The Russians are coming. Or, more precisely, a single Ukrainian, Mark Kharitonov, whose Lines of Fate won the first Russian Booker Prize-a fellow traveler with the prestigious English Booker Prize-given to the best work of fiction. This intellectually intense, slow moving story will captivate postmodern devotees, and have the rest of us lunging for the Stoli bottle.
Anton Lizavin is attempting to write his dissertation on Simeon Milashevich, an obscure writer of the 1920s. Lines of Fate follows both his investigation into the mysterious Milashevich's life, and Lizavin's more prosaic experiences.
Milashevich was a metaphysician as much as a novelist, and was concerned as much with the philosophical implications of storytelling as he was in telling a story. The literary tricks of the Milashevich are replicated in both Kharitonov's structure and the narrative. Lines of Fate consists of a narrator commenting on a student's conjectures about a writer whose autobiography the student is striving to create from the author's fictions.
The novel's central conceit involves Lizavin's quest to reconstruct Milashevich's life from a suitcase full of fragments composed on the back of unused candy wrappers, called fantiki. "Besides a drawing (in two or three colors) and the name, they had useful advice printed on them, recommendations in agriculture, wise sayings, weather predictions, and forecasts for the year. ... There was a time when the blank side of these uncut sheets was the only paper left in the area."
None of these fantiki, covered with fragments of Milashevich's writing, seem to have any relation to another. Lizavin attempts to piece them together into a coherent narrative, and, along the way, discover the real Milashevich beneath his disjointed scribblings.
But Lizavin never knew whether the the narrative he constructed from the fragments was accurate. "We've already forgotten what was written on the sheets of paper thrown into the little trunk, what was conceived, what was meant-the words moved by themselves, took shape by themselves; ... the connections changed the meaning, they as if renewed it and created it anew: so a flower joins in different ways with a spring meadow and with a chink in a window smeared with gray paint, so music changes its sound, joining with different words, so people change, joining with a crowd or in intimate couplehood."
The process of construction leads Lizavin to realize that, ultimately, how we make sense of our own lives is owing to the reciprocal relation between the stories we read and the stories we construct about ourselves. "We understand others through ourselves, just as we understand ourselves thanks to others, for only through each of us does the way to some common depths get discovered."
Toward the novel's end, the narrative devolves into a pastiche of poems, songs, and ultimately, a conversation between the dead Milashevich and Lizavin, raising the novel's metaphysical stakes. As Milashevich tells Lizavin, "Maybe somebody is inventing both of us right now-don't you have that strange suspicion from time to time? Somebody's writing your life, moving a crummy pen over paper; we drip off the nib, are given form by the letters. Right now, as we're speaking. Or as we read. And we're right to worry about what he'll do with us. But the point is that not only are we dependent on him, but he also needs us for some reason. Our creations create us. He who's inventing us now-or thinks he is-maybe at that moment starts to suspect that his life is also written by somebody. Somebody invisible is looking expectantly at him with hope and a prayer."
More a meditation, a speculation, than a narrative, Lines of Fate has been compared by the translator to Doctor Zhivago. Clearly, though, among Kharitonov's literary antecedents are Georges Perec, Borges, and Nabokov. The structure, hailed as postmodern, has a superior antecedent in E.T.A. Hoffmann's 1820 work Observations of Murr the Cat, in which a cat writes his autobiography on the scattered back pages of his master's own autobiography.
This Pynchonesque river of words lacks any narrative thrust. Kharitonov's work is a distillation of passionately intense speculation on the relation of story telling to life, but it lacks sufficient emotional insight into its characters to involve the reader.
If you want to see what's been hidden from us by that pesky Iron Curtain, if you like your philosophy in the form of a story, Lines of Fate is for you. Me, I'll take the Stoli.