Vladislav Otroshenko - A deeply strange novel that reads like a Chekhov play inspired by the comedy stylings of Monty Python

Vladislav Otroshenko, Addendum to a Photo Album, Trans. by Lisa Hayden, Dalkey Archive Press, 2015.

Addendum to a Photo Album is the saga of the births, deaths, and disappearances within the eccentric Mandrykin family. Following patriarch Malach, a Cossack captain, his wife Annushka, and his many sons all born with sideburns, the novel details their fraught relationships, particularly when sitting for family photographs. Vladislav Otroshenko's flowing sentences and rich metaphorical language describe characters whose concerns embrace the heroic, the metaphysical, and the mundane, as they fulfill their duties as Cossack warriors and family members. Otroshenko draws on his upbringing in Novocherkassk, a city on the Don River, creating a world and a book inhabited with absurdity, filial love, and unusual facial hair.

A hallucinatory novella about an enormous Cossack family endlessly at odds with one other.
Linguistically intriguing but hard to follow, this work by Russian writer Otroshenko is an absurdist comedy about the ties that bind a family together, the nebulous relationships between fathers and sons, and the ghosts we capture in family photographs. The book has been carefully translated by Hayden, who contributes an introduction and an interview with the author and even reads the audio version. The story concerns a large Cossack family living under the thumb of Soviet Russia sometime in the early part of the 20th century. Malach Mandrykin is nominally the patriarch, although the question of paternity is one of the central plot points. When Malach marches off to fight in World War I, his wife, Annushka, has an affair with a mysterious, flamboyant figure known only as the Greek—"an incomparable artiste, a fabulously rich man, the owner of three circuses in China, and a sorcerer and seer besides." From this union is born “Uncle Semyon,” who grows up to be a strange, cranky bloke with fabulously ornate side whiskers who is prone to uttering loquacious speeches and the occasional prophecy. Much of the humor and drama of watching this clan of misfits unfold during the taking of the annual family portrait. Otroshenko is clearly playing with identity and point of view, admitting to Hayden in an introductory interview that not only is the narrator unreliable—“a mirage-like figure”—but also that it’s impossible to tell whether the story is being told by a nephew to this impossible number of uncles, by Uncle Semyon himself or by our mysterious Greek. Readers who enjoy the juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy in Russian literature may be intrigued, but others are likely to be simply confused.

A deeply strange novel that reads like a Chekhov play inspired by the comedy stylings of Monty Python. - Kirkus Reviews

About three pages into Vladislav Otroshenko’s surreal tragicomedy Addendum to a Photo Album I stopped and thought to myself, “Uh oh, boy am I in trouble.” I paused not because this short novel isn’t quite wonderful—it is—or because the translation is subpar—it isn’t—but rather because I quickly came to the realization that I was going to need to pay very careful attention to what was I was reading if I wanted to understand exactly what was occurring. I’m still not sure that I fully comprehended it all, but man was it an absolute joy to read.

Malach Mandrykin’s family is enormous. At my count he’s got no fewer than 13 sons (technically 12, but we’ll get to that) who are all in possession of quite splendid sideburns and are each referred to by the title of “uncle” during the course of the novel. They’re all Cossacks, and they live in a sprawlingly endless mansion somewhere in Southern Russia during the early 1900s. Malach is called upon to fight for his country during World War I and it’s while he’s away that his wife Annushka has an affair with a bombastic Greek circus owner named Antripatros. This tryst results in a pregnancy which leads to the birth of Annushka’s eleventh child, Semyon, a baby she must give up, at least temporarily, if she is to successfully hide her illicit relationship from her soon to be returning husband.
Those are the basic plot points, but they only begin to scratch the surface of what’s at play during Otroshenko’s dizzying novel. For starters, who exactly is narrating this tale? One would assume from the way that the characters are referred to that it’s an unnamed nephew, but as the story progresses this omnipresent voice seems to shift in tone repeatedly. Is it Uncle Semyon who is telling this tale of questionable lineage? Perhaps it’s Annushka’s Greek lover retelling a fanciful yarn from his glorious past? Maybe it’s all three or maybe it’s actually none of them. In fact, it could be a series of dusty, tattered family photographs that are speaking to us from the past, begging us to extropolate significance from the brief snapshots in time that they’ve captured and imploring us to find the deeper meaning that is hidden in places where it should not exist. Whomever they belong to, I’m not so sure that the voices are to be trusted. 
And if he finally came around to being photographed in the company of the uncles—and, even more importantly, in the company of the idol—he certainly did not do so right way, not suddenly, and not of his own will, but only following the lengthy persuasion, and finally the insistence of Annushka, who’d entreated him with the solemnity of the holiday of the Radiant Resurrection of Christ to refrain from dreary seclusion and wearisome music-making. And thus it occurred that this Easter
photograph was one of a kind—out beyond its borders no sound
could be heard from the glass armonica, which the musician had
abandoned in the endless, unportrayed expanse, forever separated from the stately, clear picture by invincible boundaries, as if it were the territory of a vast state apart from a small but unconquerable enclave fraught with impassivity—for in that photograph, Uncle Semyon is standing in the very center.

