Omission and Deception in Two Books of Political Fiction
by Alexei Nikitin
by Matías Celedón
Review by Dan DeWeese
ast year, Melville House released two different translated works of fiction that operate in elliptical fashion. The first, Y.T., a novel by Russian writer Alexei Nikitin, concerns a group of Ukrainian radiophysics students who create a political game in 1984. The game, in which the students play the leaders of fictional countries and announce military or diplomatic moves through correspondence with one another, catches the interest of the KGB, who arrests the students, spends weeks interrogating them about what kind of geopolitical actions they were (or were not) practicing, and then releases them. Nikitin’s novel begins two decades later, when one of the former students receives, via email, the announcement of a new move in the old game. His desire to know who has sent the email, why, and what kind of threat this possibly implies requires him to track down his old friends and their old interrogator, all of whom are living very different lives in post-Soviet Russia than they did under the old regime.
The second novel is The Subsidiary, by Chilean writer Matías Celedón, a book that consists of a small amount of text stamped on each page—usually just a sentence. What these brief statements reveal is that the power has been turned off in some kind of office environment, presumably (we assume this mostly because of Celedón’s nationality) in a Latin American country. Stamped dates reveal that days are passing, and declarative sentences reveal there is a “blind girl” in the office, as well as a “deaf girl.” The man crafting these missives is left undescribed. We don’t know the nature of his job any more than we know the field the company operates in, and he refers to situations—darkness, fire, shouting—in the same oddly (or unnervingly, depending on the mood you are in when reading) detached tone throughout the book.
I include both books here not to compare them—they are very different projects—but to recognize that these translated fictions, released early last year, perhaps resonate differently for American readers in 2017. Political news dominates our daily media now as never before, and politics in general occupy a threatening, intrusive role much more than they did in 2016. There is a new urgency to questions of who will be detained and who will not be detained, who will speak and who will not speak, and who will act and who will not act. Many people are keeping track of who is doing things and what those people are doing, as well as who is failing to do things and what they are failing to do.
These are not novels that somehow predicted current political events or that offer solutions to our unrest—American political pundits seem particularly obsessed with keeping track of who did or did not “predict” certain events, as if correctly predicting something is the ne plus ultra proof of intellectual superiority. (Computers help our meteorologists predict, with greater and greater accuracy, what the weather will be like the next couple days, but nobody believes this makes them seers.) What I find more interesting about these novels is the way in which both of them incorporate the use of significant omissions. Nikitin’s novel moves back and forth between the narrative’s contemporary frame and events two decades earlier. Celedón’s book (it’s almost 200 pages, but the total word count is less than that of a short story) offers nothing in the way of exposition, neither in terms of where the characters are and what their exact situation is, but also in terms of what is happening or has happened between a description or bit of dialogue on one page and the information on a following page.
In both instances we are reading books delivered with a political sheen, and this sheen causes a reader to interpret omitted information, fragmentary material, and other narrative skips or leaps not as the result of a free choice on the part of the author, but instead as suppression of what would otherwise (if the political situation were otherwise, or a narrator less intimidated, or the characters less psychologically “deformed” by traumatic political experiences) be freely stated. Take the text from these facing pages in The Subsidiary:
The blind girl said:
The mute girl
stole my red ink.
Early in Y.T., a politician suggests to our narrator, Davidov, that Korostishevski, a man who has long been dead, may be behind the email restarting the game. Because this is not possible—Korostishevsky is definitely dead—we get the following exchange, starting with the narrator’s response to this theory:
“I see. You’re shadowboxing.”
“Davidov! Yesterday his shadow stripped me of 90 million. And this is just the start.”
“An impressive start,” I agreed. “But try as you may, you won’t strip me of ninety million. Why don’t you tell me everything from the beginning.”
“Okay,” Kurochkin nodded. “But not now. I’ve got something to show you. Let’s go.”
Alexei Nikitin’s characters cloak their true connections—omissions that are to his benefit as a writer.
hen a writer begins to compose elliptically—to write in fragments, to skip through time, to omit information, or any other of number similar moves—there are plenty of readers, of course, who will simply not find the elliptical fiction entertaining. The fragments frustrate the reader’s desire to be with characters for a sustained amount of time, for instance, or leaps through time are disorienting, or omitted information seems of crucial importance to understanding the story. These readers, finding their usual methods of becoming immersed in fiction frustrated, will usually chalk that frustration up to bad writing: a writer wrote a story; a reader found it frustrating; the story must therefore be flawed. These readers will often have had the experience, usually in high school, of having been forced to read “great literature,” which they experienced as boring, and therefore frustrating. Since a reading experience of boredom and frustration becomes their de facto definition of “great literature,” particularly empathetic general readers will acknowledge a suspicion that, because they found a particular book frustrating, it may perhaps be “good”—but will hasten to say that they, however, are primarily interested in reading for the purposes of entertainment.
