Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 11, 2020

The Monastery, by Zakhar Prilepin, translated by Nicholas Kotar

Well, this was an interesting book, and for reasons not entirely to do with the story…

First things first: although a contemporary novel, The Monastery belongs in the category of ‘Camp Prose’, mostly known to people of my generation through the work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008).  During the Cold War, we read the novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) at school (in Form IV? Form V?) — and this is now interesting in itself because it was (at least at my school) the only translated fiction on the syllabus.  Convinced as we were meant to be of the grim and unrelenting reality of the horrors of communism, we subsequently saw the film in 1970, the year that Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize.  Solzhenitsyn was there again at university with Cancer Ward (1968), and some of us even bought The Gulag Archipelago (1973-8), (but, a-hem, never got round to reading its daunting 660 pages).

For us, Solzhenitsyn’s writing was Gospel Truth, and also A Warning, and it wasn’t until 2016 when I read the Soviet era Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov, translated by John Glad (1970, available in Russia in 1978) that I began to glimpse that there were different kinds of real-life experience of the Soviet camps.  But I was still very surprised last year by Zuleikha, by Guzel Yakhina, translated by Lisa C Hayden (2015, translated 2019).  This post Soviet novel, while not airbrushing the grim realities of camp life, features a central character, who — based on the author’s grandmother’s real-life experience — finds some benefits in her life in a Soviet camp.  Which brings me to the first interesting thing about The Monastery.  As the blurb suggests, it suggests that the gulags initially had a purpose somewhat different to the common conception of them:

Founded in the 15th century on an archipelago in the White Sea, from 1923 the monastery became a “camp of special designation,” the foundation stone of the Soviet GULAG system. The novel describes a period when Solovki was being converted from a re-education camp for “socially damaging elements” into what eventually became a mass labor camp. The notion of a Utopia for “forging new human beings,” complete with a library, athletic events, and research laboratories, eventually mutated into a hell of despotism and brutality.

This concept of the gulag as redemptive reminds me of the surprising elements of Children of the Arbat, (1987) by Anatoli Rybakov, translated by Harold Shukman.  It features, to quote my own review….

…the generation born at the time of the Russian Revolution, who by the 1930s were young adults who had grown up believing in Soviet ideals. They were privileged by comparison with most people in the Soviet Union because they had better access to education and opportunity, they were in a position to see the economic progress being made under rapid industrialisation, and they were forgiving of the human cost because they saw it as an unavoidable aspect of the creation of the Soviet State which they wholeheartedly supported.  The novel charts the slow disillusionment of this generation as they begin to see the consequences of rule by terror.

In Children of the Arbat, Sasha the central character is sent into exile for spurious reasons, but isn’t bitter about it.  He believes in communism, and is philosophical about its excesses which he believes are necessary to build a new society.

Which brings me to the second interesting thing about The Monastery.  In marked contrast to the author’s profile at Read Russia, the introduction, written by an American professor of Russian, Dr Benjamin Sutcliffe from the University of Miami, invites suspicion about the author’s motives in writing it. He explains at some length that Prilepin has a problematic background, whose activities in Ukraine and elsewhere have divided his fan base in Russia, where he won the Big Book Prize (2014).  It is not often that a book begins with a profile of its author that casts doubt on his integrity.

However, Sutcliffe goes on to say that the book has its merits: it is, he says an original, moving and thought-provoking novel about Solovki, the notorious camp set up in 1923 in the remote Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea.  Like Holocaust literature, he says, the novel depicts omnipresent uncertainty and fear as Artiom, the central character is subjected to the vagaries of chance.  He is deployed time and again in less arduous work brigades through no agency of his own, only for some kind of capricious event to occur, collapsing his expectations and necessitating some kind of lucky escape from a harrowing death.  Artiom is not a counter-revolutionary, he is an everyman, a veteran of WW1 but imprisoned as a murderer who killed his father in a situation which would in Australia see him convicted of manslaughter. The story is told from his perspective so that the reader sees his memories, contradictory thoughts, his dreams and his nightmares, and unlike the characters with whom he interacts, the reader also hears what Artiom says to himself but is too prudent to articulate out loud.

We are also, alas, witness to his unpleasant sexism and his sordid relationship with Galina, the lover of the Camp Commandant.  Based on intimacy and fear, Artiom’s affair with Galina inverts the power relationship that usually goes with aggressive masculinity because he is at all times is subordinate to her power.  Even when she is as guilty as he is, both know that she will be believed and he won’t be.  She can punish him at whim, or even have him killed, and time and again he depends on her to rescue him from yet another perilous fall from grace.

Based, apparently, on archival sources and family stories of Prilepin’s great-grandfather Zakhar Petrov, The Monastery is also a coming-of-age story in which Artiom learns the hard way that his fate is capricious and that betrayal is routine.  Guards and officials share the same risks as the inmates as we see in the concluding chapters when officials come from Moscow to find out what’s going on.  They seem to be outraged by the way the intended redemption for the inmates has been distorted by idiosyncratic decision-making, greed and corruption, and shockingly brutal punishments.  Far from being a place where wrongdoers can learn to become better people, Solovki has become a place that brutalises everyone, inmates and guards alike.  These officials purport to be shocked not just by the death rate but also by the ghastly protracted ways in which inmates are killed.  But they don’t stick around to reform the situation, and the old regime is back in place under different leadership before their ship’s wake has disappeared over the horizon.

