The Devils (1871)


Second time with Dostoyevsky after The Brothers Karamazov.

Effectively dealing with the undermining of ascendant and characteristic Russian “higher liberalism” – “liberalism without any aim whatsoever” (47) – by a group of reactive and destructive young nihilists, socialists, etc. At the centre (supposedly) of the plot is Mr Nicolas Stavrogin, a man whose superficial beauty masks potentially horrifying secrets in the manner of Dorian Gray:

Our dandies regarded him with envy, and were completely eclipsed in his presence. I was also struck by his face: his hair was just a little too black, his light-coloured eyes a little too calm and clear, his complexion a little too tender and white … he would seem to be a paragon of beauty,yet at the same time there was something hideous about him. (56-7)

This initial portrait follows 50 pages of introduction, which themselves focus on the pitiful but pitiable Stepan Verkhovensky, professor, admirer of S’s mother, and windbag exemplar of that “higher liberalism” in his ridiculous pretentiousness and grandiloquent proclamations (undercut frequently by his dearest associate, our narrator). V embodies the kind of baroque and waffly sociability of the town, punctured by S’s wordlessly mocking acts of iniquity, such as comically assaulting a beloved captain. David Magarshack’s fustily labouring translation from the 50s enhances the magnetism of S’s indecencies, as the relentless social pussyfooting around him becomes indistinguishably beige.

There’s a running theme in this early section – pre a significant congregation at which S makes a scene which precipitates agitation throughout the town and initiates plot momentum – dealing with Russia’s self-ignorance. Mrs S hatches the idea for a periodical omnibus which would preserves newsworthy events in the national memory, facts published in journals which “make an impression and are remembered by the public, but then forgotten.” (137; here one echo, among many, of The Secret Agent). These are mirrored by the reams of ineffectual political leaflets which are distributed by unwilling lackeys (275).

Result is that the political insurrections can bubble occultly. The first half is peppered with mysterious events, usually heralded by the narrator as then-inexplicable and summarised with a depiction of the confusion that follows. Increasingly frustrating; narrator’s feelings are ironically mine: “all this led me to believe that something had happened before my arrival, something I knew nothing about, and that, consequently, I was not wanted and that it was none of my business.” (143) V’s son Peter takes centre stage as the mob’s ringleader, exercising a pied-piper influence over the manipulable townsfolk. He stirs up trouble and disingenuously frames this in the same terms as the narrator – “all of you know something and … I’m the only one who does not know that something.” (207-8) He trades in ignorance as currency: he intentionally inflates S’s public persona (323) while himself under his spell.

The reentry of S, at that congregation, is deftly paced; this is definitely the point at which the air of mystery is most alluring in TD. By this point (190) I was eager for S to fill the screen, to sideline the increasingly indistinguishable extras. While we get an alluring section entitled ‘Night’ where we follow S like a shade visiting and bewitching his associates, the focus (contra my synopsis) shifts instead to PV’s cabal of Four Lions-esque nihilists (less funny obviously). At first they are empty but deadly (250) but as we spend more time with Virginsky, Shatov, Lyamkin and Kirilov they get less and less interesting and less and less memorable.

Reduced to a thin series of highlights: Mary Lebyatkin’s introduction is eerie and alluring; the fête is amusingly chaotic and a good centrepiece; Shatov’s assassination is suitably black. There was one moment in the entire book which I loved: PV’s pursuit of Kirilov, the atheistic would-be suicide. It descends into a terrifyingly wordless confrontation, in which K is driven to a kind of statuesque madness, as if paralysed before the possibility of accomplishing or failing in his mission to attain the status of a god through willed self-destruction. 619.

Writing about TD is tiring. Thinking back to The Way of All Flesh – perhaps I don’t have the attention-span or patience for these Victorian wedges any more. It’s fine; definitely not Karamazov (Elder Zossima gets a shoutout 268!). Stavrogin is interesting but unsatisfying; PV is pretty annoying; Kirilov is eventually the most alluring. The chorography is opaque and the social portrait stodgy. The interruption of peasants at the end is an unsatisfactory compromise: TD could certainly do with more life (more Alyosha K etc.). More in note. Next!



