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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Big Green Tent

Ludmila Ulitskaya

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To purchase The Big Green Tent

Title: The Big Green Tent
Author: Ludmila Ulitskaya
Genre: Novel
Written: 2010 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 573 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: The Big Green Tent - US
The Big Green Tent - UK
The Big Green Tent - Canada
The Big Green Tent - India
Le chapiteau vert - France
Das grüne Zelt - Deutschland
  • Russian title: Зеленый шатер
  • Translated by Polly Gannon

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Our Assessment:

B : some very good story-telling, but oddly put together

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic . 12/2015 Leonid Bershidsky
FAZ . 14/9/2012 Sabine Berking
Le Monde . 11/6/2014 Florence Noiville
NZZ . 1/9/2012 Ulrich M. Schmid
The NY Times Book Rev. . 29/11/2015 Lara Vapnyar
Publishers Weekly . 20/10/2014 .
TLS . 23/3/2016 Amelia M. Glaser
World Lit. Today . 1-2/2016 Emily Johnson

  From the Reviews:
  • "Ulitskaya doesn’t lionize her circle. Her sense of solidarity, as relayed through a distinctly female narrative voice, is remarkably clear-eyed (.....) Even as she makes clear which side she’s on, Ulitskaya resists reductive ideological thinking, in her fiction as in life." - Leonid Bershidsky, The Atlantic

  • "Ludmilla Ulitzkaja, die Grande Dame der russischen Literatur, hat damit ihr Opus magnum verfasst, ein Buch über die Jahre 1953 bis zum Untergang der Sowjetunion. (...) Ludmilla Ulitzkaja schreibt mit leichter Feder, menschelnd, wohltuend altmodisch und mit viel Herz für ihre Helden, denen sie Züge von bekannten und weniger bekannten Oppositionellen verleiht und dabei natürlich auch Autobiographisches verarbeitet." - Sabine Berking, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Un bon livre est celui qui sème les points d’interrogation à foison. Celui d’Oulitskaïa en regorge. Son maître mot: complexité." - Florence Noiville, Le Monde

  • "Ulitzkaja will ihren Roman als Mahnmal gegen die zunehmende Sowjetnostalgie und die Stalinisierung der russischen Gesellschaft verstanden wissen. Diese Selbstinterpretation greift wohl zu kurz. Viel wichtiger als die Darstellung einer finsteren Zeit ist das literarische Ausloten der menschlichen Handlungsmöglichkeiten im Spannungsfeld zwischen Geschichte, Religion, Kunst, Gesellschaft und Familie." - Ulrich M. Schmid, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "(A)s grand, solid and impressively all-encompassing as its title implies. (...) In its structure, The Big Green Tent resembles a tree: After a brief prologue, six straightforward chapters form a trunk, and the rest of the novel branches out in different directions. (...) The Big Green Tent is all about telling a story or, rather, telling stories -- stories and more stories." - Lara Vapnyar, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The effect is mazelike, with the story jumping back and forth on various time lines. The prose is dense, but readers will come away wholly satisfied." - Publishers Weekly

  • "As The Big Green Tent shows, in Polly Gannon’s masterly translation, Ulitskaya remains a storyteller first and foremost. (...) While the book may not have needed its nearly 600-page girth, it is consistently engrossing, due in no small part to Ulitskaya’s patient pursuit of each of her many characters." - Amelia M. Glaser, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(A)n almost ethnographic portrait of Russia’s 1960s generation (.....) The strongest section of the book by far is its first hundred pages (.....) Later sections of the book are less cohesive. (...) Polly Gannon’s translation is excellent and does a good job of capturing Ultiskaya’s lyrical prose." - Emily Johnson, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Big Green Tent opens with a brief Prologue which presents snapshot scenes of how three significant characters from the novel -- Tamara, Galya, and Olga -- experience the first hints of the death of Stalin in 1953. They are young girls at the time, but the event is pivotal in their lives, marking the beginning of the next Soviet epoch.
       The girls disappear from the scene when the novel proper opens, however, as the focus shifts to a trio of boys -- and back a few years. The girls are briefly glimpsed along the way as the story progresses to the death of Stalin yet again, and then beyond, but for a good while the novel becomes one describing the coming of age and schooldays of Ilya, Mikha, and Sanya -- a "three-way friendship" of boys who initially don't quite fit in at school but manage to find support and camaraderie.
       One character notes about Russian literature:

