Thus far, Peltse and Pentameron has been my very favorite of all the books we have read. (That will change next week though, since we’ll have read Stanislaw Lem’s Cyberiade, which is my all time second favorite book, just after his „Futurological Congress). But anyway, I’ll try to explain why this (probably inadvertent, I will talk about that in more detail later) compilation of two novellas or novels is such a great one.
When I began reading the book, I first stumbled upon the foreword by Askold Melnyczuk, which already got me very excited for a simple reason: Melnyczuk nigh on apologized to his readers for the fact that the book was so short (Peltse stretching a mere 50 pages). But for me, as someone who hates nothing more than a dragging plot, accentuated by awfully long description of surroundings, people, their physique, their thoughts, their family’s thoughts, their family’s tennis partners thoughts, their family’s tennis partner’s cleaning lady’s thoughts and their family’s tennis partner’s cleaning lady’s thoughts and woes, this was a welcome sign and got me primed for delightful reading.
When I actually started reading, it felt like I was in some kind of rollercoaster. Everything starts of on the pastoral and innocent scene of young children submitting to their own young urges and playing innocent games. But then the pace brutally picks up, when we follow Peltse living through his future life in the one second, before what he anticipates can only be his “sudden death” in a sense: Just as we know from witness accounts of people who were face to face with the grim reaper, time compresses in those crucial seconds and people get to relive their lives in a sort of YouTube-Movie reduction style, only that our protagonist Peltse does not sift through his previous life (there would not be a lot of interest that happened in those few years apart from some full diapers and endless screams for food.) but gets to go through various scenarios of what might happen to him in the future. All this happens in broad view of the reader, who is swept away through the rapid succession of the different events that may or may not happened.
I personally felt like I was being flown through the rapid successions of a modern thriller movie. (It actually reminded me a bit of the movie “Source Code” where the protagonist gets to relive the minutes before death of a victim of a train bombing several times in an attempt by the government, running this interesting experiment to find the culprit)
And then we get to the hilarious scene where a poor Peltse comes across as a nothing but pitiable figure, when he is halted by his old-time bully and local drunkard Paltshiuk, who uses him as a person to talk at, while indulging in the grand sport of drinking vodka, while poor Peltse is thus barred from completing his prescribe workout. In this scene that in my head made Peltse look like a 7 year old shy schoolboy bullied by a peer of twice his age, we also see the turning point of a bullied and (seemingly) quiet boy which will (as we later see) help him become the great leader and comrade Peltse, a real big shot.
But the trifle of the tragicomic figure that is Peltse is pervasive and comes to show again in a scene where our now older and equally higher up the ladder Protagonist tries to get some, as the narrator puts it “hors d’oevre” and firewater of some young party members, but this very important endeavor (much to Peltse’s dismay) does not lead anywhere, since he isn’t able to find any incriminating evidence which he could use to extort a delicious dinner from the two youngsters.
The final iteration of Peltse’s inherent comicality is brought upon us when we read about a dinner party, at which a very interesting painting or picture, titled along the lines of “Comrade Peltse leaving a certain establishment” is mentioned in front of Peltse’s sheep, who are in the house of the Western wolf, who adamantly deny the existence of such a sacrilegous icon and retaliate by presenting the host with the “Collected writings by Comrade Peltse”.
After the final appearance of an exhausted and slightly cynical Peltse, who, lying in the sumptuous sleeper of a third-class cabin gets his toes bashed in by a passenger who slams his suitcase into aforementioned toes, declares with a sight that he had had to take an awful lot in his time I was quite amused:
What Volodymyr Dibrova did here is one of the most comical of transformations of a semi-real character: He took the motive of a Soviet leader (let x be Nikita Chrushtshow for instance), people that were stylized by their propagandic apparatus to be some kind of superhuman, super powerful politician, who spends his day inspecting combinats, shaking hands, generally smiling and letting everyone know that communism is the way to go. But Dibrova shows us that these rather fearsome people might have had something of laughable past as well: He makes great leader Peltse look like someone, who just never quite got it right, and as an epilogue in his life has to flee his country armed with a fake beard and injured toes.
This very light-hearted take on the once all powerful and intimidating figures of the Soviet Union bemused me a lot, a motive as old as history.
The second part of the book, the story “Pentameron” which is introduced with a cast list, just like that of a play, points in an exactly opposite direction with its bow of sarcasm: Here not only the leaders in the social hierarchy are the main objects of ridicule, but the common people of Room 507 in Institute NIIAA (“not me!”, great onomatopoeticon) with their delusional dreams, visions and everyday struggles and woes are poked fun at:
Just as in Peltse we are taking away quickly from the linear progression of the day at works and delve into the rambling thoughts and visions of our 5 main characters.
The Pentameron lets them each tell their own slightly offbeat story about their very personal problems, by having them daydream while they tend to the translation of literature as fascinating as that about swimming pools heated with solar energy, as well as the structural integrity of concrete buildings.
We hear about the woes of a mother, who nearly falls to hysteria over concern that her husband doesn’t take proper care of their ill son.
We follow the inner life of Vitya, the lowest in the social order of the crew in room 507, who so desperately wants to become an artist, and spends his day essentially dreaming about how such a life could pan out, culminating in a brilliant scene, where he travels to an imaginary haven of artists, deviates, and dissidents (including, most hilariously, scores of Hare Krishna followers) who are all deported later on, leaving him alone in this artistic refuge.
We hear from Svitlana Zhuravlynchenko, whose main concern in her life is that she is not able to reach an orgasm.
We hear from Ophelia Feliksivna, the most senior member in room 507, who is in a constant struggle with herself over the question whether to flee the country, that she so often complains about (we as the reader are witnesses to a considerable amount of outbursts in that direction.)
And we hear from Zoyka, the young girl, who lives in the inhumane circumstances of a student dorm that, like most habitats in the Soviet Union, provide neither refuge nor private life at all.
The story ark behaves like the sun: There are huge eruptions on the sun every day, but in the end nothing changes, and it continues with its fusion reactions for another couple of million of years. And in the play it is analogous: The emotions and thoughts of our protagonists boil over considerably and often. But in the end everything stays more or less the same.
Despite the daydreamer’s mental eruptions growing bigger and more dramatic, in the end, all remains the same: They leave the office in the evening, as though nothing had changed. The only exception being Vitya, of whom we don’t know if he remained in the premises, or, as the only one courageous enough, to leave this godforsaken realm and try to start a new life on the grounds of what he loves and is most passionate about.
But for all others the misery persists. And this I like so much about this book: It shows so well what made the Soviet Union a horrible place to live and be in. That is, that there is no kind of perspective whatsoever for any kind of self-fulfillment and self-development outside the bounds of anything that is useful for the ideology.
Living in the mills of an insiduous, meticulous and equally corrupt bureaucracy, with a low standard of living, and to add insult to injury, with people that are everything but sophisticated, that is the real horror of the Soviet Union.
And the Rhapsody that is Peltse and Pentameron, a Piece made from two unconnected stories, gives us a both humurous and compelling insight into the proceedings of a bygone time.