A Partially Realistic Novel, Yet One Full of Conundrums and Mysteries: Ludmila Ulitskaya’s “The Kukotsky Enigma”

The title of this novel at the start prepares the reader for something out of the way and curious, yet it doesn’t come up to the actual novel itself in strangeness and states of compositional alienation. it’s a 2001 novel, hence still fairly recent, translated into English in 2016 by Diane Nemec Ignashev.  It is in fact the translator’s afterword which adds part of the mystery to the novel, as it is her word that is the only explanation of some of the outré, bizarre, and fantastic elements of the book itself.  And her explanation in at least one particular seems a little off-center.  But to begin at the beginning:

“Since the end of the seventeenth century all of Pavel Alekseevich Kukotsky’s male ancesters on his father’s side had been physicians.”  As with many a traditional Russian novel of family dynasties, The Kukotsky Enigma proceeds to give some family back history, and then leads into the immediate history of Pavel’s own childhood fascination with his father’s manuals, books, and charts of the human body.  The young boy is particularly drawn to the fold-out flap anatomy book, wherein there is a “naked lady” with a fold-out womb and other organs.  As a child, he is half-afraid that if he is discovered looking at the book, that he will “get his ears boxed,”  but as it turns out, his father actually gives him the gift of a better anatomy book, one with two hundred forty-five drawings, and leaves him to examine it.  It is a book by Leonardo da Vinci, “one of only three hundred hand-numbered copies.”  From here, the boy spends “his happiest hours” in his father’s study, looking not only at anatomy books, but at books on natural history, zoology, and comparative anatomy.  His father’s next munificent gift is a microscope, and from that point on, the course is set for a life in the medical sciences.

One of his father’s friends in obstetrics and gynecology takes the student on when he reaches university age, and though his father dies and his spendthrift mother uses her time trying to retain her former state of elegance in the reduced circumstances of their 1920’s living space being “consolidated” to include three more families, Pavel retains his position and goes on developing his medical skills.  Something strange happens to him, however–the first enigma to bear the name Kukotsky.  He realizes on examining a patient that he is able to see a “full-color schematic image” of tumorous cancers inside her body without ever opening her up, and this gives him pause.  This is a gift which comes from somewhere unknown, which neither his ancestors nor his generous father could have controlled.  He calls it “intravision” and never speaks of it to anyone.  It has a price, however:  even though it improves and increases over the years, he has to live the life nearly of an ascetic in order to get it to operate.  Too much food, or physical contact of an intimate nature with women could temporarily disrupt his gift.  He, however, in order to further his gift, is willing to abide by ascetic conditions, and misogynistic ones.  At this point, he meets up with his future wife, Elena Georgievna Flotov, though he doesn’t recognize her as this at first.

The difference seems to be that she appears on his operating table as a patient, and it is necessary to remove most of her female organs; thus, she is a woman and yet not a woman, a delicate, womanly presence of grace and femininity, yet without the key things that might cause her to get pregnant again.  Quickly, he arranges for her, her tiny daughter Tanya, and her servant Vasilisa to come and live with him, and when news arrives that her husband Flotov has been killed in war, he immediately marries her and adopts Tanya.

From here on, the novel progresses for a while as a family novel, not only of this family, but of another family, Ilya Iosifovich Goldberg (a wayward genius geneticist) and his twin sons, Vitaly and Gennady.  Ilya is in and out of prisons because of his stated views, not even so much about politics, but about genetics issues which the powers that be believe can affect political things and people.  The twin sons, as they grow up, are in friendly competition with each other over Tanya.  And then, due to a tragedy amongst other, poorer people known to Pavel and Elena slightly, another little girl, Toma, is adopted into the family, which causes a permanent schism between Pavel and Elena, though they still live together.  Tanya enters training in medical research and then due to stresses in her family and society, leaves without warning, staying out all hours of the night and worrying her family.  Pavel takes to drinking too much, a habit which stays with him for the rest of the novel.  At this point, the realistic quality of the novel breaks off, and Part Two begins.

Another major conundrum of the book, Part Two, opens with a woman lying in a sand dune, and progresses with her joining a group of unknown people without names, who are going from someplace unknown to someplace else equally uncertain, led by a man known as “the Judean.”  This part of the novel reads very much like a fantasy novel, and yet it seems to me to be an approximate vision of the afterlife, as it might be.  It is this part of the novel which most closely suggests the original title that Ulitskaya, according to the translator’s afterword, had originally given the novel:  Journey(s) to the Seventh Dimension.  It is all very impressionistic, and yet after a while, one begins to recognize a few of the previously appearing characters in these strange new beings with odd names.  Some of them, however, don’t even appear in their realistic guise until the next more realistic section after Part Two, which continues the family saga(s).  Though the translator explains that some of the book is supposed to intimate characteristics of Alzheimer’s (which illness Elena gradually develops, particularly in Part Three), I stick by my impression that this section, with all its mystery, is quite like a fantastic version of the afterlife, perhaps Limbo or Purgatory, though without the religious connotations.  Then comes Part Three.

