The Strugatsky brothers are probably most famous for their novel Roadside Picnic, which later Tarkovsky adapted into the film Stalker. I came across the Doomed City via a blog post on Boing Boing, where Cory Doctorow sang its praises. The brothers wrote the book back in the 70s, but it wasn't published until 1989 due to its overt criticism of the Soviet Union.
That dated feel works to give this novel an out of time feeling perfect for its narrative. The City, as it is plainly named, is home to the Experiment. The Experiment takes people from all nationalities and time periods and has them working odd jobs. We follow Andrei, a former professor from Leningrad, who is now working as a garbage collector. We follow him through his day that culminates in an attack of baboons. After a few tense hours trying to hunt down the beasts, a decree comes down that they are now just a part of the City. They all shrug it off as only another part of the Experiment. That sets up the central conceit of the novel, Andrei is a true believer in the Experiment, and that is the true expression of the Communist ideal. All men are randomly assigned jobs for a year, then they rotate.
There are several jumps in time that evolves Andrei and the world around him. These jumps combine with more surreal moments to give the novel a dreamlike feel. Andrei is the typical protagonist of Russian literature. He's drunk, sexist, racist, miserable and prone to long philosophical soliloquies.
It’s that unpleasantness that defines the voice of Russian literature for me. It’s like a sour and pungent cabbage dish, stinking the entire house up. It can be delicious, but as your making it, it isn’t always enjoyable. I think that you can take some of the misogyny and racism out of the writers’ mouths, but even then it makes the lead character unlikable. Dostoevsky didn't write a single likable protagonist, so it's not baseless to cite that as traditional.
I’m not entirely sure that isn’t the point, and shaving down his more unlikeable parts would take away from the journey he is on. Andrei feels like a stand-in for Russia itself. He's pulled through a grand experiment that it doesn’t quite understand, led by mentors who seem to always cite everything as a part of the process. Even when things seem to be going off the rails, it's just another part of the experiment.
The final journey of Andrei from statesman to a named bearded wandering and paranoid, it feels fitting for the fate of Russia after the end of the USSR, even if that is apocryphal and doesn’t suit the timeline of when it was written. Of course, that’s the power of literature. Work can take on greater significance even long after the writers have passed on.
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