Rebirth of a Classic Genre

Aleksei Korovashko about Alexander Potemkin's Boundage

Aleksei Korovashko,  21 December at 8:21 0 981

Alexander Potemkin’s novel Bondage, although it has the subtitle of “Essay to Myself,” is in fact a Menippean satire on contemporary Russian society. Such an assertion may seem rather subjective, to say the least, but we need to remember that Mikhail Bakhtin, who construed the Menippean genre from fragments of classical literature, always emphasized its ability for rebirth in the conditions of the New Times (in particular he considered full-fledged Menippean satire to be Gogol’s Dead Souls and Dostoevsky’s novels). So we won’t be stretching a point if we try to compare the artistic parameters of Bondage with the basic characteristics Bakhtin prescribed to the Menippea.

In Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, the comic element as an absolute prerequisite for such texts tops the list of these traits. The comic element in Bondage primarily takes the form of the author’s embracive irony, which percolates throughout the novel from beginning to end. It is precisely irony that makes it possible to bring the many invectives hurled at the present-day Russian world structure close to the status of not only journalistic, but also artistic statements and turn straightforward evaluations and arguments into figurative and memorable descriptions. For example, the phrase “everyone regards modern crimes nowadays with envy” undoubtedly arouses a much more visual idea of the moral climate reigning in Russia than impassioned speeches revealing various forms of growing moral degradation.

One of the most important characteristics of the Menippea is “the justification and illumination of the most unrestricted fantasies and adventures by an essential ideological and philosophical purpose.” This unrestricted style is achieved in Bondage by successfully chosen reasoning: the main hero is constantly high on drugs, which makes it possible for the author to hook his narrative onto anything he wishes and in any way he wishes without being in the least concerned about how a particular turn in the plot line is understood from the purely common logic of human behavior, laws of nature, and other such things.

The Menippea strives to create “unusual situations, internally induced, that give rise to and examine the philosophical idea of the truth. To this end, the heroes of the Menippean satire ascend into heaven, descend into the nether world, and wander through unknown and fantastic lands.” However, it is quite enough for Peter Petrovich Parfenchikov, the central character in Bondage, to “wander around the nooks and crannies of his own mind,” where he is regularly sent by the wondrous poppy flower.

Another important characteristic of the Menippea is the “organic combination within it of the free fantastic, the symbolic, adventure, and at times even a mystical-religious element with an extreme and crude slum naturalism.” We also have no trouble finding this trait in Bondage. Peter Parfenchikov, very much like Ivan Karamazov with his demon, constantly holds metaphysical conversations with virtual Professor Koshmarov; Koshmarov promises to help Parfenchikov “cultivate the royal pale blue flower with garnet-colored streaks of a late sunset,” which the main hero, like Heinrich von Ofterdingen, is inclined to perceive as a symbolic embodiment of life’s ideal (it goes without saying that we are in fact still talking about the poppy flower); Parfenchikov forces reality to change at his will, thus creating a multitude of possible worlds. But as Menippean laws demand, very down-to-earth places serve as the background for these fantastical operations: “a deserted wooden house in the town of Kan, the Krasnoyarsk territory” (on the profane level, it evidently implies the town of Kansk, and on the sacral—Cana), a prison cell crawling with bugs, tiny tatty rooms without even a chair, and so on.

Since the Menippea is meaningless without posing the “ultimate questions” of life, “it is not enough for the main hero of Bondage … to hear and comprehend the world around him, as billions of contemporary people do. Particularly those who sit in front of the television.” He wants “much more—to feel it, to reflect on it, to improve it” (admittedly, his opium dependence greatly devaluates all of these noble outbursts, turning them, as a rule, into unproductive theorizing).

The universalism that the Menippean genre claims is intrinsically related to its three-dimensional structure. “In this sense, the content of the Menippea is the adventures of an idea or a truth in the world: either on earth, in the nether regions, or on Olympus.” An analogous interpenetration of the three levels of the universe is also characteristic of Bondage: as soon as Peter Parfenchikov, who ekes out an ordinary earthly existence, comes to know the “wondrous” power of the poppy flower, he finds himself in possession of “the golden key to the higher realms and kingdom of incredible pleasures.” It stands to reason that Parfenchikov’s stories about his travels to these personal exorbitant empires are always carried off in extremely enraptured tones (“I took off from the earth, began to fly, I soared, I am up in the sky, on a magical swing…”). But at the end of the novel the deceitful poppy flower sends Peter Petrovich on a very different journey, into absolute non-existence, the kingdom of eternal chaos and death.

