Monday, December 15, 2008

Moscow-Petushki-Death

Due to a severe attention deficit problem, I find reading novels nearly impossible. I can write them, but not read them. In conversations where people exchange and compare literary adventures, I sit and nod, jealous.

But sometimes it happens, a book comes along and says: you can't read me? no problem, I'll force you. I will reveal to you each time you open me so much about the world, I'll make you laugh so hard and scare you so effectively that you won't be able to give me up. One such book is "Moscow-Petushki" by Venedict Yerofeyev. It took me nearly a month to go through its mere 212 pages, but I did it.

Moscow-Petushki is a "Russian drinking novel". Thus it was presented to me by Masha and Yonathan who lent it to me. In fact, it is a great work of late modernism, one that grabs Kafka, walks him one step further, tickles him and then kicks him off a cliff. Yerofeyev's book is a cult favorite, written in the Soviet Union during the the 70s. The text had to be kept away from authorities due to its deeply subversive nature, and was first published in a Russian language literary review in Israel. Thank god for Zionism.

The book is at one time as rustic as Robert Johnson's "Dust my Broom" and as profound as Bach's "Mattheus Passion". On one page is a recipe for a drunkards' coctail that contains no actual drink element, only nail polish and shampoo. On the next is an incredibly delicate allusion to Dante. I open the book randomly and happen directly on the following phrases, spoken by a female train passenger: "God knows where my teeth are, I am an educated woman and walk around toothlessly, like that. He knocked them out because of Pushkin. Here, I happened to overhear that you're having a literary debate. I thought to myself: I should come and sit with them and tell them how thanks to Pushkin I got my skull fractured and lost four front teeth."

Such is the plot: Venia takes the train from Moscow to a small town two hours away. He drinks the whole time, talks to some people, pretty much all of them miserable sorts, thinks a lot, hellucinates a bit. That's basically it.

Somehow. This exceeding simplicity allows Yerofeyev to penetrate us and touch us where it hurts the most. All of our fears are one fear: the fear of death. Everything we fear is a form or manifestation of death. Venia is galloping towards death on both an actual train and a train of thoughts, telling very funny stories, charming the reader and revolting him as he does so. Forget stairway to heaven, this is railway to hell. Literal death is not really the issue. Venia has death on his breath. He lives in a state of part death, two parts vodka Kubanskaya and 4 drops of nail polish.

It reminds me of the time my friend Naor found, in a newspaper film review, what he considered to be a perfect definition for life: "A few good jokes in a sea of boredom and obscenity". When life begins to resemble death too closely, as it does more and more with the advance of Moscow-Petushki's locomotive, it is life that we grow to fear. This isn't how I view the world usually, but I've been there, of course. I, too, sometimes find myself surrounded by too much death, and if only I had Yerofeyev's shiny mind, would have been the proud father of a very dark book. Even now as I write this, in full comfort and peace of mind, there's death in everything around me, from my near inability to read books, to the cup of tea I'm sipping, sugarless and dark. There's life there too, but focusing on that makes for a far less captivating read.

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