     Still, there was one strange feature in this whole magnificent body of literature: it was all written by men, about boys. For boys. It was all about honor, about bravery, about duty. As though Russian childhood were slely a male affair. And what about the childhood of girls ?
       The author of The Big Green Tent is a woman, but for more than its first hundred pages it is similarly almost exclusively concerned with boyhood (girls do join what used to be their boys-only school in 1954 (another post-Stalinist opening of Soviet worlds small and large), which at least gets a few more girls involved) -- and while the stories of several women then do take center stage later in the novel, there's comparatively little about their childhoods .....
       Starting in sixth grade the trio of boys get a mentor, literature teacher Victor Yulievich Shengeli, who over the next few years was responsible for the fact that: "A small but mighty army of young people had learned the art of reading Pushkin and Tolstoy". He is the kind of teacher where:
Half of the class did not quite understand what the literature teacher wanted from them. The other half clung to his every word.
       An extracurricular group forms, too, the 'Lovers of Russian Literature' -- LORL -- and literature is and remains central to much of the novel and many of the characters.
       Troubles with the authorities begin early on, too, from those characters with Jewish roots (which means they are then not allowed to study at certain universities) to Victor Yulievich's affair with one his students (whom he then marries). Some dreams and ambitions are thwarted early on -- the musically gifted Sanya injures his hand as a youth, cutting short a promising future as a performer (though he goes on to study music and winds up as a teacher) -- while others' are blocked by the Soviet system later on. Quite a few of the characters abandon the Soviet Union over the years, too, and several are arrested at one time or another, too.
       Ulitskaya poignantly captures all the dashed promise early on in succinctly describing a teenage celebration:
     This was the dress rehearsal for the first ball of the future, which for most of them would never take place.
       When Stalin dies one character reassures another: "Don't worry. Things can't get any worse." This is a refrain that doesn't go away, resurfacing across the later decades too, all the way to near the end, when Ulitskaya admits: "Mikha was wrong about one thing: that things couldn't get any worse."
       After the boys' school years, the novel next focuses on Olga, who eventually marries Ilya after she is kicked out of university and her first marriage fails. Ilya eventually also leaves Olga, goes abroad, and marries someone else; Olga withers away, then finds strength and hope again, then dies. But only much later in the novel does Ulitskaya get around to telling not so much Ilya's side of the story but at least some of his circumstances in years when he wasn't with Olga (including his previous relationship, and the son from it).
       Ulitskaya tells her stories in generally large-sized chunks, focusing on one character, or the relationship between several characters (friends, family), over various spans of time (often years or even decades). The chunks overlap -- revealing different background information depending on who her focus is on at the time -- rather than neatly fit together; they are also somewhat out of sequence: while the novel inexorably moves forward, it frequently jumps back, as for example Ilya and Olga's deaths and what led up to them have been recounted by the time the novel is barely one-quarter done, but Ilya's relationship with Lyudmila when he was in his mid-twenties -- the woman he left for Olga -- is only described when some two-thirds of the book are done with.
       The larger picture that emerges is one of (very) multi-faceted Soviet life, from a few years before Stalin's death to the end of the Soviet Union, employing a very wide cast of characters. Literature is a not quite unifying thread throughout, with many of the characters in one way or another involved with it, including many who are part of the samizdat-circulation process (whether as finders, rescuers, and owners of old, now illicit texts, or typists and circulators of new ones). Among the things that seduces Victor Yulievich is that he is one of the first to ever read Doctor Zhivago, as the teen student he would then soon go on to marry gives him a pre-publication typed copy, the (just) seventeen-year-old's grandmother apparently being Pasternak's typist. (Pre-publication discovery of the masterwork seems a popular author-device nowadays: Ismail Kadare's protagonist gets an early look in Twilight of the Eastern Gods, too). A typed version of The Gulag Archipelago also crops up in the novel -- remaining undiscovered despite the authorities thorough house-search, in one of Ulitskaya's worst mini-story turns.
       A love of literature does shine through The Big Green Tent, honestly and convincingly. Very early on Victor Yulievich tells his students:
Literature is the finest thing humankind has created. Poetry is the beating heart of literature, the highest concentration of all that is best in the world and in people.
       In turning so much to, and relying on literature Ulitskaya constantly reaffirms her belief in this. And if there is a guiding spirit and figure in the novel, it is poet Joseph Brodsky -- as, indeed, the novel closes, in an Epilogue-chapter, with the death of 'the poet', the closing of that Soviet (and by then post-Soviet) era and Russian experience.
       Ulitskaya is at her best in expansive storytelling -- the longer sections, the unfolding lives, are very well done, with all the feel of the grand Russian novels. Unfortunately, she's often tempted to resort to the anecdotal too, tossing in briefer but often far too freighted episodes; among the worst is the one around the preservation of The Gulag Archipelago, but this is also a novel in which there are such things as a huge lottery-win and an in-flight fatality, and these larger-than-life events are jarring in the way they're barely integrated into the story (or stories).
       Much of the writing is very good, but there's also some that is simply terrible -- again, usually when she's reaching: so, for example, about heartbroken Olga:
The doctors had taken out part of her stomach, but they couldn't remove the bleeding wound of her heart.
       The Big Green Tent doesn't quite want to be a traditional big Russian novel. Ulitskaya emphatically wants to present her story piecemeal, chunk by chunk, and not entirely chronologically. It works, for the most part -- but only when she remains focused on the larger picture; some small episodes and peripheral action weaken the whole structure, and leave it ultimately a bit wobbly. Trying to capture so much of the Soviet experience, she also crowds her novel, and it is arguably overpopulated; between the many characters and the constantly shifting focus it can also feel that the novel doesn't have a core; certainly there's no one character or story dominant enough to hold the whole truly together.
       Much of The Big Green Tent is very good, and long stretches impress greatly, but the novel as a whole doesn't quite work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 October 2015

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The Big Green Tent: Reviews: Other books by Ludmila Ulitskaya under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of literature from Russia

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About the Author:

       Russian author Ludmila Ulitskaya (Людмила Евгеньевна Улицкая, Ludmila Oulitskaïa, Ljudmila Ulitzkaja) was born in 1943.

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