Who can turn down a book whose cover compares the author to Gogol? Even better, the subject is the 1917 Russian Revolution in Ukraine -- the same as Bulgakov's The White Guard! This one was worth cutting in line on my reading list.|
Yuri Kapralov was born in the Caucasus (for the geographically challenged, that's the southern part of Russia, just to the right of Ukraine), rousted from his village and forced into labor on a German farm near the end of World War II, and came to the US as a refugee in 1949. Even the most basic account of his life in the half-century that followed could fill this review's word count several times over, so in the interest of remaining on track, I'll merely make note of his other books -- Castle Dubrava, a vampire novel, and Once There Was a Village, a memoir of his experiences in New York's East Village in the late 1960s. He has also exhibited his visual art in New York and San Francisco.
Given the subject matter, I assumed that the book's title was a reference to the horrors of war (and the Russian Revolution was a particularly horrific one), but I was incorrect. The devil here is a literal Russian chort, and one of the main story threads involves a group of Satanists (minor character Sologub is one) who take part in both sides of the war without really caring who wins. The group's focus is actress Nata Tai, from whom they are attempting to recover a sacred object that her father previously liberated from them. Nata Tai, in turn, when she isn't snorting exceptional amounts of cocaine and taking on a rather astonishing number of sexual partners, is bent on extracting revenge for their murder of her father. Nata's story is perhaps the most reminiscent of Teternikov's poshlost' world of perversion, sensualism, corruption and vulgar depravity.
We also follow the tale of the book's nominal protagonist, Yuri, a White colonel in command of the armored train "Our Homeland" and perhaps the most sympathetic character, and Alexey, who starts out a Red (despite the fact that his mother was murdered by the Bolsheviks) and ends up a White. Complicated? Yes. With three armies (not counting the Satanists) and three main characters in play, each with his/her own story line, Kapralov does a marvelous job of capturing the confusion of the period -- and more importantly, he keeps it (mostly) coherent and sorts it all out neatly at the end.
Devil's Midnight lacks the humor you'd expect from Gogol or Bulgakov, but it definitely has the same fantastic touch. There are some extremely disorienting passages and some fantastic dream sequences, which aren't always immediately recognizable as such. This approach effectively presents the chaos that prevailed throughout the Revolution, and serves to place us firmly in the midst of the story. The disorientation begins on the first page -- Kapralov tosses us into the narrative with no explanation -- and heightens as characters (and readers) realize that they don't really know whether other people's sympathies with the Reds, the Whites or, to a lesser extent, the Ukrainians. The text makes reference to Gogol, but perhaps even more apropos, there is the aforementioned Sologub -- presumably a reference to the writer Fedor Teternikov, who used the name as a pseudonym and whose (arguably) most famous book is appropriately titled The Petty Demon. There is much of Teternikov's existential despair in this story of apolitical and essentially amoral people, none of whom have many redeeming qualities (there were no "good guys" in the Russian Revolution), and all of whom are extreme fatalists.
A final detail that particularly impressed me was Kapralov's ability to capture the appropriate speech patterns of his characters -- no small challenge for a man who came to the United States more than half a century ago. As Devil's Midnight turned out to be Kapralov's final book, it's particularly satisfying to see that he never lost touch with his roots.
Editor's Note: Yuri Kapralov passed away on August 27th, 2005. Read an obituary here.
-- Robert E. Thomas
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About the Publisher:
Akashic Books is an NYC-based indie publisher dedicated to urban literary fiction and political nonfiction by authors who are either ignored by the mainstream, or who have no interest in working within the ever-consolidating ranks of the major corporate publishers.