Hard To Be A God (1964)


Second time with the Strugatskys after Roadside Picnic (third if you count Alexei German’s Hard To Be A God adaptation).

Picked this up to see if I could unravel AG’s film. One of the most striking differences is the use of internal monologue:

Too bad that the psychological conditioning peels off like a sunburn, that we fall into extremes, that we’re constantly forced to remind ourselves: grit your teeth and remember that you’re a god in disguise, they know not what they do, almost none of them are to blame, and therefore you must be patient and tolerant. (45)

I like that AG worked to submerge this kind of reflection, to tell the story (his own story, which doesn’t take much from the book) visually. But its undeniably refreshing to be given access to Anton’s thoughts, which opens up a sympathetic channel to the world of Arkanar before (as in the film) the detail can rush in to clog it.

There is also restraint that helps the story’s development (which runs parallel to the film): the kingdom’s descent into feudal-fascistic pogroms and anti-intellectual purges. Rumata observes an “inexorability” that was palpable in the “angry mobs”, the “inexplicable port closure”, the increasingly epidemic alcoholism, the disappearance of terrified peasants (72). Writing at the dawn of the Brezhnev era, the S’s reach more explicitly back to the dawn of fascism (with references to the Night of the Long Knives, Ernst Röhm, etc.) than Stalinism (see also A’s vision of a properly effective industrial revolution of “ten thousand hammerers” on 185), but there is also a sense of “utopianism”, of Arkanar being everywhere and nowhere. My favourite moment was the chilling anthropological assessment of the hostage doctor Budach:

Evil is ineradicable. No man is able to decrease its quantity in the world. He can improve his own fate somewhat, but it is always at the expense of the fate of others. And there will always be kings, some more cruel and some less, and barons, some more violent and some less, and there will always be the ignorant masses, who admire their oppressors and loathe their liberators. And it’s all because a slave has a much better understanding of his master, however brutal, than his liberator, for each slave can easily imagine himself in his master’s place, but few can imagine themselves in the place of a selfless liberator. That is how people are, Don Rumata, and that’s how our world is. (206)

B is almost a kind of holy fool here: he speak from below and well before R but with Londonian precognition, which unsettlingly pushes the books internal history (one that froze before the Renaissance could happen) into our own. The passage continues with R allowing B to interrogate him as if he were God, recalling “The Grand Inquisitor” and various promethean analogues (which tie in with the knowing Arata’s request for R to give him the gift of technological “lightning”). Overall this discussion is like a briefer but equally wise equivalent to the long chat between Red and Noonan in RP; both are central, effective, philosophically direct pitches.

Don Reba is much more interesting here than in AG. I like the way his power and malicious influence is counterbalanced by R’s historical perspective:

Reba is nothing, a tiny speck in comparison with the enormous influence of traditions, the rules of the herd – sanctified by centuries, unshakeable, tested, accessible to the dullest of the dull, freeing one from the necessity of thinking and wondering. (85)

They try and analogise him to “Richelieu, Necker, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and Monck,” but the most frustrating aspect of his savage coup is how pathetic he is. (220) He’s kind of a Great Man and a No-man altogether, eventually engulfed by the repressive tide that he sets in motion.

