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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Man Who Couldn't Die

Olga Slavnikova

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To purchase The Man Who Couldn't Die

Title: The Man Who Couldn't Die
Author: Olga Slavnikova
Genre: Novel
Written: 2001 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 236 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: The Man Who Couldn't Die - US
The Man Who Couldn't Die - UK
The Man Who Couldn't Die - Canada
L'Immortel - France
L'immortale - Italia
  • The Tale of an Authentic Human Being
  • Russian title: Бессмертный
  • Translated by Marian Schwartz
  • With an Introduction by Mark Lipovetsky

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Our Assessment:

B : fine little dark tale of post-Soviet Russia

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 19/4/2019 Natasha Randall

  From the Reviews:
  • "The novel was first published in Russian in 2004, and now delivers Olga Slavnikova’s pitch-perfect descriptions of the first post- Soviet decade in Marian Schwartz’s deft translation." - Natasha Randall, Times Literary Supplement

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 title-character of The Man Who Couldn't Die is Alexei Afanasievich Kharitonov, a World War II veteran bedridden now for fourteen years after a debilitating stroke. The welfare payments he receives help keep the family -- wife Nina Alexandrovna, his step-daughter Marina, and, for a while, her husband Seryozha -- afloat, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the transition to the wild west version of capitalism that followed, which none of the family members seems to have managed to adjust to yet. Since: "no matter how burdensome his recumbent body might be, it consumed far less than it contributed", it's important to keep him alive -- and Marina thinks it's best to try to avoid any shocks to his system, by keeping him from finding out what's going on in the outside world. So, in essence, they put Alexei Afanasievich in a (Soviet-)time bubble, not allowing any change to intrude, feeding him fake news -- such as carefully edited articles from Pravda, with handwritten revisions added by Marina read aloud to him -- and doctored video tapes (at least as long as the TV still works), even creating a Twenty-Ninth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party to play out for him (though the actual party only got to twenty-eight).
       It's a neat and amusing idea, and Slavnikova plays it out quite well. But the focus isn't entirely, or even predominantly on the unmoving Alexei Afanasievich, as it is also very much on the two women in the household. The artificial world they've created, the bubble they also regularly retreat into -- Nina Alexandrovna spending most of her time there, Marina returning after her long workdays -- affects them as well. In short order, the bifurcation leaves two almost entirely different, and separate, worlds:

     Evidently, nothing from outside time could serve as an event for inside time anymore; communication between the two times had ceased
       Among the very limited cross-overs into this isolated domestic world are the doctor who comes to occasionally check on Alexei Afanasievich, and the benefits office representative Klumba, who comes to check the pensioner is still alive and, when she's confirmed that, hands over the much-needed cash-infusion. Klumba's visits are awaited both eagerly and with considerable trepidation -- and it's no surprise that she comes to play a role in the culminating scenes of the story, when everything comes to a head.
       Marina is presented as the one member of the family who hasn't given up; she certainly keeps trying. A journalist, she has and then loses a job at a "third-rate studio located in a bankrupt House of Fashion", Studio A, and then gets drawn into a political campaign, for Fyodor Ignatovic Krugal, a candidate from the so-called Salvation bloc for a seat in the regional Duma. Here too Marina is a poorly-paid underling, but a victory by Krugal should be a ticket back into (semi-)serious journalism, and she does her best with the tasks she's given. Unfortunately, the campaign-scheme devised by Professor Shishkov, the dubious character running things -- essentially a vote-buying scheme -- doesn't quite add up, as all concerned only figure out way too late, ultimately leaving Marina to suffer only consequences, rather than reap the hoped-for benefits.
       Marina's husband is little more than a specter, a shadowy occasional presence in the apartment -- making, along with Alexei Afanasievich, for two decidedly: "incomplete husbands" in the household -- though he eventually practically fades entirely away. Not much of a man to begin with, he practically dissolves into the nullity that he is.
       Nina, when she ventures outside, seems almost entirely in a daze, overwhelmed by a changed world she can not find her place in. Among her few vaguely successful expeditions is when she goes in search of a nephew -- a family member who seems to have adjusted to the new ways. She eventually make it to his apartment, only to find that he no longer lives there -- the present owner saying she got it cheap because: "A man was hacked to death with an ax here", and, in another example of a distorted view of the past preserved and (misre)presented, showing Nina the red traces of the butchery still on the floor (bits of red which, in fact, have a different explanation, which Nina actually can recall).
       Alexei Afanasievich is largely incapacitated on the trophy-bed he brought back from the war with him, but not entirely paralyzed. He had been an army scout, with some fifteen kills to his name -- his favorite weapon: "a noose made of strong silk rope", which he carried around his own neck when he wasn't using it. When Nina discovers that her husband is apparently trying to kill himself -- to strangle himself with his favored killing-tool -- her world is thrown in even greater disarray.
       Eventually, then, the different individual strands -- the family's fake time-bubble, Marina's election-work, and Alexei Afanasievich's struggle to kill himself -- come together too, in the novel's tragi-comic conclusion.
       As Nina comes to realize:
If you looked at present-day capitalism from that distant fork in time, then this looked more like a puppet show or the nightmare of a convinced Communist who finds himself inside his own dream. The sole basis for that figure's existence, if only in men's minds, was the victory in the Great Patriotic War.
       There's little said about Alexei Afanasievich's life after the war, or the Soviet period in general, but that world did provide a sense of stability. While the family tries to keep up the appearances of this edifice, at least in the home, or at least in Alexei Afanasievich's room, it continues to crumble away. There is no happy end to be found here -- and certainly the irretrievable past offers less and less hold.
       Slavnikova presents these stories quite well, and she writes with a strong, distinctive style. The three main characters and their stories -- really quite separate, in many ways -- are somewhat uneasily balanced; Alexei Afanasievich, in particular, is used more as almost a background figure -- more than a prop, but still not nearly as much as, even in his state, he could be. Much in the novel is amusing, but Slavnikova's use of humor nevertheless feels quite tempered -- and tends much more towards the absurd than the simply comical. The grimness of the situations -- of the Russia these characters live in -- comes across well -- but it is quite grim, making for a somewhat downbeat story.
       Successful, in its way, but also perhaps not doing quite enough with its easy targets and premise.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 February 2019

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The Man Who Couldn't Die: Reviews: Olga Slavnikova: Other books by Olga Slavnikova under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of literature from Russia

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About the Author:

       Russian author Olga Slavnikova (Ольга Славникова) was born in 1957.

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© 2019-2021 the complete review

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