Village of Fools 

Published by

Astrel, Moscow

Suhrkamp Verlag, Germany

Plato, Belgrad

With her new novel, 26-year-old Natalia Klyucharova has demonstrated that the critical acclaim for her debut novel (2008's "A Train Named Russia") was justified. With "Village of Fools", she has managed with just a few strokes to create a whole portrait gallery of inhabitants of Russia, to tell the story of a dying Russian village for which Moscow and the Kremlin are as far away as the coldly indifferent celestial spheres, and to try to find the answer to the eternal question: Why are we here?

In search of an answer to this question, the novel's protagonist Mitya – an impoverished, gawky 28-year-old Muscovite history graduate – sets off to be a teacher at a village school. "History began for him in early childhood, like something very personal and cruel, but at the same time fascinating. Mitya grew up in domestic captivity. He was not allowed out into the yard, for fear that he would get mixed up with the riff-raff. Hand in hand with his grandmother or one of his female companions, he would make his way sedately along the avenues of the town park, swaddled in a hundred layers even on the hottest days. That portion of fear that every growing body needs, and that his peers got by peering into the basements and under the manhole covers where mutant rats and man-eating worms lived, Mitya drew from grown-ups' conversations in the spacious kitchen of their professorial flat, and from their terrifying stories of the revolution and the war... He didn't go to kindergarten, and even missed almost the whole of junior school. Finally, his grandmother – having noticed that her grandson got sick after every news bulletin that included something blowing up, bearded villains firing away from machine guns and medical orderlies bearing stretchers with bloodied bodies through crowds – hit on the idea of giving away the television set to the neighbors, Mitya would fall ill when he realized that that the world was in the dominion of some evil power... Later, when he was already a history student, he suddenly realized that the whole of historical study was really intent on banishing the only thing of any importance – the living horror of an individual's fate – and on making history pain-free, and therefore useless... Historical sufferings were the sphere of life that he always carefully avoided, not out of hard-heartedness, but rather out of ignorance of how to deal with them – what to say, what to do, where to look. He hid himself in history, like an ostrich burying its head in the sand. The past, of course, also inspired dread, but it could not happen again."

But so tortured is Mitya by thoughts of action, of his life's path, and so tired is he of his indecisiveness (even when choosing a brand of chocolate roll at the store), that he decides to follow his nose in search of "real life". Fate brings him to the village of Mitino, a typical Russian village in which the men drink a lot and fight, skip work and beat up their wives; where the local "simpleton" Lyubka is happy to fondle any man in exchange for a glass of moonshine; and where every year the village authorities threaten to close the school, which has just 11 pupils. These people, it seems, have no future. Mitya is most struck by an old woman with her deaf son, the only inhabitants of the neighboring village, which is no longer marked on the map. Every Sunday the two of them come to the church: the old woman to offer up for sale scrub from homes that she never visited while their owners were still alive, while the son breaks up the abandoned houses and sells the timber. "There was something shameful about raking over other people's things so easily, when it seemed that the touch of someone else's hands was still warm on them. Sometimes Mitya found himself imagining what would happen in the future. When the mute boy would sell the last splinter of all the houses, when he would bury the old woman – and be left all alone on the naked earth." And this "real life" is pervaded with such hopelessness, such horror, that Mitya at first decides to run back to Moscow and bury himself in the peaceful university library. But along the way he encounters people who live differently, and Mitya wants to discover the secret of their happiness.

The sweet elderly couple Fima and Serafima, with whom Mitya lodges, for example, still as in love with each other as they were when they were young, do not drink or watch television, but spend their days working in the garden, and take pleasure in every instant of life. In their garden all of the flowers bloom at the same time – but the villagers interpret this as sorcery. "'We are happy. People find this hard to bear,' explains Serafima, adding: 'It's joyous to be alive. You breathe, and that's happiness."

Or the school principal Dunya, who for several years has battled to save her tiny school from closure, who suffers beatings from her drunkard husband and sees Mitya's arrival as salvation from all her ills. Mitya's ungainly figure might seem unlikely to inspire such trust, but "she wanted so badly to hope that in whom she hoped was not really important."