Unfortunately HtbaG is also a pretty canonical justification for Waterstones lumping sci-fi and fantasy onto the same shelf. There’s lots of neo-arthurian galavanting and folkloric waffle which is personally pretty cringeworthy and therefore doesn’t inspire the effort required to keep track of terms. (interesting how different this and AG’s film are, but that what puts me off both is the ultimately stultifying detail) Did raise an interesting question about childishness and imagination though. The preface is like Stand By Me but you can’t tell how old Ru and the others are, and there is an interesting perspective on children in A:

For Rumata, who rarely interacted with children, the ten-year-old prince was the antithesis of every social class in this savage country. It was ordinary blue-eyed boys like this one, identical in every social class, who would grow up to be brutal, ignorant, and submissive men; and yet they, the children, showed no traces or beginnings of such rot. Sometimes Rumata thought it’d be great if all the people older than ten years of age disappeared from the planet. (144, EM)

Prefer the more pulpy and energetic Roadside Picnic but looking generously on this because a) I thought it was more successful than AG’s film; b) I enjoyed it despite it being firmly outside of my usual bracket; c) I read it lightly and quickly as a distraction from my thesis, which emphasised its entertaining side above the philosophy.



Hard To Be A God (2013)


First time with German.

Scientists travel to a distant world for which the Renaissance never happened; mankind has been subject to 800 years of anti-intellectual stagnation, decay and purges. One of the scientists, having assumed almost-mythical though controversial status in the town of Arkanar, takes upon himself the task of incrementally improving the lot of the population, but can only toil against the forces of political and intellectual reaction, as well as the profoundly squalid conditions. It’s perhaps telling that what you’ll already know about HtbaG (if you’ve read anything about it or know anyone who’s seen it) is the same information revealed, within the first few minutes, in the sporadically appearing narration.

Firstly: the world is amazing and immersive. At no point does it feel artificial – this is certainly a telegraph from a parallel middle ages in which most seem glad of their filthy existence. (The town made me think somewhat of McCabe’s, with drunkards dancing on the lake and staggering around the bordello [though obviously Altman’s woodwork is visible].) Our perspective is not frontal but central: the world happens around and even behind us; characters frequently break the fourth wall; German’s mode is extreme proximity, such that swinging objects often hit the camera itself. The textures are so varied and loom so bizarrely at us that the effect is quite narcotic, which gives even the most vile matter a kind of beauty, sucking us in (perhaps explaining our hero’s reluctance to leave the planet). It must be said that, while disgusting probably beyond compare, the world is certainly of a piece with much of classic war cinema, and especially with Terry Gilliam – much of it is more-or-less Gilliam splashing around on the filthy tavern floor in The Seventh Seal. Think the haphazard anarchy of Fear and Loathing on the set of Robin William’s hovel in The Fisher King, or a medieval Twelve Monkeys. An emblematic image occurs early on – a man removes the grimy seat from a latrine, lifts the board up looking through the central hole and grins at the camera saying “a painting”. But, to be sure: there is enough in the visuals to keep your interest throughout.

Beyond that, it’s a long 170 minutes.

Don Rumata is introduced to us playing a clarinet (beautifully) before he rides out of town very much in the mould of Durer’s Knight. He is the titular idol; cleanliness may indeed be next to godliness, for although he’s resigned to the muck he seems unfailingly able to bestow pristine handkerchiefs on his followers. (“a nobleman should be clean and fragrant.”) Over the 170 minutes he basically shifts from ‘optimistic acceptance’ to ‘weary frustration’ to ‘rage’ to ‘resignation’, but he begins by chucking something (could be anything) at some singing monks who fume “no jokes in the face of holiness.” God is dead (this is covered explicitly later of course). He also seems to be the only person with a relatively working body – he has both his eyes, he is not obviously ill, etc. Quite christlike in presentation.

We have our world and our guide. (I don’t get the revulsion. Its engrossing watching these people flail around in the mud and the entrails and the shit with gusto; the famous fade-out-then-cut-to-a-huge-donkey’s-cock joke from German seems amusing but unnecessary.) For most of the 170 minutes the scenes feature one or (usually) more sequences in this format:

  1. Someone (usually DR) addresses a snivelling/sneering supplicant/skeptic with a question or statement that lacks discernible relevance (“fish like milk!”) and in a scathing tone.
  2. Supplicant/skeptic snivels/sneers in reply.
  3. Person C swings in front of the camera in the foreground, shooting us a perplexed look; he is followed by some animal matter (chicken legs, pig’s head, cow’s head, dead dog, hanging meat) or chains.
  4. Persons D through H grub around in the background, usually laughing and sniffing.
  5. Initiator (DR) grabs supplicant/skeptic by the nose, twists (while the latter squeals) and shoves him into the gutter.

