What if the world was a Russian novel?

Nicolás is a Mexican who is passionate about Russian literature of all time.

Thomas Osborne
Thomas Osborne
02 December 2022 Friday 23:48
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What if the world was a Russian novel?

Nicolás is a Mexican who is passionate about Russian literature of all time. He lives in the colorful and effervescent Mexico City of the seventies. One day, he watches on television the death of three Soviet astronauts from the Soyuz mission as they returned to Earth after spending 23 days in the Sályut space station. The accident upsets him and, like a Peter Parker bitten by a spider, he becomes Nikolai Nikolaevich Pseldonimov: every step he takes, he no longer takes it on the streets of the real world but on scenes from the Russian novels he has read. . Like Don Quixote, he mistakes people for literary characters. That is the approach of El peso de vivir en la Tierra (Candaya), the new novel by David Toscana (Monterrey, 1961), an engineer and author of ten other books, resident in Madrid and who, on a promotional visit to Barcelona, ​​clarifies the Origin of the title: "A press release about that event said that, after so much time in space, the hearts of the cosmonauts could not bear the weight of being on Earth."

The worlds of Tolstoy, Bulgakov, Chekhov, Akhmatova, Sholokhov, Solzenitsyn... follow one another in a kind of anthology that takes place in settings where, instead of canteens, tequila and guacamole, there is caviar, oysters, vodka and samovars in which heat the water. Already in The Illuminated Army (2006) the author showed "a group of mentally retarded boys who want to invade Texas to recover it for Mexico." "My obsessions - he continues - are Don Quixote and Crime and Punishment, that's where all my novel comes from."

The plot is read with a smile that provokes cultured humor, not at all tacky, full of winks for connoisseurs of Russian authors "but it works just as well if you don't know each other, in the same way that to read Don Quixote you don't have to have read the books of cavalries that Alonso Quijanio read”. The author defines his as “black humor, which shows something that we would not find funny in real life and which nevertheless turns out to be funny through the filter of literature, through contrast. Irony is a genre aimed directly at intelligence. He admits that “Russian literature has little use of humour, something in Chekhov, but Dostoevsky did it very badly. Let's say that the Mexican soul knows how to see what is laughable in tragedy."

Tuscany has documented itself, above all, immersing itself in the newspaper library, where “I even read the advertisements and the price of the stockings, as well as the news. In fact, I don't like to read today's press but rather fifty years ago, I don't think things will change, actually”.

The parade of referents allows him to alternate multiple registers, from science fiction to psychological drama through Chekhovian comedy, as well as Sherezadianly interspersing digressions and stories within stories.

In the face of the war in Ukraine, he makes it clear that “I am half Polish and one hundred percent solidarity with Ukraine corresponds to me. Not only do I make the difference between culture and politics, but my book includes a tribute to the writers who lived fighting against power, in a world that was not free, from the exiled Pushkin to Dostoyevsky, who spent a season in forced labor, or Tolstoy, who was excommunicated and persecuted by the authorities. They all fought against authoritarianism.”

If Don Quixote is solitary, his Nikolai weaves together a joyous song to camaraderie. He and his wife – whom he calls Dostoevskian Marfa Petrovna – are joined in their delirium by all kinds of unknown characters, tubercular patients, prostitutes, cripples, drunkards, destitute... who trace an itinerary that links specific places in Monterrey with places fictional. "Fantasy is more contagious here."

Among the Kafkaesque –or simply absurd– episodes there is a trial with Soviet overtones. “They were forced to accuse themselves, like Isaak Babel, they got it out of exhaustion, torture, with threats to rape their wives... and they ended up signing their own death sentence, I base myself on the book The Arrested Word by Vitali Shentalinski”.

In a tavern or space base –based on the Lontananza bar, in Monterrey– “vodka helps the characters to live in that world”, says Toscana.