Ad Marginem, Moscow
Reclam Leipzig / dtv
Serge Safran éditeur, Paris
„Nogti“ recounts the short biography of two foundlings, Gloster and Bakhatov. Having outgrown the nursery, they end up in a special home for mentally deficient children. There, they discover the world, the microcosm of the home to begin with, and it is not the “little monsters” that do them and teach them do evil, but the almighty “normal human beings” – the female and male nurses and the home’s administration. Out of sheer self-protection, Gloster puts on the act of the ever-laughing ninny, while Bakhatov survives thanks to his nail-chewing which he turns into a mystical ritual pacifying the forces of evil. When Gloster witnesses his autistic friend Nastenka being violated by two male nurses, he kills them. With the help of his magic ritual, Bakhatov makes the two corpses disappear. Then Gloster discovers music as the elixir of life, his hunchback turns into a sensitive bowl for sounds and tones pouring from there into his hands.
When Gloster and Bakhatov turn eighteen, they are sent to the occupational school in a far-off city. But they fail finding the school, lose money and documents and encounter innumerable adventures in the jungle of the unknown city, until they finally land as aids to the handyman of a housing administration. One day, Gloster feels irresistibly attracted into a house from which piano sounds emerge: the entrance exam to a musical academy. Its director takes Gloster under his wings. Soon, Gloster arouses attention as the “new Sviatoslav Richter”, appears in public, becomes famous and makes money. But then, at an all-decisive piano competition in Italy, the “hunchback musician” all of a sudden turns silent. A break-down. Gloster has learnt that Bakhatov lies in coma. He is said to have cruelly killed someone who disrupted his magic ritual of chewing nails. When Gloster arrives at the hospital, Bakhatov is dead. Gloster completes the ritual in his place, chewing off Bakhatov’s nails so as to liberate him from the power of the devil dog and the death well. But doing so, he himself gets caught by the demonic powers ...
This summary of the „fabulous story“ is far from explaining the suggestive power of Mikhail Elisarov’s text. For it intertwines a most accurate observation of reality (which the reader, too, through the eyes of the two “simpleminded”, discovers as new and astonishing for himself) in a most wondrous way with blackest fancy and surrealistic estrangement that after but a few pages, there emerges an entirely new world in which the laws of “real” and “absurd” no longer prevail and reality takes on ever new ambiguity. The reader becomes unable to distinguish reality and absurdity and finds himself feeling that whatever happens in this story could but happen the way it did. The extreme density of the narration produces a text resting in itself and makes the reader abandon himself to it. Which makes for easy reading – in an all but trivial sense. Thus, the philosophical and ethical dimensions of the subject, such as the question of “normalcy” and deviation, do not impose themselves to the theoretical mind, but arise afterwards, albeit most intensely, so that the book’s effect continues to linger long after reading it.
This lingering echo is, without doubt, due to the flow of the narration that, even while recounting the worst and blackest, has its very own, soft and dry humour prevail which is not only very much to the point, but sometimes excruciatingly funny. That unerring feeling for the thin line dividing, in a subject as sensitive as debility and mental and physical abnormalcy, poetic licence from unethical gaffe, testifies to an extraordinary talent of this young author.
„Nogti“ has been cheered, and rightly so, as a literary event, and it is the outing of a most promising narrative talent all of its own. Elisarov copies no one, cannot be “related” to any other author – except, perhaps, Nikolai Gogol. And yet his novel reads like the best pages of Yuri Mamleyev, Viktor Pelevin, and Vladimir Nabokov taken together. „Nogti“ is a moving book about life and death, about the crazy reality and the real craziness of the Russian society the two mentally handicapped try to disentangle. And yet it is a European book in the best sense of the word – and, for once, Russian critics unanimously hail it as such.