by eugene vodolazkin
plough, 343 pages, $26.95
Brisbane is shadowed by war. When Kyiv-born Russian author Eugene Vodolazkin wrote the novel in the aftermath of the Maidan revolution, that war was yet to come. For those reading the novel in English in 2022, war has arrived. Russia and Ukraine fight over territory and national identity, but Vodolazkin’s novel does not pick a side. Instead, he troubles our idea of the separation and difference that make a “side” or a border. As countries and bodies are torn apart by nationalisms and sectarianisms of every sort, Vodolazkin raises the question of survival itself—will there be a future?
“Performing at Paris’s Olympe, I can’t play a tremolo.” Thus Vodolazkin introduces us to the protagonist, Gleb, a world-famous classical guitarist. Why can’t Gleb play a tremolo? Why are his hands and fingers suddenly refusing to cooperate? The diagnosis is Parkinson’s disease, a catastrophic failure of his body that will end his musical career and eventually his life. Gleb’s body is at war with itself. His individual fate is a reflection of the larger problem of the fate of post-Soviet Ukraine.
The novel alternates between Gleb’s first-person narrative, which begins in 2012, and a third-person narrative that tells of Gleb’s past life. This third-person narrator is presumably Sergei Nesterov, a famous author who is writing a book about Gleb. In an early interview, Nesterov explains his interest in Gleb's story: “You combine two nations, and I want to understand exactly how.” Gleb was born in Kyiv to a Russian mother and a Ukrainian father. He is nominally “Ukrainian,” but when asked how he identifies himself, he responds, “I could say Russian, of course.” How could he resolve the matter? Should he efface his Russian mother? Disavow his Ukrainian father? His parents “spoke different languages in the literal and figurative sense”—a mutual incomprehension that ended in divorce and subsequent familial complications. Gleb’s physical decline spans the years from 2012 to 2014—his story comes to an end at the moment of Ukraine’s transformation from Russian client to NATO aspirant. Two nations, and yet, as Gleb explains to Nesterov, “I just don’t distinguish between those nations very well.”
Brisbane is deeply fond of Ukraine—its land, its music, its language—but throughout the novel, Ukrainian culture cannot be unraveled from a more multifaceted and complex context. As a child in Soviet Kyiv, Gleb moved easily between the Ukrainian and Russian poles of his family, his school, and his musical education; in all these areas of his life, the lines between the two nationalities were blurred. In the novel’s present, this fluidity is gone, and in its place is disconnection and dislocation. Gleb is at home everywhere and nowhere, playing at concert halls around the globe and spending as many nights in hotels as in his current house in Munich. Home is not only lost, the very idea of home seems to have become impossible. When Gleb returns to Kyiv after some thirty years and searches for his childhood apartment, he finds the building razed, and an elite international hotel constructed on the site. This hotel is anyone’s home and thus no one's home, anonymous and interchangeable, backdrop to the deracinated life of the global citizen.
The resurgent nationalisms of recent decades have been one response to the homogenizing impulses of globalization—but nation is not the solution to homelessness in Brisbane. In 2014, Gleb travels to Kyiv to bury his father. He unwittingly stumbles into Maidan square, and is picked up by a thuggish Ukrainian operative. Gleb carries a Russian passport and speaks Russian; he is accused of being a spy: “I’m asking you, you Moscow bastard, why did you learn our language?” Gleb tries to explain his mixed heritage, pleading, “Listen, we’re one people after all.” “One people? No, not one people. In this you’re badly mistaken. You’re my people’s enemy.” Gleb narrowly escapes execution. After his father’s funeral, his Ukrainian half-brother Oles again challenges him to choose a side:
“Tell me, brother, do you miss Ukraine just a little? You were born here, after all, grew up here. Doesn’t your heart ache?”
“It does. For me, Russia and Ukraine are one land.”
“For us, they aren’t.”
“Don’t say we so often. ‘I’ means much more.”
“Sorry, brother, that’s your fantasy. When thousands are at war, ‘I’ means nothing.”
“Win peace, and thousands around you will be saved. . . . peace between men begins with peace in one man.”
