Yuri Buida - A remote, police-run settlement called the Ninth Siding exists only for the mysterious Zero Train that halts there. Buida uses the idea as the basis for a haunting, Kafkaesque parable of Russian history
Yuri Buida, The Prussian Bride, Trans. by Oliver Ready, Dedalus Books, 2015
'One day I found out that my little native town used to be called not Znamensk but Wehlau. Germans had lived here. This had been East Prussia. Then they were deported. A ten-twenty-thirty-year layer of Russian life trembled on a seven-hundred-year foundation about which I knew nothing. So the child began to invent'.
The resettling of the Kaliningrad Region (former East Prussia) with Soviet citizens occurred a few years before Yuri Buida's birth in 1954. 'Not a single person was left who could say of East Prussian space and time: "That's me"'. Buida's motley characters - war wounded, bereaved wives, madmen, fearless adolescents and a resurrected minister of state - inhabit a dislocated reality, a dream-like world of double identities and miraculous occurrences. Buida's skill at merging playful fantasy with bitter experience gives to his writing a haunting vividness and intensity.
The Prussian Bride is a treasure house of myth and narrative exuberance, with stories that swing between outrageous invention and often tragic reality. It is one of the most exciting discoveries of post-Soviet literature and a worthy winner of a prestigious Apollon Grigoriev award in Russia: it was also shortlisted for the Russian Booker Prize.
A semi surreal combination of delights and dark realities. - Buzz Magazine
The Prussian Bride contains all the ingredients to make it as successful as Buida's first novel, The Zero Train, which was published to great acclaim in 2001. His prose is crisp and he successfully conjures a world as fantastic as any in contemporary literature. - David Archibald
The Kaliningrad region is in an odd geographical and historical situation. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union it has been cut off from the rest of Russia, sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania. The region itself is only recently Russian -it was once East Prussia and its Russian inhabitants replaced the indigenous German population after the Second World War. Yuri Buida's magnificent collection of stories about his home town reflects these anomalies and presents a powerful and hilarious meditation on dislocated identities. The name Buida, as he tells us, means liar in Polish, and this appropriately reflects the imaginative invention that gives meaning to the lives of a populace who lack a clear place in history. Everything here is transformed, but only to give a greater force to the depiction of human suffering and joys. The whole effect is of a people's imagination confined by historical and geographical forces bursting forth in Rabelaisian splendour, without losing the stoicism that enabled them to endure the hardships of Communism. The stories show an ironic awareness of the power and dangers of self-deception, while seeing it as the only way of living a coherent life.
Buida's earlier novel, Zero Train (2001), was also powerful, but the theme of history's power to fragment ordinary lives works better in short-story format than in a continuous narrative. As we read through the stories in The Prussian Bride, we get a Brueghel-like picture of a community held together by ragged threads. The families in these stories are disjointed,cobbled together from casually adopted orphans and catatonic or otherwise absent wives and husbands. As in Zero Train, there is a sustained engagement with the absurd fantasies of self-empowerment that men construct to cope with their political impotence, but there is also more obvious engagement here with a range of women's characters, some suffering silently, others taking control of life and their appetites.
The form of the stories is wonderfully varied, and the different registers are brilliantly captured by the translator, Oliver Ready. Perhaps the most effective are the longer ones such as 'Rita Schmidt Whoever', which is about a German girl left behind after the deportation, only to be bullied by her grotesque adoptive mother; she is a girl who, in the midst of her sufferings, is able, like Christ in Gethsemane, to sum up her life- something the narrator believes we all strive for. This is not a matter of truth: 'No court can thrash that out of a person. Anyway, the facts die,only the legend lasts. The lie, if you like. Now there's something you can't argue with.' The story goes on to demonstrate this to great effect, turning into a faked reflection on the detective story's search for truth.Yet here, as in some of the more lyrical miniature stories, it is the casual references to the town's life, often fuelled by a delighted cloacal fascination, that gives the collection its particular character.
