How to comment on this latest release from Dedalus Books?
The Translator’s Foreword gives us a clue as to what to expect, when stating; “the sensation of gradually being drawn into something without immediately grasping how or why.” Or early on in the novel Vladimir Sharov stating; “another story of good and evil.” (p 26). However these broad brush approaches do not address the ambition of this novel.
Presented as historical research, the early sections of the book are dedicated with the teachings of Sergei Nikolayevich Ilyin, a man trying to understand God, together with a raft of theological presentations, all happening in 1958. But before the book progresses to Ilyin’s teachings we have this opening line;
In 1939 Isiah Trifonovich Kobylin ceased to be a Jew, and the Jewish nation, of which he was the last, ended with him.
Are we going to follow the life of Isiah Trifonovich Kobylin? The novel ends with “he was no longer a Jew”, therefore a circular tale?
Once I compared the short story to the idea of a sphere, which is the most perfect geometric form because it is closed and all of the infinite points on its surface are equidistant from its invisible central point. – Julio Cortázar “Literature Class”
When I recently read this quote by Cortázar, I immediately thought of “The Rehearsals”, even though it is very far removed from a short story. Our starting and ending points enclosing Isiah’s Jewish cessation and the end of the Jewish nation. However to explain this work simply from its starting and ending points would be folly.
A novel would never make me think of a sphere; it might make me think of a polyhedron, of an enormous structure. – Julio Cortázar “Literature Class”
I’m not even 100% convinced that structurally “The Rehearsals” could even be described as a polyhedron! I think of a massive mind map, with lines heading in every single direction, further explorations heading from them, and then further, always leading back towards an historical core. In this rambling, complex, multi layered novel, Vladimir Sharov addresses a range of issues, the Schism, theological opposites, internment, the gulags, all with an historical depth that, at times, reads like a non-fiction expose.
From the opening line, where Isiah ceases to be a Jew, the novel moves to the 1950’s and 60’s putting together an academic background for our narrator, his university studies in History and Literature, “Gogol and Comparative Literary Criticism” as lectured by an ex interred philosopher Vladimir Ivanovich Kuchmy. The book includes Kuchmy’s observations on Nikolai Gogol’s story “The Nose”, yes we are rooted in Russian history here;
…there was always more to the story of Kovalyov that its jokey, abstract conclusion, something much more terrifying, and this something is encoded in the dates of the action, which endow the entire tale with a quite different explanation and meaning. (p46)
Pay attention reader, there is something encoded in the dates here, and the dates come thick and fast in this book… for example, March 25th and April 7th are a “truly demonic time, a time that doesn’t exist and that increases all the while.”
Moving, in just fifty odd pages from 1939, to, 1955 and 1958 we then jump to 1963, where our narrator is studying the history of Siberia, being taught by Valentin Nikolayevich Suvorin, a great nephew of the publisher of Chekov
Suvorin considered the Russian state to have been deliberately built from the very beginning not on the slow and ponderous growth of economic ties, on the reality of day-to-day life, but on ideas, on its understanding of its place and territory in the world of ideas, its understanding of its destiny, its mission of what set it apart from the destiny of everyone else, brought and bound together those who lived here, and made of them a nation. Without this sense of otherness, there would be no Russia. (p 58)
Suvorin then begins to discuss Nikon, the seventh Patriarch of Moscow, his relationship with Tsar Alexis and the “Raskol” schism in the Russian Orthodox Church. Patriarch Nikon founded the New Jerusalem Monastery in Istra;
‘There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that Nikon was expecting the beginning of the end of the world either in 1666 – the more likely date – or after a further thirty-three years (the span of the Saviour’s life on earth). He was no exception. It’s well known that in both the Western and Eastern Churches the dates for Easter had been fixed no further than 1666 and, despite the vogue for rationalism, expectation of the end was all but universal. (p65)
The lecturer Suvorin dies and the narrator acquires his library, his contacts for building this library and an old manuscript. This manuscript and other part of the collection are the books, papers and diaries of a French theatre director Jacques de Sertan and eighty six pages into the novel we begin to learn of this ancient manuscript, is this the basis of the novel itself (as the blub on the back cover would suggest)?
Here we learn of a play that is to be performed re-enacting the life of Christ, using untrained local illiterate peasants in the leading New Testament roles, no actor is to play Christ, as “Christ knows everything and, when the time comes, He will reveal Himself – that is His business”. As Sertan teaches these peasants and the words slowly become their own, they begin to see him as the Messiah, or is he?
When the actors repeated Sertan’s words, trying to feel what it was he was saying, he sensed the maternal instinct waking inside him, as in a bird whose offspring have just hatched; it was as if they were eating out of his mouth, and he would often forget that the words were not his, although, in our view, this was quite understandable. And so, while he was reading them the Gospels, all their strength was spent on remembering, simply remembering the words, and the intonation, and the speed with which they were spoken, and the actors would puff and pant, sweat and tire far more than when they were ploughing the fields. There was no question at this point of their having understood anything much at all; only when they felt that the main job of remembering had been done and they had earned a rest did the word begin to live inside them. (p125)
The troupe are eventually exiled to Siberia and are isolated to set up their own community, the actors playing the Apostles, become the Apostles.
Christians and Jews alike knew that everything would be fulfilled, that the world could be arranged in no other way, and that whether you drew the long straw or the short straw, you could not refuse it, even if it fell to you to bring Christ to Golgotha, crucify Him, and then sink into oblivion. (p272)
Following generation after generation, as they await the second coming, in exile, this is an exploration of human behaviour, it includes anarchy, nihilism, violence, peace, democratic rule a raft of experiences. Touching on difficult theosophical theories and events, this book becomes a melting pot of possibilities;
…a model of the most intricate processes of folk creativity, showing how legends spread and mingle, how new ones are born and multiply, how they combine different voices and different strata of culture and time. (p290)
A novel that covers 300 years of historical events, this is a rabbit warren, sometimes moving through romantic tales, other times moving through brutal exile, as soon as you become attached to one narrative thread you are suddenly thrown onto a different path. Given the breadth of time involved here and the players being associated with biblical characters the development of individuals becomes problematic. Grand in its scale, epic in the telling, and clinical in the presentation this is an interesting thought provoking book. Circular it may be, simply because of the beginning and end, complex and multi-dimensional also, you do become drawn in without really understanding how or why, a book for readers who like their titles to challenge.