Wednesday, May 18, 2022

BRISBANE: A Novel, one of the surprise joys that literary life offers

(tr. Marian Schwartz)
Plough Publishing House
$26.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: From the winner of Russia’s biggest literary prizes, a richly layered novel in which a celebrated guitarist robbed of his talent by Parkinson’s disease seeks other paths to immortality: by authorizing a biography and by mentoring a thirteen-year-old virtuoso battling cancer.

This personal story of a lifetime quest for meaning will resonate with readers of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Umberto Eco, and Solzhenitsyn. Expanding the literary universe spun in his earlier novels, Vodolazkin explores music and fame, belonging and purpose, time and eternity. At the stunning finale of Brisbane, all the carefully knit stitches unravel into a riddle: Whose story is it – the subject’s or the writer’s? Are art and love really no match for death? Is Brisbane, the city of our dreams, our only hope for the future?


My Review
: A guitarist with Parkinson's. A son without parental care...with a grandmother's undivided devotion. A half-Ukrainian, half-Russian child caught in between identities, whose life's course was taken *despite* not because it mirrored his father's...and he exceeds the father who didn't believe he was suited for the life of a musician.

Plough Publishing House, linked above, is a christian-focused organization whose primary focus is on the *good* that religion can do...the support for the unsupported, the care for the abandoned, and justice for the victims, that defined the main character's entire identity in the badly plotted, overwritten fantasy novel they build their philosophy on.

What? You thought I wouldn't insult religious nuts for their delusional identity basis? More fool you.

That said, this Ukrainian-Russian story of the pain associated with finding, building, losing, and loving an identity is an excellent example of what this publishing enterprise does best: Bring us the best there is of what there is that aligns with their worldview. This allows all of us to find the places we can stand together, to be in solidarity with even those who aren't like us and might not even like us.

But Gleb, whose story we're being told, is in the hands of a storyteller: A writer called Sergei whose work in writing Gleb's story of average beginnings and a rocket-ride to success and stardom comes just as the trajectory enters its terminal velocity. As must happen to us all, Gleb's facing mortality and the sad end of productive life. What he does, in chronicling his life with Sergei's help, surnamed "Nestorov" or "of Nestor's line" which gave me quite the chuckle), is bridge the ever-widening gap between the past's ghostly and fantasy-based "unity" and the present's angry animosity. Gleb's life, his struggle to win through to a meaningful use of his passion and his loneliness in abandonment by his Russian mother and his obsessive, judgmental Ukrainian father, is Ukraine's story. It seems to Gleb that he loses his life to no end, to no result...then he orients himself towards a future of hopeful and fruitful action in mentoring a young, lost, rejected soul. Pay it forward.

If you've read Author Vodolazkin's award-winning book Laurus (the genus of evergreen trees called "Laurels" and used, as your history brain will remind you, as victory-wreath material), the themes of christian redemption through works and the need to seek a purpose to make life into A Life won't be unfamiliar. Where that book was a medieval fantasy, and one of rare and joyous elegance and compassion, this is a modern and more basic, more brutal in a sense, version of the story. Death plays its part in the proceedings but it is the death that you and I, Westerners and rationalists, know; in Laurus, Death like all other supernatural forces is embodied, personified. Our names for him have changed (eg "Parkinson's disease") but his dark, demanding, denying power have not.

It is in the face of Death that some people find their only moments of clarity. Gleb isn't exactly one of them, he's organzied his life around music and willed into being a life centered on making music count. But he hasn't, until he meets Sergei Nestorov, put his lived experience into an ordered, planned, meant-to-be-shared form. This is a major act of grace. He's done something so selfless in this examination of the pain of being not enough, discovering he can make others experience joy, then losing it all.
When Gleb finished writing his rain compositions, people told him they bore traces of despair. Gleb didn't respond. He remembered the particular expression in his father's eyes, an expression that could only be defined as despair. What really happened then? Was Irina frivolous? More likely, she took everything light-heartedly, showing a marked preference for the sunny side of life. And was disinclined to delve particularly into its shadowy aspects. She often repeated that she'd like to live in Australia: for some reason, that country seemed like the embodiment of the carefree life. Jokingly, she would ask people to find her an Australian husband she could travel the world with. It was in one of those conversations that Gleb first heard the word "Brisbane." Talking about the city of her dreams, his mother named Brisbane.


Irina allowed Gleb's father parental visits but derived no joy from them. Strictly speaking, neither did Gleb himself. When Fyodor took the boy for a walk, he mostly was silent or recited poetry, which for Gleb was worse than silence in a way. Sometimes, when Gleb got tired at the end of their walk, Fyodor would pick him up. Their eyes were on a level then, and the son would examine his father with a child's unblinking gaze. Under this gaze, tears would well up in Fyodor's brown eyes. One after another, they would roll down his cheeks and disappear forever in his fluffy mustache.

It can't escape your attention in either of these passages that the child isn't centered. It won't surprise you to learn that neither parent was There for their son. It can't escape your notice that, in that case, a child is left to his own devices, no matter the other sources of support he discovers over his life, to define what love and care are.

It won't shock you then to learn that Gleb married music, and focused on becoming a star when the Universe presented him with the possiblity. And now...ending that life and without another prepared for he gifts all that he's learned to a writer who will tell of his lifelong struggle to be whole when his antecedents left him to figure out for himself what that would mean, what that would look like.

Much the way Ukraine is experiencing its national-identity crisis in a cruel war with its cold, needy, selfish mother who abandoned it when it was in need. Time after time after time.

Gleb forgives, accepts, and gives his all to the future, to the child he mentors, the child challenged to remain alive...does she have his luck, does she have his singleness of purpose to make music and make Life give him more music to make?

And Nestor(ov) does what he must do, he brings the legend to life by writing a life of the legend. I hope you'll read Vodolazkin's work. It is beautifully translated, with none of the stiltedness of transferring meaning from one tongue to another; Translator Schwartz started from a high mountain, it's true, but she also blazed her trail there with surefooted grace.

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