Happiness is Possible
Oleg Zaionchkovsky (translated by Andrew Bromfield)
And Other Stories: £10.00rrp.: 303pp.
We live in a society where we’re expected to give our lives meaning. As the art critic Boris Groys writes In The Flow (2016):
‘In earlier times, recreation meant passive contemplation. But today’s society is unlike that spectacular society. In their free time, people work – they travel, play sports, and exercise. They don’t read books; they write for Facebook, Twitter and other social media’.
In Happiness is Possible by Oleg Zaionchkovsky, we’re confronted with a narrator who is constantly struggling with distinguishing the difference between his work, his writing and how he ultimately interprets meaning from them.
The narrator is never referred to by name. His impetus, drive, or energy for his novel appears to have deserted him, and indeed, desertion is a running theme in his life as those he has loved have also departed from his orbit leaving just his dog. His life is uneventful: we witness him visit parts of Moscow and pick up threads of conversations as he tries to a conceive a story and narrative for his own work. As A.D Miller writes in the introduction though, ‘the urge to find and keep a place to live in Moscow dictates where and how people choose to work’: ultimately, we are watching a novelist living and at work, but what is the work that leads to meaning and its worth?
When work does come his way, it’s a commission to review a restaurant, which he attends with his ex-wife and her new partner Dmitry. Her new partner has become an important figure in his life, lending him money to help keep him afloat (‘when my indebtedness exceeds my creditworthiness Dmitry Pavlovich doesn’t write it off, he restructures it’: surely it is the writer’s job to ‘write it off’). It is here however we see how difficult a task he finds writing:
“What an array of dishes we sampled at his insistence – I can’t recall them all now!”, which is slightly worrying for a writer.’
Can he not make it up you ask ? Dmitry, noticing his struggle says to him:
“Ah what a Joe Blow you are,” Dmitry Pavlovich put in unexpectedly. “Write something beautiful about all this…about the way destinies are defined. The establishment gets a boost for its image and you, you fool, get paid a fee. There’s a balance for you.”
People know more about the act of writing than the writer himself here and the work of the novel and pure labour are indistinguishable to Zaionchonsky’s narrator. A motif from Zaoinchonsky’s novel is that of the writer sat in his flat. It’s something that is returned to often. Reminscent of Camus’ Outsider – Meursault – although Camus’ novel is not about a writer necessarily, it does ask, what is an outsider but a person struggling to find and make meaning from the society which he engages. Meursault, after seeing his dead mother retreats to his flat where idly sits out of his window watching the world happen below and like Meursault, the narrator here is ‘boxed in’ that flat, excluded from making meaning. Remember how in the opening he says how his air vent functions like an ‘old wired-in Soviet radio speaker’? It’s old, in history and he hears other people’s arguments filter into his flat he notices:
I don’t know their names, I don’t know what they look like but I think about them a lot. When my own text – the one that’s my vocation , the one I’m paid money for – when that text betrays me, then my weary thought mingles with my cigarette smoke and streams out through the air vent.
The author is not dead but he is mute and in, what he terms, his ‘own soap opera’. The sole, individual creator of novel begins to look archaic and we might be tempted to view it as a hint toward Russia’s history of suppressing and incarcerating writers and artists, but it also boils down to this sense of an individual being able, at least, to turn something large and at the macro-level of experience into something personal and meaningful. He cannot help take the ‘box’ with him though. He needs others, but others don’t need him.
It is also inherently paradoxical and a scene from Camus’ novel conveys the absurdity of this situation. When old Salamano’s dog escapes, where does it escape? When the old man is distracted by the stalls at the fair and the performance of the ‘The Escape King’. In other words, the thing that you are watching could in fact be the thing that is happening to you without you knowing it. And so here, in Zaionchkovsky’s work, we have become the spectator of not ‘The Escape King’ but of the dog disappearing, and we are watching the watcher. Art does not render you unconscious, art is more than distraction but it does require somebody to pay attention to your attention.