This review first appeared in The Literateur (21 June 2013)
From the gallows to the trenches, the most desperate environments can give rise to humour, and the ferociously bleak landscape of Oleg Pavlov’s Captain of the Steppe is no exception. But can humour act as a means of expressing rage at a despotic system, or does it in some way make light of an unavoidably dark situation?
Set during the dying days of the Soviet Empire, Captain Khabarov is stationed in the godforsaken steppe, an enormous plain stretching far across the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan. It is an unfathomable place, so bitterly cold the light-bulbs pop like boils and the inner walls grow skins of ice. The soldiers stationed here to guard exiled prisoners (or “zeks”) are sent last year’s newspapers and rotten food, surrounded by lice and rats, their wages as frozen as their bones. It is a place of stagnation and decay, of sickness and overcrowding, where the men feel cheated, lost and overlooked. Pavlov describes the penal colony as a blood clot, a glob of phlegm, a kennel and a graveyard, stinking of fried food and soiled laundry. He paints a vivid, often nauseating, picture.
And yet, despite taking place within this grim enclosure and the confounding landscape that encroaches so relentlessly upon it, Captain of the Steppe is far from a demoralising read. This is due in large part to Pavlov’s macabre sense of humour, vibrant language, startling similes and vivid characterisation. Pavlov, who was just twenty-four when the book was published in Russia in 1994, spent his military service as a prison guard in Kazakhstan, infusing the narrative with a strong dose of authenticity. Though the plot is fictional, the petty officiousness, political corruption and obscene injustice depicted are so sad, funny and engrossing because there is a resounding ring of truth to them.
One particularly illuminating source of the book’s grotesque humour is obese Cossack Ilya Peregud, a non-conformist, resourceful escapist – and hopeless drunk – who lives in fear of having his ponytail cut off. Ilya does not want “to turn into a worker ant” and knows “a hundred different ways of making vodka… from rice, wheat, rotten apples, wood chips, old women’s headscarves or sour cabbage soup”; when he drinks, “Ilya would take wing!” It is a heavenly depiction of drunkenness, and who can blame him when he has been placed in such dire circumstances?
What of the eponymous Khabarov? The novel centres round its hero’s decision to plant potatoes in order to feed his half-starving men. It is a simple act, done out of goodness, yet has lasting repercussions. The fact that Khabarov has not been ordered, or sought permission, to plant the potatoes angers and frightens his military superiors:
“So the matter has nothing to do with potatoes, really, but with the fact that a man like that, with nothing to lose, like this Khabarov, has dared to go against the rules. Turns out this is a political problem. Such people are more dangerous than any infectious illness.”
The potatoes are a demonstration of rebellion to the officials but represent hope for Khabarov, and in their green shoots the reader can see a symbol of the captain’s conviction, tenacity and humanity.
Though such events take place in the faraway land of the Kazakh steppe, there are a surprising number of vernacular words and phrases included throughout the narrative (“go on a bender”, “taking the piss” and “bullshitting”, to name a few), giving the dialogue an earthy, authentic feel. Credit for this should go to translator Ian Appleby, whose light touch makes a topic foreign to most British readers feel accessible and intimate. Equally arresting are the surprising similes with which the book teems: “a link of smoked sausage, curled round like a mongrel’s tail and with the same sort of red, crimped arsehole”. There are also some magically surreal moments: potatoes are personified; a wolf talks; and a man fuses with the wood of his chair. Such familiar language and left-of-field imagery add colour and life to the bleached-out, dead nature of the steppe.
Men dominate this barren landscape and yet, peripheral as they are, a whole article could be devoted to its women. They seem to fall into one of two categories: lascivious, cruel and ugly; or frightened, mute and submissive. Pavlov expresses a strikingly ageist vision of female beauty: “The young women were fair-skinned and slim, while the old women had skin like cured ham and were fat.” True, he might have witnessed such women in this particular landscape, but with no other more varied depictions of women on offer it is hard to excuse such dismissive, binary descriptions, especially when the male characters are so diverse and nuanced. However, it is a story that can be firmly classified as a product of its time and environment, and Pavlov should perhaps be forgiven for lacking feminist ideals in Russia, 1994.
Yet, while Russia remains plagued with corruption and totalitarianism, while media compliance and electoral irregularities add to the sense of a deeply flawed democracy, Pavlov’s work will continue to strike a chord. It is filled with black humour, but within this lies the heart of the men’s despair; you either laugh in such terrible situations or you cry (or worse). By showing the men’s humanity, their lack of otherness, Pavlov highlights the injustice that has been done to them and makes us feel their torment. In this way, Captain of the Steppe becomes a brilliant and lasting expression of a bitter, righteous rage.