Sasha Sokolov

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Sasha Sokolov (Canada, 1943)

"Shkola Dlya Durakov/ School For Fools" (1976) ++ is the fictional memoir of a mentally disabled adolescent (whose name is never mentioned), who has trouble focusing and whose memories are unreliable. His mind is split in two, the two selves frequently fighting each other even over mundane events, so that everything written by one self is disputed by the other self. The novel is written by an "I" who frequently writes as a "we" because he is aware of being two people in one. He writes about himself, so there is no difference between author and protagonist. It is a dialogue between the two selves, which is really an interior monologue. The novel is an epic journey through a psychological landscape (the memory as well as the desires). The memoir therefore mixes real and imaginary events, facts and delusions, because they can't all be true (disputed by the author's other self). This split-ego person projects his illness onto others, turning several of the other characters, who flicker in and out of the stream of consciousness, into two distinct selves: Mikheev/ Sender of the Wind, Pavel/ Winddriver, Sheina Trachtenberg/ Tinbergen Time is an abstraction: the protagonist is at the school and has long left the school, talks to his teacher and the teacher is long dead, and so on. Because the stream of consciousness jumps through time and frequently refers to itself through detours, the story is nested into many levels, sometimes within the same passage.
Hidden within this forest of self-referencing narratives, there might be an allegory about the duality of freedom and repression. The protagonist's father (the prosecutor), the protagonist's psychiatrist (Zauze), the principal of the school for fools (Perillo) and his assistant (Sheina) are all agents of repression. They are also the rational characters of the novel On the other hand, the postman who rides in the wind, the barefoot teacher Norvegov and the scientist Acatov who lives in a countryside villa are agents of expression. And they are the irrational characters. Indirectly the story equates madness with freedom, and sanity with oppression. Finally there are the two objects of love: Veta, the biology teacher, and Rosa, the sick student. They are both dreams that will never come true.

