[inset_left]The PersianAlexander Ilichevsky610 pagesMoscow, 2015[/inset_left]
Ever wondered what happened to those thick Russian novels with dramatis personae large enough to populate the whole of Siberia?
Well, decades of revolution, terror, war, and semi-chaos left little time for Russian novelists to produce such monumental tomes. Now, however, the big fat Russian novel may be making a comeback with Alexander Ilichevsky’s fascinating page-turner The Persian. Using the matrix of thrillers the novel has an American accent and an Iranian hero.
Coming in 610 pages, Ilichevsky’s novel is still 500 pages shorter than Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, not to mention War and Peace. Nevertheless, it is based on the same ambition: capturing as much of the universe as possible within the confines of a broad outline.
It is as hard to say what The Persian is about as any brief description of War and Peace would be. Well, if War and Peace is about the invasion of Russia by Napoleon, Ilichevsky’s novel is about the invasion of the contemporary world by a mightier conqueror: globalization. Just as Napoleon’s incursion affected the lives of millions even in the remotest of villages, globalization is shaping and reshaping the lives of virtually the whole of humanity, and not always for the better.
Ilichevsky’s novel is partly autobiographical. Like him, his hero Ilia Doubnov, a young ethnic Russian born in Soumgait, the oil city of the then-Soviet Azerbaijan, is a graduate of the most select scientific academy in the USSR when his life is turned upside down by the fall of the Soviet Empire and the end of Communism. (Ilichevsky spent years working for an oil company in the US.) Suddenly left rootless, Ilia becomes a citizen of the world in an age in which hundreds of millions of peoples live like global Bedouins, traveling to and working in wherever chance and opportunity land them. However, having embarked on more than one gravy train and tasted more than one forbidden fruit he is struck by an incurable longing for “identity” and “roots.” He wants to be somebody, not just anybody, and belong to somewhere specific, not just to anywhere—which in most cases means ritzy hotels and glitzy casinos.
Seizing the opportunity of a job offer by a multinational oil company operating in the newly independent Azerbaijan, Ilia returns to his native land and renews contact with his childhood friend Hashem.
However, the Hashem he now finds is not the shy, terrified refugee boy who had fled his home in neighboring Iran after the mullahs seized power in Tehran. Hashem has absorbed the shock of his escape from the terror of the mullahs and, perhaps more importantly, freed himself from nostalgia, the opiate of the vanquished in history. He has been reborn as a citizen of the universe, beyond and above nation-states and even the global system itself. His sense of belonging to “something much larger than anything imaginable” is in sharp contrast with the seeming narrowness of his ambition: to save the last remaining “houbara” birds hunted with falcons for fun.
Ilia wants to use science and technology to tame nature; Hashem looks to poetry and music to harmonize human life with nature. Thus in a dualism that reminds one of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Ilia represents the material aspect of existence while Hashem stands for the spiritual. The traditional East–West division is introduced as a pattern for creative conflict.
The two friends clash, collude, and conspire to give meaning to an existence that, each in his manner, finds difficult to cope with.
However, lest you imagine that Ilichevsky’s novel is simply about a curious friendship, we have to report that The Persian evolves across a much larger canvas. In fact, one might say the novel is about everything; you name it and Ilichevsky talks about it. Want to know how the Rockefellers made their fortune from oil in Baku? Are you interested in the study of falcons and their surprising diversity? Are you interested to know how bankers and traders have taken mankind for a ride? Perhaps you want a concise history of the oil industry, the “curse of mankind,” or an account of the two world wars in Europe and the Middle East? What about an account of an imaginary trip to Azerbaijan by Osama Bin Laden to hunt ”houbara”?
The Persian contains numerous stories within its main narrative, ranging from Stalinist terror to Nazi spy operations in the Middle East, not to mention a tender May–September love affair between an Azeri teenage girl and an ageing American oil engineer.
This novel is also full of threatening shadows, including ecological disaster, Islamist terrorism, economic meltdown, mass movements of refugees across continents, and a growing cynicism about man’s ability even to understand his tragic predicament.
Ilichevsky’s implicit theme is that we live in a world in which every incident, even the most minute—the butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon—affects everyone’s life across the globe.
Nevertheless, it would be wrong to see Ilichevsky as another Tolstoy.
The great master of the big fat Russian novel interspersed his narrative with essays and pontifications on a range of philosophical observations regarding faith, love, ethical behavior and even the organization of rural life. Some editors take all those essays out of Tolstoy to produce concise versions of War and Peace or Anna Karenina without upsetting many readers.
Ilichevsky, however, is no essayist and interjects his digressions in the form of mini-stories and anecdotes suitable for dinner-talk. In that sense his technique is closer to that of Shahrazad in The One Thousand and One Nights than to Tolstoy. Even if you are tempted to jump the digressions to return to the main story, you cannot—the tale-within-the-tale is almost always as captivating as the main story. Worse still, if you skip the interjection you may find out later that it was the key to an important aspect of the narrative as a whole.
Ilichevsky’s poetic prose creates an atmospheric music that exploits the lyrical potential of the Russian language to the full. This is a beautiful, confusing, annoying, strange, and ultimately enjoyable read.