Rote Behaviour: Oleg Pavlov’s Trilogy

Captain of the Steppe (with introduction by Marcel Theroux)
translated by Ian Appleby
£12.00 rrp.: 231pp.

The Matiushin Case
translated by Andrew Bromfield
£10.00 rrp.: 249pp.

 Reqiuem for a Soldier
translated by Anna Gunin
£10.00 rrp.: 185pp.

by Oleg Pavlov
published by And Other Stories

Chekhov wrote subtly but powerfully, as he often did, about the’need’, a desire to move from one state or another through the acquisition of something external and satiation of something internal. This feeling may hark back to times past, creating more illusions now, but a reality once, and might guide us to something that will not necessarily aid us. It is as Maria and Olga reflect in the story ‘Peasants’ “the terrible incessant need from which you cannot hide anywhere”. So is the need hiding from us, or we hiding from the real need? This is the question that has shaped modern humanity, and never have our needs and desires and how we acquire them been so permissibly accessed, and only now, perhaps, are those needs so questionable. It’s ironic now then that we go to a writer who shares his surname with a man who pioneered psychology – Oleg Pavlov.

But my needs are tied up to impose a narrative, contextualise. I return to Vladimir Sharov’s quip that “Russian history is, in fact, a commentary on the bible.” After reading Oleg Pavlov’s loose trilogy; Captain of the Steppe, The Matiushin Case and Requiem for a Soldier, the question of who shall lead these men and give them what they need throws Sharov’s sound-bite into a not-so non-divine light.

Pavlov is well garlanded in Russia winning the Russian Booker Prize and the Solzhenitsyn Prize. Marcel Theroux writes in the introduction to Captain of the Steppe, quoting Kurt Vonnegut,that the principle of good storytelling is that every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water. Vonnegut is right, and there are few good novels that focus on characters who are purely indifferent, but that need only has to be a simple one for the reader to be engaged in the character’s endeavour to get it. In Pavlov’s work, that need is nearly as simple as a glass of water. “A decent and conscientious officer” says Theroux of Captain Ivan Yakovlevich Khabarov, on the verge of retirement and for Theroux a“more pragmatic man would see out his final days at the camp and leave. Not so Khabarov.”

Writing is an avoidance of cliché, but maybe because it is trying to describe a cliché. In this case: an army marches on its stomach.

“Khabarov began making assumptions about a lot of things in advance. We’ll live the way we always have, he said repeatedly, in a tired voice when the regimental supply truck turned up, complaining only that once again, they’d been a bit stingy over how many potatoes they’d sent.”

The potatoes they are sent are mostly rotten and unfit for consumption, outdated much like the year-late newspapers they receive. Khabarov realises though that “The events that were transforming everything in the world did not make it as far as the steppe – they got lost on the way.” And so Khabarov then realises what others need and sets off on the course to satisfy that by growing a vegetable patch. And this is how it often starts in Pavlov’s work; that simple need to satisfy a need, plunges into farce, bureaucracy and the potential for tragedy.

It is told in such an unemphatic manner, a characteristic Pavlov maybe shares with Chekhov (and that passage from ‘Peasants’ is probably one of Chekhov’s more emphatic moments), when it is a simple and unemphatic thing to do, yet its effects are far reaching and such is its escalation. It is good-willed but not saintly, and for its sake, it is disruptive but hardly revolutionary. It might be as simple as a glass of water and as essential as one.

When asking for simple things though, it usually means that there are complicated reasons that it hasn’t been accessed in the first place. In Khabarov’s case this is food, or potatoes, but this greater notion of ‘fuel’ is perhaps where Pavlov’s greater comments are being suggested.  It is easy to apply it to a commentary on the Soviet Union, and certainly it does appear to be part of it, but some of the joy is in this ambiguity of its wider significance. A humble potato is yes, a solid, starchy food, a great source of sustenance, they’re a key ingredient in the production of vodka, but as a form of ‘fuel’ ,it has that greater impotence within the idea of what ‘fuels’ a country and people. Russian oligarch’s make their money in oil and fuel, but fuel burns and wastes away, yet is essential to continuation. Here the characters are already “wasting away” as Pavlov tells us on the first page, so where are they to get the fuel?

Here is Khabarov tending to the potatoes:

“When the sun blazed, he was happy, thinking that the potatoes were absorbing its warmth. And when the rains poured, he was happy, thinking that their potatoes were drinking their fill. However the captain did not know when to dig up the potatoes, as if this had to happen on a single day, like death or birth.”