Or the plain young girl Nastya, with her childishly guileless "outlook flying to meet life head-on" from the commune located next to Mitino. As his driver Vova fastidiously explains to Mitya: 'That's where the foreigners look after our loonies. Brought them in from the hostels, and they wipe up their snot. For free. That's why we say it's a village of idiots. One load of idiots mixed up with another. The holy fools with the clinically stupid." Nastya lives in the naive confidence that all people are essentially good. Or the foreign volunteers in the village of idiots. For example, the rosy-cheeked Dietrich, who is obsessed with sorting the trash and ecological problems, as though Russia doesn't have any others.

And finally the young priest Father Konstantin, who came to Mitino and its semi-derelict church a half-year ago, and after looking around wrote in his diary: "Terrifying". This "odd" priest puzzles the whole village. When asked how often one should go to church to avoid going to hell, and whether it is necessary to remove one's cross when "doing it with a chick", he answers that it is unimportant; all that is necessary is to "live properly", and for starters to "drink only every other day at least." And when the millionaire sawmill owner Dokunin, who recently on a whim bought up the neighboring village together with its inhabitants and who has been complaining of deadly boredom, comes to see him, the priest advises him to try loving someone. "I want someone to love me! Not for money, but just because they love me", asserts Dokunin. "You yourself have to love," answers Konstantin, and categorically refuses a mansion with a built-in sauna and underground garage that Dokunin, "out of boredom", wants to build him.

But most of all the villagers of Mitino are scandalized that Konstantin stands guardian to the prostitute Lyubka, the drunkard they all look down on who can't even remember whether she gave birth to a boy or a girl 12 years ago. And when her son Kostya appears in the village having run away from the children's home, he does everything to keep the boy with his mother. Lyubka tries to set up at least some kind of daily life together with Kostya in her shabby hovel that bears little resemblance to a human habitation. When she can no longer go without "fuel", he himself buys Lyubka vodka and looks after Kostya until such time as she, hiccoughing guiltily, comes to fetch her son. And a near-miracle occurs: Lyubka begins to help the neighbors who yesterday wanted her to disappear from the face of the earth.

This is intolerable to the former communist Gavrilov, now a pensioner and church elder whose principal passion is writing denunciations to all levels of authority. He realized immediately that "the priest is not genuine". He talks to him about the enemies of the Russian people – the Catholics, Jews, liberals and ecumenicals who want to enslave "our great motherland" – and gets the reply: "I see only two enemies – drunkenness, and also human stupidity and malice."

Gavrilov persuades the villages to boycott church services, and writes аn accusatory letter to the metropolitan that "indicates the incompatibility of protecting a harlot and a runaway brigand with the dignity of Father Konstantin." And when Nastya from the "village of idiots" appears in the empty church for a Sunday service, he resolves to realize his long-held dream of dealing "with this hotbed of infection". He writes numerous times to the tax authorities, and appeals to the state security agencies: "The agents of Zionism and the secret Masonic government that rules the planet have penetrated unchallenged to the very heart of our Great Motherland!" But they display a suspicious lack of concern. So Gavrilov sends a denunciation to the migration service.

The foreign volunteers are incapable of understanding the absurdities of Russian life. They have come in order to help, in the hope that they will soon be replaced by Russian volunteers, but the only Russian who appears among them is Nastya. "Because of the border no-one has come to us for a long time. People look at the rich Russians buying up villas in Nice and football clubs, and think that Russians live well and don't need our help any more." And so they have been living illegally in Russia for years, awaiting deportation; their visas have expired, but to get new ones they have to leave the country and wait several months for permission from the Russian embassy. But to whom to leave their charges, they do not know. And how to explain that their ward Lena, who has no legs, has to collect official slips every year and undergo an examination to prove that "she has not grown new legs"? "And there's no access ramp there. That's in an establishment that deals with disabled people!"

