons regarding the resurrection of the dead on Judgment Day. Averyan believes that it will be man's descendants, not God Himself, who will perform the resurrection (via cloning or some other as-of-yet-unknown technology), and who will also judge each individual according to their own mysterious but enlightened standards. The KGB sends Rigel to work for the Enterprise, who see in her research a chance to make big bucks by bringing Father Averyan under their wing and opening the Judgment Day Archives. For only $3,000, a tape or video recording of your life story, and a frozen vial of your blood, you too can guarantee yourself a front-row seat to meet your maker one fine day in the future!

To further secure Leida's cooperation, the KGB has kidnapped her son Ilya. They enroll him in the Soviet army but have promised Leida that they will send him to a gulag or one of the uranium mines if she tries in any way to resist their instructions.

The Judgment Day Archives, therefore, certainly has the makings of a great satire on the interaction and intersection of business, politics, and religion. The roundabout plot is there: Yefimov is highly effective at entrapping poor Leida in a Kafkaesque labyrinth, in which powerful forces beyond her control continuously pull her in multiple directions and crush any glimmer of free will. When not being terrorized by Agents Yarishev and Mysheyedov, Leida is chained to her post at the Archive, caught between the overblown capitalism of the Enterprise and the religious fervor of the Archive's mission. She exists suspended between opposing forces exerting a kind of equilibrium. The only tangible thing left is her daily fear for her son's safety.

If Kafka portrayed bureaucracy as an omnipotent force acting under its own cryptic rules and carrying hapless humans along with it, Yefimov brings this worldview to its obvious conclusion: that the control which society's external forces (which also include the state, corporations, and organized religion) exert over the individual can be likened to the mysterious hand of God.

Leida refers to her KGB pursuers as the "all-knowing ones" who follow her every move and have memorized her habits. The strategies of Umberto Fanzoni, the Enterprises's head honcho, are compared to his old gambling habits. Now, instead of chips, he assigns his employees and subordinates the role of "pawn" in his many corporate games. "To force the metaphor a bit," one character explains, "I feel excited when the Big Chess Master picks me up with his fingers and moves me to another square. After all, as long as the game goes on, the pawn experiences life to the full." But several months of Father Averyan's holy acquaintance has forced Umberto to consider something new. "You know," he says, "I've become so accustomed to moving people about, like chess figures. And now I've suddenly begun feeling as though someone were moving me. In some grandiose game, a game I have no control over." One of the central questions Yefimov seems to be asking here is, what can we do to exert our own will? What can we hold onto admist all the powerful influences surrounding us?

Yefimov answers that it is love. Here, it is Leida's love for her family that keeps her going, and her love for her son that enables her to finally break free.

Of course, as a satirical novel, The Judgment Day Archives is also pure farce, taking each situation to its fullest realization in the hopes that comedy will ensue. (For the Archive to be successful, everyone has to move the United States, which, as we all know, is just about the only country in the world where you can take an innovative scientific idea, turn it into a religion, and make millions off it.) Not being familiar with contemporary Russian literature, I am guessing Yefimov was aiming for a tone similar to that of Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night, which featured a cast of absurd characters and a plot full of bizarre twists. But where Vonnegut succeeded, Yefimov falls flat. Or seems to - when reading a translation one must always keep in mind that these really are not the author's original words. Still, I had the impression of a narative trying to rise above simple iteration of events, becoming a parody of real life, and ultimately being hilarious in its sheer ridiculousness.

But it never quite succeeds. Yarishev and Mysheyedov, for example - are they supposed to be evil bastards, hilariously evil bastards, or caricatures just too over-the-top to be taken seriously as evil bastards? Is Father Averyan a good soul who simply wishes to uplift his fellow man or is he drunk on the power of his fellow man's belief in him? Has the Archive really become a genuine, top-down, mind-controlling cult or is it basically just a harmless money-making machine that becomes dangerous only when people willingly invest too much faith in it? Although the story moves along quite smoothly, it just feels that something is lacking. That quality of satire is just not there.

I find myself referring back to The Wall in My Head anthology and Dubravka Urgesic's essay, "The Souvenirs of Communism." (Interestingly, I just noted that I referenced Mother Night in that review as well. Catch-22 is another intriguing thematic comparison to The Judgment Day Archives.) Urgesic contends that works of literature dealing with Communism in a humorous manner rarely achieve critical success in the West. We just don't have that grasp of its inherent incongruity: "Western readers did not have the feel for communist everyday life, the author's humor was not understood, the linguistic subversion left them cold, and the absurd and grotesque aspects of the totalitarian world remained opaque to them." Now obviously The Judgment Day Archives deals extensively with the absurdities of religion and capitalism as well, and there is arguably no country where such things are exhibited more often than in the United States. I got that but . . . I'm sitting here going "meh" because something never clicked with me. And I'm kind of smacking the keyboard because I can't quite articulate what it is, which makes me feel like I'm failing as a reviewer.

I liked the book well enough and it had some well-written passages, but . . . *thud*


rhapsodyinbooks said...

Wow, you read this fast! :--)

I love the premise you describe. But I hate not understanding what the author is trying to get at. As you say, it's so hard to tell with a translation though. In a way it sounds like the books of James Morrow - sometimes his satire really, really works, and other times, you wonder what he's trying to accomplish. Good review though! :--)

E. L. Fay said...

Actually, I started this book several days ago. But it did go by very quickly. Like I said, it's not a bad book, it's just that the satire falls flat.

Life With Dogs said...

Thud, I love it! I can almost hear I gong ringing.

Happy holidays from Vermont!

JoAnn said...

Thud - lol! Sounds like it could have been interesting.. but without a lot of background info and understanding, this would not be for me.

E. L. Fay said...

Life: Happy holidays to you too!

JoAnn: If you like books like Catch-22 this might interest you. But even then, like I said, the satire doesn't quite work.

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