Definitely Maybe… (a book review)

It feels a bit funny to see the cover of this book with English words on it, because I know its original Russian version so well. The book is really, truly Soviet, if I may say so. I mean to say that in it, the characters, their moral/ethical positions, the setting, the events, and everything else up to the last line is filled with the worldview of the Soviet people. Well, this makes the book even more interesting for us today, when the Soviet Union is only history.

Still, the problems raised in the book are global, or I’d rather say, universal. The novel is amazing in its ability to live and remain ‘fresh’ through time: today, half of a century later, it reads as if it was written just yesterday by someone who always looks into the future.

I am sure, the authors did.

Definitely Maybe (Russian: За миллиард лет до конца света,  literal translation: A Billion Years Before the End of the World, sometimes called Definitely Maybe: A Manuscript Discovered Under Unusual Circumstances) is a science fiction novel by Russian writers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, first published 1974. The story takes place in Leningrad, USSR. The protagonist, an astrophysicist Dmitry Malyanov, is officially on vacation, but continues to work on his thesis, “The Interaction of Stars with Diffused Galactic Matter”. Just as he begins to realize that he is on the verge of a discovery worthy of a Nobel Prize, his life becomes plagued by a number of strange events, which finally lead him to a great deal of stress and make him unable to do his research anymore.

Little by little, Malyanov begins to suspect that someone (or something) deliberately intends to prevent him from continuing his work. Meanwhile, the same idea occurs to his friends, also talented scientists, who find themselves in a similar situation—some powerful, mysterious, and very selective force impedes their work.

An explanation is proposed by Malyanov’s friend, the mathematician Vecherovsky. He posits that some mysterious force is trying to slow down mankind’s scientific pursuit, which might become a threat to the very fabric of the universe in some distant future. In fact, it is the Universe itself that resists attempts of rational beings of constructing supercivilizations. Vecherovsky proposes to treat this universal resistance to scientific progress as a natural phenomenon which can and should be investigated and even harnessed by Science.

As the novel concludes, the other scientists, including Malyanov, have been forced to abandon their research, and Vecherovsky remains alone to battle the universe and continue their work.

I just finished reading the book for the 4-th or possibly the 5-th time, and enjoyed it again– maybe even more than the previous times. It glows with love for the world we live in. It is profound in thought; it touches deepest problems of human ethics, and at the same time, it is full of humor and life. I do recommend you to try reading it.

Also, I absolutely love and would like to recommend a few more books by Strugatsky brothers:

Snail on the Slope (Russian – “Улитка на склоне”) is a philosophic and deeply psychological sci-fi novel ;

The Doomed City (Russian: Град обреченный) is a 1972 science fiction novel — an absolutely amazing philosophic piece to read

Roadside Picnic (Russian: Пикник на обочине), a 1971 novel; within ten years after the first publication, 38 editions of it were published in 20 countries.

The Ugly Swans (Russian: Гадкие лебеди) written in the 1960-ies, but published only in 1987, during Gorbachev’s Perestroika.

The Aftertaste of Portnoy’s Complaint

Portnoys-complaintWhy do we rate some books as classics, while many other books remain labeled in our minds as ‘just another great novel’? To me, Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint is a good example illustrating the answer to this question.

When I opened Portnoy’s Complaint for the first time, I could feel its Jewish-American scent from the very first lines. It felt like being physically present in that community and knowing the protagonist and his family in person. The images drawn by Philip Roth were so vivid that I was disgusted by the feeling of presence in their bathroom when I came across the descriptions of various physiological acts performed there by the protagonist. Some scenes disturbed me: they reminded me of other similar families which I used to know. The first pages caused some unpleasant aftertaste, so I had to close the book for a while and let my disgust calm down.

However, the book did not let me go, I started thinking about it. Surprisingly, the scenes that had caused my disgust in the beginning, slowly floated away with time, and then the main character — the self-antagonistic protagonist with painfully inflamed, guilt-infested mind, captured my imagination. The few first pages of the book left such a strong aftertaste that I had no other choice, but to open the book again and read it to the end.

To be honest, this guy–the protagonist–still disgusts me: this obtrusive Jewish bore keeps making me think about his problems… against my will! No, I am not going to discuss his mental and emotional health here… not in this post, but isn’t it amazing how the protagonist has all the qualities of an antagonist, and in fact, in this book, he is both! Two in one!

What attracts my attention is the fact that Philip Roth’s novel has captured my imagination so much that, weeks after reading it, I still return to it in my mind, thinking about its characters as if they are real people living next door.

I am certainly not the first one to develop this aftertaste from the novel. The book has  been sensationally popular; millions of people have read it since the day it was published. As Bernard Avishai wrote in his article for Huffington Post,

“By 1975, six years after the book’s publication, Portnoy’s Complaint had sold nearly half a million copies in hardback in the United States, three and a half million in paperback. The book brought what was in the back of our minds to the tips of tongues.”

The reviews of the book are countless, too. And quite controversial. Some rate the book as absolutely excellent, others are openly negative, but nearly no one evaluates the book as average.

The novel touches every reader in a unique way, no matter what kind of emotions it evokes, because Portnoy’s Complaint is–

“…a novel that is playfully and painfully moving, but also a work that is certainly catholic in appeal, potentially monumental in effect–and, perhaps more important, a deliciously funny book, absurd and exuberant, wild and uproarious.” NYTimes review

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A.M.Bradley

One Writer's Journey

Writings from the Couch

Processes of Discovery in the Mind