Readers who are supposedly more sophisticated—enthusiasts of what we are taught is fine literature—will often have the same response, but will will have learned to frame this response not as a failure to be entertained (sophisticated readers like to think of themselves as above needing to be entertained), but as a failure on the part of the writer. The elliptical writer, then, can be accused not of failing to divert, but of failing, somehow, to write. The writer who is elliptical, in this analysis, can be any of the following: A writer who is scared. A writer who is indecisive. A writer who died. (This is the fantasy that if Kafka had just lived longer, he would have “figured out” a definitive order for his chapters.) A writer who abandoned a project due to fatigue (probably because he or she didn’t know how to complete it). A writer who revised a story according to a radically different plan. A writer whose editor destroyed the work. A writer who drinks or uses drugs or simply has aberrant aesthetics or values. A writer who writes carelessly, or perhaps merely to satisfy the shallowest conventions of a genre—there was a crime, and a detective, and some suspects, but we couldn’t keep track of who was who, or where something happened, etc. The list could go on.
The result is the assumption that some flaw in the writer—lack of courage, lack of focus, lack of talent, etc.—has led to a story in which things have been left unsaid. Things left unsaid in the story leads to work for the reader to do, and a reader doing what feels like corrective work (the reader trying to figure out what a story is “supposed” to be) is a reader who must therefore make interpretive choices. The need to make interpretive choices leads to uncertainty, and some readers, when feeling uncertain, will quit. Those who forge ahead do so knowing they’ve had to make assumptions about the story—assumptions which may be, at some level, little more than projections. Projections can lead to a reader who at some point realizes they have made a “mistake” in their reading of the story, which is frustrating. Other readers may begin to suspect the story is operating as a kind of mirror: because the reader has had to make so many interpretive decisions, the emotional content of the story is no longer being delivered by the author, but has instead been imported from the reader, who then has their own projected emotions returned to them, now in the form of the book. Because the story is, in this instance, reflecting back the distortions of our own projections, it can often become frightening, amusing, or both simultaneously—a literary version of a funhouse hall of mirrors.
It’s dicey to decide one knows an author’s intentions—it’s one of the first steps toward constructing your reading as primarily a projected funhouse image of yourself. It’s an entirely different challenge, however, to decide one knows that one of the author’s primary intentions was to conceal all possible intentions. According to promotional materials, Celedón composed The Subsidiary with a set of stamps he found in a store. Choosing that constraint—one must compose using only certain stamps—seems a particularly attractive choice when the constraint will help conceal, or even simply prevent, the possibility of composing a piece in which one fully addresses political powers that may still have the capability of doing damage to the writer in real life. Likewise, when Alexei Nikitin’s characters cloak their true connections, this is doubly-useful to him as a writer: it leaves mysteries for his main character to probe, but also leaves unspoken certain aspects of Russian political life that Nikitin would perhaps be wise to address only indirectly.
The result, in both books, is that though one could of course evaluate whether these stories are “good” in terms of whether they provide some kind of narrative pleasure, this is possibly not the point. The fragments, skips, non-sequiturs, and ellipses, because they are built into the structure of the books themselves, are not so much frustrating as troubling: these are writers who have devised projects to limit their writing. Students of literature will point out that this is not unique—writers throughout history have found it necessary to write things that they are simultaneously not quite writing. We read both Y.T. and The Subsidiary as mysteries we expect will be solved in their final pages. They differ in the degree to which they address this expectation, but by the time we have finished reading them, questions of what has really happened, and what is really going on, have come to include dynamics beyond the pages of the books themselves. By the end of these books, we wonder about the writers, and if, in their current political situations, they are well. This, too, though, is probably projection. Really these books make us wonder about ourselves, and if, in our current political situation, we are well. Perhaps a reason to read Nikitin or Celedón now is to see how much these books trouble us. For me, the answer was: a fair amount.
Dan DeWeese is the author of the novel You Don’t Love This Man and the story collection Disorder.