The Lykov had been separated from the world for more than 40 years when they were “discovered” in the summer of 1978 in a remote area of the Siberian taiga. Karp Ósipovich Lykov and his four sons practiced a particularly radical variant of Orthodox Christianity and still spoke of the Tsar as if he were alive, in old-fashioned Russian, difficult for their interlocutors to understand. The younger ones had never seen any other human being apart from their parents. They dressed in hemp burlap clothes, went barefoot and ate mainly potatoes and pine nuts: any other food and utensils that had not been produced by them “were not allowed”, they said.
Despite their exceptional circumstances, the Lykovs had something of a routine, about which journalist Vasili Peskov reported in the Komsomolskaya Pravda for more than a decade: work in the garden, making birch-bark containers to store supplies, a little fishing and small game, and reading liturgical books and prayer occupied the entirety of a day spent in according to “the old faith.” Peskov became a regular visitor, recounting his encounters with the Lykov in articles that made his readers sympathize with people who represented a simpler and better life on the fringes of Soviet society. Impedimenta now publishes the book that brings together these articles, under the title The old believersAnd it does so at a time when the desire for isolation and the idea that contact with others is potentially dangerous are no longer the exclusive preserve of old believers.
A simple and better life is the one that Luz del Fuego, the Brazilian dancer and performer who created a “naturist” (that is, nudist) colony in Guanabara Bay in the 1950s, also tries to live, as recounted Javier Montes in his quest of the same title, and the protagonist of Miki Yamamoto’s manga Sunny Sunny Ann!, a young woman who lives in her car, prostitutes herself occasionally, and pays no less for her rejection of the restrictions imposed on women of her class in the name of her own “security.” And it is the life that Little Dog aspires to, the protagonist of On Earth we are fleetingly great, the first novel by the American poet Ocean Vuong.
Little Dog has a Vietnamese mother and grandmother and an absent and abusive American father; At school he is excluded because he is an immigrant and because of his racial mix, but the decisive facts of his life are his homosexuality and an intense and unhappy love story that he lives with his friend Trevor: his queerness is an added difficulty in his transition to adult life, which Vuong, whose novel, as he has repeatedly stated, contains many autobiographical elements, recounts in detail. Little Dog finds beauty and happiness in the margins of the margins of race and gender, but also pain, and Vuong shines especially when he shows the little distance that exists between the one and the other with a lyrical prose and of rare perfection, poetic in the least dissuasive sense of this term, generally fearsome.
A girl is a half done thingby Eimear McBride, it is also narrated with exceptional poetic prose, it is also a first novel and deals with a certain form of religious radicalism and a non-normative sexuality, all of which relate it to the books of Peskov and Vuong. The narrator of the novel expresses herself in a broken tongue, as if she were a goldsmith who only had an ax to do her job. The themes of religion and guilt in the book refer to Edna O’Brien’s literature, but her language proves that its young author learned from James Joyce and Samuel Beckett everything worth learning from them, which is not little bit.
The narrator of A girl is a half done thing tells his story and that of his younger brother, who survives a brain tumor in his first years of life but is intellectually limited, as well as that of his mother, who raises them in a suffocating and highly religious environment in which the survival of the child is both a “gift from God” and his punishment. As a teenager, the younger brother tries to fit in at school, but is humiliated and mistreated. The narrator, on the other hand, enjoys her condition as an outcast: she begins to sleep with her brother’s bullies to protect him and in recognition of a power that he exercises without any control. Abuse and violent sex with strangers (and at least one relative, the husband of an aunt) are their way of atoning for sins that are inscribed, in the time line, after the illness of the brother, but that, in a moral sense or religious, precede and justify their condition: in the world of religion and guilt in which the characters live, the younger brother falls ill “because of” the narrator’s sins, and when the tumor returns and the brother dies, the Guilt drowns out the narrator, literally.
The disapproval and rejection of others and the themes of redemption and punishment resonate in these books, whose characters are or are in “unique” situations. Notably, this is also what happens to Arvid Jansen, who picks up his ex-wife on the outskirts of Oslo in a state of utter confusion one morning a year after she left him and, with her, they return to him the months before the separation, his loneliness, hers, that of men “in their situation” for whom sleep is impossible. Per Petterson is one of the most popular Norwegian authors in his country, and his new novel, narrated in a digressive and somewhat morose style of which the evocation is the dominant feature, justifies its popularity both in Norway and abroad. The lost youth, the factories, the Party, the class conscience, the little betrayals, the mistakes, the fights, the family tragedy in the protagonist’s recent past, the readings, the guilt, an excursion with the eldest daughter, the women , the need to escape, an encounter in a cemetery, the abyss that opens between him and his daughters and the liberation that supposes, for once, four years after the events narrated in most of the book, leaving aside the Own discomfort because it is the discomfort of others, and their pain, which must be solved, follow one another as intense but brief epiphanies that hardly leave a mark on Jansen, whose lack of attributes makes him the modern character par excellence. Also in its relationship with the city, in this case Oslo, that city where everything still seems possible.
Little Dog, the Lykovys, Ann, McBride’s characters and Petterson’s protagonist are exceptionally heterodox, but united by a search for acceptance and normality that resonates especially in our day, when the expectation of a “new normal” seems to be divided between those who prefer to believe that everything will be “as it was before” and those, perhaps more realistic, who are unable to imagine a future that is not conditioned by the threats that come from the environment and government clumsiness. Even imperfect, the normality that we enjoyed until the pandemic was that of an extraordinarily diverse world in which lives like those of these characters fit, oscillating between promiscuity and isolation, between hope and disappointment, and that propose possible “new normalities ”, very unusual, for those who know how to find them and ask the old and very pertinent question about how to live.
“Let me start over,” Little Dog asks his mother at the beginning of his letter, and at the end of Per Petterson’s novel its protagonist affirms: “The knot is undone. Something is over. And it was wonderful. You hear it, Jondal, I said to myself, it’s wonderful ”.
The old believers. Road of no return in the taiga. Vasili Peskov. Translation by Marta Sánchez-Nieves. Impedimenta, 2020. 256 pages. 21 euros.
Sunny Sunny Ann! Miki Yamamoto. Translation by Alberto Sakai. Astiberri, 2020. 200 pages. 15 euros.
Men in my situation. Per Petterson. Translation by Lotte K. Tollefsen. Asteroid Books, 2020. 304 pages. 20.95 euros.
Fire Light. Javier Montes. Anagrama, 2020. 272 pages. 19.90 euros.
On Earth we are fleetingly great. Ocean Vuong. Translation by Jesús Zulaika. Anagrama, 2020. 232 pages. 18.90 euros.
A girl is a half done thing. Eimear McBride. Translation by Rubén Martín Giráldez. Impedimenta, 2020. 272 pages. 20.75 euros