In the Menippea we often come across “observation from some unusual point of view, from on high, for example, which results in a radical change in the scale of the observed phenomena of life.” In Bondage, this task of observation is entrusted to a resident of Kan, Grigory Semenovich Pomeshkin, who not only does not part with his binoculars with 50 power magnification, but has also learned to “lip-read anyone who happens to fall into the field of his keen vision.” Until he became acquainted with the poppy flower, or to be more precise, with kuknar, Pomeshkin used the “dilapidated attic of a three-story tumbledown uninhabited house” as his observation deck. But after he partook of the poppy straw poison, Grigory Semenovich acquired the ability “to precisely and keenly” hold in his field of vision any object no matter how far away it may be.

In the Menippea, there appears what might be called moral-psychological experimentation: “ a representation of the unusual, abnormal moral and psychic states of man—insanity of all sorts (the theme of the maniac), split personality, unrestrained daydreaming, unusual dreams, passions bordering on madness, suicides, and so forth).” The same Pomeshkin, for example, “was so in love with himself, that no one else could arouse sexual feelings in him. It is not surprising that Grigory Semenovich frequently masturbated exclusively while looking at his own reflection” (in Yuri Mamleev’s novel “Shatuny,” we will remind you that a character by the name of Izvitsky suffered from similar auto-eroticism). Peter Petrovich, who has destroyed his own personality by the continuous use of drugs, is the most genuine “opium chaotic,” whose identity is in great doubt: it is impossible to say for sure, for example, that professor Koshmarov, fish surveillance inspector Leonid Efimkin, and warden Grigory Pomeshkin are independent “values,” and not different projections of Parfenchikov’s sick mind. What is more, some of these “facultative” heroes suffer from their own dissociative disorders. Efimkin, for example, admits that “some prolonged war [is going on within him] … between a free spender and miser, an extravagant investor and a pedantic accountant.” Pomeshkin genuinely wants “to move forever to the world of variable categories” where “now you are, now you’re not, and it is entirely impossible to establish whether you are you or you are not you, and you don’t even know who.”

As Bakhtin emphasizes, very characteristic of the Menippea are “scandal scenes, eccentric behavior, inappropriate speeches and performances, that is, all sorts of violations of the generally accepted and customary course of events and the established norms of behavior and etiquette.” There is an episode in Bondage where this principle is realized with particular success. I am referring to Katy Loskutkina’s attempts to “obey the law” among people who essentially break it every day. For example, her attempt to procure a ticket from the bus driver, she had, of course, already paid for her ride, is perceived by those around her as a violation of the unofficially accepted etiquette, a sudden whim: “Why are you bothering him? Sit down… You think you’re so smart, harping on: “Give me a ticket, give me a ticket,” a fat middle-aged woman with a purse hurled in a disgruntled voice. “Maybe you want us to do a dance for you as well? I know the likes of you! You’re the source of all the trouble…” (other passengers suggest beating Katy up and throwing her off the bus). This is how, in the artistic world of Bondage, as in life today by the way, inversion of the traditional value system is seen: what is correct and legal acquires the reputation of a scandalous prank, and what is undoubtedly a violation of civilized norms of behavior becomes something everyone considers normal.

The Menippea “loves to play with abrupt transitions and shifts, ups and downs, rises and falls, unexpected comings together of distant and disunited things, misalliances of all sorts.” The most noteworthy in this respect in Bondage is the plot line about Leonid Ivanovich Efimkin. At first he was an honest policeman, then a thieving fish inspector, then a provincial millionaire who took control over all the business being conducted in Kan and its environs. After such a rapid climb up the career ladder, Efimkin moves to Moscow where he dreams of “going under cover among federal high-ranking officers and modestly multiplying his insignificant capital with bribes and extortions.” But he himself becomes the victim of extortion and soon finds himself back in Kan, “but now downcast and dejected.”