The novel is a stream of consciousness. The narrator is talking to his double (to himself as another person). He remembers childhood events when his family lived near the train station. He remembers the postman Mikheev (a personification of the mythical "sender of the wind") who was shocked when he learned the amount of their father's pension. His father was a prosecutor. Then he introduces us to Vetka, who was a tree poetically "pregnant with the coming summer". He tells us that the main occupation around the train station was the chalk quarry, and chalk made many people sick. He then introduces us to Sheina Trachtenberg, a Jewish landlady who ran the pension where he lived. The narrator confuses her with a widow called Tinbergen, who always asked to borrow his broken record player to play the only record she owned, a record that features her late husband. Sheina Trachtenberg's much older husband killed himself with some medicines. She was having an affair with a man named Yakov in his garage, inside his German car, and Yakov hanged himself. The narrator's geography teacher was Pavel Norvegov, a free spirit whom his father despised as a loser, a "wind-driver" who predicted that something nefarious was foing to happen. The narrator then imagines what Pavel would say. He imagines Pavel talking to Leonardo, telling him the story of when he (Pavel) disappeared. The narrator tells us that Pavel died the day the narrator was due to take his last exam. The narrator tells us that he talks to his other self although his psychiatrist, named Zauze, told him that the other self does not exist. Sokolov toys with both the reader and himself. He writes "Dear Student So-and-so, I, the author of this book, have a pretty clear picture of that train". Of course he does: that train is his invention. And then writes to himself: "Yes, dear author, that's right: go see him at home, ring the vibrant bicycle bell at the door." Workers of the railway post office are chatting, including Semyon Nikolaev and Fyodor Muromtsev, and their names turn Japanese (Nakamura and Muromatsu) as they discuss Japanese literature with Tsuneo Danilovich and others. Then someone comes to inquire about some containers belonging to Sheina Trachtenberg and Semyon is charged with writing her a letter. The narrator and his self argue whether it was fair to read the letter, and the other self doubts that maybe the narrator invented the whole incident. After all, Zauze always made fun of him/they being such dreamers (the subject is sometimes an "i" and sometimes a "we", where "we" stands for the self and the other self). The narrator (a "we") recalls when his father gave him some books by a popular writer and Pavel the teacher mocked them and instead gave him a book that greatly upset his father. The teacher's aesthetic principle was to be found repulsive. The dead teacher talks about his own funeral, incensed that they made his cadaver wear nice clothes and even had an orchestra play funeral music The narrator tells us that he, carrying a butterfly net, rode away on his bicycle from his mother to start his own life of rebellion, and one self congratulates the other for it. He remembers stopping at a woman's house and here the reminiscence is interrupted by a fight between the two selves, one annoyed that the other is asking questions, that the other has split the whole again into two, that the other has lied to that woman hiding from her that he is mentally ill and a student in the school of fools, and this self threatens to tell doctor Zauze, who would then lock them up again in the institution for a few months. The self who is in love with that woman knows that her name is Veta Akatova. He plans to warn her that someone just like him (the other self) will come and tell her lies about him. Veta lives in a large mansion built by her father Arcady Acatov, a famous scientist.
Chapter two is a collection of "stories written on the veranda": a young man who has been drafted in the army, about to leave town for three years, and thinks about the girl who doesn't love him; a boy who worked in the same theater where the father of his loved one was a minor actor; a prosecutor whose house is robbed by his assistant (narrated by the handyman who gave the assistant the key to the house); a girl who studied with a physics teacher, never passed the exam, became a nurse, was expelled from another school, and became a telegraph girl (narrated by the girl herself); a sick girl who lives with her grandfather (during which story the writer reflects that he doesn't have much to say about the girl and the story is therefore too short); a girl whose mother works on the dredging barges (the writer quarreled with the girl and never saw her again); a professor who is writing his dissertation in the countryside and has a date with an attractive relative of his wife; the daughter of a handyman in a suburban area who is courted by a city boy; a man working in a cemetery who digs up a coffin and then morbidly looks for the skull but doesn't find it; a security guard who guards an empty house and is killed by an intruder; a soldier dismissed from the army who has become a janitor in the morgue, and one day sees the girl he loved before going to the army, a girl who rejected him, and now dead in a car accident with her husband (presumably this is the same soldier of the first story).
Chapter three resumes the story of the protagonist arriving at Veta's house. The protagonist claims that he entered the house while her father Arcady was asleep, and calls Veta a teacher, but the other self objects that it is not true, and adds that he has been ordered by doctor Zauze to always follow the other self and try to merge with it. The other self has a different version: that Veta was sleeping with a lot of men, both in that mansion and in hotel rooms. The protagonist tells us that Veta is now 40 while he is 28 and just finished the special school for fools and has become an engineer. He wants to buy flowers for Veta but doesn't have money and asks his mother for the money pretending that a girl died in his class while at the same time telling his mother that he has become an engineer and bought a car. His mother points out the contradiction: he wants flowers for a girl in his class but claims that he has graduated years ago and become an engineer. And there is no car. The protagonist then mentions that he never liked the headmaster of the school for fools, Nikolai/Kolya Perillo, a vicious drunkard. Throughout his memories of the school for fools, he goes back to the barefoot teacher Pavel/Savl Norvegov, who died precisely the moment that the protagonist read the article by a philosopher who claimed that time is upside down (the real future is the past and the future has already happened). He remembers when his father, tired of the visits of his wife's relatives, decided to sell their winter villa in the countryside. He remembers his mother taking him to visit granma's tomb in the cemetery: while she chats with the dead, the boy chases a butterfly and gets lost, and she finds him only much later. Then the story moves on to his collection of butterflies, more than ten thousand, that he tried in vain to submit to an entomological competition. He also tells us about Valentina Kaln, nicknamed Vodokachka, the teacher of Russian language.
