LIVE SOULS (ZhD)
a novel, 700 pp. 2006 (in Russian)
Bykov’s latest novel was a bombshell in Russia when it was first published. Its title, ZhD, is an abbreviation that means many things and could be tentatively rendered as "A.D." in English, also evoking many meanings. The abbreviation primarily stands for Live Souls in association with Gogol’s Dead Souls, and like the latter is also called “a poem”. However with its bulk, complex structure and wide thematic range it could be compared to a symphony.
One critic described Bykov’s novel as “a futuristic anti-utopia about imminent ethnic conflicts and the inevitable crisis of democracy and liberalism as we know them today.” The novel is set in the not so distant future but the events and situations described are drawn from the present-day life, especially the army.
The novel tells the stories of several people – a governor, a soldier, a little girl, a pair of lovers – set against the background of a low-key war between Varangians (Northerners) and Khazars (Southerners), that is, essentially between Russians and Jews, going on in what is now Russian territory, while the "indigenous population" (not the same as the Russians) looks on indifferently. Several times in the novel Bykov says that any society easily splits into Varangians and Khazars, and thus the Russian experience is not entirely unique.
Says Bykov, "It's fiercely Russophobic and fiercely anti-Semitic. It depicts both Russians and Jews as virus nations, which bring misfortune and decay to whatever they're trying to colonize. It's the best book I've ever written, it's actually the best book that can possibly be written today, and it's very funny."
In fact it is both funny and frightening, in the Swiftean sense, and it is also clever, engrossing, all-embracing – the novel of the century you might say. Bykov thinks that Russia, unlike many other countries, is trapped in a cycle that goes on and on without any real input from the authorities.
"Russia doesn't have a historical will of its own, because it's a country that's been colonized," Bykov says. "By whom? By the mysterious Northern race, which can produce nothing, only create 'the power vertical.' The story of summoning the Vikings to rule Russia (according to some historical sources, the squabbling Slavic tribes invited a Scandinavian prince to rule over them in the 9th century) was the beginning of this trend. In a colonized country, consensus and general human values are impossible, which makes the whole liberal project untenable in Russia."
In Russia's vortex, Bykov argues, people in positions of power do not act of their own free will; they merely follow the cycle, fulfilling a role. "Thus, a Communist governor becomes a reformer and a liberal; a quiet democrat becomes a dictator."
Dmitry Bykov (born 1967) is the author of several prize-winning futuristic novels invariably inspiring heated public debates. He is also a noted poet, essayist, critic, a popular TV presenter and journalist. Bykov is the winner of the top literary prizes including the “National Bestseller” and “Big Book”.
To date, Bykov has written five novels, all becoming widely talked about in intellectual circles.
Acquittal, his personal favorite, is an alternative history of Russia.
Orthography, an intense personal saga set in revolutionary Russia, was met with eager response by readers and critics alike, and was universally considered the best novel of 2004.
The Evacuator is a morality parable posing as an anti-utopia.
PASTERNAK, the definitive biography of the poet Boris Pasternak, Bykov's other recent success which won him the top literary prizes, could easily have been the crowning achievement of someone else's entire career.
See two episodes from the novel ZhD (Jewhad) in the Glas anthology War&Peace.