Praise from MALCOLM BRADBURY:
"Peter Aleshkovsky is a prolific and highly talented Russian writer, with a powerful sense of the disorders and conflicts of his society and a desire to penetrate it to its roots. The central character of Skunk is an extraordinary figure, whose childish experiences of life in the Russia north are degraded and criminal, and who yet has a half-perverted instinct for moral and religious values which makes his life into a quest.
The book takes him through the stages of a hopeless growing up, but a vision of something else a mystical awareness of nature, a desire for community brings him through cruelty, violence and sin towards a very Russian kind of redemption.
Aleshkovsky writes with a vision of his society and its vacancies, yet through the life and journeys of Skunk he shows the traces of a greater and older society, a Russia that has long compelled the imagination where nature is an overwhelming fact of life, animals and rocks have strange powers, where the Old Believers survive, like some priests show the usual human corruptions, but sometimes reach beyond degradation to a certain blessed innocence. The story starts naturalistically, grimly, but Aleshkovsky has a gift of myth and symbol, and a deep sense of place and culture and their meaning. Here is a very strong and exciting voice in the lively world of contemporary Russian fiction."
Skunk: a Life is part of the search for values in the post-Soviet moral vacuum. This is a curiously Russian Bildungsroman. The setting is the Russian North, where authentic Russian moral values are believed still to survive in remote places.
Skunk is the nickname of a boy born out of wedlock to an alcoholic eighteen-year-old girl. Part One of the novel sees him growing up neglected and wild in the northern Russian town of Stargorod, more at home with the dogs in the street than with human company. He takes to thieving, and spends his gains on expensive food, on which he gorges himself in a secret lair at an abandoned pumping station by the river.
As he grows up his desire for spotty Zhenka is frustrated because she is the moll of Moose, the local hoodlum prince, and his two henchmen. He stalks them and, when the time is right, having witnessed them coupling, pushes Moose off a roof top and frames the henchmen for pickpocketing.
He has a mystical experience by the river where a rock, on which Saint Andronicus supposedly sailed miraculously to Stargorod from Rome, hovers above the water when he has climbed up on it.
Most of his whoring mother's lovers disgust him except kindly Uncle Kolia who, however, dies in an accident. After humiliation by his mother in front of one of her lovers, he leaves home and migrates like an animal to the Russian North. He lives like a predator as he makes his way through the forests ever northwards.
He comes upon a deserted fishermen's hut and lives in a state of pantheistic bliss, at one with nature, trapping and hunting, until the winter comes. The loss of the sun, the almost permanent darkness of the Arctic night gradually depress him and he becomes ill and a little deranged. Another hunter, Vitaly, appears and at first they enjoy each other's company, trapping for furs, but the older man attempts to dominate Skunk, and he abandons him. Vitally attempts to hunt a giant moose on his own and Skunk subsequently finds his shredded corpse. He takes the train back to Stargorod.
Part Two finds him returning to his mother, who is by now in the throes of advanced alcoholism. He attempts to integrate with the town, but his advances to empty-headed Valya, who is initially intrigued by his otherness, lead to rejection in favour of a more conformist beau (with money), who beats him up.
Skunk is taken into the local church by Valya's mother, and helps the restorer to clean a huge icon of the Last Judgement. He is mesmerized by it, later having a vision in which a voice tells him to live out the life he has been given and face his judgement at the end of days. Like a Dostoyevskian hero, he falls to the ground before the benign parish priest, Father Trifon, and blurts out his guilt over the murder of Moose and leaving Vitaly to his fate. The priest's reaction is to send for the police and men in white coats. Skunk flees.
He resolves to take his revenge on the priests, and makes his way into Father Boris's house with the money he had stolen from him, and a sharp awl. He is given an unexpectedly friendly reception, and overhears a conversation from which it emerges that Boris has converted to Catholicism and, like some latter-day Grand Inquisitor, is arrogantly planning to lead Russians back to the true Church. Boris urges him to stay the night, and while babbling to him about the Blessed Virgin Mary attempts to seduce him. Skunk walks out on him outraged. Back home he almost kills a gangster who is the latest lover of his mother, and has once again to retreat to the North.
