Lizka and her Men
by Alexander Ikonnikov
There is a photograph of Alexander Ikonnikov in his press release which is sadly missing from the paperback of LIZKA AND HER MEN. It shows a handsome head, innocent of cap and bells, and a wide intellectual brow, from which the hair has ebbed. Large, deep set eyes, high cheekbones, an arrogant nose, clean cut mouth and chin and prominent ears top a neck on which a collar and tie would look like fancy dress. He glances to one side, and is probably eyeing up the photographer’s assistant, who may be pretending not to notice. If so, she is wasting her time, because no one is more honed to the nuances of the female psyche and body language than this very modern novelist.
LIZKA AND HER MEN is set in the chaos following Gorbachev’s peristroika. The book captures the harshness, corruption, and cruel deprivation as well as the generosity and paradox that accompanied what must have been a catatonic upheaval after half a century of Soviet deepfreeze. In fact it was less a thaw than a total melt-down under Yeltsin. Chapter six of LIZKA begins:
“The country had gone insane yet again. Following an old habit with roots going back centuries, they were demolishing the old without the slightest idea of what the new world would be like. People climbed on to tanks and fell under them.....but the bright green trolley bus number seventeen was still trundling round the wide streets of the city...”
Lizka drives trolley bus number seventeen. She is not a metaphor for Russian girlhood and womanhood, although she does the best she can. The siege of Stalingrad (not in the book) spelled out for us all how good the Russian best can be: the Russian capacity for endurance is legendary. But Ikonnikov brings a widely varied cast of women to the very life. It is difficult to be shocked and quite possible to be deeply sympathetic to these unheroic heroines, especially when they collapse with helpless laughter at how remote are their chances of a secure family life and a happy-ever-after. Ikonnikov laughs with them for he is husband and lover as well. There is nothing of the victim in these women. “Shit happens, so what? Have a drink, have an affair, screw the world”, they seem to say. And yet they are not coarse: if anything they are over sensitive if there is anything to be sensitive about. And they do fall in love - with drunks, poets, party officials, spivs, crippled war veterans and trolley bus drivers. Ikonnikov lets them do as they like. Barbara Cartland he is not.
Ikonnikov takes a forgiving, if sardonic, view of Russian men. ”What can a bloke do”, they seem to say, “in the presence of these amazing Russian women? We men are only human animals, after all.” The paradox is, of course, that the men are also, as always, officially in charge.
Alexander Ikonnikov puts one in mind of Gogol. But he is a living, modern writer, breathing white fire on frosty air. Even today this could have an inclement effect on the weather in Kirov. But LIZKA AND HER MEN will be read and remembered with affection long after the Victor Mikhailoviches and their “friends” and all their works have crumbled into dust.
Alexander Ikonnikov, says the press release, is available for interview from Russia (in Russian) Oh, really? Whatever happened to the English teacher sent to the “snow covered wasteland of Bystritsa”? Ah, yes: he escaped after being ice-bound for two years. An escape for his students too, perhaps, as he spoke not a word of English. He only became an English teacher as the civilian option to doing his military service. For this he can hardly be blamed, since it would have been served in Afghanistan, fighting an unwinnable war with a Taliban grown fierce and fanatical in defence of their own. (The road to Kabul is still littered with abandoned Russian tanks and artillery).
Alexander Ikonnikov was born in Urshum near Kirov on Lake Viatka. After he had finished his German studies and served out his stint as an English teacher he returned to Kirov to work as a journalist; he now devotes himself to his writing. LIZKA AND HER MEN is his first full length novel, and the first to be translated into English (by a Mr. Bromfield). Pray let it not be the last.