While a lot of the 170 minutes is literally this, there are other visual formula that are repeated and rehashed until the rotten stasis of the world and the protagonist’s futility becomes a rotten stasis of interest. The donkey’s-cock joke seems irrelevant because the film’s main problem is not that its shocking but that its pretty boring. I’ve just finished watching HtbaG and I don’t remember much of its 170 minutes. (Moments of distinction are usually the most violent: the attack on Kusis, for example, or the death of the “student”, intestines spilling out over the floor as we gaze on his beating heart.) Occasionally (five or six times) the narrator will chip in with some exposition that brings us up to speed with the progress of our hero. In the end, no real energy to pick apart the philosophy beyond what is made obvious in the opening scenes (through the exposition, mostly).

Some nice peripheral characters: DR’s wife is somebody out of the mental construction of Gummo that I will probably settle for forever in place of the real thing; the Baron is a good laugh. A lot of the rarely visible architecture recalls Nostalghia in being quite striking through the fog (which envelops all scenes shot outside, washing out the monochrome tones which work a lot better in the dripping chiaroscuro interiors). I don’t have anything else written down.

Would probably watch again (I tend to feel this way about all films I find disappointing after expecting to enjoy) but I’d sooner check out Falstaff: Chimes At Midnight which I’ve heard this compares to. I’d also sooner return to the Strugatskys directly (31 May: I did), Brazil, McCabe and Mrs MillerDamnationAndrei Rublev and The Seventh Seal.

Interesting to read that German died in the year HtbaG was released and that the film was assembled by his family. It is certainly a grand physical achievement for a director on his last legs (makes a mockery of The Revenant). It’s absolutely a milestone in set design too. I just wonder about the editing.

I can relate this to my experience of much science fiction literature: talented authors create fascinating worlds for you to stroll (or flail) around in, but the detail becomes suffocating and we end up longing for a better story whether or not that’s the point.


Silent Souls (2010)


First time with Aleksei Fedorchenko – picked this one out in a rush. There’s also an amazingly unhelpful original Russian poster.

Aist introduces himself as a kind of archeological anthropologist for his own heritage. He inherits the culture of the Merya people, a subgroup of the Volga Finns who have disappeared but live on in small rituals and poetry. It is kind of unclear to me how much of this is wilful and how much real but the film makes play with these ghostly half-presences anyway. The town Neya is like a palimpsest. A photographs local workers and they stare perplexed back at us: we are looking for something in them that they perhaps don’t even themselves realise is there.

His friend Miron’s wife Tanya dies and they make a solemn journey to cremate her at the site of her honeymoon. They prepare her body in a startlingly unheralded shot, the vodka-washing and blanket-wrapping carried out in silent reverence – throughout the film their attentions often seem less loving than respectful. Very Gellian.

Her body serves as a shibboleth to pass a guard on a bridge. M speaks “smoke” over it, divulging sensitive secrets that one wouldn’t reveal during the lifetime of the deceased – a Merya tradition.

Patience and atmosphere. The film takes on dreamlike qualities as we advance towards the ritual; Sebaldian melancholy seeps in. The burning is tense and there is a rupture when, after scattering T’s ashes, M retreats to the shore silently flinging away his wedding ring. The apparent subsumption of death and loss into M cultural tradition, and the association of water and rivers with both vitality and the afterlife, make this intriguingly consonant with The Pearl Button. But this feels like a more fundamental finality, driving a wedge into the balance.

