Alexei Nikitin’s Victory Park— yes, that is the original title—is one of those books I think of as a lovely, fine mess. This is the book I mentioned as having “too many backstories for its own good”: it’s a loose and baggy novel, with a fairly large list of main and secondary characters. But Victory Park is also the book I described as “strangely endearing,” though I’m not sure what won me over most: the setting in Kiev, Nikitin’s blend of tragedy and comedy, or any of about five hundred details. Like a character mentioning Ardis’s 1981 edition of Vasilii Aksenov’s Остров Крым, which became The Island of Crimea, in Michael Henry Heim’s translation. I jotted a list of about twenty themes and motifs in the book without cracking a sweat or even the book… sometimes a lovely, fine mess is just the right thing.
In my reading, the most central character in the book is a college student. His last name is Pelikan, like the bird, and he comes from a family that does archaeological digs. Pelikan is infatuated with an unruly schoolgirl named Irka—he wants to buy her some black market Pumas for her birthday; this becomes a key plot element—but he’s also notable for receiving his draft notice. Victory Park is, appropriately enough, set in and around Victory Park during the perestroika era, when the Afghan War is still going on and soldiers are coming home. Nikitin adds historical and cultural depth to his setting by incorporating those digs, mentions of Kievan Rus and World War 2, and a character known as Buben, a mysterious and well-dressed man who’s come from Central Asia to Kiev for law enforcement but is more interested in managing the narcotics trade in Victory Park. The park is a quirky melting pot of nationalities and absurd ambitions.
To expand on Pelikan’s story and offer more examples of the breadth of Nikitin’s details, I’ll add this: Pelikan wants to buy the Pumas from a black marketeer named Vilya who looks so much like actor Mikhail Boyarsky, who played one of the Three Musketeers, that he can fool just about anyone, including a married woman from Lithuania named Aphrodita whose husband, conveniently traveling when Vilya and AphroditeAphrodita hook up, just happens to be in law enforcement. Vilya comes to a bad end in Victory Park because of territorial disputes (hint, hint to a plot theme!) rather than his resemblance to Boyarsky (hint to wrinkles on identity). Pelikan and one of his friends seem like convenient possibilities for Buben to pin the crime on… though the reader witnesses the crime and knows neither is guilty.
Though I haven’t mentioned even a quarter of the characters or (I suspect) even subplots, like a wild birthday for the wild Irka, this already covers lots of the items on my jotted list, including some of the genres that Nikitin weaves in: love story, since it’s Pelikan’s longing for Irka that drives him to want those Pumas that result in Vilya’s downfall; crime novel, since we watch Buben and his buddies do some awkward interrogating and investigating of various wrongdoings; and social novel, since what we’re really watching is a Petri dish of human behavior. Perhaps even more important, though, Victory Park is also a coming-of-age novel for the good-hearted Pelikan, who begins as a guy who’s been called, late, for his military service and ends up, of course, beginning that military service. On a larger scale, Victory Park is a coming-of-age novel for the country that’s still the Soviet Union: Victory Park creates a thoroughly apt microcosm thanks to its (literal) underground activists, Afghan vets, blend of cultures, people waiting at stores for goods to arrive, sense of lawlessness and corruption, Georgian food, and whiff of carnival. About the only item left on my penciled list is “motorcycles”; I’m going to ignore my marginalia to keep things sane.
It’s Nikitin’s good-natured tone and humor that keeps the book going, even when some of those backstories get a little long: his humor and absurdity are gentle even when they’re sharp, and I get the feeling he truly loves and knows his characters and their tender wishes. That combines beautifully with his portrayal of human tragedy and hardships, economic imbalances, and the era’s many geopolitical discomforts. I wish the geopolitical discomforts and motifs of corruption and fighting for territory in Victory Park didn’t feel so relevant these days.
I’ll end on the same note as Tatyana Sokhareva did in her review of Victory Park for gazeta.ru: with a quote from the book, one Sokhareva says is something Dovlatov would have been proud of: “Я уж не говорю о свободе слова, о ней я предпочитаю свободно молчать,” roughly “I’m not talking about freedom of speech here, I prefer to freely keep quiet about that.” Fittingly, this comes from the book dealer who mentions Ardis. The book’s full of lines like that, which is why it kept me such good company—and kept me laughing—during a time with lots of work and distractions.
Up Next: Two more books that include Ukrainian settings—Evgeny Vodolzakin’s Solovyov and Larionov and Gleb Shulpyakov’s Museum Named After Dante—and then Cartagena by Lena Eltang, a complex murder mystery of sorts that I’m reading slowly to appreciate all the details. There’s also been a nice crop of novellas lately…