Roadside Picnic (1972)


Date seems almost arbitrary: published 1972 in Russian but heavily censored; first English trans. in 1977; first Russian edition sanctioned by the Strugatskys finally in the 90s; this new trans. by Olena Bormashenko in 2012.

Didn’t expect Stalker to have cleaved to the text but the tonal difference was still striking: more like The Road (the book), (“he felt the brass knuckles in his pocket … They were in a remote, desolate place…” p.67) even something like Brighton Rock in terms of the nihilistic low-end jockeying between factions and hustlers in the border town of Harmont. Certainly also would be no surprise if this has had a direct influence on survival video games like Fallout; the epistemic detail, the isolation, the inventories of supplies and “swag” like Tom Clancy classics and later Metal Gear Solid. Definitely likewise a sense that I would have enjoyed this eight years ago: it’s pulpy and gristly, less rain-soaked than blood-smeared.

As Boris S’s afterword contests RP seems relatively non-political (at least explicitly); it largely sidesteps direct comparison with the Soviet circumstances by dislocating the setting through multiethnic characters and a general sense of negative space (“Now, in Russia they’ve never even heard of stalkers.” p.120)

Absorbing epistemic detail in the Zone:

“OK, so we’re hanging above the mound, the pavement is a stone’s throw away, at most twenty paces from here. Everything’s visible – you can make out every blade of grass, every little crack in the ground. It ought to be smooth sailing from here. Just throw the nut and get on with it.” (p.27)

Red’s 1st P voice is the novel’s strongest because according best with the plot and character dynamics: sense of collaboration and camaraderie with him, yet tempered by the specialism and incompleteness of his expertise. Slightly disappointed not to return to it.

Unsettling anticipation of Chernobyl in the Zone’s toxic leakage (infected emigrants), more generally notes of military-industrial complexes and the ambivalence of fear and scientific enthusiasm clearly mirrors nuclear expansion. Most successfully the note that though we exclusively experience the Zone’s environs “…for humanity as a whole, the Visit has largely passed without a trace.” (p.128)

S’s allusiveness about the psychological effects of the Zone creates alluringly mystifying moments. This brief experience, seemingly an interlude embedded in a passage of brisk plotting:

[…] And then it happened.

He had never felt this outside of the Zone, and even in the Zone it had only happened two or three times. Suddenly, he seemed to be in another world. A million smells assaulted him at once – smells that were sharp, sweet, metallic; dangerous, caressing, disturbing; as immense as houses, as tiny as dust particles, as rough as cobblestones, and as delicate and intricate as watch gears. The air turned hard, it appeared to have surfaces, corners, edges, as if space had been filled with huge coarse spheres, polished pyramids, and gigantic prickly crystals, and he was forced to make his way through all this, as if in a dream, pushing through a dark antique shop full of ancient misshapen furniture… This only lasted a moment. He opened his eyes, and everything disappeared. This wasn’t another world – it was his same old world turning an unfamiliar side to him, revealing it for an instant, then immediately sealing it off, before he had the chance to investigate. (p.83)

The effect is breathtaking, even frightening (for me the antithesis of scale channels Pascal on humanity’s helpless mediocrity: “If a man will look at himself as I suggest, the sight will terrify him; and, seeing himself suspended in the material form given him by Nature, between the two abysses of Infinity and Nothingness, he will tremble.”) There is a sense of fundamental, occult universal structures being revealed (the “watch gears” suggesting Design, and the synesthetic visuals even evoking an LSD trip, as also especially on p.170: “…the air above the rails was hazily vibrating and shimmering, and from time to time tiny rainbows would instantly blaze up and go out.”) This is telling, as the seeming revelation of “another world” passes in to a realisation that this is “an unfamiliar side” of the “same old” one – I thought of Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday:

“Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind, and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stooping and hiding a face? If we could only get round in front–”

This seems a revealing comparison. The wonders of RP advance a vision that is not of remote possibility or fanciful prospection but an enlightened or unveiled view of the present (“If it wasn’t the Visit, it would have been something else” p.127); NB: that this view so often suggests man’s ignorance (often comically, as on p.77: “For a couple of seconds Redrick admired this strange light show, which, as he learned from the Reports, had to mean something, possibly something very significant…”) drily deflates any authorial superiority. See also the banality of the future: “In reality nothing was ever the way people imagined.” (148)

In the extraordinary afterword Boris S derides the censor’s views that

“science fiction necessarily has to be fantastic and on no account should have anything to do with crude, observable and brutal reality; [Ursula Le Guin’s “Tolstoyan approach” in the preface] that the reader must in general be protected from reality – let him live by daydreams, reveries, and beautiful incorporeal ideas.”

I think RP succeeds here; and indeed the afterword mitigates against some of the faults I had found with the novel: chiefly, for example, that its often weirdly crude language and violence – p.168’s “[he] finished waiting, put the money in his pocket, and, surprising himself, [and me] grabbed a heavy beer stein from the bar and smashed it with all his might into the nearest roaring mug” – was, like the symbolic beheading of Berlioz in The Master and Margarita, a frustrated but defiant riposte to po-faced politicised censorship (sheepish to discover that this quoted passage made it onto their list of mandatory redactions). This “crude” reality and the breathless augmentations and imaginations are convergent causes: the S’s are admirably trying to take us “round in front”, to circumscribe prescribed psuedoreality. (the useless jargon of the “eggheads” partly standing in for the censors’ sanctioned vocabularies)

Still: I’d really like to get hold of another translation. “Damn you scientists! Where do you get this disdain for man? Why do you constantly need to put him down?” (p.132) The general fist-wavingly impotent bitterness of Red’s voice is here transposed to Noonan as an awkward Charlton-Heston invocation of the kind of weighty railing that rubs off from Dostoyevsky et al. much better onto Tarkovsky. This discussion is nevertheless a decent passage, underlining RP‘s theme human futility and ignorance that is better explored in Solaris than Stalker anyway.

However, though the conclusive tone of the book is equally philosophical, the emergence of humanity from inside Redrick’s sandblasted exterior is more convincing. He’s left a home infected with the inhumanity of the Visit’s consequences, the silenced degenerating Monkey and the grizzly animated father: “…Noonan, continuing to chatter, looking at these two monstrous offspring of the Zone and thought, My Lord, what else do we need? What else has to be done to us, so it finally gets through?…” (p.155) The final mission is a desperate one-way affair, for me reminiscent of Browning’s apocalyptic ‘Childe Roland To The Dark Tower Came’:

Thus, I had so long suffered in this quest,
Heard failure prophesied so oft, been writ
So many times among “The Band”—to wit,
The knights who to the Dark Tower’s search addressed
Their steps—that just to fail as they, seemed best,
And all the doubt was now—should I be fit?

The isolation of both Roland and Red becomes a quest to assert their own suitability. Yet though both are haunted by “Names in my ears / Of all the lost adventurers my peers” Roland’s turn is to pitch his own name forward, whereas Red relinquishes his subjectivity and adopts the idealism of his fallen companion (see also the unsettling anticipation in Tarkovsky’s telekinetic child). RP surprisingly comes out wearing this earnestness better than wading through the preceding quagmire of cynicism had led me to expect.

Still need to revisit Stalker. 

“If we could only get round in front–”



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