Life in the Meantime
This book is a page-turner. The simplicity and overt plainness of the prose combine with the perverse congeniality of the foreground subject matter to make one carry on, ignoring worldly concerns. And while the plot is complex it is also strangely unimportant, compared, that is, to the foreground.
Viktor, a 39-year-old journalist, lives in a tenement block in Kiev, captial of the relatively new nation of Ukraine (not The Ukraine). Like many of us in the Deregulated World, he doesn't have a permanent job and relies instead on contacts to bag the odd journalistic assignment. There is a lot of time off. We join him as he tries to make use of his empty time by writing fiction, something he's always dreamed of doing on a permanent basis. He wants to escape the teasing ghostliness of the short story and write what the real world thinks is the real thing: a novel. Instead, he sits at his kitchen table and writes another short story, later hawking it around a few newspapers.
Misha remains in the background as most of the novel is taken up with Viktor's life. He gets a job writing obituaries for the main Kiev newspaper. He makes a name for himself with the philosophical flourishes and elegiac, allusive nature of his obelisks, as he calls them. His editor pays him well in US dollars. The plot revolves around the behind-the-scenes ramifications of these obituaries. This is also why we turn the pages, though more in agitation than pleasure. We want to find out what is going on and how it all works out. In the meantime, and the meantime seems to last most of the entire 227 pages, we live in Viktor's world, full of events suggesting something dark going on elsewhere, waiting to spring into his life with violence, yet also quite flat. A man, touchingly known to us as Misha-non-penguin, leaves his young daughter Sonya with Viktor and then disappears. A man turns up and says he's taking Sonya away with him, but he soon disappears too, and then Viktor is hired by a mobster to attend funerals with Misha at $1000 a time. But nothing is revealed; Viktor worries, relaxes, worries again. Time passes, that's all. A friendly militiaman offers Nina, his niece, as Sonya's nanny, and she promptly becomes Viktor's lover without, it seems, any passion passing between them (that "complementary loneliness" again). Life carries on as dully as usual and Viktor continues with his obelisks at his kitchen table.
what makes this such an amusing, affecting, readable novel? Well, if Misha the
penguin is so attractive to us in his silence, mystery and apparent sadness, then
the "death" of the title is his abstract equal - standing behind the
action, waiting, inscrutable, not asking for anything, yet preying on one's mind
(in fact, I'm told that the Russian original means "Death of a Stranger").
The pleasure it affords us as we read is the same pleasure Viktor gets from his
writing. It is an oddly comforting voyeurism on life in general, a life which
is elsewhere, the subject of endless conjecture (the "plot" we are all
in search of). We watch it all from the perspective of a place where nothing happens
- Viktor's mind, the obituaries he writes, this novel in particular and literature
in general. We watch it all with death and the penguin blinking impassively in
the corner, and we are oddly moved. We don't want it to end, no matter how plainly
written or routinely translated it is. It complements our loneliness.
Click on the bookcover for the link to Amazon UK.