Wachtel's Top Five

Cheers to Oprah Winfrey for featuring Anna Karenina in her book club (and helping the Russian classic climb to the top of bestseller lists). But could you name even one modern Russian novel? If you're looking to expand your worldview, Professor Andrew Wachtel suggests the following five books for a taste of modern Slavic literature:

1) Too Loud a Solitude
Bohumil Hrabal
, Czechoslovakia (Harvest/HBJ Book, 1992)

For 35 years the slovenly and uneducated Hantá has worked as a trash compactor, compressing thousands of books. Gradually, he has been sneaking books out in his bag at night, falling in love with the works he is supposed to destroy. "When I read," he says, "I don't really read; I pop a beautiful sentence in my mouth and suck at it like a fruit drop." So what happens when his job — and, by extension, his life — is taken over by an automated machine?

2) Death and the Dervish
Mesa Selimovic, Bosnia (Northwestern University Press, 1996)

Sheikh Ahmed Nuruddin is a dervish (a Muslim mystic) in a Bosnian community under control of the Ottoman Empire. Having spent most of his adult years deliberately avoiding the turmoil of everyday life, he finds himself sucked in when his brother is arrested. His investigation brings him face-to-face with his own moral cowardice and causes a devastating crisis of faith that calls into question the value of his entire life.

3) A Tomb for Boris Davidovich
Danilo Kis, Serbia (Dalkey Archive Press, 2001)

Seven interconnected stories reveal the dark underside of the Russian Revolution, shedding light on a world of betrayals and deceits. In one story a high-profile prisoner battles with an interrogator who is determined to produce a confession for a show trial; in another the criminal leaders of a prison camp determine a prisoner's fate with tarot cards. The fact that all these stories are based on historical events adds to their impact.

4) Northern Lights
Drago Jancar, Slovenia (Northwestern University Press, 2001)

Josef Erdman arrives in Maribor, Slovenia, on the eve of World War II. Though he claims to be a salesman, it soon becomes apparent that Josef has no purpose there — and that a newcomer can expect nothing but distrust from the townspeople. Against this backdrop of suspicion and distrust he witnesses the fiery shimmer of the aurora borealis and imagines the town set aflame — an omen of the coming war.

5) Omon Ra
Viktor Pelevin, Russia (New Directions Publishing Corp., 1998)

In this black comedy Omon is chosen for the Soviet space program, the fulfillment of his lifelong dream. However, he enrolls only to encounter the terrifying absurdity of Soviet protocol and its backward technology. The New Yorker compared the novel to "a rocket firing off its various stages — each incident is more jolting and propulsively absurd than the one before." — E.C.B.

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