The Menippea often “includes elements of social utopia which are incorporated in the form of dreams or journeys to unknown lands.” In Bondage, the function of this social utopia is performed, for example, by Professor Koshmarov’s national project, who suggests improving the social characteristics of Russians with the help of a special nano pill that unites the characteristics of four elite nationalities: Germans, Chinese, Jews, and Georgians. As Koshmarov believes, “fifteen percent of German genetic ferment” will make it possible to qualitatively renew “the biomechanisms in Russians that are responsible for organization and legal discipline” (it is interesting, by the way, that the author of Bondage himself not only lived in Germany, but also received a degree in economics from Bonn University). “Ten percent of Chinese blood will raise productivity and create the ability for internal concentration. Ten percent of Jewish blood will ensure the development of initiative and diligence. And another five percent of Georgian blood will undoubtedly improve the outer appearance of Russians and intensify their emotionality and vivacity.” All of these genetic changes should “awaken in Russians a love and respect for their own country, for their people.”

Visions and plans also periodically appear in the depths of Parfenchikov’s mind that are no inferior in their fantastical qualities to the national projects of Professor Koshmarov. For example, he puts forward the theory that states should be created, “based not on history and not on culture,” but on the social predilection of separate individuals. This new principle will definitely lead in the world of the future to the appearance of a “Country of the Genetically Modified, Republic of Agricultural Manufacturers, Empire of Universe Migrants, Republic of Athletes and Hunters, Union of Artists of Thought and Overexcited Minds, Autonomous Region of Spongers, Colony of Alcoholics and Artists, Territory of the Oversexed and Overeaters, Province of Masters and Craftsman, State of Criminals and Gabbers, Department of Servers of Various Cults…” Once Parfenchikov even had a vision of Moscow discarding its “consumer mentality” and espousing “two main professions, that of a scientist and librarian.”

An inherent feature of the Menippea is “its concern with current and topical issues. This is, in its own way, the ‘journalistic’ genre of antiquity.” This genre is not only full of overt and hidden polemics with various schools of thought, but also full of the images of contemporary public figures, allusions to the great and small events of the epoch, and attempts to address current problems. So it is very legitimate that in Bondage, codifying of contemporary Russian politicians is minimal. Mitvol, Onishchenko, and Pochinko can easily be discerned in Zhitvol, Varnishchenko, and Borchinka, who supposedly arrived in Kan to carry out a secret inspection. Deputy Pipangarov, “who asks one hundred thousand dollars and not a cent less for an hour’s talk,” arouses inevitable associations with Artur Chilingarov, a presidium member of the United Russia faction, deputy chairman of the State Duma. The height of the prison superintendent, into whom Parfenchikov reincarnates in one of his opium séances, is 162 centimeters and this, of course, is an allusion to the physical proportions of Dmitri Anatolievich Medvedev (it is worth noting that both in the novel and in real life subordinates contrive to view the dwarf-like holders of any power exclusively “from the bottom up”).

The Menippea makes wide use of inserted genres: novellas, letters, oratorical speeches, and so on. They also appear, of course, in Bondage. The same Parfenchikov, for example, admittedly already in the role of a prison inmate, writes the following letter to the free world as dictated by a warden: “My dears! If you want to see me again, if you wish me health, if you have even an iota of pity for me in your hearts, please, vote for This party. Ask your neighbors, my teachers, classmates, army friends, Spartak fans with whom I cheered at every game at the Luzhniki stadium, all my relations—I need seventy votes! This party will save me. Your Peter Parfenchikov” (it is no secret to anyone that most Russian prisoners vote for United Russia).

The only element of the Menippea that is not fully manifested in Bondage is its “multi-styled and multi-toned nature.” Whereas at the level of ideas, polyphonism is indeed characteristic of Alexander Potemkin’s work, expressed in the constant clashing of different viewpoints on reality, while at the level of switching stylistic “registers,” we are dealing with a certain monotony of the voices that sound in the novel: the intonation of the narrator almost always coincides with the intonations of the characters; it, if it can be expressed that way, is “homogenized.”

But this, I must admit, in no way detracts from enjoying an intelligent, interesting, and unusually timely book.

Published in the magazine Ogonyok No.27, 16 November, 2009.