2013 Big Book Award finalist
Rights sold: Russia - EKSMO, France - GALLIMARD
"Most of our town was laying in ruins – everywhere shards of houses, walls with gaping windows, basements without buildings – and everything covered by elderberry bushes. In the summer their dense foliage hid all this misery; you could go in the bushes since in the whole town there wasn't a single public toilet, and the men went there to drink, far from prying eyes."
Yuri Buida's new novel, the autobiographical fantasy "Thief, Spy and Murderer", tells a story of hero's childhood, youth, and maturing as a person and writer, his role in that time and place where he was born and lived, namely in the splinters of Teutonic civilization, in Western Prussia, annexed by the Soviet Union after World War II, in a small town outside Kaliningrad, in a time of half-built socialism during Khrushchev's "thaw" of the 60's. Comical and sad, monstrous and beautiful stories from the lives of those around him meld into a complete symphony of his era. Upset by the abyss between the high-minded problems of literary heroes and the vegetative lives of his contemporaries, he comes to a new level of understanding as he matures: to appreciate the harmony and the beauty of life, you need to lower your visor and start absorbing it directly through all your nerve endings. Then all of life's absurdity and horror will also enter you completely – but such is the price of feeling truly alive.
Buida's prose tastes at once bitter and sweet – such is the nature of this author's talent. As a literary critic once remarked, Buida is a little perilous to read, because he "winds his string very tight". But every time the string seems ready to break, it doesn't – it just screams at the limit of its abilities.
That's also how it is with his new novel. Its heroes live a life without a core, built on contrasts that sear the soul, as the sight of a snow-covered, sunlit mountaintop sears the eye. It's a wild life, untethered, newly primitive, knowing neither fear nor shame. Childlike innocence and feral cruelty, generosity of soul and poverty of mind, desire for divine flight and for desperate self-destruction go hand in hand. Here love and death are of equal value, both working toward annihilation.
The world reposes in evil, thinks Yuri Buida's hero, who has adored Kafka since his youth and dreamed of becoming a writer like him: to steal images from reality, to spy after the tiniest movements of the soul, and to kill moments – only to depict them forever.
Buida’s Thief, Spy, and Murderer feels like multiple books, in multiple ways. The description the literary journal Znamya gave the book - an autobiographical fantasy - sums up a lot: over all, Thief, Spy, and Murderer sure feels like an autobiography but some passages sure feel embellished. Thief, Spy, and Murderer read so much like a fiction-nonfiction hybrid to me that I can’t quite bring myself to refer to it as a novel, as Eksmo, its publisher, does. At least neither the journal nor the book publisher labelled it a “documentary novel,” a term I’ve always found annoyingly opaque.
At least the basics are fairly easy to list. Thief, Spy, and Murder is a first-person narrative told by a male who is identified (all of once) as Buida: he’s a boy when the book begins, an adult writer when it ends. ... Details may vary significantly but much of what happens to meta-Buida (as I’ll call the Buida in the book) echoes circumstances and events in the life of the writer named Iurii Buida, including being from the Kaliningrad area, practicing journalism, and becoming a writer.
Thief, Spy, and Murderer begins with meta-Buida’s family getting up in the morning and preparing to go out for a Revolution Day demonstration. The narrator first describes the order in which the family uses the slop pail, then shows us his mother in curlers and his father shaving and putting on his medals. We’re in the post-War years. As neighbors begin to appear, so do stories, like the woman whose daughters came “from the elder bushes” that grow in the ruins of buildings. And then banners and a smell (Red Moscow perfume makes yet another literary appearance) and toasts... There’s an earthiness, a bit of an edge, and a real sense of seaminess.
There are lots of other promising bits in the beginning of the book: railroad tracks that raised my expectations for a Don Domino-esque book, some sordid and lonely crime, and the narrator’s father preventing a group of men from hurting a gypsy child. I think my favorite passage involved a trip to the paper mill where meta-Buida’s father works: they look inside a train car loaded with books by Stalin, all waiting to be pulped. There are sixteen tons of Stalin in each car; hundreds of cars are lined up, if only in the distance. The father gives permission to begin work on the books, allowing them to be unloaded, pitchforked into the pulper, and then piped to a cardboard-making machine. Yikes. Vodka is consumed. Then a bit later: “After they’d cleared out the fourth car, my father took me by the hand and we went home.”
On the next page, meta-Buida says his first experience with the writings of Solzhenitsyn is through One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which fails to make much of an impression because “Everything, everything, felt familiar to me when I read it: not the details, of course, but the very atmosphere, the air.” It’s the life and the worst aspects of everydayness that feel familiar to him - and scarier than the statistics of the Gulag - and it is all steeped in Stalin.
That mention of Solzhenitsyn is key to the book, I think because, for my taste, anyway, Buida is at his best in Thief, Spy, and Murderer when he addresses those everyday horrors: the book feels most elemental and smartest then, too, particularly because many of these scenes have the surreal or mythical touches I enjoyed so much in Don Domino and Blue Blood.
(From Lisa Hayden Espenshade's review. Full version is here: http://lizoksbooks.blogspot.com.es/)