The literature of Russia is rich in folklore and fairytales, and this deep well of inspiration is occasionally drawn upon by contemporary Russian novelists seeking to tell new stories with an old twist. A recent hugely successful example of this approach is Laurus, by Eugene Vodolazkin, which attracted considerable critical acclaim upon its publication back in 2016. Vodolazkin places a medieval mysticism at the very heart of Laurus; in Mebet, Alexander Grigorenko turns instead to the folkloric traditions of the Russian taiga to create a fantasy about a near-superhuman man who is not quite as he seems.
While the titular character of Grigorenko’s Mebet is known as “the Gods’ Favourite”, it could be argued that this is actually a novel without a hero. Mebet, we are repeatedly told, is a man who enjoys almost unbelievable good luck: he revels in his strength and skills; he never returns home from a hunt empty-handed; no rival can ever successfully raise a hand against him. His kinsmen and the peoples of the other nearby tribes soon weave a mythology around him, whispering that his father was actually a god. Mebet, for his part, takes it all in his stride. Such good fortune, he believes, is merely his due in an inhospitable world where only the strongest can hope to survive, and he is the strongest of all. He laughs in the face of those who urge him to bow to custom and the “accepted laws” of the land: “You want me to temper my strength and become weak like everyone else,” Mebet tells those who reprove him, “But can strength ever really be reduced to weakness?” Mebet may be supernaturally lucky, but he is relentlessly unheroic, constantly asserting that his own needs and desires are all that will ever matter to him, and mostly shunning wider society or any greater purpose. He lives contentedly by his own selfish creed, while everyone else around him looks on in either resignation, envy, or seething resentment.
The plot of the novel is somewhat linear, but keeps several surprises in store. Certain episodes are glimpsed or alluded to only to be more fully depicted a little further on, and Mebet’s story is not solely his own: his son, Hadko, and his long-suffering wife, Yadne, accompany him in his solitary life, and a daughter-in-law — abducted by force from a rival clan — soon joins the family unit. The narrative recounts a series of adventures, during which Mebet repeatedly proves his strength and his unbending determination to always have his way. Those who cross him or attempt to thwart his desires are killed, and anyone seeking his mercy is swiftly disappointed — even Hadko is forced to learn that his father values no one’s happiness or feelings but his own. In the latter parts of the novel, the story shifts, bringing Mebet into the realm of the spirits to undergo a supernatural quest that will test Mebet’s strength and force him to re-evaluate his entire life. Mebet once believed that he alone possessed “a heart that could not be broken”; the gods have other ideas.
There are several elements at play in the novel that create a unique reading experience. The first is the old-world folkloric quality Grigorenko seeks to infuse into his novel, which gives the narrative the feel of an old tale in which anything can happen and in which magical events are relayed with a detached, matter-of-fact frankness. Grigorenko’s folkloric style sets the novel apart from other contemporary fantasies by placing more emphasis on the external factors and events in the story than on the deep inner psychology of the characters. In the novel’s stronger moments, this style works to its advantage, keeping the narrative brisk and leading the reader through several surprise plot twists. There is also an underlying tension in the novel’s first half between Mebet and Hadko that I would suggest is the strongest element of the narrative, creating a dynamic that places not only father and son in opposition to one another, but also reveals two opposing views of what it means to have strength.
The novel also has welcome moments of humour that serve to lighten the mood from time to time. When Hadko seeks a bride’s hand in marriage only to be rebuffed, his friend Makhako recounts the sorry scene to Mebet, who is particularly amused to hear that the would-be bride spat at his son:
“So she just spat?” Mebet howled.
“Yes,” Makhako said. “She just spat.”
Mebet fell to the skin on the floor under him, choked with laughter.
“The only thing is,” Makhako went on, slightly embarrassed, “the spit should have hit Hadko. After all, he was the one who wanted to marry her. But for some reason she spat on me.”
A similarly irreverent note is struck when a rival clan anxiously awaits Mebet’s arrival, expecting to wage battle against him. When instead only an empty sleigh turns up, pulled by Mebet’s reindeer, the warriors are dumbfounded: “Maybe Mebet tried to buy us off with a pair of reindeer, a ragged old deerskin, and this sled — isn’t it a new sled, after all?”
But, ultimately, Mebet aspires to be a serious story, and tries to wrestle with an overarching moral theme. It does not always succeed in living up to the expectations it creates for itself. The novel’s weaknesses are twofold. First, Grigorenko’s folkloric narrative style is sometimes a weakness as well as a strength — after all, traditional folktales are usually short, and this is a novel. The folkloric style and lack of psychological depth can grow wearying after a while in a work of this length, if only because the characters are frequently one-dimensional and the emotional stakes seem so low as a result.
The other problem is that the episodic nature of the work does not easily blend into a more coherent whole, even though Grigorenko does attempt to tie together various narrative threads during Mebet’s journey in the otherworld (with varying degrees of success). I was also puzzled by some of the phrases the translator chooses to use, as the sudden use of modern slang or informal speech — e.g. “[he] reconstructed what exactly had gone down”; “You’re a great guy, a really great guy” — can sound jarring and out of place in the novel’s folkloric setting. It is difficult to guess whether such wobbles of style are the author’s flaw or the translator’s, but either way, it does create an uneven tone from time to time.
Overall, Mebet is a welcome addition to the contemporary Russian literary scene, and will be of special interest to lovers of Russian folklore and the many readers who enjoyed Vodolazkin’s Laurus. Considering the inexhaustible richness to be found in Russia’s storytelling traditions — both within and outside of the taiga — we can perhaps look forward to more contemporary works drawing upon this heritage in the years to come, and in turn making everything old new again.
Disclaimer: Glagoslav Publications provided me with a free review copy of the book for this review. All opinions expressed in the above review are my own.
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- Grigorenko, Alexander. Mebet. Translated by Christopher Culver. Glagoslav Publications, 2020. Currently in print.
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2 thoughts on “Between Heaven and Earth: “Mebet” by Alexander Grigorenko (Review)”
Sounds like an intriguing read, and the protagonist would certainly not be my idea of a hero (no wonder his wife is so long-suffering…)! And interesting points you make about the translation – modern idioms like that certainly would stand out in a folklore kind of narrative!
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It’s truly amazing how important a translator’s work is, isn’t it? A good translation is almost an invisible one . . . you forget you’re reading a translation in the first place . . . whereas anything that is a bit jarring stands out a mile away!
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