Secondhand Time in Olga Slavnikova’s The Man Who Couldn’t Die: The Tale of an Authentic Human Being

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side by side series of the cover of The Man Who Couldn't DieIn the introduction to her 2013 book, Secondhand Time (published in translation from the original Russian by Bela Shayevich in 2016), an oral history of the Post-Soviet period, Svetlana Alexievich writes: “People who’ve come out of socialism are both like and unlike the rest of humanity—we have our own lexicon, our own conceptions of good and evil, our heroes, our martyrs. We have a special relationship with death . . . How much can we value human life when we know that not long ago people had died by the millions?” Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, ordinary citizens faced immense challenges, many living in poverty and struggling to adjust to the realities of a newly capitalist and democratic system. Alexievich reminds us, however, that what was lost in this period was also a system of belief, an ideology that had legitimized an entire society since the 1917 Revolution: “Now, a hundred years later, the future is, once again, not where it ought to be. Our time comes to us secondhand.”

Olga Slavnikova’s 2001 novel, The Man Who Couldn’t Die: The Tale of an Authentic Human Being (published in translation from the original Russian by Marian Schwartz in 2018) captures this feeling of living through a period of “secondhand time.” Set in a provincial Russian city in the early 1990s, the novel tells the story of the Kharitonov family, “which had not been handed any party favors at capitalism’s kiddie party.” Alexei Afanasievich, a veteran of the Second World War, suffered a stroke fourteen years earlier that has left him paralyzed and bedbound. His wife, Nina Alexandrovna, and stepdaughter, Marina, find themselves dependent on his veteran’s pension to support themselves and, more out of an instinct for self-preservation than affection, decide to pretend that the Soviet Union has not collapsed to spare the old man a potentially fatal shock. They hang a portrait of Leonid Brezhnev over his bed, and Marina, who works at a TV station, makes a clandestine tape splicing together old Soviet footage to pass off as the nightly news. In turning Alexei Afanasievich’s room into a sort of Soviet shrine, the two women create an ultimately unsustainable tension between “inside time” and “outside time.” The Man Who Couldn’t Die is a dark, satirical tale about the allure and dangers of nostalgia in a time of great change.

From the novel’s early pages, Alexei Afanasievich is associated with both death and immortality. As a younger man, he served in the war as a scout and was a talented assassin, strangling his enemies with a silk rope. He returned from Germany with a solid bed frame, which he brought into his marriage with Nina Alexandrovna, who was a quarter-century younger than him. No children were ever conceived on this impressive bed; now, Alexei Afanasievich lies on it, having spent the last fourteen years on his literal deathbed. “There was something odd and even sinister to Alexei Afanasievich’s abnormal longevity,” the narrator informs us. In his seemingly eternal entombment, Alexei Afanasievich recalls Lenin, whose preserved body remained on view in the Mausoleum on Red Square throughout the Soviet period. In life, Alexei Afanasievich himself appears to have been a concrete thinker, largely immune to symbolism of any kind, yet in his state of half-life following his stroke, he himself becomes the symbol at the novel’s center. In Russia, the Second World War is still referred to as “the Great Patriotic War,” and the USSR’s victory was a source of pride and legitimacy for its citizens; Alexei Afanasievich, as a veteran of that war (making him a member of the Russian equivalent of the United States’s “Greatest Generation”), can’t help but become a symbol of the Soviet past. In hanging a portrait of Brezhnev on the wall, the two women call back to a stable but also waning period of Soviet history often referred to as “stagnation”—a word that Slavnikova uses frequently to refer to the atmosphere in Alexei’s room.

In choosing to stop time for him, Nina Alexandrovna and Marina unknowingly find themselves living in an alternate reality within their own apartment, a reality in which the Soviet Union has not collapsed and the socialist experiment remains viable. When Nina Alexandrovna then steps back into the outside world, she finds herself adrift, attempting, for example, to perform the family’s shopping in a landscape that capitalism has rendered unrecognizable to her. Inside, however, dust seems to accumulate at an almost uncanny pace in Alexei Afanasievich’s room:

Something suggested to Nina Alexandrovna that this stopped time knew no essential difference between order and disorder. She couldn’t help but see that things in the room would accumulate and then shed their ordinary meaning. This loss of meaning was especially obvious while she was cleaning. Nina Alexandrovna battled resolutely against the thick and amazingly even dust that eagerly settled on a wet spot where tea had spilled, quickly becoming a fuzzy patch. She was endlessly wiping and feeling everything like a blind woman.