They tell us fancifully absurd tales of fevered dreams and severed heads, insects capable of freezing honey, men that lie lost in uninterrupted slumber for forty years, houses that seem to possess no spacial boundaries, and babies born with full, lush sideburns. Yet for every blatant falsification they suggest, these voices also add a strange nugget of bizarre historical truth to match, weaving an amusingly complex, at times perplexing narrative that delicately explores the vital role that family plays in each of our lives while also exposing the fragility of the underlying dynamics that strain under the heavy weight of holding it together.
A novel like Addendum lives or dies based on the strength of its language, and Hayden’s translation comes to life with an intriguing rhythm of its very own, one that’s powered by long, luxuriously flowing sentences strung together by a seemingly endless supply of commas, parenthesis, em dashes, and colons. In vivid detail she brings to life the saga of this fascinating family and their surroundings, painting a landscape of quirky imagination reminiscent of the unconventional worlds so often created by that eccentric luminoscribe of moving pictures, Wes Anderson.
Vladislav Otroshenko’s Addendum to a Photo Album is sure to confuse some (most?) readers, but that’s a big part of its alluring charm. Once you’ve surrendered your expectations, once you’ve given yourself over to it, the novel reveals itself to be a unique reading experience, one that manages to portray a bold spirit of inventiveness and ridiculousness as it works tirelessly to stitch back together the ripped and shredded pieces of history for a fantastical family that never was. - Aaron Westerman

The latest addition to my website is Vladislav Otroshenko‘s Приложение к фотоальбому (Addendum to a Photo Album). This a hilarious and somewhat fanciful account of a Cossack family of thirteen brothers, the children of Annushka and (with one exception) Malakh. The one exception is the somewhat blustering Semion, the eleventh son, who is conceived and born while his father is fighting in World War I. Annushka, believing Malakh to be dead (the informant had even brought his head) has an affair with a Greek circus-owner and Semion is the result. (The Greek will later come up with a complicated plan for Malakh to adopt Semion, after Malakh’s death is found to be exaggerated.) Malakh does return but then disappears into a cubby-hole in the massive house and is not seen for, allegedly, forty years. The photo of the title is a regular event that Annushka calls for, with the entire family, and much is made of this and the complexities surrounding it, including the choice of photographer. Uncle Pavel (the story is told by a nephew or niece who refers to all the brothers as Uncle but whose identity is never revealed) on an expedition to find the cause of strange noises in the huge house, stumbles across his father’s cubby-hole and Malakh is persuaded to come out and join in the photo event.The focus is on Semion and Malakh but we also learn a little bit about some of the brothers, including Porphyry, who is very rich and who, on seeing Izmail at birth, immediately takes him away to his house. Izmail’s birth causes Malakh to retreat to his cubby-hole. Izmail, who is simple-minded, lives with Porphyry, whose relatives rob him blind, leading him to perpetually plead poverty, despite his riches. It is highly entertaining, often told with tongue in cheek, with elements of what we might call magic realism and a distorted chronology. Interestingly enough, though much of it is set in Soviet period, the Soviet system is not mentioned at all. - - themodernnovelblog.com/


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