Eksmo Publishers, Moscow
Actes Sud, France
Zepter Book World, Belgrade
Club Editor, Barcelona
Gelasimov’s novel Rachel revolves around a Jewish professor of literature named Svyatoslav Kaufmann, who shares Faulkner’s conviction that there is no such thing as “the past.” Svyatoslav lives in a place that is not of one time and one world, but somewhere in between a number of times and a number of worlds. Inwardly he is at home in the sixties, while at the same time he has to deal with the unreasonable demands of the nineties, the post-Perestroika decade. On the one hand, he is a Russian. On the other, a Jew. The inferiority complexes of both are combined in his split personality.
In the early sixties, Svyatoslav enjoyed the euphoria of Khrushchev’s Thaw: Boogie-Woogie, the Twist, then Elvis and the Beatles, tight pants, romance, the intoxication of freedom and first love—Luba, who became his wife. The title of the novel is a reference to the Biblical tale of Jacob and Rachel. Just as in this tale, Svyatoslav, like Jacob, is prepared to serve for seven years. So that Luba can finish her degree, the young specialist in the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald takes a job as an orderly in a psychiatric clinic, where he quickly discovers that the patients who have taken refuge there from the Soviet regime are a lot saner than their doctors. Despite this his marriage fails. Luba flees the excessive demands of the world, escaping into her religion. She becomes fascinated by Jewish tradition and the teachings of the Torah, breaking off all relations with normalcy and her husband. She accuses him of only being a “half-Jew,” because his mother was not Jewish. All the while no one else doubts his Jewishness. At his institute, for example, he continually has to distance himself from Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. Luba slips further and further into her religious mania, and threatens her husband with a knife, loses her unborn child, and gets committed as a psychiatric patient.
Like Jacob, Svyatoslav had more than one wife. The second bears him a son, Vladimir. The third is one of his students, Natalya. Nevertheless, he does not forget Luba.
The early nineties see the fulfillment of the dream: the Soviet regime ceases to exist. But the professor’s world is falling down around his ears. He suffers from heart problems. He is not being paid. Natalya leaves him for an ex-KGB officer, Nikolaj, who has started his own business. As if that were not enough, his son, who has never forgiven him for divorcing his mother, is planning to sell the apartment that Svyatoslav lives in. Luba takes him back in, but shortly thereafter, she emigrates to the United States …
Critics view Gelasimov’s work as something in the tradition of Saul Bellow—one of the authors whom Svyatoslav studied—and of Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose novel Enemies: A Love Story has a hero who is also caught up with three women. Rachel is a tale of the collapse of all hope, but Gelasimov—and this is his special talent—tells the tale lightly, enjoying its tragicomic aspects, a characteristic that his characters also share. There is, for example, Dina, Svyatoslav’s daughter-in-law, a girl from a less-than-stellar family, a kleptomaniac, who steals food from the supermarket for the professor and his cat Lusya, that continually makes a mess of her owner’s bed, until Dina finds her an admirer. When Dina is caught shoplifting, Svyatoslav has to keep her out of jail. Or there’s the despicable ex-secret-police officer Nikolaj, who is in the end the only friend that the lonely professor has. They become such good friends that Natalya gets jealous, because the common memories of their youth are stronger than the fact that they were standing on different sides of the barricades. Various characters take on the role of the narrator from time to time, very much in the tradition of Russian icon painters who added secondary motifs to the margins of their paintings. The main theme of the novel is the failure of Svyatoslav’s and Luba’s love for each other, which neither of them ever gets over.