At the beginning A recalls his poet father advising him that “if your soul hurts, write about what you see”. I don’t know much about AF’s connection to the film’s subjects (this adapted from a popular novel) but his ruminative sequences and ambient focus are strung together by a skein of grievance. Per Gell (perhaps), T’s body takes on symbolic significance as a past buried by alienated modernity (these two can barely talk to each other as they drive around, we in the back seat).

Some quite poetic scripting. “The sadness didn’t press on me it enveloped me like a mother.” On that, was a little perturbed by the female presence in the film, which is almost entirely limited to a) dead T, b) flashback alive T who is silent and apparently as obedient (though treasured) as M claims, c) two prostitutes on whom we focus briefly but who seem decathected from SS‘s direction. Too much of classic Russian cinema is men standing around stroking their chins, and this has a fair bit of that, but there’s a question of cultural norms as well as a melancholy silence that helps articulate the theme of loss.

In any case SS glided its way towards a strange ending and, as with Late Spring, I felt surprised at the elegance and reflective beauty that had unfolded. A quiet tonal elegy to memory and the past.


Come and See (1985)


I have been trying to get my hands on a copy of this for years. I expected it to be incredible and it was. The film that I imagined it to be is indeed in it, as part of a section that goes beyond what I’d imagined and fully off the deep end. That section roughly forms the final third of the film – excepting a coda whose success I would not have thought possible either after what precedes it or on its own terms. The first half of this film, and the section preceding the one described, is a different beast. Altogether as a film, it seems foolish to write about Come and See, but I can at least say confidently that it deserves recognition alongside those whose work it brings to mind: Remarque, Tarkovsky, Solzhenitsyn, Hemingway, Coppola, Dostoyevsky, even Levi and Lanzmann.

The recurring, defining image is Florya’s aghast face, directly at the camera. His role in CaS is like the camera’s in that it fluctuates between embodying our viewpoint, (we are constantly involved, as in the reccie sprint to the treeline) reflecting that viewpoint back to us, or constituting the object of the audience’s gaze. At these moments however he embodies the Revelations quotation that inspired the title:

And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see! And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.

Belarus in 1943 is a point at which expressionist religious imagery and realistic mimesis convene; it is the hell we have been told we can only imagine, cast onto the real landscape and into the towns and villages.

(The non-sequential summaries I have read seem reductive; the sequencing and development of CaS deserve parallel description, so I will go through it chronologically here)

Opening with a man telling boys not to dig. Beckettian waiting, searching for the treasure of a gun which will enable them to go and fight. After their success the credits roll over the sound of a plane drone, (instrumental? a leitmotif that evokes Hemingway’s Spanish War on planes’ perspective and terrorist factor) marshal drumming and a brass march. Throughout CaS recognisable classical music is interwoven and layered with Oleg Yanchenko’s own score and often dense field recordings; chaos that occasionally gives way to recognition or clarity.

The mother’s direct appeal to the camera. Lav Diaz. F only with a brainless smirk which will slowly depart, as the game which he makes out of his mother’s grief to entertain his twin sisters becomes real life. Other characters stare into us (the general with a hardened gaze, the german commander like Achebe’s ‘Vultures’ with his bushbaby) but none are so striking, besides F, as Glasha. Piercing blue eyes. Her games with F: masculine / feminine conflict, (a soul) a glimpse through machismo. (The amazing line: “you’re not living. You don’t hear the birds singing”) After twining with and being wrenched away from F she will be left behind with the starving mothers; she makes a harrowing visual reappearance as a victim and a symbol of the violent rape of the nation. Nazi on the importance of eradicating children to prevent the continuation of races that do not have “the right to exist;” genocide as a crime aiming to destroy all its witnesses – the importance of come and see.

I understood that this would be a very brutal film and that it was unlikely that people would be able to watch it. I told this to my screenplay coauthor, the writer Ales Adamovich. But he replied: “Let them not watch it, then. This is something we must leave after us. As evidence of war, and as a plea for peace.”