One of the two selves objects that it is not true that Acatov in person praised the butterfly collection. The other self takes issue about calling it "our" collection because it was "his" collection - only "he" (this self) took care of it. And this self insists that he did talk to Acatov. He found an empty barrel in the scientist's backyaard and thought of filling it with a scream. He shouted "bacilli!" into it. The writer imagines Savl, sitting on the windowsill of the bathroom, hailing the shout as a call to arms for all the deceived, defamed, dishonored people. Later the protagonist writes that the shout into the barrel was "I am Nymphea" (we learn a little later that he is nicknamed Nymphea Alba). This time it happens in his house and his father comes to check him out. His father sees him in his room. The protagonist tells us that the other self was (imagining to be) besides the empty barrel in Acatov's villa. And then Acatov comes out and they chat. Acatov shows him his new invention, a stick. The protagonist tells Acatov of his love for his daughter Veta, the biology teacher, and, being himself a biologist (he collects butterflies), asks to marry her. The scientist simply replies that they need to ask Veta's opinion. The protagonist then tells Acatov that he hates Sheina Tinbergen, a Jewish witch, the assistant principale of the school for fools. Again he confuses the two Sheinas (Sheina Trachtenberg is the one who works for Perillo at the school), saying that her husband Yakov poisoned himself and her lover Sorokin hanged himself in the garage and adding that Sheina borrowed his turntable to play the record of her husband's voice. That record tells the fairy tale "Skeerly" of a crippled bear and a chalk girl, which the protagonist interpret as a coded story about sex and he wants to kill the man represented by the crippled bear.
The protagonist mentions that geography teacher Savl gave him an important book. The chalk girl becomes first Veta and then Rosa, Savl's love.
The protagonist remembers (or imagines) talking to Savl about women, confessing his virginity. One day the protagonist decides to start a stamp collection and, having no stamps, chooses a matchbox label and goes to the post office asking the female clerk to stamp it (the other self argues that this never happened). There he deliriously tells the clerk that he is getting married but his fiance will never married him and asks her to have sex with him in his contorted manner. The woman kicks him out. He then reads something he wrote for Vodokachka's class: a description of his typical morning. We read that he lives with his mother and father in the city, and they have a neighbor Trachtenberg/ Tinbergen who poisoned her husband. Then the protagonist is again in the bathroom with Savl, who calls this essay a beautiful one and regrets he lost his power to influence the principal. Savl doesn't remember how it happened that he was demoted and deprived of all authorities as if he were dead. Savl only remembers Rosa singing in her sweet voice and we guess that Rosa is one of the mentally disabled students of the school for fools. The protagonist understands that Savl wants to make love to Rosa secretly, without being spotted by Trachtenberg/ Tinbergen. Savl asks him to remember what happened to him and the protagonist eventually remembers how Perillo fired Savl. The protagonist remembers Savl's last lesson, which consisted in the geography teacher reciting a story titled "The Carpenter in the Desert". The story is about a carpenter who lives in the desert where there is no material for carpenters. He only has two boards and a nail, so he builds a cross. One day travelers see the cross and ask him to crucify their captive: in return they offer him plenty of lumber for his profession. He accepts. The dying man tells him that he himself was a carpenter living in the desert and was hired to crucify a carpenter like him. The crucified carpenter dies after showing the crucifying carpenter that he simply crucified himself. During the story the carpenter is also depicted as an evil bird, and while Savl is telling the story the protagonist (here a "we") desperately try to signal that an evil bird is spying: Trachtenberg/ Tinbergen. Savl gets fired. The protagonist (still a "we") writes a petition to Perillo but mistakenly delivers a note of how he (one of the two selves) turned into a white lily, aka a Nymphea Alba. Perillo, concerned, calls doctor Zauze. The protagonist is terrified and calls his mama. He remembers going to music lessons with her mother, carrying an accordion. Savl then tells the protagonist that he remembers being fired and remembers being rehired on probation. He even bought sandals. But he doesn't remember what happens during the probation period. He begs the protagonist to tell him. The protagonist proceeds to narrate what happened on the day of the geography examinations. "They" (the two selves of the protagonist) were told that Savl was sick at home. The protagonist visited the home and found a strange lady who told them that Savl was at his countryside dacha. Here Savl interrupts the story shocked that a strange woman was at his apartment, insisting that he has no such relative. The protagonist found Savl on the other side of the Lethe river (the river of the underworld) and Savl told him that he was dead. The protagonist keeps telling Savl how the classmates were saddened, especially Rosa, and how the funeral was attended by many people and Rosa read a poem on his tomb. This ends the narration and Savl asks the protagonist to take care of Rosa, who is very sick. This concludes the long story told by the protagonist to Acatov.
Acatov now asks about the book that Savl gave to the protagonist. It was a book about the protagonist's marriage with Veta The protagonist tells Acatov that he dreams of becoming an engineer, but this is just one of the two selves. The second one soon says that he wants to become a botanist and is submitting his collection of butterflies to an important academic competition. The author of the book then interrupts the protagonist (which is the author of the book himself) and describes how he will describe the moment when the postman Mikheev will deliver to the protagonist the letter from the academy announcing that he has won the top prize. And this becomes a lengthy detour about the postman, who is tired of his job and keeps waiting for the wind to bring a storm (the "Sender of the Wind").
The protagonist thanks the author (his other self) for writing about him. The author is worried that, should Perillo find the book (the book that we are reading), Perillo would tell the author/protagonist's father about it, about the way the author disparaged them, and they would call doctor Zauze.
As the novel is approaching the end, the author and the protagonist discuss how to title it, and they come up with "A School for Fools". The author wants to write a few more pages about Veta but doesn't know how to start. The protagonist suggests that he starts with "And then". And so the last few pages begin with "And then..." Savl bequeats his skeleton to the school so that future students can study anatomy on his body. One of the two selves mentions that all of this happened years before and the other one is surprise to discover that they are no longer at the school. The remembering self tells the other that "they" (he) worked for some time with their (his) father, the prosecutor, when Savl was sued for refusing to remove a windvane from his roof (he was previously referred to as the "winddriver"). After menial jobs, the protagonist was sent by doctor Zauze to work for Leonardo and suggested to him to paint Veta as the Mona Lisa. Incidentally we learn that the student loved by Savl/Pavl, Rosa, died shortly after him. The author interrupts the protagonist because he has run out of paper and it's time to close the novel. The protagonist mentions that he still has stories to tell, the story of his marriage to Veta and the story of a flood. And so the author invites the protagonist (now called Nymphea) to walk to the store to buy more paper to continue the story.

