Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

From Chudak to Mudak? Village Prose and the Absurdist Ethics of Evgenii Popov

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

From Chudak to Mudak? Village Prose and the Absurdist Ethics of Evgenii Popov

Article excerpt

The genealogy of the chudak character type in the shorter fiction of Evgenii Popov is considered. In Shukshin and Village Prose the function of the chudak is found to be paradoxical, expressing both conformist and nonconformist views. Popov's modification of the type into the mudak parodies Village Prose and also fulfils ah axiomatic principle of non-significance, part of an aesthetic project related to absurdism and the grotesque. In reading Popov's project in terms of Bataillian non-utility, linkage is made to the eccentric characters of Kharms and the holy-fool tradition, while allowing in Popov for ah updated function of ethical dissidence in a context of postmodernity.

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In much of the critical work on the writer Evgenii Popov (b. 1946) attention has been focused on his more recent self-fictionalizing novels such as Dusha patriota (The Soul of a Patriot, 1989) and Prekrasnost' zhizni (The Splendour of Life, 1990), in which characters partly based on the author and his literary friends take centre stage and which involve a high degree of postmodernist play. In contrast, apart from the initially encouraging reception that greeted his shorter works, little attention has been afforded the equally fascinating critique and mutation they perform on the genre of Village Prose and other Soviet modes of writing. (1) The critic Mark Lipovetsky has noted that after reading a few stories the reader quickly encounters a typical skaz mode of narration that is repeated, ad infinitum, throughout the rest of Popov's work. (2) Generic markers orienting Popov's narrative and narrators towards oral speech and away from literary norms are typical of the skaz style (3) and signify Popov's eclectic relation to Village Prose, where a more mediated skaz narration is often encountered. Viktor Erofeev, who co-edited with Popov the work Metropol' in 1979, on the other hand links Popov to Village Prose in terms of characterization but argues that Popov mutates the main character features of Village Prose: 'Genetically close to Village Prose, Popov has departed from it by changing in effect just a few letters: in his short stories the village hicks [chudaki] turn into pricks [mudaki], the eccentric holy fools into tools.' (4) It is this transformation that forms the core of the analysis in this article.

Erofeev suggests by the above shorthand that Popov's characters, while retaining much of the idiosyncrasy (including demotic speech and eccentric behaviour) of the Village Prose rural eccentric, or chudak, embody a distinct dystopian twist to the type, reflecting the harder satirical function that character, in the broad underground writing movement of the Brezhnev era, was obliged to fulfil. It is necessary to apply a more rigorous analysis to Popov's development of the chudak, a satirical character type related to cultural paradigms, such as the iurodivyi ('Fool in Christ') and the superfluous man, much older than the Village Prose movement. It is especially interesting that Popov engaged in the conscious creation of an amalgam of these types during a period of increasing restrictions on artists and writers. The resulting post-war creature, a reflection of its times, is the mudak--a grotesque but fascinating updating of these important cultural figures.

The mudak reflects a complex interaction between character types and cultural paradigms stretching back through the twentieth century to pre-revolutionary literature. In essence the mudak is a profoundly anti-utopian depiction of the human personality. The superfluous man from the nineteenth century, for example, becomes the socially alienated member of the 'lumpen-intelligentsia' of Popov's world. (5) Popov uses this term, along with 'lumpen-proletariat' and 'lumpen-peasantry' to describe the impoverished consciousness of all classes in his version of the Soviet post-war world, especially in relation to their lack of culture and unwillingness and inability to take part in social life. …

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