Captain of the Steppe – Oleg Pavlov and the Best Translated Book Award Shortlist 2013

As most of you would know, I’m a strong supporter of independent fiction. Publishers who challenge the norm, who take risks, who assist lesser known writers give birth to their beloved novels. One venture I support is the And Other Stories, independent publishing in Britain, where your yearly subscription assists them in bringing fringe novels to our attention, their values being “Collaborative, imaginative and ‘shamelessly literary’”. My previous subscription books from And Other Stories were Debroah Levy’s Booker Shortlisted “Swimming Home” her short story collection “Black Vodka” and Helen De Witt’s biting office sexual satire “Lightning Rods”, all which have been reviewed here. I therefore awaited their latest publication, Oleg Pavlov’s “Captain of the Steppe” with all the anticipation of discovering a new truly great Russian novelist.
Oleg Pavlov has won the Russian Booker Prize (2002) and the Solzhenitsyn Prize (2012) and he spent his compulsory military service as a prison guard in Kazakhstan. This is where “Captain of the Steppe” is set, in Karabas out on the desolate steppe of Kazakhstan, where the troops receive last year’s newspapers (to keep them informed and for fuel) and rotten potatoes to feed themselves. Our main character here is Captain Ivan Yakovlevich Khabarov or Vania who decides that instead of trying to eat the rotting potatoes he will plough a field and plant them so next year there will be plenty of fresh potatoes to feed the troops. This is where his problems begin. To think outside the square in the last few years of the Soviet Republic and to question authority can only lead to heartache.
This is a novel which through black humour paints a very savage picture of the futility of the labour camps under Soviet rule. The zeks (prisoners) are hardly mentioned and the appalling conditions, boredom, incessant drinking and abuse are all to the fore. What else would you do when stranded in the middle of nowhere with no news of the outside world, no understanding of your duties, no food or no salary?
One boring morning, dull as the reflection in a puddle of rainwater; a regimental lorry scraped along the full length of the clumsy gate and wobbled its way into the barrack square, where it stood snarling or belching, one of the two. Its canvas belly was empty, but it had grown heavy from being jolted across the trackless steppe. In the square, dragging on a soggy cigarette, was a sentry: a young Tatar boy with a drooping lip to which the cigarette had stuck, wreathing his unwashed face with white smoke. He half-rose, squinting at the lorry while dragging harder on his expiring dog-end. In just his underwear, wearing his boots without socks, the Tatar boy tried to give the vehicle standing by the gatehouse a cunning once-over. This arrival had been accompanied by a most unusual hush.
Despite the moral tale of the futility of the Soviet labour camps, the bleak setting and the dark humour, I found this to be a confusing novel. The characters with the numerous Russian names, their ranks (and unquestioning subordination) and a couple of passages where the language didn’t quite seem to flow, frustrated me. I was hoping for a grand Russian Dostoyevsky style piece but was actually left with a frustrated shallow feeling (maybe that’s the point?)
So whilst being a supporter of independent fiction, I know that occasionally I’m going to come across something which doesn’t suit my literary tastes and this novel happened to be one of those. Maybe the next publication by And Other Stories “All Dogs Are Blue” by Rodrigo De Souza Leao from Brazil (due on 1 August 2013) and its tale of mental illness will be more to my liking. This doesn’t mean that I won’t continue to support these publications and if you are interested in doing so please visit for details of their subscription packages.
Another shortlist was announced this week (that makes FOUR!!) the Best Translated Book Award ($25,000 donated by Amazon but only $5,000 to the winning author and translator so where’s the other $15k go?). I won’t be reading this shortlist unless I suddenly find three months in my diary, but for completeness purposes here it is:
The Planets – Sergio Chejfec (Argentina)
Prehistoric Times – Eric Chevillard (France)
The Colonel – Mahmoud Dowlatabadi (Iran)
Satantango – Laszlo Krasznahorkai (Hungary)
Autoportrait – Edouard Leve (France)
A Breath of Life: Pulsations – Clarice Lispector (Brazil)
The Hunger Angel – Herta Muller (Romania)
Maidenhair – Mikhail Shishkin (Russia)
Tansit – Abdouraham A Waberi (Djibouti)
My Father’s Book – Urs Widmer (Switzerland)

Buy This Book from Book Depository, Free Delivery World Wide


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