The world’s biggest country, in a magazine. Since 1956.
by Ludmila Ulitskaya, translated by Polly Gannon (FSG)
p align="left">The beauty of this book is not rooted in excellent turns of phrase, like
“Both of them felt like milk bottles in the hands of a good housewife, ringing with cleanliness after a good wash.”
>“Everything incidental had drained from Olga’s face; all that was left was a sharp, naked beauty, and the illness itself.”
“Tea and vodka poured out in rivers, kitchens basked in the fervent steam of political dispute, so that the dampness crept up the walls to the hidden microphones behind the tiles at the level of the ceiling.”
No, the beauty here is in the steady, comforting accretion of character and detail as the plot builds and develops. It is in Ulitskaya’s onion-layer revelations of new facets of her characters by retelling aspects of the story through differing perspectives. It is like the way you get to know someone over many years: first through one type of interaction, then another, then yet another. Soon you have a suitably complex picture of the individual, yet deep down you know there is much more that will never be revealed.
On one level, The Big Green Tent is the story of a handful of young friends coming of age in post-Stalinist Russia, and of the connections, circumstances, and relationships that bind their lives together in a secretive, authoritarian, class obsessed society. Several of them choose a path of dissent, gently urged on by their gifted teacher Victor Yulievich and the informal leader of their “circle” Anna Alexandrovna. Others sell out, emigrate, or hew the loyalist line.
But, more deeply, this is the story of the increasingly complex web of relationships between characters, of the hidden motives for one character’s actions that only become clear when we hear the story again, this time from their point of view.
Ulitskaya’s storytelling style is plain-spoken, almost laconic, and often you are halfway through a chapter, seeing the world through the eyes of a new character, before you realize you have met this person before, yet only in passing, or only through the eyes of another. It is a deeply affecting style and by the time you get to the end of this wonderful novel, you will feel as if you learned all these characters’ histories not from the pages of a book, but from the edge of a linoleum veneered table in a humid kitchen on the fourth floor of a cozy khrushchyovka.
Reviewed in Russian Life: Jan/Feb 2016