Nina Alexandrovna’s blindness extends also to her understanding of her husband. When she discovers that Alexei Afanasievich has been gathering spare cords and threads and tying them to his bedstead with the intention of creating a noose to hang himself with, she feels initially betrayed but settles eventually on allowing his covert activities to continue, hiding them even from her daughter. Throughout the novel, Nina chooses blindness, willing herself into not seeing the events that surround her. Slavnikova suggests that this kind of willed blindness to reality is a natural effect of the suspension of time that Nina has undertaken within the apartment.

Meanwhile, Marina, a television journalist who becomes involved in a local election after losing her job at the local station, initially appears more adaptable to a changing world. But, as Nina fails to understand the new capitalist system, Marina’s attempts to reap benefits from the emerging democracy are also doomed. She falls under the sway of Professor Shishkov, who, rather than running for office himself, finds a failed actor to play the role of appealing politician. Running the numbers, Shishkov comes to the cynical conclusion that the most effective campaign strategy is to spend the money they would have spent promoting their candidate on paying canvassers directly—effectively buying their votes. A small sum is paid to all who register for their candidate, and a larger sum is promised if he should win. Marina spends most of her time registering canvassers at a frenetic pace, but it is only when their candidate wins against all the odds and she discovers that Shishkov has no intention of paying the voters their promised money that she sees him for what he really is—“a punk and a scoundrel.” Marina’s disenchantment with Shishkov becomes a disenchantment with democracy, which reveals itself here to be just another kind of sham. While Marina comes to realize that she has to move on from the nostalgic Soviet past, she has no idea what she is moving toward. Slavnikova writes, “The emptiness before her was infinite, and she could only wade into it further and overcome the familiar resistance of a dimension without qualities.”

Readers sense early on that the novel must end with Alexei Afanasievich’s death and the final resumption of normal time. When Nina Alexandrovna examines her husband’s corpse in the novel’s final pages, she sees,

the dust of immortality, like poplar fluff, being removed from the match that had finally burned down and fallen from the veteran’s fingers. The transparent flame, eating a clean, sootless hole in the white substance, bared what was there in fact: old furniture cracked and filmed over from long years of polishing, the crazy little TV set, the broken spider toy no longer capable of jumping but only wheezing dull rubber air, and the worn baby doll lying in wait in the blanket’s folds.

Freed from symbolism’s spell, things become again what they actually are, the apartment containing a set of timeworn material objects. Only once death bursts the bubble of stopped time that Nina and Marina have created are they free to move forward. Yet the future they move into is hardly an easy one; readers are left not knowing how the two women will make ends meet.

Slavnikova understands the appeal of nostalgia, yet ultimately the novel suggests that the world, full of its chaos and uncertainties, must be lived in as it is. Nina and Marina’s lives are not guaranteed to be any easier or more secure than they were at the novel’s beginning, but their lives will be, at least, authentic. There was comfort for both women in the temporary suspension of time, but both must come to see the world for what it is before they can have any hope of moving forward into a possible future.

While this is a novel deeply rooted in a particular historical experience, U.S. readers may find it especially relevant at this moment in time. The Man Who Couldn’t Die was first published during the early years of the Putin presidency. Since then, that government has found ways to leverage the symbols of the past—from both the Soviet and Imperial ages—to lend legitimacy to a regime that is democratic in name only. U.S. voters this November face a choice between two candidates—one who seems capable at least of engaging with objective reality and another who is an open admirer of Mr. Putin’s style of governance. Slavnikova’s novel stands as a warning against allowing nostalgic symbols to replace our understanding of a deeply complicated and imperfect present.