The sparing use of weapons in the first half is confined mainly to the exploding trees. The destruction seems to be coming up out of the Earth; nature vomiting violence, inhumanity crawling out of a hole and spreading across the continent like the soldiers who then stalk across the clearing.

The expressionistic detail kicks in here as the violence induces distortion: the watchful stork; the frenetic dance atop the wet wooden box with imagined ragtime. Nod to Ivan’s Childhood as F looks down the well near his home.

At and after which the culmination of the first half: the true horror; the truly nightmarish device of G seeing the bodies of the family F is looking for – sprinting both to and away, split denial; bird recordings swelling into an oppressive hail. At the camp a choral score and folk chanting and disembodied ghostly voices and drones as the visions explode – the uncle again, burnt alive: “didn’t I tell you not to dig?” It would be better to die with the family than go on seeing; later punishment of being posed for a Nazi photo (mirroring the patriotic, powerfully earthen Red Army one at the beginning) with a gun to his temple that isn’t fired. “It’s all my fault” c/ the blameless beginning. Halfway with a full moon – nadir. This first part is like a cross between Mirror and Aguirre, the psychological nightmare of war.

Realism in the second half after partial recovery. The Nazis become banal, evil but apprehensible: they drop empty bottles and leaflets “Kill the bolshevik kikes! Smash a brick in their ugly mugs!” (“Is that all?”)

The Kurosawa mist after the cow’s death (see Andrei Rublev). Out of this born into the main sequence, drawn from the germ of the film: the destruction and massacre of Belarusian villages (over 600).

The development leading from the raid of the village, through the herding of the villagers, their captivity, F’s escape, the fire – inevitable slide, horrifying pacing and accretion. I can only compare with the painting that I anticipated from the beginning of the fatal rounding up. After the modernist horror of the first section we are still firmly in the realist mode, (“maintain order and discipline!”) and now we are looking not at the war itself (behind which the Germans had appeared so comically banal) but at the enemy, who embody inhumanity. (this is interesting analysis wrt/ Ivan’s Childhood, but doesn’t stress enough the more “subjective” experience of CaS‘s first half, which is more Tarkovskian – thereby, I think, dramatising the kind of stylistic shift that the essay tracks from Khrushchev-to-Glasnost era change. Think it also inaccurately stresses the second half’s “sense of not-quite-participant, of being present and yet disconnected” – see the bullets almost hitting the camera in the cow scene.) This is War and it is war: while acknowledging the eurocentrism this is the absolute trough of modern human experience, the horrifying pinnacle that we can barely look in the face. In the heat of the flames – both onscreen and of the film itself – there are moments like forged carbon motes which defy explanation: the applause; the bushbaby; a beautiful female officer eating lobster in a van’s front seat; a senile Russian grandmother gazing wistfully into the distance in front of the furnace.

A reckoning, which is determined but does not emulate. Then the film begins to break down: filtered historical shots. The Village Voice: “The bit of actual death-camp corpse footage that Klimov uses is doubly disturbing in that it retrospectively diminishes the care with which he orchestrates the town’s destruction.” I agree except for “diminishes” – it strengthens the imperative to represent by exposing it. It is truly horrifying.

The coda is of a piece with this moment, but I will not describe it here, except to say that it is seared with rage and absurdity, a scream back down history towards the glow reflected in the eyes of The Cabinet and in the portrait of a blank infant boy on his mother’s knees.

Total film – all stops are pulled out. Everything is given time to settle in; there is no conciliatory suggestion or editing. This could not be made again or in another country. I am amazed that it really exists at all. Mentioned some artists that I would compare this to but it really is total.

Klimov did not make any more films after Come and See, leading some critics to speculate as to why. In 2001, Klimov said, “I lost interest in making films … Everything that was possible I felt I had already done.”

I think this is probably the greatest film ever made about war, (without including Shoah in that definition) and one of the greatest films ever made.


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–”