Rights sold: Russia - EKSMO
Longlisted for the 2016 NOS literary award
Longlisted for the 2016 Big Book literary award
Yuri Buida's Ceylon is a family chronicle narrated in first person by Andrei Cherepnin, the last living representative of his family. Generation after generation, Cherepnins played a significant role in the life of a small provincial town Osorin; their private lives became integral part of its history, of the history of Russia. They were among the founders of the city, they have grown up and developed with it, they actively participated to the first industrial revolution, then to WWI and the Bolshevik revolution, the family was torn apart by the Russian Civil War, it survived the WWII, then the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Perestroika, and faced up with a new reality of modern Russia.
Family history of Cherepnins - just as the history of Russia - features an endless line of secrets, betrayals, deaths, and recompenses for their sins: narrator's great-grandfather, a prominent revolutionary, once executed his own brother, who was a counter-revolutionary. Narrator's grandfather, a director of the military plant, killed a murderer of his granddaughter. Life Andrei is also overfilled with losses and deaths of his most loved ones.
Ceylon is a parable novel, a tale of a broken reality, of the world nearing its end, but still aching for the impossible ideal, for the City of Sun. In Buida's vision, the Cherpnins are the metaphoric depiction of Russia. Their deliberate or intuitive intents to put together their broken lives only lead them to a new tragedy. The only thing that remains intact, and gives them strength to continue is their permanent longing for love and their native ability to share love with others.
(From the review published by Lizok's Bookshelf blog):
I might not call Yuri Buida's Цейлон (Ceylon) the author's headiest or most metaphysical novel—I definitely prefer both his Blue Blood and Zero Train—but Ceylon, like Poison and Honey, his previous book, is thoroughly readable and enjoyable. Lots of Ceylon felt familiar after reading several other Buida novels: part of my enjoyment, I suspect, came from just that because I love observing how authors reuse structures and tropes in various books. That familiarity may also help explain why I think Ceylon feels more accessible and mainstream (these aren't bad words!) to me than, say, his Blue Blood or Zero Train...
As with Blue Blood and Poison and Honey, a family home feels like a key character in Ceylon: in this case, as in Poison, there's a house on a hill. The area it's in is known as "Ceylon," which reminds of how a building in Blue Blood is known as "Africa." Both those names are introduced early in their respective novels, leading to questions about the origins of the building names. In the case of Ceylon, named thusly by a traveler in the eighteenth century enamored of the island, there were early attempts to dress up dogs as tigers, boys as monkeys, and wooden structures as palm trees. Not quite a tropical paradise but an attempt at paradise nevertheless and (long story short, since of course there's much more to things) the place, though not the original house, which burned, is now home to the Cherepin family, five generations of which are described in varying levels of detail in the book by Andrei Ilyich Cherepin, a first-person narrator who's genial and, though heavily involved in events, feels surprisingly reliable.
Ceylon, though, feels almost more like some form of "absurd realism" or at least "quirky realism" to me, what with brothers on opposite sides at revolution time—this, by the way, feels like another case of attempts at paradise, of which there are many in Ceylon and Ceylon, including through marriage—and a taxidermied bear and unlikely loves and a woman dancing the lambada at the grave of her son, who died in Chechnya. There's lots of everyday oddity. And I nearly forgot the big elm tree growing through the house. A sort of family tree.
There's a lot of history, too: Andrei's first job is at a dig, where he charms all the young women, he goes on to be a teacher, work at the local museum, and write his dissertation about local history that includes his family. Digs and cultural layers come up a lot in contemporary Russian fiction and Buida piles together Russian history, local history, and family history for the reader to dig through, working in the two brothers' conflicts about the revolution—I mention this again because I thought it's one of the strongest and best-integrated subplots in the book, with its combination of "big" history and family history—the military-industrial complex, whose secrets another family member keeps; the crime-ridden banditry of the nineties; the wars in Chechnya; and even the conflict in Ukraine. Some of these chunks of history are more successful than others, I think: as often happens in fiction, particularly family sagas that draw on and reflect a country's history, more distant events usually feel better contextualized and grounded than those more recent.
In the end, though, the town cemetery, known as Red Mountain, felt almost more significant to me than Ceylon, both because Andrei speaks, early on, of his youthful hope for immortality and because his grandfather has taken on a gigantic cemetery renovation project (financed in a way that doesn't sound perfectly legal) that dovetails nicely with Andrei's thoughts about the afterlife at the end of the book, when he's the father of three (almost four) children and has described rather dramatic losses of family members. There's a lot of mortality in Ceylon but also lots of birth.