Sympathetically but without sentimentality, Natalia Klyucharova describes the inhabitants of the "village of idiots", actually "the cozy, capacious, utterly foreign houses built by Dietrich, where in each room painfully deformed figures sat, lay and crawled around on the floor. Sometimes, normal people ended up there, mainly foreigners. To the astonishment of all Mitino, they behaved completely naturally, as though they were surrounded not by frightful cripples, but by exactly the same sort of people as themselves." The self-important Lyonya with his babyish puffy hands writes a new directive every day, introduces himself as "president of everything" and constantly mixes up the addressees of his love-letters. Stas is more interested in the genre of autobiography. His room is buried under piles of handwritten pages, on each of which is written in huge letters the same phrase: "At the moment of my conception my father was drunk, and my mother was praying." (Stas's mother, a nun, was raped by an alcoholic and died after the birth of her son.) But they are happy, because they are surrounded by warmth and concern – except for legless Lena. She doesn't want to be looked after like a pot-plant, and tortures herself with the question of why God created freaks.

Later, the summer comes to an end, and Mitya starts work in the school, teaching all of the humanities because there are just two teachers in the school. His life has no time left for anything else. "And nonetheless Mitya was at peace, and even happy. This week he didn't have time even once to think about his place in the world and how he must appear to those around him... Not having a single free minute, for the first time in his life he was completely free. One night he even woke up because he was laughing in his sleep."

But the utopian hope of the novel's heroes for a sensible, humane life (or even happiness) are dashed literally overnight against the sobering Russian reality, and crumble like a house of cards. Lyubka's body is found in a roadside ditch; the Episcopate sends an audit mission to investigate Father Konstantin, while Dunya's regional superior arrives with the news that the school will close. Then the foreign volunteers are arrested, the "crazies" are taken away to an asylum, and finally someone sets fire to the "village of fools". And only Nastya, who has gone out of her mind, wanders through the ashes and repeats like a mantra: "Love your enemies ... pray for those who curse you..."

But despite its terrifying ending, the novel does not leave the reader with a feeling of utter hopelessness. Mitya will undoubtedly continue to look for his path through life. And Father Konstantin, who takes it upon himself to care for Nastya, remains a bearer of hope.

In her new novel, Klyucharova has succeeded in creating a complete gallery of expressionful characters, who regardless of their allegorical function appear highly realistic, and also in confirming her talent as a laconic and unsentimental story-teller. Her portraits of childhood work exceptionally well: the courageous fifth-graders shadowing a man with an Udder Instead Of A Face; three-year-old Minkin, who tags along with older boys all the time, "trying to carve out his place in this harsh man's world"; the high-school student Anzhelika, who for the third time in one summer falls in love with the handsome and stupid Pasha because of his close resemblance to Leonardo DiCaprio, while (not without the help of the young teacher Mitya) ignoring the clever but unattractive Sanya – though loving him would be possible only after sunset, in the dark.

Incredibly, in just 120 typed pages of text Klyucharova has managed to fit in what Tolstoi or Dostoevsky wrote thick novels about. Unobtrusively and almost incidentally, the protagonists set out the principal philosophical concepts of Russian history from the last two centuries. Nastya believes that a Great Shame is ahead of us all, and that therefore we should not think badly of people. Old Man Yefim considers that the main aim of life is life itself. Mitya cannot agree with him, and is sure that a person should in some way justify his or her existence. Father Konstantin is an advocate of small good deeds. The high-school student Sanya, hopelessly in love with Anzhelika, is convinced that only "beauty will save the world", and is prepared to do anything to prevent his beloved from turning into a copy of her mother – a fat, slovenly woman whose eyes are swollen with fat. And no matter how different these "philosophical" points of view, all of them seem to have the same thing in mind. The answer to the universal questions of the meaning and goal of life, with which Russians are so concerned, is simple: you have to start with yourself, and this means loving life and doing good deeds... This might sound somewhat trivial in such a short exposition. But given the spiritual uncertainty that people today feel – and not just in Russia – it is already something.