“The Real Four” (Alexey Akhmatov)

I have to say without mincing words — “The Real Four” by Boris Kornev has been written to a confident “four”. It is not just a word-play. The story is woven out of meat of reality, of veins and ligaments of the author. It is made on factual material which always deserves respect. In it there is no turning, unsecured by life, or a spectacular story, delivered just for the sake of attracting attention. This does not mean that it cannot have any exaggerations or author’s notion. Without them there is no single work of art. Here, too, there is an element of planned “accidental chances” that are so rich in Romance philology in general. I would like to recall Kushner, “Be silent and speechless, prosaic. No one will meet anyone.” It has nothing to do with Kornev. If similar things look obvious and too ostentatious in Pasternak’s novel (I am not comparing the authors, I am just talking about the methods), here “accidental chances” are far from accident and they are the core of the book. They are not elements of art but an integral part of the plot. It is clear that this is not the author’s high-handedness, it just couldn’t be any other way.

Everything Boris Kornev depicts, doesn’t just have a real basis, but is known thoroughly by him, which is a rare thing in literature in general and especially in modern literature. The material has been investigated much deeper than it is revealed in the book, which feels good by the text.

The author describes the rapid fate of four classmates, life scattered them around after school in different corners of inevitably expiring Soviet reality. One of them is a successful party official, travelling abroad and having his own office in the Smolny, the second one is a die-hard thief, being the most important and respected in the convict camp, the third friend is a courageous KGB officer who has visited every possible hot spot, and the fourth of them is a persistent dissident, forever struggling with the authorities for justice. That is the foursome that tenaciously holds the whole story afloat. Around them there are other characters. There are a lot of them and unfortunately (it is possibly the main fault of the story), their names don’t stay in our memory and are identified poorly. Numerous minor characters – school friends, and various colleagues – are depicted considerably worse that the aforesaid four, hence they are hardly remembered. Since I started this conversation,  I would mention the author’s uneven attention to the four main characters as a category of cons. The author very closely examines the party representative Sergey Bogdanov, reluctantly leaving him briefly in order to recall the ordeal of the dissident Vovka Spivak. However, giving the latter a certain amount of insightful pages, the author practically hardly ever mentions the fate of the «chronic» prisoner Pyotr Philippov, reducing it to just one remarkable camp meeting with Spivak and one meeting with the KGB agent Lisochkin. At the same time we feel that Philippov’s life, only marked with unreasonably sparing touches in richness and depth, is just as exciting as the life the other characters. The same applies to the KGB officer Yury Lisochkin. There are a few random episodes and explanatory narration. In my opinion. the author gave the main characters unnecessarily different volumes.

So what is actually the book about?

Four seventh graders (friends, of course) with the aim of «improving their school performance» decide to steal the grade book from the staff room at night. The venture fails the worst possible way — their favourite DT teacher, one-armed Vasilievich, catches them. During their escape one of the boys jumps out of the open window and hangs on a birch-tree. Trying to save him, the teacher hangs onto the window sill, but sees Yurka Lisochkin, hiding in the folds of the curtain. «Whether the DT teacher trod on a heavy burgundy curtain, or…» — Kornev leaves some uncertainty. The curtain rail falls on the head of Vasilievich. The teacher falls out of the window on the stones and dies. Is it an accident or a murder? The guilty person is rapidly found by his torn uniform – it is the same Petka Philippov who was hanging on the birch-tree. Taking the blame and grassing no one up, he is sent to a juvenile prison under article 89, thus dooming his three friends on serious spiritual work. About eighteen months later, there come the rumours of his death from the hands of his fellow inmates. Each of the remaining children struggles alone with his ​​conscience, which scatters the friends in separate ways. They don’t feel comfortable to be with each other.

By its power (or probably because Kornev described the school specializing in French), this chapter stylistically reminded me of one of the most powerful stories of Rasputin’s «French Lessons». Unfortunately, in the next chapter, the author dramatically changes the speed of the narrative, as if ceasing to closely monitor his characters,  only stating their career and personal growth. Of course, for the transition to a new time period such suspension is necessary, but the difference between the chapters in the approach to the description of the characters’ lives catches the eye. It is like a movie set on fast forward. Falling into dissidence of Vovka Spivak is shown in a shrill way, the starting point of it being the inequitable conduct of common militiamen. Aggravating his hatred of the existing system, he comes to the final point —  incarceration; beaten up, being in a solitary punishment cell, he especially acutely gets aware that he is also to blame for the death of Petka Philippov. He feels that this is the price paid for his child cowardice. However, life is more wonderful than any ideas about it: fate leads him to a penal colony, where the most authoritative thief is a miracle survivor Petka, who actually helps him to survive. The life of Petka is depicted in a brief telegraphic style.

The same applies to Yurka Lisochkin’s fate. A job of a military adviser in the Arab world, doing a runner from the hotel under fire in Afghanistan, and even meeting with the very Petka and a clumsy attempt to justify himself in front of him. And we still remember that terrible open «or …» in the quote above in the description of the fall of the curtain on the teacher’s head. Payment for the youth act will be a cover of shady business of the former convict and former friend.

Possibly, the main feature of this novel is the author’s love for all four characters. It is almost unbelievable, as they all express extreme opposing views. What can the responsible employee of the district committee of the CPSU and the professional dissident have in common? However, Bogdanov, sacrificing his career, lets Spivak go running to the American Embassy with his forged documents. How lovingly Spivak has been described, his views being clearly strange to the author. His father, offended by the authority, sets him against the regime and power. Vovka listens and trusts him, “His father’s very clear words later hung over him all his life, like a giant lampshade with a full-time 100-Watts light bulb”.

This is a great art — not to take anyone’s side but at the same time not to be a stranger.

On the 150 pages the rich and different exciting lives of four classmates flew fast. They flew as fast as they would have done in real life. Actually, the whole of the work is real. It deserves a solid grade of “four”. However, I said this in the beginning.

Alexey Akhmatov