Gleb is quoting St. Seraphim of Sarov, a revered and beloved Russian Orthodox mystic and spiritual teacher. His words might be read as a simple and fundamental assertion of Christian faith: Peace between men begins with the peace of one man, Christ. The kind of “we” that Oles defends (“‘I’ means nothing”) is a collectivist illusion, achieved at the expense of entirely effacing the individual. Such claims of collective identity have led to much violence and war in the history of the land and its people, whether the collective “perfecting” of the Soviets or the persistent nationalist conflicts that pit “Russian” against “Ukrainian.” In contrast, Christian faith acknowledges the importance of both “we” and “I”—peace between men and the peace of individual repentance and transformation.
But Gleb’s Christian faith has given way to the pleasures of celebrity, and peace evades him. As his condition worsens, he succumbs to despair. His marriage is fraught. Family members die. Gleb is overwhelmed by his own fear of disease and death. Redemption flickers in the form of a daughter surrogate, a talented musician with a fatal disease, the care and patronage of whom will give his life renewed meaning. But too soon, she dies. Shattered, he tells the girl’s mother, too fragile to hear the truth, that the daughter went away, to Brisbane, Australia.
Brisbane is the novel’s title, and its seeming destination. Gleb tells Nesterov that “in our family, that place was considered paradise.” For Gleb's mother, Brisbane was always “the city of her dreams,” a place as far away from “here” as she could get, “on the other side of the globe.” The book's final pages tell how Gleb's mother at last departed for Brisbane. And what is there? “Happiness,” she tells the taxi driver on the way to the airport. The driver subsequently abducts her and delivers her to be killed by a criminal gang working the airport routes. Needless to say, she will never see Brisbane. Later, a character tells Gleb, “Some Swedish girl proved that Australia is a fiction, a mirage. Who has ever seen it with their own eyes? Have you?” “No,” Gleb answers. “I haven’t.” “Do you still believe Australia exists?” “Now I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe there is no Australia.” For Gleb and his mother, Brisbane functions as an imaginary destination, a fantasized no-place, a utopia.
Elsewhere Vodolazkin has argued that the modern age is characterized by a particular idea of time as progress, with society continually moving toward perfection; modernity, therefore, is essentially utopian. Vodolazkin cautions, “It is wrong to think of utopias as harmless dreams. Combined with the idea of progress, utopian thought is a dream that motivates action. It establishes a goal so lofty that it cannot be reached. The more ideal it becomes, the greater the stubbornness with which it is pursued. There comes a time when blood is spilled. Oceans of blood.” Vodolazkin names two especially virulent utopian forces: “the Marxist utopia in Russia gave birth to terror, [and] the globalist utopia in the West inspired ‘democratizing’ wars and so-called ‘color revolutions.’” From Soviet to post-Soviet to “democratization,” Ukraine is one particularly potent locus where modern utopian visions have converged and exploded.
It is perhaps for this reason that the final image of the novel is not reassuring. Gleb, asked if he has any last words for Nesterov’s book, recounts a memory from a time when he was two years old: His mother holds him at the edge of a precipice above a smoke-filled void, faced with a dangerous path down but no other way to proceed. The “terrible descent” is pervaded by dread, fear, horror. Despite her own fear, his mother “shields her baby from the abyss with her hand.” So the story of Gleb’s life ends in the abyss, “enveloped in smoke.”
And yet it is in this memory that Gleb locates his first experience of music, “born from the rhythm of this clumsy and terrible descent. Does anyone but Gleb hear it?” Perhaps something beautiful may yet be born out of the terror and smoke—if there is any hope in Brisbane, it is not in Australia, in some yet-to-be-realized elsewhere of perfection. Rather, it is here, in this yet unheard music. “Is music eternity?” Gleb asks a priest, Father Pyotr, at one point in the novel. “Father Pyotr shook his head. ‘Music is not eternity. But it reminds us of eternity . . . the absence of time. The absence of death. . . . Ultimately it is God, the One you are seeking.’”
Utopia kills. But the paradise of the eternal, the presence of God, is here and now, if only we can hear it.
Samira Kawash is professor emerita at Rutgers University.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.