In 2006, an innovative young man called David Stromberg asked participants of the Summer Literary Seminars in Russia that included writers like the late Kenyan-Ugandan author Binyavanga Wainaina to write novellas for his St Petersburg noir series.
Nevertheless, 17 years later, with Russia on everyone’s lips, from Vladivostok to Ascencion, thanks to Putin’s invasion of neighbouring Ukraine, Concordia University lecturer Josip Novakovich has released a comedic political satire, Rubble of Rubles.
It features a failed investment banker called David Gospodin, who runs away from the Enron scandal.
He hails a taxi that then deliberately knocks down a pedestrian on the night street, and thus the web unspools. The descriptions of Saint Petersburg streets, for someone who has been severally there, are absolutely spot-on.
Novakovich’s satirical wit, jokes and puns pepper this highly readable book.
There are comical scenes such as the one at the Fontanka Circus where monkeys, enraged that the horses they have to ride are getting whipped by trainers, slap their human coaches and chase away people from the show, to show that ‘Russia is a circus.’ There are also societal observations like fake HIV-negative certificates in Russia — at one point used for entry or visa extensions.
As the reviewer Josh Barkan (author of Mexico: Stories) notes, “Novakovich turns the idea of Dostoyevsky’s crime and punishment on its head.”
Arrested by a corrupt police chief who loves American phrases — thanks a million, have a nice day — and US dollars more, our anti-hero David, who just wanted to retire into being an importer of Georgian wines, finds his life in the rubble when he is thrown into prison for the murder of two wine importers.
Fortunately for him, he is rescued by none other than Russian President Vladimir Putin, who personally go to the Kresty Prison to extract David, as well as show off his martial arts skills.
Putin wants his neighbouring president dead — not Ukraine’s Zelensky, as he does now, but Georgia’s Mikhail Saakashvili — and he gives Gospodin a polonium pill to slip into the Georgian’s drink, once he gets to dine-and-wine with him.
In many ways, once our protagonist leaves Putin and goes to Georgia, and a bit before there, the slim novel slips into ‘Absurdistan.’ Will David assassinate the president of Georgia?
There are some great Soviet-era jokes scattered in Rubble of Rubles, my favourite? When Joseph Stalin goes to the death bed of Vladimir Lenin to complain about his last will and testament that said he (Stalin) is unfit to lead the USSR.
“Stalin,” Lenin says in his dying breath, “half of the people of Russia will not follow you ...”
“Not a problem, comrade Lenin,” replies Stalin, putting a reassuring paw on his dying leader’s shoulder. “That half will follow you ... then the other half follow me.”
A finalist for the Man Booker International Prize in 2013 for his short stories, this is Novakovich’s first novel, which he wrote while on research fellowships or residencies in Saint Petersburg, Russia, and Sofia, Bulgaria.