Book Review - Happiness is Possible

Oleg Zaionchkovsky
Tr Andrew Bromfield
And Other Stories £10

Often our towns and cities are defined in terms of their inhabitants. London, for example, is home to a diverse range of cultures and ethnicities who, over time, have added to its mysteries and allure. In Oleg Zaionchkovsky’s engaging novel about contemporary Russian life, the imperial capital city of Moscow takes centre stage and, as his main protagonist suggests, its citizens are merely cogs in a large, complex machine: “it is not we human beings who are the crown of creation, but the city… we are only small particles of the city, and a part cannot transcend the whole.”

It is those “small particles” and the pursuit of happiness that preoccupy the narrator, a writer whose wife Tamara has recently left him. He spends his days trying to write, but more often ends up playing patience or smoking on the balcony, walking his newly adopted dog and reflecting on the lives and loves of his friends and neighbours and his own vulnerabilities.

The Muscovite obsession with owning a home is an important theme running through Zaionchkovsky’s work. It is the reason the narrator’s wife leaves him. An ambitious career woman, she wants to upgrade their shabby, two-room flat, but discovers that a mortgage is unobtainable. Her husband is considered a dependant since he is a novelist. The solution, Tamara decides,  is a ‘fictional’ divorce. But once they separate, Tamara finds a new love and her former husband finds himself left behind in their “unenviable domicile” with only his dog for company.

The art of writing also comes under Zaionchkovsky’s scrutiny. “Russia is a country with a special regard for writers”, the narrator tells us, but he is self-deprecating about his talents. An unprecedented turnout for one of his readings was due only to the visiting French writer Michel Houellebecq having cancelled his appearance in Moscow. After a brief altercation with an audience member, the narrator muses: “If I hadn’t spent all those days wallowing in my own tragedy…perhaps now I would have found something comforting to say to the man from off the street. And he might have found words of comfort and support for me.”

When invited to a writers’ congress abroad, he only accepts “as a matter of principle, to get one up on certain colleagues of mine”. But instead of participating in the literary events, he spends his time in bed, bemoaning the “repulsive rasping sound” of a workman’s drill that keeps him awake.

We never know if the characters the narrator conjures up are real or imagined, but his vignettes combine to form an illuminating portrait of life in Russia. As well as offering vivid snapshots of Moscow’s diverse citizens, Zaionchkovsky is eloquent about the loneliness and isolation that can seep into the forgotten quarters of the city.

From petty officials, traffic controllers and estate agents to the newly rich and empowered, all struggle to find meaning and retain happiness in the maelstrom that is Moscow today.

Review published in The Tablet