Part Three progresses with the family sagas again, until there is a sudden dislocation to talk about the murderous career of a former violent guard named Semion Kurilko.  The story follows him for several pages, without explanation, until suddenly he makes contact with one of the characters we’ve been following, and tries to murder him.  But then, Kurilko is hanged; still, we don’t follow the other character anymore, and the section ends.  Another compositional enigma!

Finally, the book ends with a short Part Four.  The subject is of two parts:  one is a picture of Elena as “Granny” to her granddaughter Zhenya, after Pavel’s death.  Though Granny lives with Toma (the poor adopted child) and her husband in another tiny apartment, it is Zhenya (heavily pregnant) who comes to bathe and take care of her.  Elena seems actually to have Alzheimer’s in this section, which was prefigured in earlier Part One and Part Two by some of her moments of disorientation and the odd journal entries she made at those times.  So, actually, I suppose, it hasn’t been entirely unprepared for.  The second part of the last subject is not of age, senility, or death, but of birth.  The book ends with the two sides of the united family grouping around the new birth, and Ilya Goldberg planning to come back from America to see the baby.  Thus, Pavel’s original interest in treating the diseases and ailments of pregnant women (not totally to exclude the major subject of his securing abortions for women who desperately needed them, amidst much societal animosity) circles round again in his posterity, though the male line of doctors which was followed at the beginning is at the end replaced by the female line of women giving birth and tending to their own.

I have made much of the curiousness of this book, and I have to say that this does not indicate that I did not thoroughly enjoy it, which I did.  It is a fine novel.  The puzzles come in when one considers the method of construction of the novel itself, and the sometimes abrupt switches from subject to subject following the divisions into sections.  Also, the two major characters in the novel, Pavel and Tanya, both die before the end of the novel, and Elena, a distant third major character in the course of the realistic sections, receives much of the emphasis if one considers that original title about “the seventh dimension” as a synonym for Alzheimer’s, and the fact that she outlives the other two.

All in all, this is quite a major achievement, and it is obvious why it won the 2001 Russian Booker Prize.  Such questions and ponderings about the structure and the substance as I have raised are meant not to denigrate its quality, but to emphasize just how much there is here to think about, how much about life we can stand to reflect upon.  And it is a rich contribution to literature about Russian life in particular, inasmuch as it locates the characters in their times and traditions in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and some areas around the Black Sea.  It is rare to come across a novel which can not only paint the picture of family relations in a complex situation, locate those families with respect to the professions and trades, and finally put the whole in a societal framework which makes the entire book more comprehensible to readers from cultures all around the world.  This novel is such a novel.

 

 

 

 

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5 Comments

Filed under Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

5 responses to “A Partially Realistic Novel, Yet One Full of Conundrums and Mysteries: Ludmila Ulitskaya’s “The Kukotsky Enigma”

  1. Now wait until you found out that you only read a quarter of the novel and you have lots left to read! Sorry couldn’t resist that. This sounds like an absorbing and complex book, I will certainly add it to the list. From the way yo have described it, we need more books like this.

  2. God, I hope I don’t have more of it to read (Mr. Funnyman!). It was excellent, but it was also about three hundred dense pages. If I’d only read one-fourth of it, that would mean that I still have 900 pages to go! Yes, I know some Russian novels are long like that, but I’ll stick with what I got. And just you watch yourself, Mr. Wisenheimer! Wait until you get old and unobservant like me!

  3. I love to read anything Russian but I am afraid it’s restricted to pre-Boris Pasternak era. It’s time to be a bit modern. May be I should start with The Kukotsky Enigma. What do you suggest?

    • Yes, I too am left with the “greats” (Tolstoy, Turgenev, Pushkin, Dostoevsky, etc.), and Ulitskaya was for me a first, too! I have read a bit of Nabokov, but I trust that’s not what you meant (for me, the years I was in school means that I did a certain amount of majoring in “Dead White Men Studies 101” also). My exposure to Ulitskaya came via a new Russian friend who got me the book as a present, and I hope to glean more info from her about Russian lit. She recently sent me a poem by Nikolai Gumilev, called “The Giraffe,” with a translation by James Stotts. You might be able to find it somewhere on the Internet. I’m not sure of its copyright status, so I hesitate to put it up as she sent it, but she said it was from the “Silver Age” of Russian poetry. Also, I don’t know what other Pasternak-era novelists you may have read, but there’s Irene Nemirovsky, whose name I’ve heard bandied about, and about whom I believe Ste J (Steve Johnson, responding just above you on this page) has posted something on his site, bookmust.wordpress.com . I hope that’s enough to go on with, until I get a grip myself on enough other material to post on. Good luck, and welcome to the site! Thanks for commenting.

  4. Thank you for the recommendations. I guess I can start with Némirovsky and Ulitskaya. Hope to read more on Russian literature on your blog.

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