For example, early in the book, we encounter Gramp Mukhanov, who 'out of sheer malice and bloody-mindedness' had built a wooden lavatory above the roof of his house, 'fixing it in place with poles and rusty pipes tied together with wire (he risked his life twice a day, did Gramp, clambering up the rickety ladder to his starling-house; a minute later the town's sharper-eyed inhabitants could follow the distant flight of his excrement as it fell through a hole in the cabin floor into a basin on the ground).' We keep encountering this obstinate old man, smoking his cigarettes made out of Georgian tea, and that makeshift WC comes to mind: a proper response to Stalinism, and a symbol, perhaps, of not being at home in your own land. - Tom MacFaul
Another triumph for Yuri Buida, this is the second of his books to be translated into English, and like his first - The Zero Train - it was shortlisted for the Russian equivalent of the Booker Prize. It has also won a prestigious Apollon Grigoriev award. Buida was born in 1954 in the Kaliningrad Region. This area was formerly East Prussia and had been resettled with Soviet citizens a few years before Buida's birth. The result was an alien place populated by displaced individuals: 'Germans had lived here. Then they were deported. A ten-twenty-thirty year layer of Russian life trembled on a seven-hundred-year foundation about which I knew nothing. So the child began to invent.' Over a number of years Buida wrote and invented details about the area, and this is the resulting collection of 31 tales. The book makes for a surreal experience: his characters include widows, whores, resurrected politicians, madmen, orphans and ghosts, and they exist together in a dream-like blend of fantasy and bitter memory. All the extremes of human emotions are exposed: murder, abuse, passion, debts of honour, devotion, compassion are all here. Appalling, haunting and uplifting, this book is unlike anything you have read before, and completely unforgettable. - Kirkus UK
Yuri Buida, The Zero Train, Dedalus, 2007.
Set during the Soviet era, a remote, police-run settlement called the Ninth Siding exists only for the mysterious Zero Train that halts there
"An anecdote about Beria, boss of Stalin's NKVD, provides the only concrete historical reference, but the setting could not be clearer: The Zero Train is a moving and original depiction of how, in Stalinist Russia, the individual was ground down with brutal indifference." - Sam Alexandroni
"The Zero Train is an imaginative exploration of Soviet history that stands on its own literary achievements. Oliver Ready's translation conveys with a sure hand the power and grace of Buida's supple prose. His style is at once lyrical and shocking. The norms of Socialist Realism -- prominent in the cultural hinterland that such translations expose to our view -- are manipulated with an angry bravado in this violent elegy for Ivan Ardabyev." - Rachel Polonsky
"Buida's heroes are unable to find that meaning at their station; they leave to search for it elsewhere or, like Ivan Ardabyev, end their lives in despair when they discover that the Purpose was an ignoble one. Oliver Ready's translation of Buida's parable is excellent and brings the author's rich colloquial Russian to life. The Kaliningrad author is an exciting new voice in contemporary Russian literature, and his Zero Train a must for those interested in post-Soviet Russian fiction." - Joseph Mozur
"The Zero Train is the most remarkable book I've read this year. It has been hugely successful in Russia, and was shortlisted for the Russian Booker prize. This chilling, brilliant and deeply moving novel goes to the heart of what Stalinism did to individual lives." - Helen Dunmore
A remote, police-run settlement called the Ninth Siding exists only for the mysterious Zero Train that halts there. Buida uses the idea as the basis for a haunting, Kafkaesque parable of Russian history. - Harry Blue
It's a brutally powerful book, set in a landscape of railway track and sidings that could have been postulated by Beckett, but shot through with grotesque, surreal lyricism. 'All the women he'd ever known had smelt of cabbage. Boiled cabbage. Every single one.' Except Fira. He saw her naked once, washing, 'her heart and its bird-like beat, the gauzy foam of her lungs and her smoky liver, the silver bell of her bladder and the fragile bluish bones floating in the pink jelly of her flesh.' A sensational novel, moving, unforgettable. - Brian Case
Set somewhere in rural Stalinist Russia, Buida’s parable delves deep into the gritty heart of Soviet life. It's often surreal, always lyrically breathtaking, surveying a world where workers have acquired mechanical, dehumanising traits. Holding it together is tragi-hero Ivan Ardabyev, who has only ever met women that 'smells like cabbage', just one of the ways in which the novel excavates the coarseness of society. The train itself is a relentless symbol of the regime, sewn within it the mentality of the workforce. An edgy, startling read. - John Maher
