By Patrick Henry
The Moscow Tribune
The year is 2017. A war driven by nationalist fervour has shattered Moscow into a labyrinth of ghettos, most of them contained in a single building, in which the city’s residents are placed according to the exact ethnic composition of their blood.
Snipers lurk in every window, waiting to take a state-approved pot shot at any “nobody” who ventures more than four metres beyond the gates of his assigned building. Only “percentage operatives”, armed with blood analysis apparatus, and “purebloods” may move at will in the streets. For the rest, freedom lies only in the pitch-black tunnels of the ruined underground.
The year is also 980. A son is born beneath an oak on the banks of the Moscow River to a sorceress, Leta, and a bear (and perhaps to a pagan priest, Volos, as well). The boy is called Medvedko, for his father, or Emelya.
Volos and Leta live as man and wife in the village of Moscow, home to eleven families besides. When plague strikes the village, Leta sacrifices her life at the stake to deliver the community, but fails. Only Volos, Emelya and another boy survive. Volos later perished in a failed attempt to prevent the violent conversion of Novgorod to Christianity.
Such are the dual settings for Leonid Latynin’s novel Sleeper at Harvest Time, just published in Andrew Bromfield’s translation by Zephyr Press of Sommerville, Massachusetts.
Between the two Moscows flows a river of blood, linking the pre- and post-history of Russia, and the beginning and end of the novel. Along this river moves the man-beast Emelya, the witness and prophet, baptised at Novgorod in the blood of his father, and stoned to death in 21st century Moscow for the ancient mystery contained in his blood.
The work, which Zephyr in its book release describes as “an incantatory novel of Russian history”, is at once forthright in a manner of chronicles, and as densely coded as scripture. At both levels the novel’s subject is the same: the particular nature of the Russian, or northern, consciousness.
Latynin, a Moscow-based writer whose novel Stavr and Sarah was nominates for the Russian Booker prize in 1994, was born in the small factory town of Yakovlevsky (now Privolzhsk) in 1938. The cultural milieu of his youth, however, was hardly provincial.
The writer’s grandmother read the Bible, the lives of the saints and other religious texts to him, all in Old Church Slavonic. In the library of a local priest Latynin found the journals of Russia’s Silver Age, the era of Merezhkovsky and Blok, Bely and Akhmatova.
But the stylistics of ancient Russian religious and historical texts, which Latynin studied further at Moscow State University, always remained “more organic than that even of Russian belles lettres,” he said in an interview this week.
The influence of these texts is evident from the first lines of Sleeper at Harvest Time: “Here begins this book… And God named the hours, the days, the months and years. God named the East, and the South, and the West, and the North.”
In the Soviet Union Latynin found a “crossroads of religions”, all existing in the Russian language, and therefore directly available to the mind of the writer. For much of his career, he translated the poetry of Moslem Central Asia.
“The practically magical content of this type of religious consciousness was an inspiration for me,” he said. Latynin at various times lived in a Buddhist monastery in Buryatia, and met with shamans in the Altai.
In the different cultures he encountered, Latynin discerned structures that would underlie Sleeper at Harvest Time, the first of four volumes of a book the author calls Russian Truth. Four types of consciousness became clear to him: a Southern type formed in the Koran; an Eastern type formed in the Buddhist canon; and a Western type formed in the Bible.
What Latynin found missing was his own type of consciousness, issuing from pre-Christian Russia: the Northern type. ”An attempt to form this existing, unnamed type of consciousness was undertaken in this book,” Latynin said.
The Northern type of consciousness is defined by its retention of traits of the other three, “preserved as in a refrigerator,” he said. Before the foundation of the Russian state, many religious and ethnic groups wandered into these empty spaces and intermingled. As a result, Russia is at its core a multinational country, Latynin said, a country whose nationalism derives not from blood, but from the land.
To express this in the novel, Latynin portrays the nationalism of blood at its absurd but logical extreme. Soon after Emelya arrives in post-apocalyptic Moscow, a guard identifies for him the innumerable battles taking place in the neighbourhood.
“Over on Ordynka Street,” the guard says of one battle, “the Turco-Mongolo-Tataro-Fergana Uzbeks are fighting the Turco-Mongolo-Tataro-Fergana Meskhs. They shoot through the ceiling at rustling sounds, too, and they throw burning brands through windows, even though they share the same house. If it burns down, they rebuild it and start all over again…”
Although he wrote the novel some 20 years ago, Latynin said that many of the conflicts currently aflame in the former USSR were foreseen in its pages, “although not all of them, thank God, broke out after all,” he said.
Marina Starush, in a review for Utro Rossii, wrote that the novel arrived right on time. “People living in this transitional period – from one society to another, from one type of morality to another - … are ready as never before to reflect on their place in history. But even more about the place that history… occupies in themselves,” she wrote.
The attempt to form a Northern consciousness also motivates the structure of the novel, which alternates between a story of origins and the Northern prophet Emelya, and the Orwellian anti-utopia of institutionalised warfare in Moscow, where the prophet Emelya is stoned to death for his unidentifiable and “alien” blood – the blood of the bear, shared in fact by every Muscovite, who issued originally from Emelya himself.
Latynin himself admits that Sleeper at Harvest Time is a book that rewards patient reading, and re-reading. “Despite the external simplicity of the book, it is quite saturated with information and polemic with a multitude of sources, and these polemics are accessible to a very small circle of researchers,” he said.
Nonetheless, as Starush observed, “the elitist prose of Leonid Latynin is simultaneously democratic, because it allows the most varied readings and interpretations.”
The saturation of ideas and motifs, and the stylistic particularities of the work, presented a major challenge to the translator. “Archaisms, incantatory rhythms and sentence structures which clearly reflect the tone of religious texts, constantly recurring leitmotifs,” and other features forced Bromfield to simplify the English version, since “modern English will not bear the full pressure of many of Latynin’s devices…,” he writes in his preface to the novel.
While this is the first of his works to be “seriously” translated (it also appeared in French in 1992), Latynin said that the second volume of Russian Truth, entitled Berloga (Lair), which will come out in Russian within the next few months, should also be published in English.
The Moscow Tribune
Saturday, February 11, 1995. P. 24.