Vasilii Golovanov  <<

The Island, or a Justification for Pointless Journeys 

Published by NLO, Russia; Verdier, France; Matthes & Seitz, Germany; Wydawnictwo Literackie, Poland

The main hero of the novel-journey suffers an existential crisis and in search of the meaning of life heads out on a journey to Kolguev, an island above the Arctic Circle swept by icy winds. “I came of my own free will. In search. But in search of what? Meanings. The meanings of human life. This may sound foolishly high-flown, but what can we do if we truly come face to face with the meaninglessness of existence? Because war is something serious; it is meaninglessness in earnest. Thousands of people killed, destroyed by each other. Deprived of meaning. . . . Family, home, the world of the individual person, his zeal and joy are all deprived of meaning. Death reaps its harvest. . . . Human life isn’t worth a brass tack. Power is in real value. Money. Raw materials. Weapons.”

These insights came to torture the main hero, who began to search for solutions to life’s despair. The most suitable option was escape—first to the abstract idea of an Island and then, when the idea took on concrete geographical form, the island of Kolguev. To escape this world, to escape the past, to escape one’s own unconvincing life, one’s own insignificance, to break free from the captivity of oppressive meanings. To escape in the hope of finding oneself, shedding the skin of one’s old life, finding support for one’s I. . . . In this way, in short, one can sketch out the motivation for the hero’s further actions and, accordingly, the book’s plot. The hero’s gaining of meaning for his life on the backdrop of a Kolguev settlement that has lost all its meanings is simultaneously both optimistic and tragic.” (Andrei Bitov) 

A sober writerly vision which says that there is no “authentic” life and wherever you look for it you find drunkenness, degeneracy, and criminality lends Golovanov’s books the genuine dramatism of the endless struggle with oneself. Because there has to be this other—authentic—life. For you to be.

The island, Ultima Thule, is the end of the earth, where you will find yourself once you’ve started life over with a blank slate, counting backward to what is right. So arose his at first long-distance interest in the island of Kolguev, the most northerly piece of dry land in the Barents Sea. His study of notes left by travelers, his dream of spending time there.

Everyone has a dream. Few risk making it a reality. Vasily Golovanov took that risk. His book is seemingly devoted to his ten years of traveling to Kolguev, beginning in 1992. In particular, the book is about how instead of a mythical paradise of nature, what he found there was the post-Soviet hell of a destroyed land, a dying people, and the gloom of desolation. In fact, the book’s content is a good deal broader. This is a search for oneself, described in the form of a travel diary, that, through a dream, escape, and a difficult campaign, ends in a discovery of destiny.

This complex, unclassifiable book is maintained by its intonation. The voice of someone who wants to get everything said in full. You don’t go to the edge of the earth in order to delude yourself somehow.

Vasily Golovanov thought he was following the paths of the Englishman Trevor-Battye in the late nineteenth century or the Ukrainian artist Ada Rybachuk, who in the late 1950s saw through the wondrous myth of the island of Kolguev. In reality, he was following the paths of geologists from the 1950s through the 1970s—the last romantic heroes of the communist utopia. It was they who disappeared beyond the horizon of time, who became a specter, a dream, leaving behind heaps of iron and trash that no one has cleared away and an oil well of oligarchic-strategic significance. (Vremya MN Igor Shevelev)

Here is what Georgy Ivanov wrote in his prose poem “Splitting the Atom”: “The heart stops beating. The lungs refuse to breathe. A torture akin to rapture. Everything unreal except the unreal. Everything meaningless except the meaningless.” You couldn’t put it better: this is the primordial emotion that gave birth to Vasily Golovanov’s vivid book. . . . There are all kinds of literary parallels and sources for you to trace: Pushkin’s flight from the “prison of stifling cities,” Childe Harold, Robinson Crusoe, Moby Dick, Walden. The island “chronotope” as a model of the world. . . . Also, the tradition of philosophical and literary confession, from Rousseau and Tolstoy to the vastness of modern documentary prose. Meanwhile, Golovanov himself sketches out the genealogy of his own text by taking the tradition of intellectual flight all the way back to existentialism and the broadly understood escapism of the last century. Reflexes like this seem superfluous to me. What is the point of theoretical inclusions in a text that has sketches like this: “This face expressed the unconcern of despair, an unconcern that could in equal measures have been taken for joy or madness.” One can, without thinking hard, guess that this is said about someone subject to the sin of “the drinking of spirits” who can barely recall his own true name and destiny. The recorder of by-the-minute impressions does not forget to mention the resident of the northern, very northern town who has just attached a long pole with a nice new starling house to the wall of the shed in his yard . To his own perplexed question, the Fugitive hears a perfectly calm and unambiguous reply: “No, starlings never come here.” This dialog follows without any comment, but it is clear that the hanging of the starling house in the absence of birds is by no means madness but, on the contrary, a sensible and even, if you like, ritual action. Remember how the lonely settlers in the distant space station from Lem and Tarkovsky’s Solaris fastened fluttering strips of paper to the air conditioner to remind them of the earthly wind? A rare gift of vision, the ability to see beneath the layer of this minute’s murk the pure substantiation of a person or event! (Dmitry Bak. Novy mir)