Unfortunately, the narrative flow is too often disrupted by flaws in the translation.  The book is littered with awkward sentence constructions, peculiar vocabulary and typos. Russian reviewers at Goodreads rate it very highly, so it’s fair to say that the book transcends these flaws. They are annoying, but they do not detract from a compelling plot, especially in the last third of the book when Artiom teeters between life and death and his attempt to flee across the sea involves incredible risks.  I’m not surprised that there is a TV series based on this book…

BTW It was because I read these 5 reasons to read Zakhar Prilepin’s ‘The Monastery’ at Russia Beyond that I became interested in the book in the first place.  Maybe you will be intrigued too!

PS 13/9/20: I meant to say in this review, before I got distracted by other aspects of this novel, that the notion of redemptive judicial punishment is one that strikes a chord here in Australia.  The Soviets intended Solovki as redemptive but it degenerated into an evil part of the Soviet regime.  The Brits who sent shiploads of convicts here to Australia and elsewhere were just getting rid of a problem population and dispossessing the Indigenous inhabitants to do it.  They had no thought of redemption for the people they sent here, and, given the length of the terms of transportation and the distance between Britain and the colony, the convicts had no reasonable expectation that they could be absolved and return home.  Nevertheless, the convict colony confounded all expectations and emerged as a new society.  Some of the convicts worked in the professions and skilled trades from the outset and then went into business for themselves once they had served their term.  Other convicts, once they had their ‘ticket-of-leave’, bought land and farmed it; and entrepreneurs who had the initiative to build capital from their wages, found places in the growing retail and service economy and provided employment to others.  Their sons and daughters, known as ‘currency lads and lasses’ thrived amid new opportunities.  Australia is the classic example of how people thought to be incorrigible could become respectable and valued members of society, if they were given the right opportunities.

You’d think, then, that we’d be better at rehabilitation of prisoners.  But as the novels Dancing Home (2018) by Paul Collis and Jennifer Mill’s Gone (2011) show, the perennial Law and Order agenda in elections guarantees that we’re not.

Author: Zakhar Prilepin
Title: The Monastery
Translated from the Russian by Nicholas Kotar
Introduction by Benjamin Sutcliffe
Publisher: Glagoslav Publications, 2020, first published as Обитель in 2014
ISBN: 9781912894789, pbk.,653 pages
Review copy courtesy of Glagoslav Publications

 


Responses

  1. Most intriguing. I had considered reading this, but thought it might be too much of a commitment at the moment. Like you, I was weaned on Solzhenitsyn in my teens, and there’s a lot more to Gulag writing than him (much as I love him). But I am fascinated to read all the context surrounding this one – thank you!

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    • I must admit that I was a bit daunted by its size when it arrived. But LOL I limbered up with Greenwood and sailed through this one in six days.
      And there is nothing like reading about a gulag to make a reader count her blessings in lockdown! There is a part when Artiom is sent to solitary, which isn’t solitary at all, it’s a decommissioned church with no heating and gaps in the walls and roof, and he is put in there with some other inmates including ‘friends’ who have betrayed him. They are stripped of their clothes to their underwear, and it is so cold that the only way they can sleep is to lie on top of each other in a crazy kind of lattice, taking it in turns to be on the bottom i.e. lying on the floor. The writing is so good, and the metaphors so vivid (despite the clunky translation) that you seem to feel the cold as you are reading it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Your school was far more enlightened than mine. I don’t think the people who set the syllabus ever considered there was literature produced in countries other than UK.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, I don’t think it was enlightenment. It was political in intent. Over the senior years of my education we studied a number of books which were chosen to reinforce the conservative politics of the day. (We had had the same conservative government in Australia since the postwar election, they were in government for 25 years, and as late as 1972 they still had a slogan about Reds Under the Bed if the Labor Party were to win.) We did Bertrand Russell’s Authority and the Individual, and A Man for All Seasons, thematically linked by the idea of the individual against an authoritarian state.

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      • whatever their intent, it meant you had some books that could stimulate thinking

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        • Yes, and TBH reflecting on this made me think about today’s school curriculum and its reliance on what is called YA. I’m told that YA tackles meaty themes, and I know the brilliant work that teachers can do to stimulate thinking in English classes, but still, I wonder if young people are being sold short by ‘relatable’ fiction that focusses on them and their issues.
          I consider myself very lucky to have had great books to read and discuss, and really very good teachers as well.

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  3. What a fascinating review! Thank you.

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  4. This sounds rather heavy. And at more than 650 pages I bet it feels heavy too!

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    • Yes, and yes. It’s not so long ago that I had two frozen shoulders, one after the other, and the left in particular still complains if I ask too much of it. Another 100 pages and I would have been done for!

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  5. I think this sounds a bit grim for me at the moment. I’ve been struggling to finish a novella lately – but have had a lot of work on, as well as faltering attention.

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    • Not to worry, Simon, we’ve been enjoying your beautiful walks and thank you for sharing them with us:)

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