The potatoes are reminiscent of Seamus Heaney’s blackberries, that as soon as he has picked the fresh ones, they begin rotting, but “Each year I hoped they would keep, knew they would not” (from ‘Blackberry Picking’ in Death of a Naturalist). Even in knowledge of their early demise, he continues to pick them. If that is knowledge then what is that makes him pick them? Is it the same thing that makes Khabarov plant those potatoes? If it is the knowledge of death, is it the same belief that also makes us ignore it or make us believe in things like religion? Or rather is it the search for something grander, an eternal fuel that doesn’t expire? These are of course hardly answerable questions, at least succinctly, and it is up to the reader what they ask and what they think is answered, but there is something in Pavlov’s novels which keep the characters going even when they know death is likely awaiting them. And at the same time, it’s like the characters are looking for a guide or leader, not noticing that it has been bestowed on themselves, or  not noticing that the act they’re undertaking is such an indebted one. Pavlov’s narrative voice, his omniscience, then feels burdensome and intrusive like the ultimate bearer of that knowledge. Even when they’re not sure what keeps them going, he is the one that punishingly is.

II

In The Matiushin Case we’re made aware of something fueling and being present early in the character’s life. This time, it’s a much more localised affair, and the element of farce is removed, the caricature stripped to something rooted and inflicting. Here it focuses on two brothers, one of which dies, and the other is set to live out his legacy. You might call it a condemnation to live his brother’s legacy, and Matiushin is a very Dostoevskian character but without the internal, erratic madness.
Early on (and early on is very important here: or is it?) it’s clear to Matiushin that his more valiant brother was their parent’s pride. But baring in mind what’s been identified in Pavlov’s ‘authorial presence’, we’re given this in the first few pages:

“Matiushin had eaten up since he was a child – choking as he did it, but eating up. There was a fear in it, but a thrilling fear, contaminated with love, exactly like his jealousy of his older brother’s closeness with their father – and the love, not the dread, made them subject to their father’s will. This love could not be eradicated from their hearts. Just as their father failed to grasp that he was driving his children away and taking revenge on this alien life through his antipathy for them, so his children failed to grasp that the stronger it became – this antipathy of their father’s, their sacred, bloody revenge that he was wreaking on life through sacrificing them – the more selfless and insuperable the impulse of their love for him would become, as if it were the very impulse to live, and they couldn’t manage without each other.”

There is a lot going on here, but I think it’s necessary to quote at length. Considering how soon this is, it feels like it’s presented by Pavlov as a sort of admission, so that again, that question of what is needed and how it is attained is not so simple. We’re not sure whether it’s the consciously desired path or a more complicated inevitability, and also that sense of somebody knowing more than the character, the all-seeing and expectant viewer is very present. When Matiushin goes into the army then to fulfill, a prophecy, a journey, it’s easy to see the allusions to Dostoevsky, but with that, come those questions of faith and Christianity. Back out in the steppe, the narrator follows Matiushin with a cloistering closeness as if that strict observance from the father never left him. Is this the punishment before the crime? Perhaps it poses the question of religiosity being explored more intensely than Dostoevsky because the crime hasn’t happened yet, or at least Matiushin’s crime.

It’s an intense experience. Pavlov is comfortable with repetition, barrenness, depressiveness, and the fact is that we’re out on the steppe, in the largest country in the world, in a place of sheer expanse. This is central to what Pavlov is trying to manipulate. They say you never feel lonelier when you’re stood in a crowd of people, and perhaps you never feel more confined when you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere.

“Life was shit because it was a long march to the vodka tower, there wasn’t enough space to live in…While you were content with just one square foot of land in the world, you stood on just that one square foot. But the moment you looked up at the sky, you scraped your dirty face against its vastness.”

The irony in the metaphor of that final sentence emphasises the desperation in the act, to ‘feel’ the physicality of its distance. It’s not a discovery to find that there are forces working against what we think we need, the knowledge as Heaney suggested, is already there. To return then to that idea of fuel that was prominent in Captain of the Steppe, it is burning and expiring as soon as we engage in it. Take for instance the moment when Matiushin wants a drink – “ He absolutely musn’t, although he couldn’t understand what point there was in forbidding himself a drink,” –  and it does sound like a religious abstinence or an abstinence imposed by something as powerful as religion. But here is Pavlov’s power. And this is perhaps a scarier question, because we must wonder then what it is that stops us or doesn’t stop us, like Matiushin, like ourselves, in doing the things that we do? We can even use Ivan Chistyakov’s diaries as a similar example (and also why Pavlov has gained comparisons with Solzhenitsyn, not forgetting that he was also a prison guard) of where the question of choice and need doesn’t just become one of physicality. And the ingenuity of it is that, Pavlov leaves this choice open to the reader. The space that he eventually creates opens for these questions is a scary and vast one and one that we might rather foreclose again.

