“Horsemen of the Sands”
By Leonid Yuzefovich
Translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz
232p. Archipelago Books. $16
Sometimes it’s better to just stick with appetizers instead of gorging an entree. The appetizers’ size allows (forces) you to manage how much you are eating. Plus the flavor doesn’t grow bland by the fourth bite since there are only two or three bites max. Also the main course often leaves you stuffed, uncomfortable, and full of regret. Why did I eat the whole thing?
Now you must be wondering why the hell I am using gastronomical koans to start a review about a collection of two Russian novellas. Because what is great about Leonid Yuzefovich’s writing is when he contains a story to a classroom or a small town as he does in the first novella, “The Storm.” Where he fails is when he bumbles around Asia following Baron Ungern, a Russian revolutionary that you have probably never heard of and when finish the titular novella, will never want to hear about again.
During “The Storm” we are put inside a 5th grade classroom with 45 students, their teacher, who can’t seem to control them, and a government official who is more than happy to impose order on them and start his lesson about the evils of drunk driving and the various punishments for it around the world.
Inside the classroom are two students both of whom have been affected by drunk driving. Filimonov wasn’t paying attention and was hit by a motorcycle. Vekshina’s dad was caught drunk behind the wheel and has been drunk ever since he was demoted to being a mechanic. Their teacher leaves at the beginning of the class and goes on a rather wink wink nod nod symbolic trip to a market run by women obviously rememanants of the pre-Bolshevik past. Rodygin, the pedantic, autocratic government official, uses rhetoric (or as it should be called propaganda, I mean it is Soviet Russia) to get the kids to direct their hatred and energy to end drunk driving.
What is so refreshing about “The Storm” is that the kids actually think and sound like kids. Most kids in literature end up sounding too naive or childlike or like they scare the shit out of you like those possessed kids out of “The Shining” or “The Ring.”
A point about the punishment for drunk drivers in Turkey (having to walk 30 kilometers while being followed by police) is harmless and a good rhetorical image for Rodygin becomes a realistic, viserical punishment for her father in Vekshina’s imagination. “A terrible Turkish hear coalesced in the classroom; scorching air rose from desks to ceiling in quiversing streams. Directly ahead of her, Vekshina saw the rocky road, white from the terrible heat…Dragging himself down it, staggering from exhaustion, was her papa…Sweat was running into his eyes, which he raised to the skies from time to time praying for rain.” Kids understand and feel a lot more than we give them credit for.
There is a storm on the horizon but unlike Tomas Gonzalez’s “The Storm” you have no idea how it’ll affect any of the characters. It is not surprising that Leonid Yuzefovich is actually best known for his detective novels for he manages to flood suspense in into even a overcast day during a boring lecture in an average classroom.
Leonid Yuzefovich is also a historian and it is the richness of history that weighs down and ultimately sinks the other novella “Horsemen of the Sands.”
The narrator is a Russian soldier that is in training in mainland Asia preparing for an attack by whoever the government says is their enemy that week. During training exercises the army accidently (read as: ignorantly) sets off smoke bombs near this local herder’s cows. The cows run off and the higher ups send the narrator to go apologize and eat a meal with the herder, Bolji.
After a quick meal, Bolji begins telling the narrator a story about Baron Ungern, who was a Russian revolutionary who was trying to spread the “yellow religion”–Buddhism–to combat the “red religion.” At the beginning of his campaign Ungern is given a gau, a cloth pendant that was allegedly worn by the guy that won Genghis Khan all his battles. From that point on Ungern is seemingly unstoppable. No bullet can touch him.
Since you didn’t know who he was, and history is written by the victors, you can imagine where this hubris and Zen koan filled story is going.
Yuzefovich’s prose turns dry as a desert and dense as dirt because he overloads you with too many places and names like medals on a egotistical general. Half the story is Ungern’s army traveling from place to place and riveting battle scenes become anecdotes. The other half is the narrator trying either to tell the story to someone else or having side characters questioning the validity of the story. It feels like at times Yuzefovich was going for a Greek tragedy but ended up with a bad first draft of a History Channel documentary.
Appetizers are not bad. They may not have the pomp and price of main courses, but they sate your hunger and sometimes make you want more. “The Storm” made me hungry, “The Horsemen of the Sands” gave me a stomachache. Hopefully Yuzefovich’s detective novels will be translated soon. I’m starving.