Moscow Stations

Venedikt Yerofeev

translated from the Russian by Stephen Mulrine
Faber and Faber 1998
A book review by Danny Yee © 2016
Catching the train from Moscow to Petushki to meet his girlfriend, Venya drinks a mind-boggling amount of alcohol, is given advice by angels, has some of his bottles stolen, finds some drinking companions, spends much of his time delirious, and stumbles off the train to meet an inglorious end.

Running through Moscow Stations, Venya's inner monologue gives us, among many other things, accounts of his brief sinecure as a cable-layer, of meeting his girlfriend, of a local rebellion and the setting up of an independent polity with its own plenary sessions and its own foreign policy, and of a visit to Paris and an attempt to publish an essay on love, along with instructions on how to make esoteric cocktails and an analysis of Goethe as an alcoholic. (Much of this, even some of the more outré parts, is apparently autobiographical.) In the course of this he mocks religion, Marxist-Leninist theory, literary theory, Soviet politics, and philosophy, while describing some of the everyday insanities of Soviet life.

Moscow Stations is distinctively Russian, both in its Soviet setting and in its references and style. It's hard to describe Yerofeev's style, so here's an excerpt from the chapter "Kilometre 33 to Elektrougli".

"Of course, to commence our investigation of hiccups, we must first call them forth: either an sich, in the terminology of Immanuel Kant, which means from ourselves, or else from some other person, but for our own purposes, which is für sich, as Kant terms it. Of course, the best of the lot is both an sich and für sich, and here's what you do: drink some sort of strong spirit, say Starka, or Trapper's or Hunter's vodka, for two hours non-stop. Drink it in tumblerfuls, one every half-hour, if possible without any snacks. If you find that difficult, you can allow yourself a bite to eat, but something really unpretentious: bread that's seen better days, sprats, spiced or plain, or sprats in tomato sauce.
Then break off for an hour, don't eat or drink anything, just let your muscles go limp, and don't strain. And before that hour's up, you'll see for yourself: with the very first hiccup, you'll be amazed at the suddenness of the onslaught; then you'll be amazed at the uniqueness of the second hiccup, and the third hiccup, likewise. But if you're not a complete idiot, you'd better stop being amazed and get down to business: write down at what intervals your hiccup deigns to visit you — in seconds, of course: 8 - 13 - 7 - 3 - 18 ...
Naturally you'll try to establish some sort of periodicity here, even very roughly; idiot or not, you'll have a stab at working out some ridiculous formula or other, to predict the length of the next interval. Try, by all means. Feel free. But life will topple all your half-arsed constructions. 17 - 3 - 4 - 17 - 1 - 20 - 3 - 4 - 7 - 7 - 7 - 18 ...
You know, the leaders of the world proletariat, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, are supposed to have made an in-depth study of changes in social structures, and on that basis they were able to predict a whole heap of stuff. But they'd have been completely foxed by this one. Yes, you have entered, in pursuit of a personal whim, the realm of Fate — so bow the knee and be patient. Life will put all your mathematics to shame, both elementary and higher: 13 - 15 - 4 - 12 - 4 - 5 - 28 ...

There are some impressive shifts between chapters as well, and some of those could almost stand as independent short stories. Moscow Stations is sweeping in its scope, especially for such a short novel, and offers a huge variety in mood and tone as well as in subject material. It is by turns sad and funny, deadpan and emotional, acerbic and sentimental, with the whole coming together as a tragi-comic existentialist masterpiece.

Note: Written in 1970 and originally distributed as samizdat, Moskva-Petushki was not published until 1989. This translation has also been refashioned by Mulrine as a stage play, and there is another translation published as Moscow Circles and Moscow to the End of the Line.

Note: I can't help wondering if inter-hiccup intervals aren't, like those of a dripping tap, potentially chaotic. They are certainly not outside the reach of mathematics, in any event, since even demonstrating a random (Poisson?) interval distribution would be an interesting result.

March 2016

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%T Moscow Stations
%A Yerofeev, Venedikt
%M Russian
%F Mulrine, Stephen
%I Faber and Faber
%D 1998
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0571192041
%P 144pp