The Zero Train is a beautiful moving novel, charting the unfortunate life of Ivan Ardabyev whose sole purpose of his existence is to ensure the spooky Zero Train runs smoothly and on time through the station each day. Others around him lose their minds such is the isolation and fear of exactly what the high security trains really contain. Some are convinced that they hear screams, the darkest moment being when one girl throws herself under the oncoming train thinking she can hear her missing mother's cries. Ivan, on the other hand, fears what will become of him if the train stops one day. He rejects leaving the station for a better place, stupidly hanging on to this empty existence. Being an unwanted orphan and a nomad in his life, it appears the Zero Train is the only constant reliable presence Ivan has ever experienced. When eventually the train does stop, Ivan's mind begins to unravel as his entire world comes to an abrupt end at his own weak hands. A shortlisted entry for the Russian Booker Prize and a powerful read. JP in The Crack
This oddly hollow novel from 1993 was shortlisted for the Russian Booker prize. It's not surprising that it struck a chord. Its story of a bleak Soviet outpost run by the secret police, with its vodka-fuelled violence and dark humour, could have come from nowhere else. Buida's symbolism is on the heavy side: the Zero Train itself, for instance, is the raison d' tre of the troubled community, but as no one knows where it is going or what it is carrying, it becomes an object of blind faith and, finally, madness. Well, if you're going to allegorise Stalin, I suppose there's no point being subtle. A strange, Kafka-like parable. - William Trevor
This spare, swift 1993 novel explores the professional and emotional burdens borne by Ivan Ardyabev, a “railway forces private” assigned to a train settlement somewhere in rural Russia. The Kafkaesque Zero Train, which arrives and departs with unfailing precision, bearing an undisclosed cargo, is a perfect metaphor for the implacability of total regimentation, and the bitterness and paranoia it breeds in its dulled “workers.” Buida captures their deadening experiences brilliantly in the details of Ardabyev’s blind thrusts toward a fuller life, and final act of resistance. A rich, provocative allegory (which might be compared with Victor Pelevin’s The Yellow Arrow)—and a fine introduction to an important contemporary Russian writer. - Kirkus Reviews
Though written in 1993 Yuri Buida's The Zero Train is still a coming-to-terms with the old Soviet Union. The English title refers to the train that rattles by each day at station Nine where most of the novel takes place, a symbol of everything Soviet:
"You know about this place, this train. One train every twenty-four hours. All this for one single train: track, sleepers, stations like ours, storehouses, warehouses, repair shops, bridges, logging, creosote treatment, water, coal. And people, like you and me. All for the sake of one single train. One hundred wagons, four locomotives. No delays, no breaking of rules. All done to a T. Right ?" Misha moved his glasses up his sweaty nose once more. "Where's it going ? No one knows. What's it carrying ? No one knows. Do you ?"
The Russian title is taken from the nickname of the central character, Ivan Ardabyev, known as 'Don Domingo', and the focus is, indeed, more on the personal -- though the Zero looms overwhelmingly over all at station Nine. With parents who were 'Enemies of the People' Ivan has an enormous black mark against him, but here, he is told, he can prove himself:
"The Motherland trusts you," the colonel repeated, in a voice less steely than before. "I also have complete faith in you. Remember this, remember once and for all: you can be counted on. Those who didn't go through what you did can also be counted on, but you doubly so. Because you have no past. Who needs one ? You hvae no present, either. You exist in the future. You are the Zero. Remember this. I won't tell you these things again.".
To a great extent he buys into this. For most of the others, the Zero is an unmitigated disaster, a bearer of death and misery, but Ivan can see purpose in it, even as it remains a complete enigma.
When the train derails none of those from the station are allowed near the site; when the train does touch part of their lives it is usually in a miserable way. Ivan clings to a sense of purpose, even as it is clear there is none:
"Dreams and fantasy, that's here ! All around us, Vanya, it's nonsense, absurdity, nothing. What meaning is there in all this ? None at all !"
As everything falls apart Ivan has nothing else to cling onto, and somewhat heavy-handedly Buida describes his frustration:
Where is everyone ? Why are there cracks in the walls ? From the rattling of the Zero. Or the rattling of his heart, a heart that had gathered a lifetime's bitterness, flammable and explosive.
In its description of the miserable lives at Nine and especially Ivan's struggle for understanding (himself and the world ...) The Zero Train measures up well against may of the Soviet-era (and generally samizdat) novels that similarly take on the all-powerful state in allegorical form. Perhaps those that have not read many of these novels will be particularly impressed, but with familiarity with what has become a genre also comes some fatigue, and The Zero Train doesn't stand out that far from among the huge pile of earlier books. Too much simply feels like we've seen it al before.
It is fairly well-done, and a powerful enough little read, but The Zero Train feels a bit tired, an afterthought -- without yet the proper distance -- to a past the country was just beginning to disengage from. - http://www.complete-review.com/reviews/postsu/buiday.htm