By Phoebe Taplin

Phoebe Taplin explores the dark works of new wave Russian writers

In September Keira Knightly stars in a new film version of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy's classic tale of love and death, proving the perennial appeal of 19th century Russian novels. But can Tolstoy's heirs, the new cohort of contemporary Russian novelists, be described as following in the footsteps of their country's classic writers?

The past decade has seen a literary renaissance in Russia, with new authors producing ambitious works in all genres. Many are now available in English. But Western reader beware: they are likely to take you out of the comfort zone and into difficult, alien territory.

Modern Russia has produced a bewildering number of dystopias; settings range from feudal barbarism to hi-tech nightmare. Tatyana Tolstaya, a critic and great-grandniece of Tolstoy, is the author of an allusive, post-apocalyptic novel, The Slynx (New York Review of Books, 2007).

In it Tolstaya imagines that books are banned and mutant humans live in huts, eating mice. She is one of many authors grappling with Russia's literary legacy, both as a burden and an inspiration. Her characters are caught between reverence and desecration.

Many new novels explore images of what it means to be Russian. A totemic literary monument ('the pushkin' ) becomes a central symbol in The Slynx while in Vladimir Sorokin's futuristic fairy tale, Day of the Oprichnik (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011) the anti-hero declares his love for 'the sugary white Kremlin and its towers'.

Sorokin's modern-medieval secret police (an oprichnik was a member of Ivan the Terrible's 16th century secret police) rape and burn all day and relax with psychedelic pornography and nostalgic songs. This savage and satirical account of a security officer's 24 hours in 2028 is reminiscent of Solzhenitsyn's masterpiece, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, but the diabolical humour is closer to Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita.

Olga Slavnikova's award-winning 2017 (Gerald Duckworth, 2012) also explores the cyclical violence of Russian history. Slavnikova's genre-defying novel, mixing thriller, romance and sci-fi, conjures up her native Urals, complete with the rock spirits, who occasionally threaten to lead the novel veering into the thickets of magic realism. 2017 is linguistically inventive, but packed so full of ideas and images it threatens to explode.

2017 has the experimental flair that is characteristic of a Russian Booker Prize recipient; Elena Chizhova's The Time of Women, a sad and beautiful tale of life in Soviet Leningrad, was a more unexpected winner in 2009. The first woman to win this prestigious award was literary bestseller, Ludmilla Ulitskaya. Several of her novels are available in English, including Daniel Stein, Interpreter (Gerald Duckworth, 2011), based on the true story of a Jewish boy from Poland, who survived the war working partly as an interpreter for the Gestapo and eventually became a Carmelite monk trying to recreate the early Christian Church in Israel.

Ulitskaya calls her novel 'the biography of an amazing person', explaining how she invented many of the letters and articles in the book to create something that was 'half documentary and half art'. Her fascination with blurred boundaries and shifting registers is innovative, but her themes are timeless: how to be true to ourselves, how to survive brutality, challenge hypocrisy and have compassion.

Where Tolstoy wrote about Napoleonic battles in War and Peace , the narrator of Andrei Gelasimov's Thirst (AmazonCrossing, 2011) is a veteran of the brutal wars in the North Caucasus. Gelasimov is famous for his spare prose and realism. His disfigured hero goes on a confused quest with fellow soldiers.

Contemporary writers revelling in everyday dialogue include Zakhar Prilepin. His emotional Sin (Glagoslav, 2012) draws on his own experiences as a bouncer, journalist and soldier. Sin is not a novel in the conventional sense, but a connected series of short stories, skipping from married happiness back to teenage encounters with sex and death, and then forward again to adult scenes of vodka-drinking or gravedigging. Like Pasternak in Doctor Zhivago, Prilepin includes a sequence of lyrical poems by his narrator.

For readers used to the enforcedly pacey narratives of more commercial, western literature, Prilepin's atmospheric vignettes might seem strange. They are reminiscent of Chekhov's short stories, in which the evocation of place and feeling sometimes take precedence over plot. There is a sense throughout these picaresque episodes of waiting for the story to begin until, facing death in Chechnya, we realise that it could be almost over.

German Sadulaev's flawed, but important I am a Chechen (Random House, 2010) is a fragmented meditation on landscape, war and rootlessness, an uneasy mixture of fictionalised memoir and painful lament. Sadulaev has seen friends and family perish. He is racked with guilt: 'I should have died.'

Sadulaev's self-conscious postmodernism, mixing different styles and chronologies, is typical of current trends in Russian literature. The leaked judges' debate for one literary prize -- the relatively new NOS Literary Prize, founded by billionaire tycoon, Mikhail Prokhorov -- gives an insight into intellectual priorities. The prize promotes 'modernity and originality ... the creation of new meanings'; in fact, the organisers say they are seeking no less than a new 'mental and metaphorical map of the world'.

Such high-brow aims form an interesting contrast with last year's debate over the Booker Prize in Britain, where Dame Stella Rimington, the chairman of the judges, insisted on the 'readability' of shortlisted novels. No such scruples troubled the Russian panel. The poet, Elena Fanailova, whose own work often deals with difficult issues of historical self-image, was one of the judges; she said in the discussion: 'I am interested in literature which is trying to answer the questions "Who am I?", "Where am I?" ' These are questions that contemporary Russian novelists are tackling with inventiveness, lyricism and (sometimes) wit, and their answers are very revealing.


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