Sokolov’s Vulgar Shore: “Between Dog & Wolf”

Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_Hunters_in_the_Snow_(Winter)_-_Google_Art_ProjectPieter Bruegel, “Hunters on the Snow” (1565).  Kunsthistorisches Museum.

Between Dog and Wolf, the famously untranslatable Russian novel now translated for the first time into English, makes a strong case for alternative facts. In fact, the facts in the case appear to have sprung from a manufactured piece of evidence – Bruegal’s Hunters in the Snow. Like a snowdrift, parallel facts and competing scenari accumulate, the product of utterly compromised narrators who are either murderers, murdered, or cloned genes from scraps of Lermontov, Turgenev, Pushkin and other illustrious corpses. Someone should send a copy to Kellyanne.

Sasha Sokolov hit it big in 1976 with A School for Fools. He got a glowing review from notorious grump Vladamir Nabokov and his book was hailed in its English translation as the new Zhivago. His second book proved a stranger beast and languished in the margins in the West with scant notice and no reviews, until recently. He did a bit better in the waning Soviet Union and was awarded the Andrei Bely Prize from the samizdat journal Chasy. After a nomadic life, Sokolov emigrated to the US in 1976.

The heart of the matter is a real-life murder story. While the author worked as a game warden on the Volga, a co-worker drowned under mysterious circumstances after shooting a resident’s dogs. The crime was never solved although it was probably covered up – an alternative fact if there ever was – and it provides the hazy background for Between Wolf and Dog. The book has three voices: the knife-sharpener (Anglopunned to sharpenhauer, and he’s a bit of a pessimist) Ilya Petrikeich in demotic jabber riddled with malaprop and false friends; the proper bookish speech of Yakov Ilych the Dog-Master, which is sometimes his own I and at other times seems almost a disinterested party; and the poetry written by this Yakov Ilych.

Sokolov begins with Ilya talking to the police. His maddening ‘confession’ seeps with allusions to Russian folklore sokolovwolfand literature and neologism, which makes his ‘uneducated’ voice tricky, buffoonish, knowing perhaps more than it says, full of allusions to things which may either be accidental or malicious… public talk, suspects’ talk. The joy and sadism of the writing are most obvious in these Ilya sections, which refer back to earlier events, supposition, and sly innuendo in what could be called a Rashomon-Kulishov effect. Second Bruegel evocation: the shadow of his tower of Babel, ruddy undoing of words.

In contrast, the Yakov material is restrained and calculated, perhaps a parody of 19th Century Russian literature.  We are supposed to regard the Yakov node in the production as poetic and philosophical, but I get the sneaking suspicion that his poetry is really intended to be empty junk which ‘reads beautifully’. If so, Sokolov is having us on and what passes for the thoughtful reader is really a stupid-ass.

The book’s title, taken from a line in Eugene Onegin which appears several times in variants throughout, brings many things to mind. To be between two points on a scale measuring kinds in a species; to be between night and day, at twilight, to use Luther’s striking image of humanity; to be between childhood and the greater world. Several well-known paintings (and Paintings at an Exhibition) provide settings, motifs and objects for Sokolov and Between Dog and Wolf could be seen as a child’s game with paintings. A child looks at paintings as if they were a problem to be solved or a transmission from some dark co-conspirator. Children build up intricate stories to go with these first, very serious investigations of painting and any painting with figures, no matter how banal or extraordinary, will yield countless possibilities for play. This is why our crime novel has no ‘story’. It moves by association with word-parts and paintings, at the never to be recaptured speed of childhood blues.

Aside from painting, rivers preoccupy Sokolov. The Volga divides the domestic (dog) from its wild cousin (wolf), as well as the districts of the workman and poachers from the bourgeoisie. It is called by its Russian name but also by the name given it by Turkic peoples, the Itil. Place names are constantly spelled differently in the book, as are the names of characters. If proper names try to secure a locale, Sokolov is all about midway zones, quarantine, indecision and mistake – not sharp cartographic edges but a liquid center. The insulting lines on our maps designate water yet they show absolutely nothing of these great bodies’ complex power over land and creature entre perro y lobo.

There is another, seemingly accidental death by drowning and more dog-murders before the epilogue taunts the reader by daring him to set it all on fire. By this point, you may have forgotten about the initial crime but a solution does actually appear. It’s even quite obvious if you discard the probable fact that the villagers may have all conspired to provoke the crime and so, like all crimes, it is the work of many hands. Third Bruegel cameo: Icarus, whose failure remains unnoticed as he falls into the sea while all around the day continues with carts, workmen, and commerce. “They met Kolya by the river/ With their clubs.”

The alternative fact of the universe may be Anthroposophy, George Steiner’s loopy doctrine which attempts to penetrate archetypal worlds through a kind of scholastic clairvoyance that is hard for Anthroposophists to explain. Once capable of strong currency in the arts, it permeated such modernist Russian masterpieces as Bely’s Petersberg and proved itself seductive enough to slink into both music and painting (Kandinsky and Prokofiev, most notably). Stamping it over Sokolov, we would inevitably come to the conclusion that all of the speakers in the book are dead but unaware of the fact. The lycanthropic rap of Ilya resembles the primordial soup of spirit-medium. Yakov’s voice sounds like a man looking backward to his grave. Simple enough and irrefutable.  You and I are also dead.

If you tend to Formalism, the real culprit is the jumble of the pages itself which, if put back together like a puzzle, would reveal the most ordinary of books. The stream-of-consciousness Ilya could be solved by a simple change of pronouns. The use of paintings in the narrative which seems so avant-garde is only an ancient form called Ekphrasis, also found in Homer and Keats. The garbled words merely create verbal relations inherent in colloquial phrases and famous poems, using onomatopoeia and other devices while syntax remains intact. Shklovsky and his friends haunt this book, as well.

Alexander Boguslowski’s fine introduction to his extraordinary translation mentions the Eternal Return as a ‘key theme’, but one could also look upon the book as a series of static episodes which extend in an endless straight line. We have not advanced along this knife-edge as far as we think. We inhabitants of the long ebb of the 19th Century, forced to mimic its concepts and tones in disintegration and echo, half-remembering, deferring to, stuck as ‘moderns’ in condemned buildings. “You’ll ascend the garbage-mount to get some rest – your spirit will flare up: A tip-top site! Look around: in the West, in the valley, the ragpicker scrapes the garbage with her rake; in the north, a three-pawed bitch scours for some grub; in the east, a sergeant-major rummages in the stream- raves about assemblin a motorcycle out of spare parts; and in the south, some riffraff scavenges for cigarette butts.”

All of this makes Sokolov’s book a beguiling one for reviewers but a kick for readers, especially after they’ve been warned off of it by blurbs politely mentioning its untranslatability, incomprehensibility, its ‘dense’ language and its genius. After reading it a couple of times and going over interviews with the author, it is unlikely that the facts in the case of Between Dog and Wolf will come to light which makes a mystery of a mystery book where there is, finally, no mystery. Good enough.

Martin Billheimer is the author of Mother Chicago: Truant Dreams and Specters of the Gilded Age. He lives in Chicago.