PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
Light-Headed is a spellbinding Kafkaseque modern fable, which sustains its suspense up to the end.
Maxim T Yermakov has come up in the world. Leaving his parents in the sticks, he made his way to Moscow and is now a thrusting marketing guy in a chocolate factory whose only problem is being gazumped when trying to buy his first flat.
Maxim is unusual in that he has an empty space above his brain (hence ‘light-headed’) but this was fine until two sinister men turned up at the factory to inform him that his head was an alpha object and the cause of all the disasters afflicting Russia.
If he committed suicide, they told him, he would be saving many lives and for that sacrifice the state would give ten million dollars to whomever he nominated.
Thus Olga Slavnikova sets up her black comedy of life in modern Russia – a country which has been gifted the worst of both capitalism and communism – a consumer society obsessed with material goods and with an all-powerful state apparatus.
Oddly the only truly decent people in the novel are a group of Christians who pretend to be alcoholics and whores in order to be left alone by the authorities.
Slavonikova is a prize winning author and Director of a literary prize for young authors in Russia, helping to get them published and translated. This is a powerful novel, if rather long. There is only so much misery, even in satire, that the reader can take.
In Moscow’s inflated housing market, Maxim T. Yermakov, “brand manager for several appalling varieties of milk chocolate,” cannot afford his own flat. In many ways an individualist Muscovite everyman, Maxim was born with a strange, empty head, “a void through which the wind blew freely.” When sinister government agents arrive at his workplace and tell him his unusual head will cause thousands of people to die (“In Moscow and St Petersburg, shopping centers and amusement halls will collapse…”), there is only one solution: Maxim must shoot himself.
This bizarre premise is the wobbly foundation for Light-Headed. Slavnikova's previous novel, 2017, which won the 2006 Russian Booker, also blended sci-fi, thriller and fantasy. Her latest edifice takes its place in Russian literature's rich satirical tradition, tempering philosophical bleakness with comedy and reflecting the modern world in a warped, disturbing mirror.
A satire of present-day Russian society, Light-Headed begins with a full disclosure: the protagonist, Maxim T. Yermakov, who was born with an empty space inside his head, is visited by two representatives of the 'Special State Committee for Social Forecasting' in his office, where he thinks up advertising strategies for unappetizing 'milky-clay' chocolatehe agents tell him that he has a capacity for preventing catastrophes, be it terrorist acts or natural disasters; to save humankind he only has to commit suicide. Given a promise of money for his family and fame for himself, as well as an old pistol, Yermakov goes home, unwilling to shoot himself. Soon he is being pelted with rotten fruit in the street, shamed online and banned from his local supermarket.
The glassy-eyed 'social forecasters' keeping Yermakov under constant surveillance are enough to evoke the atmosphere of a totalitarian society. Andrew Bromfield had much fun with the language of new Russia when translating Babylon and other books from the 1990s by Victor Pelevin; here his talent is in evidence again when he comes up with such monikers as 'Classy Baddy' and 'handy hulk'.
The book is set in Moscow, which appears to have changed little since the bad old days, despite the emergence of PR consultants, Hugo Boss suits and private apartments. Yermakov is renting one in a 'leaden-grey dormitory suburb with a fierce wind blowing from round every corner', and his relationship with his landlady is vividly described - a variation on that eternal Russian theme, 'the housing issue'. Office slaves, gutter hacks, gold-diggers and other colourful types surround the hero like the chorus in a tragedy, demanding his sacrifice. Until he finds true love at the end of the book, this 'little man' has little charm, yet you feel for him: he is right to refuse to die for that lot.