In Part Three he is travelling, this time again by train, intending to return to his fishermen's hut. He meets a representative selection of today's Russian menfolk: a sergeant demobilized from the army who gets very drunk and is robbed of his money; a "sorcerer" who has been trained in extra-sensory arts and acupuncture by a Korean in Moscow; and a confidence trickster. He gives the priest's roubles to the sergeant, glad to be rid of them, and is recognized by the more financially astute sorcerer as "blazhennyi", as simple and blessed as Saint Basil (of Red Square cathedral fame).
Arriving in his northern forest, he finds himself fleeing a forest fire, and is led by a docile moose to the retreat of a hermit. Father Innocent too has retreated from the world, and the two of them live as elder and novitiate in total isolation. As winter approaches they go for supplies to a small Old Believer village, where they are both venerated. Eventually Innocent too is tempted by earthly love of his young disciple. He masters it, but later vanishes.
Skunk returns to Stargorod to find his mother dead. He runs into Zhenka, his first love, and at last has sex with her. Her husband is a gangster currently in prison, and she declines a relationship. Frustrated Ferret is found unconscious on St Andronicus's rock, but disappears into a forest village where he marries an older woman. A healer and teacher, Father Innocent apparently, has returned to a restored monastery in the region. Skunk lives a life of dull domesticity, punctuated by bouts of drunkenness and extreme depravity, followed by a day of coming to his senses in the forests.
Aleshkovsky is a master of style. His descriptions of Skunk's pantheistic glories are very impressive. He knows the Russian North, and the hunting, shooting, fishing way of life backwards. There is a wealth of authentic technical detail.
There are interesting parallels in the novel such as the one between the three mooses: the dominant male whom Skunk pushes off the roof; the fearsome giant Moose which rips Vitaly to pieces; and the docile Moose which leads Skunk to Father Innocent. There is another, and very important trinity, in the priests: Trifon, the benign Orthodox parish priest who has become so used to informing to the authorities in Soviet times that when Skunk falls at his feet to confess his sins and crimes the response is wholly irreligious. Father Boris, himself a monk but an agent of the Catholic West, who is unaware that he himself is a slave to pride and lust. And finally, Innocent, no less prey to the waywardness of the flesh, but a genuine monk striving for blessedness.
Skunk himself, disabled and unloved in infancy, unloving in adolescence, a pantheistic child of nature who lives at one with the animals of the Russian forest, finds the beginnings of spiritual awakening in remote Koloch with Innocent, only to lose, apparently, his equilibrium in adulthood.
Peter Aleshkovsky, born in 1957 in Moscow, is an archaeologist and historian by training. He spent many years travelling the length and breadth of Northern Russia and was involved in the restoration of the renowned monasteries in Novgorod, Pskov, Solovki and Vologda. He is mainly known for his "Stargorod" cycle which includes 30 narratives, largely of anecdotal nature, the short novel Seagull, abounding in ethnographic detail (nominated for the Booker Russian Novel Prize in 1992), and Skunk: a Life. He has also written a novel about the 18th-century reformist poet Trediakovsky, nominated for the Booker Prize in 1995.
Skunk: a Life and Vladimir Chigrintsev were published in Germany by Suhrkamp and in France by Fayard.
His neo-gothic novel, Vladimir Chigrintsev (280 pages), will shortly be published by Slovo Publishers. It is a contemporary Eugene Onegin in prose, picking up where Pushkin left off. It proclaims the real end of feudalism in Russia and the beginning of a new era with new monetary relations, a new role for the arts and sciences, leading to a new role for the intelligentsia. The novel is about the responsibility that the educated part of Russian society used to feel towards the masses and the general sense of social disorientation in present-day Russia. The novel is based on authentic historical documents and letters (with occasional fictional imitations) pertaining to the history of an aristocratic Russian family whose ancestry can be traced back to Tatar chieftains. One member of this clan kills a man in a skirmish and finds on him priceless treasures said to have belonged to Pugachev, leader of the 17th-century peasant uprising. This is the origin of the clan's wealth. The dead man becomes a werewolf (having died in a strange land and not been properly buried) and haunts his killer until the latter hangs himself. The present-day descendants of the clan, a professorial family, search for the treasure buried somewhere on their former estate, which was destroyed in the revolution of 1917. There is also a theme of Russo-American relations and ties since the professor's daughter is married to an American scholar.