Fardwor, Russia by Oleg Kashin

Soviet satire, from Bulgakov to Kataev, is something I go on about a lot on the Ramblings. So I was very pleased to find out that the tradition is being carried on in modern Russian, after being kindly provided with a review copy of OK’s Fardwor, Russia! As far as I’m aware this is Kashin’s first work of fiction, published by Restless Books, and the man certainly has had a dramatic life so far…

A Russian journalist known for his political articles for a variety of publications, Kashin has always been critical of the authorities. In 2010 he was the subject of a violent assault near his Moscow home, and hospitalised with several fractures. The police treated the attack as attempted murder, and despite some apparent culprits being accused, no-one has ever been convicted of the attack. Kashin now lives in Switzerland.

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“Fardwor, Russia!”, translated by Will Evans, tells the story of a man called Karpov. The book opens with our hero travelling with his wife Marina back to his homeland in the Russian South; they’ve abandoned their Moscow life so that Karpov can work in seclusion on a strange invention he’s stumbled across. In a makeshift laboratory, he develops a growth serum (think Bulgakov’s “The Fatal Eggs”!) and it proves to work very well on livestock, much to the delight of the locals!

However, Karpov is not satisfied with experimenting on animals and tries the serum out on a circus dwarf – with remarkable results. The potion comes to the attention of a number of interested parties, including local meat producers and scientists, as well as a miniature oil mogul. He too soon grows, and runs off with Karpov’s wife; however, the inventor has more problems in the form of the authorities and the secret service, all of whom are after the serum. Can Karpov ever get the peace to invent, and will he ever get Marina back?

It’s quite clear that this marvellous book is the latest incarnation in a grand tradition of Russian/Soviet satire. There are echoes back to the past, most strongly Bulgakov, and Kashin is happy to have a swipe at everything from Russian big business to the olympics. Despite the recognisably modern setting and traits, the same kind of corruption and incompetence that the classic satirists were lampooning still exist, and under any kind of repressive regime the best way to fight is to use satire as a weapon.

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As well as being clever and pointed, the story is also very funny, as the different elements fight it out and struggle for control of the serum. Kashin is clear-eyed about his homeland and happy to mock the stereotypes!

Surprisingly, the next morning Karpov encountered around eight local residents by the shack who looked as if they had been specially selected for a photo shoot of “The Common Peoples of Rural Southern Russia”. They included a timid, suntanned grandmother in a snow-white headscarf and a clearly intoxicated man in a dusty jacket and cap (he had most likely taken the calf without asking his wife and a week later he would steal the money from her and sell the cow too) and a teenager with a fishing rod and a young goat (Karpov had not mentioned goats in his ad, he forgot) – basically, a feast for the eyes, but without any audience.

And although we are in the modern world, it still seems like there are the haves at the top and the have-nots at the bottom – plus ca change, as they say.

Through it all sails Karpov, like some kind of fabled innocent. Despite setbacks, beatings and the temporary loss of his wife, he seems untouched, totally obsessed with the one task at hand – his serum. He’s an engaging character; a typical mad inventor who can’t see past his dream, regardless of the effect it will have on everyone and everything else; and all those with vested interests are desperate to stop him.

Both Kashin and Restless Books are new to me, and both are to be applauded – Kashin for writing such brave and funny satire, and Restless Books for bringing it to us Anglophones. “Fardwor, Russia” (the title is a comment on a misspelled tweet) comes with an excellent introduction by Max Seddon which gives the context of the book and highlights some of its targets.

Needless to say, I loved “Fardwor, Russia!” and I salute Kashin for his bravery in writing it. If you’ve enjoyed Bulgakov, Ilf and Petrov, Yuri Olesha, Kataev and co, you probably would enjoy it too – highly recommended!

Many thanks to Restless Books for kindly providing a review copy

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