That image which may appear certain, or closed, yet is paradoxically a vast one is something that sustains Pavlov’s writing. His themes, motifs and images rarely change (a steppe; the military; a simple completion of a task).That great, big open space, yet the dogma and the regimental living within it, and this was the same  Requiem for a Soldier. It has those similar themes to that which we’ve seen in the previous two novels, but the farcical nature from Captain of the Steppe is re-injected here to deliver what was the best work of the three. This is combined with translation from Anna Gunin which I think captures Pavlov’s syntax and language the best out of the three.

Set within the final days of the Soviet Empire, Alyosha, having just completed his army service has been promised a gift of an ‘eternal steel tooth’ by his commander (who, perhaps in a throwback to The Matiushin Case, is also deaf). Alyosha has a tooth removed to make way for it, but it never seems to arrive. In the mean time Institutov, who runs the medical infirmary and removes Aloysha’s tooth, conscripts Alyosha into completing tasks around the chaotically organised surgery. But as the tasks accumulate, one of them involves collecting the corpse of soldier from a lab and having it transported to Moscow, leading into an absurd, picaresque journey.

Again, it is incredibly bleak but it’s accompanied with equally as bleak and black humour. The ambulance for instance, that Institutov and Alyosha carry the dead soldier’s body in, isn’t saving lives – it’s already carrying the dead. The grand metaphor that immediately stands out is this idea of the corpse of history, the dead Soviet state (and that idea of avoiding a cliché to talk about it again, when the hole in the head of the soldier is revealed: “an ordinary first-aid plaster. Institutov peeled off the white backing tape and with an unfeigned look of anguish, he stuck it over the dark hole in he corpse’s forehead”). And what is to be done with that body, when it refuses to disappear and refuses to lay to rest? Freud said that unexpressed emotions never die, are only buried alive and come forth in uglier ways, and so with Pavlov writing this in 2002, but it only being translated into English in 2015, it follows a convenient parallel with modern history. Putin, Trump: there is evidence of uglier ways coming forth.

It’s a question that has concerned the history of humanity, how we come to terms with history or events and what we do with the corpse of the past. Antigone had to defy the law to give what her brother the rightful burial that she thought he deserved, and in the accordance of a different kind of law to the one imposed on her. “Leave me to my own absurdity, leave me to suffer this dreadful thing” Antigone cries, so one wonders then who’s absurdity Alyosha has inherited? Further, one wonders what absurdity we have have already inherited it in what we’re faced with now in form of a new global order? Maybe liberalism really didn’t allow us to confront anything, only contradict ourselves, make us conscious cynics of our age.

But there are two burials that Antigone and Creon battle over. She wishes to see it observed by divine, familial law and Creon thinks that it deserves to be left to rot with the parasites and the carrion. So again, we’re confronted with that question of conversion and space. What becomes of the fuel? On one of Alyosha’s earlier tasks he is charged with retrieving the bread and the water (yes, that simple thing). He takes a sledge with him and trudges in the deep winter to the village.

“Harnessing himself to the sledge, Alyosha cursed at his heavy load, perhaps the way a horse might gently curse a laden cart. If only the horse could know that the cargo was hay, and the hay was to feed his very own self, then wrath would give way to joy. As for Alyosha, he could not rein in his fiery human resentment. It was as if his whole scheme had been specially dreamt up: we’ll make him drag his burden for a good fifteen miles, only to dispose of the whole heavy load into his stomach, turning the lot into nothing.
It was here on this winter road to nowhere, loaded with something destined to turn into nothing, that Alyosha discovered life’s simple command.”


Alyosha couldn’t convert enough snow into water by melting it and that simple combination of elements was not enough to satisfy a more widespread need. In Pavlov’s narrative world it is that fear of something destined to turn into nothing, and the vacancy of it’s departure. Pavlov shows that that ‘space’ isn’t necessarily empty, it’s negated, and it is the space that confronts us all and when it is departed there are more difficult things to be comprehended. Pavlov will not give you any answers though. If Russian history is a commentary on the bible, in Pavlov’s world the passage and the ending is not so comforting, and the knowledge that we choose to either ignore or use, might not even help us anyway.