Solovyov and Larionov by Eugene Vodolazkin
Translated by Lisa C. Hayden

One of last year’s outstanding books for me was a title I read and reviewed for Shiny New Books – “The Aviator” by Eugene Vodolazkin. That book was the Kiev-born author’s third novel; however, his works have not been translated in the order of publication. His second work, “Laurus” came out in 2016 and “The Aviator” a year ago. However, his debut, “Solovyov and Larionov”, came out via Oneworld last November. Again rendered most wonderfully into English by Lisa C. Hayden (who translated his other books), I was *very* keen to read  “S&L”; and Oneworld were kind enough to provide a review copy.

The premise of the book is fascinating; Solovyov is a Russian historian with a focus on a general of the White Army, Larionov. The latter is something of a mystery; having fought to defend the Crimea in the post-revolutionary Civil War, somehow the General not only survived the carnage meted out by the Red Army, he also made it through the Soviet years, living his life out in Yalta and dying finally in 1976. The mystery of how and why the General avoided execution absorbs not only Solovyov, but also any number of scholars (some of who feature in the book). Solovyov himself is perhaps an unlikely protagonist; a somewhat diffident man, he was born by a railroad halt in the middle of nowhere which only has a number, not a name. Absorbed by books from a young age, he has an intense friendship with a local girl which blossoms into something more, before finally escaping to Petersburg to study. Whilst following the trail of the General’s life, he travels to Yalta to attend a Larionov conference, encountering the remaining associates/relatives of Larionov and also entering an intense relationship with the daughter of one of the General’s assistants. There are searches for lost manuscripts; a wonderfully satirical and often screamingly funny rendition of the events of the conference and the awfulness of a collection of academics in one place; and gradual discoveries of lost parts of the General’s life which bring Solovyov closer to home than he might have expected.

That’s a somewhat simplistic summary of what is a very complex, clever, multi-layered and thought-provoking book, and to describe it as a literary detective story as the blurb does is perhaps underselling it. The construction of the novel itself is quite remarkable; Vodolazkin manages a brilliant interweaving of the title characters’ stories where the narrative switches between the two without even a pause, yet it’s never anything less than clear as to what’s happening. Although ostensibly about Solovyov’s search to find out the truth about the General, the book is also actually the story of Solovyov finding himself, of his reckoning with his own past as well as Russia’s, and of his coming to terms with his journey to the current point of his life. On the evidence of the two of his works that I’ve read, Vodolazkin is always totally in control of his narrative, here brilliantly bringing all the strands of his tale together to an ending which reveals just how entwined the two lives have been.

We could approach the explanation from another angle. There exist people who possess the gift of contemplation. They are not inclined to interfere with the course life takes and do not create new events, because they believe there are already enough events in the world. They see their role as comprehending what has already taken place. Might that attitude toward the world be what begets genuine historians?

His writing is beautiful too; although he often seems to deliberately adopt the detached tone of a historian (taking on an authorial “we” when it suits), the description of place and atmosphere is stunning, and at times I felt I was in Yalta with either Solovyov or Larionov. The narrative is studded with references to Russian history and literature, a lot of which I got but many of course I probably missed, and the spell of Chekhov hangs over the Yalta sections in particular (the great writer spent his final days there). Petersburg and its surrounding waters are brilliantly conjured too (both Solovyov and Larionov are drawn to the sea). As well as beauty, however, there is of course conflict; there are details of the General’s battles and the horrors of the Civil War are clearly shown; as well as the sheer exhaustion of the Russian people, unable after so much fighting to even understand what they were battling for and why they were on a particular side.

This is how strange the war was – Russians against Russians – when solders taken prisoner could fight the very next day for the other side. They did so just as selflessly as before. There were quite a few people for whom shifts of this sort became a habit. For some, it was the only possible work under war conditions. For some, it was a way of life at a time when, by and large, people were indifferent about whom they fought for… Essentially, there were not many choices.

That this is a book about a historian is particularly relevant, because the more satirical and humorous elements certainly poke fun at the absurdity of some academics, with their own particular focus on a section of the past, their skewed reading of it and indeed their own particularly odd theories (including one that the General was actually a woman…!) It becomes clear as Solovyov continues with his endeavours to find out the truth that an accurate rendering of the past, and indeed an understanding of it, may never be possible; the historian’s researches are like a jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing and it’s only if particular things can be found out, by the person with the knowledge to interpret them correctly, that all will fall into place. Like “The Aviator”, “Solovyov and Larionov” ends with a certain ambiguity in place, leaving behind it a book of characters and events and places that linger beautifully in the mind.

Yalta: View from the Tsar’s Path via Wikimedia Commons

“Solovyov and Larionov” was nominated for a number of Russian awards and I can understand why; it’s hard to accept that this was a first novel, particularly as it’s such a wide-ranging work which takes in so many themes. However, the major thread I sense running through Vodolazkin’s works is that of memory, whether individual or collective. There is a fascinating conversation with Vodolazkin and Lisa Hayden at the LA Review of Books, and the former states:

Memory … What do we have except memory? Nothing. Memory is the consciousness of a person, whereas history is the consciousness of the people.

I think that may well sum up what Vodolazkin is trying to capture in his books, particularly in a country where memory and history have been so twisted and warped over the years. The author is himself a historian, which lends further authenticity to his account of the vagaries of research, the complexities of tracking down sources and the frank impossibility of ever really knowing the truth – either about history, or one’s own memories, which are of course human and therefore fallible.

As is probably obvious, I found “Solovyov and Larionov” to be just as good a book as “The Aviator” in its beautiful writing, its thought-provoking narrative and its wonderfully atmospheric sense of place and time. I can see that I’m going to be pondering on it for quite some time to come, and although his second novel “Laurus” has a very different setting (mediaeval Russia) I may just have to seek it out…