BookBlast review of Be Like Children by Vladimir Sharov, a finalist for the Russian Booker and Big Book awards.
“My own experience has taught me that being at the centre of events makes you the worst possible witness,” writes the main character of Be As Children (p. 39), introducing a sense of uncertainty and improbability that permeates this long, rambling, immersive novel.
Against this central theme, there’s a counterpoint: the desperate quest to escape “the horrific meat grinder” (p. 447) of the Russian twentieth century, with its “Babylonian rivers of grief and suffering” (p. 473). Wars, slaughter and oppression are everywhere: they are not explored in depth, but assumed almost as inevitable, even unremarkable experiences. How do people respond to these situations? Uncertainly. They are “torn . . . between different paths to salvation, unsure whom to obey, which way to go, whom to believe” (p. 273).
Be As Children is a crazy meander through once-forgotten by-paths of hidden histories, written as one long outpouring of pain, confusion and seeking, with no chapter breaks or section divisions. Sharov focuses on — almost meditates on — episodes and themes in Russian history which were almost steamrollered out of existence by that horrific meat-grinder.
Often his quest seems frustratingly difficult. “It was a time when nobody could make sense of anything or decide on anything.” (p. 263) There are conversations about stories about memories, there are memories of stories about conversations; characters interweave, separate and interlock over the decades.
Sharov leads us along the traces of ancient histories: not only of the Orthodox Church that the Bolshevik Revolution attempted to suppress, but also of esoteric traditions within the Orthodox faith, such as the Old Believers, who never accepted the structures and regulations of the Orthodox Church, and the practices of the Enets, a primitive people of Siberia and the Artic north who follow shamanic beliefs.
Following the fall of Communism in 1989, many Russian writers have turned to diverse strands of the Russian past, seeking to uncover in an “other” alternative Russia, the truths and national myths that Communism suppressed. Frequently such evocations of a pre-Communist or non-Communist Russia, spiritual and communal in nature, lead writers into anti-modern, anti-Marxist positions, sometimes even to anti-Semitism.
Sharov is distinctive as he seems to consciously avoid this direction, instead seeking to place Communism into a wider, diverse, multi-coloured image of Russian history. Communism is positioned as a flawed faith within a greater constellation of faiths.
The great quest of this novel is for the unification of all Russian cultures and faiths, “as if the Lord and the Cheka [the first Soviet secret-police organization and forerunner of the KGB] were working in unison” (p. 343), for “we wanted the same thing: to help people, to save them, even if we’d chosen different paths” (p. 345).
This search leads to the novel’s central conceit: the idea that the aging, dying Lenin, of 1922-24, was gripped by a similar quest. In those last years, Lenin suffered two strokes. If historians consider this period in Lenin’s life at all, they do so to evaluate his attitude to the rise of Stalin. In Be As Children, Lenin loses his faith in the political capacity of the organized working-class, and instead turns to homeless children as agents of social change: specifically, as a source of innocence and purity that a Russian political renaissance requires. They are “‘the true proletariat. The last and most proletarian of all proletariats” (p. 177). From what little I know of Marxism this is, to put it mildly, unlikely. As the Bolshevik revolutionaries became Communist governors, there was a deep concern with the uprooted children of the years of war and revolution — but this is quite different from the mystical passions which Sharov projects onto the dying Lenin.
The passages in which Sharov considers Lenin’s last years are marked by a memorable tenderness or gentleness. Equally moving and lyrical are the sections concerning multiple journeys into the frozen north of Russia. Some elements of the novel are not so praiseworthy: any woman with any type of sexual appetite seems to be promptly labelled “a whore”.
Sharov has achieved a remarkable success with Be as Children, which suggests a Christian, Russian form of magical realism. A modern book about dark Soviet times, it is a rich and resonant read perfect for our turbulent present.
Reviewed by Sharif Gemie for BookBlast.
Vladimir Sharov, Be As Children (trs. Oliver Ready) | PB £12.99 published September 2021 | 420 pages Dedalus Books ISBN 978 1 912868 34 6
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