"Mezhdu Sobakoi i Volkom/ Between Dog and Wolf" (1980) + is a novel of immense linguistic complexity that also combines poetry and prose (like Pasternak's "Zhivago" and Nabokov's "Pale Fire"). The 18 chapters alternate between the lengthy letter (or letters) written by Ilya Zynzyrela to detective Sidor Pozhilykh about the theft of Ilya's crutches (a rambling, convoluted, ungrammatical and incoherent stream of consciousness in a broken dialect), the story of poet, philosopher, painter and dog trainer Yakov Palamakhterov (with countless detours from the French court to Pushkin, culminating with a vision of Yakov's own death), and the poems written by Yakov (that are not just poetry but also fill the gaps in the narrative of Yakov's life and depict him as a sort of Eugene Onegin and a sort of doppelganger of Sokolov himself and perhaps as a Biblical prophet).

The first chapter is a confused letter written in dialect by Ilya Zynzyrela, who introduces himself as a man who sharpens knives and scissors, to detective Sidor Pozhilykh about something that happened on Christmas Eve to Gury the Hunter who raced with Nikolay Helperov. The accountant Fyodor-Pyotr-Yegor is introduced as a thief and his lover Orina-Orya-Oryushka is introduced (with Ilya talking about himself) as a woman with many lovers.
The second chapter, written in erudite language, introduces the poet, philosopher, painter and dog trainer Yakov Palamakhterov, and a woman, Maria-Masha-Marina, who keeps a diary.
The third chapter contains nine poems, one of which is about a one-legged knife-sharpener, presumably Ilya Zynzyrela.
The fourth chapter continues Ilya's letter. Fyodor-Pyotr-Yegor receives a letter from his nephew Pavel and tries to borrow money from the warden Manul Krylobylov. Ilya talks about the poet Yakov and about something he did with Pyotr.
The fifth chapter continues the story of poet Yakov but mainly recount a meeting by typesetter Nikodim with Ksenofont and Ignaty.
In the sixth chapter we learn that Ilya lost his leg when he fell under a train.
The seventh chapter is another collection of poems, several about dogs and wolves, the last one about Nikolay/Kolya Helperov, an old man who only owns two crutches. He drinks too much and dies.
The ninth chapter is detour in ancient and recent history.
In the tenth chapter Ilya reports that Ilya's grandmother lamented that Orina has become a streetwalker. We learn that Fyodor-Pyotr-Yegor killed himself.
The 11th chapter is again poetry. One lengthy poem is about Pyotr telling Pavel that he lost all the money that Pavel gave him and also mentions that Ilya has written a letter to Sidor about the warden stealing his crutches during a snowstorm.
In the 12th chapter Ilya again mentions his lusting for Orina.
In the 14th he talks about the death of Gury, who drowned in icy water during a race with Yakov, and how they held the wake even without his body.
The 15th chapter is poetry.
The 16th chapter finally tells us that Yakov lived in a cabin in the forest with the warden Krylobylov.
Ilya's letter concludes and the book ends with a poem by Yakov.
Meanwhile we understood that (more or less): after the a wake for Gury, Ilya killed a dog belonging to the warden, mistaking the dog for a wolf, and the warden stole Ilya's crutches, and then Ilya killed all the other dogs of the warden, and then Ilya and Krylobylov drowned Ilya.
But there are many confusing sentences. At one point it sounds like the crutches were in Gury's coffin instead of Gury's body. At another point it sounds like Ilya lost his leg because some lovers/customers of Orina tied him to the rails. It is not even clear if Yakov is still alive.
The novel makes endless references to music, painting and literature: Mussorgsky's composition "Pictures at an Exhibition", Pieter Bruegel's painting "The Hunters in the Snow" (1565) Nikolai Nekrasov's poetry (for example the poem "Orina"), Pushkin's "Eugene Onegin", Ivan Turgenev's collection of stories "Notes of a Hunter" (1852), Russian folk songs and folk tales, and, last but not least, the Bible.

"Palisandriia/ Astrophobia" (1985) +

synopsis forthcoming

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