Highly Magical History

Before and During

by Vladimir Sharov, translated from the Russian by Oliver Ready
Dedalus, 348 pp., $19.99 (paper)
Ferdinando Scianna/Magnum Photos
A fashion shoot on a dismantled statue of Stalin, Budapest, 1990

In the bloody summer of 2014 Vladimir Sharov’s eighth novel, Return to Egypt, was shortlisted for “The Big Book,” Russia’s most prestigious literary award (and the world’s most remunerative after the Nobel Prize for Literature).1 It won the Russian Booker Prize several months later. Its hero, a Soviet agronomist descended from Nikolai Gogol, takes upon himself the task of completing his ancestor’s unfinished masterpiece, Dead Souls, and leading the Russian people to salvation.

In September, Sharov gave a long interview to Rossiyskaya gazeta, the Russian government’s newspaper of record. “Your main themes, from book to book, are God, History, Motherland, art,” the interviewer commented. Lamenting the lack of escape these days from politics, she quoted a passage from Return to Egypt describing Gogol’s birthplace:

Ukraine, a former borderland for Poland and for Russia, was born of their mixing and their hatred. That riot of unclean forces that you find in Gogol comes from his belief that there is no place on earth better or freer for unclean forces than here.

Sharov expressed horror at any connection of these words with the daily news: “I would never have wanted to be a prophet of anything like this.” The conflict in Ukraine will take decades to resolve, he predicted: “In history wounds heal very slowly.”

Sharov’s fiction is a search for the seeds of history. He is a historian by training; his graduate dissertation was on the “Time of Troubles,” the Russian political crisis of the early seventeenth century. He bears the wounds of Soviet history:

I, like others, was never able to forgive Soviet power many and varied things, among which were the millions of people who were shot or perished in the camps, including two thirds of my own family.2

Their number included his paternal grandparents, Israel and Faina Nyurenberg, members of the socialist Bund from Ukraine. Faina’s name appears on an execution list sent to Stalin by Nikolai Yezhov, head of the NKVD, the secret police, in July 1938. Sharov’s father, Sher Nyurenberg, who was born in Kiev, specialized in genetics at Moscow State University. In the 1920s, he became a popular science writer, changing his name in 1937 to Aleksandr Sharov (a common Russian name with no Jewish trace). In that year of mass purges, he joined one of the heroic scientific expeditions of the Stalin era, a winter flight across the Arctic. Vladimir, his only child, was born in 1952. In the late 1950s, Aleksandr Sharov turned to writing magical tales and science fiction for children. “My father was a child until the end of his days,” Sharov remembers. He regards the childlike brightness of his father’s way of seeing—his naiveté, fantasy, and acuteness of perception—as necessary conditions for the writing of genuine magical tales, and integral to…

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