The Man Who Couldn't Die: The Tale of an Authentic Human Being, by Olga Slavnikova
The Man Who Couldn’t Die: The Tale of an Authentic Human Being
by Olga Slavnikova
Translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz
Columbia University Press, 2019
In the chaos of early-1990s Russia, a paralyzed veteran’s wife and stepdaughter conceal the Soviet Union’s collapse from him in order to keep him—and his pension—alive, until it turns out the tough old man has other plans. An instant classic of post-Soviet Russian literature, Olga Slavnikova’s The Man Who Couldn’t Die tells the story of how two women try to prolong a life—and the means and meaning of their own lives—by creating a world that doesn’t change, a Soviet Union that never crumbled.
After her stepfather’s stroke, Marina hangs Brezhnev’s portrait on the wall, edits the Pravda articles read to him, and uses her media connections to cobble together entire newscasts of events that never happened. Meanwhile, her mother, Nina Alexandrovna, can barely navigate the bewildering new world outside, especially in comparison to the blunt reality of her uncommunicative husband. As Marina is caught up in a local election campaign that gets out of hand, Nina discovers that her husband is conspiring as well—to kill himself and put an end to the charade. Masterfully translated by Marian Schwartz, The Man Who Couldn’t Die is a darkly playful vision of the lost Soviet past and the madness of the post-Soviet world that uses Russia’s modern history as a backdrop for an inquiry into larger metaphysical questions.
“Darkly sardonic novel of life in a post-Soviet Russia that keeps looking longingly to its totalitarian past. . . . Concise but densely packed and subtle in its satire. Well-known in Russia, Slavnikova is a writer American readers will want to have more of.” — Kirkus Reviews
“Straight realism, in turn, risked not being real enough; Slavnikova and her peers often took to metaphysical or magical realist modes, in large part because, as Slavnikova explains, “Russian life is itself at the core fantastical.” Of course, the same might be said of American society, where the right to believe what we want has become the right to live in an alternate reality, and crumbling institutions breed fantasies of every kind. At the same time, Russia and the United States, as well as truth and fiction, have become more perversely embroiled. In this climate, it’s a good bet that Slavnikova’s latest book, The Man Who Couldn’t Die, lucidly translated by Marian Schwartz, will resound with American readers. Bristling with voter fraud, fake news, and the cozy top-and-tail of media moguls and politicians, Slavnikova’s book is fluent in new language of the damaged reality principle.” — Olivia Parkes, “Hypernovelization,” The Baffler, January 20, 2019. Read full review here.
“Slavnikova’s novel shows us all the Lenin statues still in place. It portrays a culture chained to old realities, unable to establish a new understanding of itself. This is a funhouse mirror worth looking into, especially in today’s United States with its alternative facts, unpoetic assertions, and morbid relationship with the past.” — Leeore Schnairsohn, “Unwieldy Inheritances: On Olga Slavnikova’s Novel of New Russia, Read in New America,” Los Angeles Review of Books, April 7, 2019. Read full review here.
“The novel was first published in Russian in 2004, and now delivers Olga Slavnikova’s pitch-perfect descriptions of the first post- Soviet decade in Marian Schwartz’s deft translation.” — Natasha Randal, Times Literary Supplement, April 16, 2019
“The Man Who Couldn't Die is intense, claustrophobic, bitterly funny, and of course ironic: the bodily claustrophobia of Alexei's existence is echoed most closely not by the Soviet era or its afterlife in the family's Red Corner, but by the corruption and chaos of New Russia - which eventually spills over into the Kharitonovs' apartment.” — Russian Dinosaur, August 14, 2019
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