Monday, May 2, 2016


It is hard to find a novel which would be more absurdist and carnivalistic than Venedikt Yerofeyev's Moscow to the End of the Line (or Moscow-Petushki, Москва Петушки, 1969-1970). And it would be hard to imagine that it would have been written anywhere else than in the Soviet Union, where the samizdat (dissident) culture was very poetical.

Like most underground books, Moscow to the End of the Line was first 'published' only as a pile of photocopies. In Israel it became a book in 1973. In Soviet Union this happened as late as 1987.

Moscow to the End of the Line's deliriumesque nature blew my mind already on the first 5 pages. An alcoholic worker gets fired because he has been distributing graphic charts, which show the connection between the drinking habits of his colleagues and their efficiency at work.

The sack launches a slippery slope. The protagonist drinks 100, 200, 300, 400 or 500 grams of Stolichnaya or Kubanskaya vodka, 'swims' in Shampanskoye, and meets nutcases, intellectuals, angels and even the devil on an intensiv train ride to Petushki (where he never arrives). Moscow to the End of the Line is like a psychedelic pastiche of Jack Kerouac's romantic (and in the end bourgeois) On the Road.

The book made me happy partly following my experience that the literary field is institutionally in a bad shape. I work in the so called contemporary art world (broadly speaking visual arts), where grassroot galleries and outsiderism are a part of the business. In my world of art we are not dependent on mainstream art journals, big art museums or art fairs. There is a dialogue between the center and the margins. And you never get the feeling that something has been overproduced. But literature, nearly everywhere, is stuck in its swamp of fairs, big publishers and editors who clean up the weird (but for me interesting) sidepaths from manuscripts. Not even the independent publishers or the literary journals seem to be able to save the margins and the outsiders, who remain in the shadows, somehow not 'legitimate' or not even a part of the world we point to when we utter the word 'literature'. It seems that literature is often really interesting only outside of the world of literature. And in the Soviet Union it did not take much to become an outsider. Then there was no broad reading public which had to be targeted, anymore. One could write for lovers of literature.

Of course, there is a long tradition of surreal writers from Gogol and Haarms to Bulkakov, who have worked on this type of writing in Russian literature even earlier. But still... One of my favorite living philosophers is Boris Groys, who started as a samizdat thinker - this can still be seen in his brave writing (I have actually been quite obsessed with outsider philosophy) - and my favorite European writer is Vladimir Sorokin, who began his career in the same way and who now writes ironical versions of dissident literature. Sorokin rides on the waves of chaos and he is not trying to control the powers of imagination, while contemporary Western novels are like design objects, made to please the audience but not to take it for a mysterious ride.

In Soviet literature one can see the how literature in the end could be an art in the same way as contemporary visual art is. Literature is of course not alone with its institutional problems. Film and theatre have in many countries as well a nearly hostile context which cuts the wings from brave authors and their works.

Moscow to the End of the Line is full of traces of an author. It is man-made and it gives you the kind of a pleasure you get from man-made food. I love the crazy dialogues and the way the protagonist is drifting into dangerous waters, foremost the margins of sanity. On the whole it makes no sense, but it gives you pleasure.

It felt therapeutic to follow the deliriumesque adventures of this lost soul. Like Kafka, Yerofeyev turns the everyday into a dynamic cocktail of chance, irrationality and the unconsious. And I love it.

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