Like light from faraway stars, fiction from outside the Anglosphere may take decades to reach English-language readers. This sinister, indeed sulphurous, novella by a Belarus-born author was first published in Russian in 1991, and won major awards. Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse’s English translation, as creepily compelling as the book deserves, appears long after the contemporary hook that Aleksandr Skorobogatov embeds in his tale has lost its topicality. Recent events, however, make this fable of obsession, madness and violence timelier than ever. It almost vindicates a belief in Russian history and literature as an epic recycling of eternal themes.
In a dismal Russian town lives Nikolai, a drifter and drinker on a meagre government pension. His wife, Vera, is a fêted actress at the local theatre. Five years earlier, the couple lost their small son. In his drunken, grief-stricken despair, broken-down Nikolai begins to receive visits from the handsome, confident ‘Sergeant Bertrand’. This fine fellow, ‘radiant, gleaming with health’, seems determined to seduce the willing Vera, or so Nikolai assumes. The flirtatious gentleman caller uses fragrant colognes: ‘The stench made Nikolai’s stomach heave.’ But Bertrand also brings an acrid, burning smell along with him. We have been warned.
Bertrand’s debonair virility drives ‘talentless, dull, insignificant’ Nikolai into paroxysms of jealous, paranoiac rage. He terrorises the blameless Vera, driving her from her ‘shameless job’ at the theatre, first by emotional blackmail, then vicious physical attacks perpetrated during his alcoholic rages. Meanwhile, the super-misogynist Bertrand – a sort of Russian Andrew Tate, with fancier touches of Nietzsche – pops round to insist that every man is ‘born with power. You’ve got to use that power, you’ve got to rule!’ ‘People gravitate towards strength,’ he preaches, and will ‘forgive the strong for using their teeth to show dominance and superiority’.