Rights sold:  Estonia - VARRAK, Russia - EKSMO

Winner of the 2019 Estonian Cultural Endowment’s Russian Author Award

Inhabitants of the Funny Cemetery is a panoramic novel which vividly brings to life the worlds of three generations of Russian émigrés in Paris. To recap, the Russian emigration began with the October Revolution and continued apace for two decades, meaning that by the start of the Second World War almost 80,000 Russians had established themselves in France. Paris quickly became the capital of the Russian emigration, not to be replaced by New York until the middle of the century.

The novel contains multiple voices, including three first-person protagonists, whose voices start to overlap, to intertwine, and set off unexpected echoes. The novel’s main narrator is the Soviet émigré Viktor Lipatov (not necessarily his real name), a former dissident who spent several years in psychiatric detention, fled to America, and then arrived in Paris at the beginning of 1968, where he found work in the editorial offices of a Russian émigré newspaper.

The second first-person narrator is Alexandr Krushchevsky, a doctor who was born to first generation Russian émigrés in Belgium, served as a volunteer in the Belgian army during the Second World War, was captured by the Germans, fled, and then lived in Saint-Ouen in France, where he mixed in French avantgarde art circles, before turning up again in Paris in 1968.

The main protagonist of the novel, who brings the diverging stories together, is the multitalented Alfred Morgenstern, also a first-generation Russian émigré who was born in Moscow in 1896 before leaving with his family for Paris in 1906. A doctor by profession, he is also a pianist, an actor, a model, and an obsessive writer. Morgenstern and Krushchevsky are good friends, they are united by several shared experiences, and they share a secret which adds a subtle element of crime-fiction to the novel.      

The colourful lives of the Russian émigrés are portrayed from the perspectives of these three characters. We learn about the difficulties they have acclimatising, the traumas inflicted on them by war, their struggle against Communism, and their homesickness. In this world, real-life and fictional characters mingle freely; at the risk of oversimplification one can argue that there are three types of characters in the novel: fictional characters, characters inspired by real-life people, and real-life historical figures.

The three main protagonists are examples of the first type, embodying certain general features of the Russian émigrés, but lacking any specific historical counterparts. There are several ancillary characters who serve as examples of the second type: Ilja Gvozdevich, who is based on the émigré artist Ilja Zhdanevich (1894-1975), Sergei Shershnyov, a character inspired by the émigré writer and artist Sergei Sarshun (1888-1975) and Anatoly Igumnov, whose real-life counterpart was the Russian émigré historian, publicist and politician Sergey Melgunov (1879-1956). A whole gallery of historical figures feature in the novel, including Nikolay Berdyaev, André Breton, Paul Éluard, Théodore Fraenkel, Charles de Gaulle, Pavel Milyukov and Boris Poplavsky.

It could be said that the city of Paris is the fourth character in the novel. Ivanov makes Paris almost physically tangible, and does so for all three of the historical periods which the novel covers. At the start of the novel, the author gives a captivating description of Paris life, through the words of the character Morgenstern. To provide a flavour this, I quote at length: ‘Paris whips you on, kicks you up the backside, sprinkles you with rain, splashes you in puddles, plays pranks on you, spits swearwords at you, whispers gossip in your ear, grabs at coat hems and shopfronts, pulls you close, kisses you on both cheeks, fishes cash out of your pocket, waves its hat at you, looks you longingly in the eye, and then embraces you in its dark, satin night.’ (pg. 44).

Ivanov has gone to great lengths to ensure that all of the historical details are correct, including the physical environment (it’s clear that he has visited all of the novel’s locations), and the historical events. He has taken inspiration from a range of Russian émigré memoires and diaries, including those of Boris Poplavsky, Ivan Bunin, Felix Yusupov, Teffi (Nadezhda Lohvitskaya) and Anna Kashina-Yevreinova.

In addition to the richness of historical detail, The Inhabitants of the Funny Cemetery is a homage to the art of the novel. Ivanov has found space for the majority of his literary influences here. There are multiple references to Dickens, in particular the Pickwick Papers, to Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, while Celine and Joyce interact in intriguing ways, as do Bunin and Nabokov. One can detect the stylistic influence of Mikhail Bulgakov, traces of Cormac McCarthy’s approach to form, as well as the influence of Goncharov’s Oblomov.

But the greatest appeal of ‘The Inhabitants of the Funny Cemetery’ lies in Ivanov’s command of language. No one else writes quite like Ivanov. Literary scholars Eneken Laanes and Daniele Monticelli have fittingly described his style as ‘hysterical realism interspersed with epiphanic revelations (Keel ja Kirjandus, 2017, nr. 1)’. Ivanov’s writing grabs the reader and pulls her into its embrace, wraps her in multiple narrative strands, leads her through labyrinths, providing intermittent flashes of light and relief, before dragging her back into its depths.

Irina Belobrovtseva and Aurika Maimre have compared Ivanov’s style to rock music (Ivanov is a devoted fan): ‘It has a discernible rock rhythm, with all its crazy energy and drive, it grabs hold of you and pulls you along, releasing you from your physical surroundings.’ (Language and Literature 2015, nr. 1).

Ivanov creates entrancing literary worlds, he gets under the reader’s skin, conjuring up colours, smells, emotions; he dictates the pace, providing a cathartic experience which is almost physically tangible.

Inhabitants of the Funny Cemetery is Ivanov’s first full-length symphony, a work in which he demonstrates his talents in every literary form, and on every instrument. It is one of the most brilliant achievements in Estonian literature of the last few decades.

(from a review by Marek Tamm)

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