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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Ivan Moscow

Boris Pilnyak

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To purchase Ivan Moscow

Title: Ivan Moscow
Author: Boris Pilnyak
Genre: Novel
Written: 1927 (Eng. 1935)
Length: 99 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: Ivan Moscow - US
directly from: Sublunary Editions
  • Russian title: Иван Москва
  • Translated by Aaron Schwartzman
  • The 1935 translation has been "revised for style throughout" for the 2021 Sublunary Editions edition

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Our Assessment:

B : fervid reflection of its times and place

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Boris Pilnyak's slim novel has five chapters. The first is called the 'Introductory Chapter', but it's not the protagonist who is first introduced but rather a three-thousand-year-old mummy, purchased by a professor while he was in Egypt, "one of Pharaoh's wives". The mummy does not seem to fare well in Moscow in this time of the Russian Revolution, and the professor is forced to get rid of it -- and it moves from home to home, as each of its owners can only bear to put up with it for two weeks before the smell of decomposition and the way it was: "lit up by a faint phosphorescent light" gets to be too much for them.
       The chapter then turns to Ivan Petrovich Moscow, making the story of the mummy seems like nothing more than a curious atmosphere-setter, but in fact both the theme of decomposition and then the artifact itself will come to feature prominently in the story again.
       The subsections of this first chapter are numbered 'Conditions' and can be taken as kinds of propositions upon which the story is then built; so then also the final 'Concluding Chapter' begins with a subsection 'Outside of Conditions' and then several conclusions (before finishing off with a: 'Condition Last').
       As with the mummy, life and death and the demarcation between them are not clear in the first scene in which Ivan is introduced, 'Condition Three', describing him on the battlefield with two live comrades and two dead ones. Delirious with typhus, the living men carry their dead comrades with them -- not even noticing how these were decomposing along the way. Only when they finally reached a hospital did the survivors pass: "from delirium into a life of actualities" -- and:

     The memory of this delirium remained forever with Ivan Moscow
       And, indeed, like decomposition, delirium is then another recurring theme in the novel.
       A few years later, in the Ural region, we encounter Comrade Ivan Moscow as factory director. He is a modern alchemist, working on nothing less than harnessing nuclear energy, Pilnyak already understanding the great potential of nuclear fission:
We shall decompose thorium and uranium in the same way as the sun throws to us, on earth, parts torn off of itself, as the mind analyzes thoughts. When we burn a piece of coal the size of a matchbox we get a certain amount of energy, but when we don't burn but decompose it the energy found in the same piece of coal, we obtain an amount of energy three hundred and sixty thousand times greater than we do from the process of burning. The usual burning of one ton of coal releases enough energy to power a locomotive for one hour, while the decomposition of the same amount of material would give off sufficient energy for illumination, heating, transportation, and the other needs of all industries of Great Britain for one hundred years.
       At one point in the novel, Ivan Moscow proclaims: "Humanity is on the threshold of great discoveries. I have sacrificed my entire life to these discoveries". Along with the incredible societal transformation brought on by the Russian Revolution, there is also great technological change -- with the release of atomic power (for energy, not bombs) only the most extreme. Among the amusing bits has a local, Zyryan Sliedopyt, visit Ivan Moscow at the factory, with Ivan Moscow introducing him to some of the wonders of modern technology: electricity and electrical lights that can be turned on and off with a simple flick of a switch, radio, and airplanes. Significantly, however, Ivan Moscow's fiery end also comes due to the new technology -- or man's inability to ultimately control it.
       As a frustrated Ivan Moscow blurts out at one point:
"Is it clear ? Nothing is clear."
     Ivan was silent for a moment
     "Forgive me, girl, I am out of my head. No matter where I look, everything crumbles in my eyes."
       Ivan Moscow is full of delirium and decomposition, in various forms. At one point even: "the city of Moscow was a delirium, a repetition of realities and non-realities to Commissar Ivan Moscow". It is a novel that mixes realistic episodes -- the protagonist being mugged, for example -- and those that tend towards varying degrees of the surreal, not least in the figure of the woman Ivan sees as his wife, Alexandra, portrayed in part also as a literally timeless figure. (Naturally, as to some of these experiences: "She forgot it in the delirium".) For all the promise of the future -- and Ivan certainly sees it --, instability dominates; it is hard to find a hold, even at the most basic level and at every turn: at one point: "In this house Ivan fought for his biography". (The Revolution makes Ivan Moscow; the before is 'pre-biography' -- his pre-existence; he is one of the many new men, trying to build what amounts to the new country.)
       It makes for an odd, striking read: Ivan Moscow is visionary, in all the meanings of the word. A product and reflection of its tumultuous times, it tends towards the overheated, yet there's also a stabilizing rigidity in its foundations, not least in its form, with the multiple 'Conditions' set out at the beginning and the 'Conclusions' drawn at the end.
       All in all, an interesting piece of work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 10 April 2022

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Ivan Moscow: Boris Pilnyak: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Soviet author Boris Pilnyak (Борис Андреевич Пильняк) lived 1894 to 1938.

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© 2022 the complete review

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