The main character of the novel is the 15-year-old German. In 1989, he moves with his parents from a cozy provincial town, leaving behind his grandmother, his friends, the lake and bonfires by night, to a large industrial city, where the buildings „resemble tombstones rammed into the earth, all alike, like in a mass grave“. German’s new friends earn money by extorting it from passers-by, and one day one of them comes up with a lucrative business idea: two of their hooligan female friends walk the almost empty streets at night in the search of single, well-dressed, cultured-looking men. They open their fur coats, revealing their naked bodies underneath, and the group of boys suddenly appears and demands payment for the „cartoons“.
The business is very successful until the boys are caught, but the police are only able to detain German, who is sent to the “children’s room” of the police station (during the Soviet period, the police’s obligations included the re-education of difficult teenagers).
At this point, a very precise, detailed, almost documentary description of a late Soviet childhood on the street begins. It is reminiscent of the early Limonov (“The Teenager Savenko or Self-portrait of a Gangster in His Adolescence”), and is at the same time autobiographical. The narrative escalates into a surrealist thriller à la David Lynch.
For unknown reasons, the “children’s room” from police station No. 7 is located in an old, pre-revolutionary villa, which is surrounded by enormous modern high-rises. It the only house that has survived the old “Street of the Proletariat”, which has been rebuilt and named after a hero of the Great Patriotic War.
There are numerous photos hanging on the wall in wooden frames, which resemble oval portraits in school photos, in which the teachers are at the top and the pupils at the bottom. Here they represent a kind of chronicle of generations of educators in police uniform and their re-educated delinquents. The oldest of these photos, which shows pre-revolutionary faces, is dated 1921. German has an unpleasant premonition when he notices that all the photos are dated with odd-numbered years.
Senior inspector Danko takes German into a children’s detention cell – a cozy room with cornflower wallpaper, a freshly made children’s bed, toys and even a decorated artificial Christmas tree. But the room has no doors, and outside the window is the concrete wall of one of the high-rises that surrounds the villa, and somewhere beyond is open space, an endless black nothing, in which there are no smells, no sounds, or even time itself.
Out of the nothing, an unprepossessing man with an ageless face appears in the room. German has seen him before in the photographs, initially among the pupils, and then among the educators. Razumovsky, who asks German to call him Razum (= Reason), shows German in an old slide show about how he himself came into this room a long time ago as an underage, sadistic serial killer, where a wonderful educator, who was also a criminal in his youth, put him on the right path. This “cartoon” turns out to be an endless story, in which each educator later appears in the form of an underage criminal, a kind of Matryoshka doll that is populated by abnormal types, who with the help of the cartoons became members of an order or a circle of inquisitors.
German initially laughs at the naive pictures and the dull, Soviet-style text that accompanies it, but he soon becomes terrified; he freezes up and can no longer feel his own body. Time goes out of joint, and German is shown his own story, and the events of the previous hours, but the account is distorted, and turns him into a traitor. His doppelganger on the screen begins to determine his own behavior, and German can no longer distinguish between his two selves.
German loses consciousness, and comes to his senses in hospital with a swollen and bitten tongue. The doctors and his parents explain that he has had an epileptic fit, which is most probably the result of a lobotomy (a reference to Ken Kesey’s „One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest“), but with a moderate way of life and regular medication, everything will sort itself out again. German is happy to believe that the films were a hallucination and the product of his sick imagination, but all his friends that he betrayed in the films have mysteriously disappeared, or are in hospital and unresponsive. The graffiti on school desks, an old children’s book with a drawing of Razumovsky and German on the cover, the worsening of the illness in odd-numbered years (1991 and 1993 were years of political upheavals in Russia) and a package with no sender indicated that contains the film “Off to a new life!” – all of this increases his suspicion that the children’s room at police station No. 7 is real...
The new book by Mikhail Yelizarov, which Vladimir Sorokin considers to be the most powerful and talented novel by an author he values very highly, has given rise to heated debates among critics:
“Before our eyes, the entire unpleasant story of the security bodies unfolds (the Cheka, GPU, NKVD, KGB – each abbreviation and each period can be associated with an educator). The process has a double focus: ideally, one is enlisted as a future educator, i.e. ‘reforged’ , and old friends must first be given up; or friends are simply given up in exchange for a guarantee of one’s own safety.” (Viktor Toporov).
“‘Cartoons’ is the Soviet answer to ‘A Clockwork Orange’. The constant drive of all institutions of the Soviet system to educate and patronize their wayward sons is raised in Yelizarov’s novel to such an absurd level that the children’s rooms of the police become an allegory for the entire Soviet machine of state.” (Kasparov.ru).
“This is a novel of perverted education, because the ‘education’ is incomparably more revolting and terrifying than the initial ignorance and ‘cruelty’ of the protagonist. It is a novel about the secret of the power of one person over another. One may explain this power by the demands of possession and self-interest, the habit of obeying one’s parents, or by the instinctive search for protection and safety. But Yelizarov gives his own answer, and in the spirit of the mystic anarchists. Inside power, he discovers, with folders, tables of honor and slide projectors of the late Soviet period, a kind of dusty and artificial Satanism. In this world, power can only be an infernal hierarchy for minor and major demons. The person is a standardized, unchanging creature, but power is the hell that derides this creature for going against its regulations. Power castrates, edits, cauterizes and cripples. It leads the protagonist through the form of his image to alienation with himself. It isn’t me in this hellish slideshow, it is my image, which answers these questions and acts instead of me. Power is total, and present everywhere.” (Rabkor.ru)
“Yelizarov initially creates a documentary, extremely detailed picture of everyday life in a large regional city in the late Soviet era, and then totally destroys this picture. There is nothing that you can say has ‘really’ taken place – everything is a dream, everything is a game, and the person is a toy in the hands of otherworldly and not particularly benevolent powers.” (LiveLib)
“On the one hand, the socialist realism hits you full in the face and brings items of the perestroika era back into the consciousness: the children’s rooms at the police station, Kosmos brand cigarettes, video halls and blank Sony cassettes, which were the coolest birthday present. On the other hand, one is threatened with being plunged into a timeless surrealism.” (art.gazeta.kz)
“Yelizarov is a metaphysician. He is not interested in politics or social problems, but breaking beyond the boundary to ‘living life’, where archaic Chaos reigns, where hungry spirits howl, where there are distorting mirrors and the eternal battle between good and evil.” (NataliP).
But all the critics agree on one thing – that Yelizarov is one of the most gifted and interesting modern Russian writers:
“Can Yelizarov be compared with Edgar Allen Poe? Or with E.T.A. Hoffmann?.... One can’t even imagine what lies ahead.” (NataliP)
“All the events of the novel turn out to be ‘cartoons’, or in other words, visions. Or at least they pass themselves off as visions. A writer who is assailed with visions is called a visionary. In literature and around it, this is a rare gift (Jakob Böhme, Emanuel Swedenborg, William Blake, Daniil Andreev, perhaps Andrei Platonov). In contemporary Russian literature, there are only two visionaries – Vladimir Sharov and Mikhail Yelizarov. Yelizarov is a seer. And he describes what he sees. He writes impressively, perceptively, and with beguiling credibility – and this is what makes him so interesting.” (Viktor Toporov)