And neither can be certain who
Was that I whose mine was you.
Robert Graves, ‘The Thieves’
Shortlisted for the Tibor & Jones Pageturner Prize in 2015, Svetlana Lavochkina’s debut novel, Zap (short, tart diminutive for the Ukrainian city, ‘Zaporozhye’) is a kaleidoscopic and enchantingly scurrilous tour de force. Emphatically, shamelessly literary, the experience of reading this debut novel can be compared to getting uproariously drunk, laughing your head off, and then sleeping the joyous inebriation off by dreaming of getting uproariously drunk and laughing your head off. The literariness of this novel is not just due to the dense, brilliant palette evinced by the sensual style (which, though flamboyant, is still rigorously precise); and it’s not just due to the litany of literary names that people and precipitate the novel’s plotting (from Pushkin, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, to Dickens and Hemingway and Nabokov, among many others). No, beyond all this salutary fare, the novel is literary most of all because of the cohering and poignant way the voice and the style of the prose prove as fittingly heady (and funny) as the infectiousness of the relations and interrelations of the tale’s bombastic cast of characters, zipping and zapping between Russia and Ukraine.
I won’t comprehensively précis the plot, because it would be both highly difficult — given how dense the rigmarole of thrilling happenings are — and also traitorous to the incumbent delight of future readers.
In brief outline, the tale is set between Zap, Odessa and Moscow (apart from some letters from America, from a central character who absconds there). The book opens cinematically, in Ukraine in 1821; we have Pushkin taking a swim in the Dnieper, having had a famed turquoise ring, betokened from an equally famed paramour, stolen and buried by some louts. This talisman, this memento, is of course central to the novel’s plot and its rounding-off in the end, primarily by the way in which its fate is followed by and follows the fate of the protagonists. The tale then moves to the mid 1970s, to be moved again into the eighties and into the Perestroika period at the finale. Matching this strategic dating, much of the most significant action is set on dovetailing New Years’ Eves, a choice that highlights the exemplary intentions of what is a highly, highly idiosyncratic tale. New Years’ Eves are literal turning-points which, perhaps, indicate more symbolic ones.
Pushkin shadows, as much as he foreshadows, the tale throughout – via quotations of his verse at strategic points, via ridiculous or serious claims of ancestry from some of the late twentieth-century Soviet cast, and via his legendary dip in the ‘Dnieper’, a river that rivers, too, throughout Zap. There is a sense that not only do we never step ‘in the same river twice’, but that we do in fact step in the same river more than twice. And this seeming contradiction is dramatized by how the reflexive weave of characters has a river-like economy; like water, every particle ends up being (connected to) every other, and like water, flowing, each has his or her own fate in what is still an eminently congealing plot.
But the Russian Pushkin, father-figure of the novel, is matched by the American Hemingway, studied to the point of plotted delusion by one of the central characters, ‘Alka’ (a ‘PhD in English Philology’). Moreover, though this novel starts with the iconic Pushkin, it ends with the youngest character, a mere child throughout most of the tale, ‘Sonka’, having moved to America. The last line, part of a belated and valedictory letter, ends on the note that she, ‘Sonka’ has now forgotten all her ‘Russian.’ As another apposite instance of canny thematic reflexivity, ‘Hugh Winter’, the father (and grandfather) of one and some of the characters, both built the ‘Dnieper Dam,’ and then, later, the ‘Hoover Dam.’ Compounding these thematic clues, the three major women characters (‘Alka,’ ‘Rita’ and ‘Svetka’), are ‘painted’ as ‘trois déesses sovietiques’ (‘Three Soviet Goddesses’) in a triptych by another character, an artist. The artistry (not to mention the storied fate of that art) in the tale, thus, seems like a metonym for that without, framing it.
Sex is not only one of the funniest, most fateful, and redolent themes of the story, but may well be a metaphor (as in the epigraph, made-use of heuristically above) for how coital and serpentine the relationships that forge the plot turn out to be – a skein of enchanting vertigos, a moving scaly map of ardor and lust, a fanfare of humors and happenings. A curt way of putting it is to say that the texture of this tale is like a fertile marriage, say, of Henry Miller and Mikhail Bulgakov. There is Miller’s crab-like an-archic movement from scenic array to scenic array, garnished by the thrilling and honest obscenities which disclose living characters – but all contained in near-serial order, and with the light touch of a Dickens or Molière (the last of whom was I believe, tellingly, one of Bulgakov’s major loves and subjects.) There is madness within the tale, and the prose jingles to the pipes of pan; but this rousing carousel of character and fateful event is always felt to be under the controlled hand of a light and masterful touch. The reader gets to know the cast, as they intermingle within and across chapters, as they do ‘Zap,’ which is not only a place, a setting, but becomes by the end a kind of eponymous mythos.
The artistry of this book is infectious. What is suggested to the intelligent reader is how one might multiply connections and interconnections, indefinitely. And though in one sense, the novel comes full circle, with Pushkin at the start and ‘Pushkin’ at (or at least very near) the end; in another, the asymmetry of Russian iconicity and its anglicized disappearance at the end, indicates more of a spiraling off, than the closure of a circle. This duplicitous imaginative reading direction is similar in my view to the way that reading Nabokov’s synesthetic prose can prod and spur the desperate urge to write in his writerly readers. Similar, in that the (role of the) ‘imagination’ is perhaps one of the novel’s most neatly-beveled themes; whether we look for closure or its elision, both are proffered here. And this imaginative byway may be another way that the book is highly ‘literary,’ in the best sense.
And all this, might I say, thankfully, without ‘gimmicks’. While the book may have a (very) faint whiff of sparkling, freewheeling post-modernity about it – there is nothing disintegratory or chaotic about the tale or the way it is shaped. Indeed, by using the word ‘enchanting’ in this brief account of my reading of Zap, I hope to indicate the soulful and magical nature of this book. Its spells and its rhapsodies emit from a fertile and constructive imagination, and not from either, a too-cerebral self-defeating self-consciousness, nor from a fanciful hodge-podge.
I will end this brief reader-ly reaction by quoting the ‘spell’ cast in 1821 by Pushkin’s minions, as they bury the treasured ring – a passage not only reprised towards the end of the novel when the spiral circles, but also indicative of the scurrilous and inventive talent of this debut novelist:
“Who finds this is a pig’s snout, mare’s arse, slaughterhouse cur, unchristened brow, grandson of the Serpent, and the crick in my dick… The devil shits, and you eat. You touch this treasure and your balls be bust and thy mother be screwed. For this kiss my Cossack arse.”
Now that’s my kind of curse!
Omar Sabbagh is a poet, writer and critic. His first collection and his latest, fourth collection, are, respectively: My Only Ever Oedipal Complaint and To The Middle of Love (Cinnamon Press, 2010/17). He was Visiting Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at the American University of Beirut (AUB), from 2011-2013, and now teaches at the American University in Dubai (AUD).