Review: Y. T. by Alexei Nikitin

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Side by side covers of Y.T.

Alexei Nikitin, translated by Anne Marie Jackson
Melville House Press, April 2016
144 pp; $15.95

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Reviewed by Caleb True

Y.T., translated by Anne Marie Jackson, is the story of Alexander Davidov, a corporate pusher of “American fizzy drinks” who in middle age in 2004 opened up his email address to find an ultimatum for a game he and his college classmates had played in the mid-80s at University, a game which “quantitatively simulated the partition of the Soviet Union” and which got Alexander expelled, arrested, and harassed by the KGB. Chapters alternate from the early eighties to the fictive present in 2004 until events come full circle, and Davidov finally discovers who sent the secret ultimatum, and why.

Immediately Y.T.—“Your Turn”—promises to be something like other “game” novels, such as Bolano’s The Third Reich, where the outcome of an innocent game comes to have life-or-death consequences. This kind of novel typically deploys sizable chunks of description to impart to the reader the stakes of the game itself. Y.T., however, does not do this; after introducing the mysterious ultimatum and providing a lengthy fictional history of Davidov’s alter-ego in the game—“Istemi…the last sovereign ruler of the Khanate of Zaporozhye”—Y.T. never goes into the strict details of game play. Only glimpses are offered, and the novel instead centers around the postgame: who Davidov and his old school friends were, why they played, who they became after their run-in with the KGB and expulsion from university.

This exploration of Davidov’s past is at once nostalgic and tentative. There is a very relatable midlife yearning for youth, for collegial fraternity, and at the same time a palpable post-traumatic reluctance to retravel the avenues which led to, in Davidov’s case, a joyless and underwhelming bourgeois existence. The game seems to have been the crux of Davidov’s life, both the source of his greatest joys—especially as the game brought him close to the rapturous Natasha Belokrinitskaya—and the source of his greatest disappointments.  

Towards the end of Y.T., as a recently laid-off Davidov wanders Kiev, the tone is pensive, as though any forthcoming revelations, however illuminating, will mean little to his present situation. When he discovers the recently-sent ultimatum was but “a harmless little joke,” it throws the reality of his old friend’s betrayal to the KGB into sharp relief. How quickly priorities and consequences change with regimes.

Y.T. is a tightly-drawn novella with a novel’s breathing room for reflection and reminiscence. While the title and the early pages seem to point at the importance of the game itself, by the end it seems the game was merely an instigator, and could have been any product of creative energy misconstrued by a humorless regime to be seditious. The real story is about a loss of life, how individuals are pawns of larger institutions, and how fate arbitrarily manipulates both.

Caleb True’s writing has appeared in Ploughshares, Ninth Letter, The Sonora Review, and elsewhere and his novel, The Feral Men, was recently shortlisted for the Knut House Press Novel Prize. He runs the indie press Dynamo Verlag.