By John Dolan
For the most part, Skunk is as good as its cover. The story is simple: the hard, strange life of the title character, a bastard born to a drunken slut in the grim provincial town of Stargorod ("Oldtown"). Aleshkovsky recounts Skunk's life in the Gogolian manner: a polite, romantic third-person narrator whose diction screeches under the strain of describing unvarying stupidity and corruption. Aleshkovsky does that sort of narration really well. It's only when he adds some ill-advised magic realism to the mix, then forces a religious moral on the story, that things go wrong.
The novel begins with a fairy-tale flourish: "It was not so many years ago, but neither was it the day before yesterday..." But Skunk's birth scene is not Prince Ivan material: his mother, eight months pregnant, is getting drunk in the back of a shop when the old lecher attempting to grope her informs her that her waters have broken. Dragged to the hospital by her alkie friends, she hopes that little Daniil (rechristened "Skunk" by his schoolmates) will be stillborn, but like the runt/hero of the old tales, Skunk proves unkiillable. In fact, after the death of his grandmother, the only decent character in his world, he takes the offensive: first he learns to support himself as a skilled pickpocket, then stalks and kills a local gangster of whom he is jealous, framing the gangster's lieutenants and seeing them sent to prison as well.
So far so good. But even at this early point in the story you can see the big old pious moral-of-the-story building up like a thunderhead on the Interstate. Because Skunk, in that grand old Raskolnikov tradition, is one of those saintly murderers. Mark Twain has Huck Finn (whose presence haunts this novel) say something about the way that Christians don't seem to give a damn about anybody unless they've committed a murder or robbery or two. This aspect of Christianity, enshrined in the line about "more joy in Heaven over one sinner who repents than 99 of the righteous", is all too characteristic of Skunk. Like Raskolnikov, Skunk walks to Grace through robbery and murder.
I don't mean to mock Raskolnikov; Crime and Punishment may well be the best novel in the world. But Skunk is not Raskolnikov, and in pushing his protagonist into Raskolnikov's path from murder to salvation, Aleshkovsky forces this story in a direction it really doesn't want to go. Raskolnikov is after all a well-educated middle-class young man with loyal friends and a loving family; his crime is an anomaly. Skunk's crimes make perfect sense, seem morally justified, and simply don't require expiation.
Hell YES he picked the pockets of his mother's worthless boyfriends! How else was he going to eat? Hell YES he pushed that gangster off the roof and framed the bastard's cronies! Why shouldn't he? He'd just seen them gangraping his shoolboy crush, the sweet and stupid Zhenka!
I actively hoped that that Aleshkovsky wouldn't punish his protagonist as Tolstoy did his Anna (who was innocent too, for that matter) by making Skunk repent of his "crimes." But the signs were too plain: magic realism was breaking out all over, and you know the old saying: scratch a magic realist, find a Christian. Signs of a Christian moral start piling up after the first few pages of the novel. There's this rock in the river which runs through Stargorod. The pious old ladies say it's a magic rock. It's named after St. Andronicus, who defected from Catholicism to Orthodoxy. Andronicus supposedly sailed to Stargorod on this rock when he defected. The rock turns out to be composed of some stone found only in Sicily. Italy/Russia--get it? Catholicism vs. Orthodoxy; Rome vs. the Third Rome.
Skunk has his first mystical experience atop this rock. It levitates for him--which it jest natcherly would, to quote Huck Finn again. The rest of the novel becomes a battle between Aleshkovsky's considerable gift for picaresque narrative and his need to pin a Christian (specifically Russian Orthodox) moral on Skunk's tale (so to speak.) How could a writer so obviously learned have forgotten what happened to Gogol, the fountainhead of his whole prose style, when he tried the same with Chichikov?
At times Aleshkovsky seems committed to telling the grimy story of provincial adolescence in the Soviet era, much as Limonov did so well in Podrostok Savenko (translated as Memoirs of A Russian Punk). But then come the monks. So many monks! The second half of Skunk is infested with monks. Humiliated by his mother once too often, Skunk runs away to the Taiga. His idyll there is a delightful read. Like Huck on the river, Skunk is safe in the Taiga. He believes that people are bad and he should stay alone. And he's right. But Aleshkovsky won't accept that "moral" for his story, so he can't let poor Skunk stay in the forest. Instead, he drags his unlucky protagonist back to Stargorod, where poor Skunk spends the whole second half of the novel getting mixed up with a lot of damned monks. He robs a church (why did it have to be a church? Why not a liquor store?); then, Raskolnikov-like, has a vision and tries to confess his crimes to a crypto-Catholic Orthodox monk, Father Boris, who makes a long straw-man speech in favor of the Vatican and against Russian Orthodoxy, then starts slobbering all over Skunk in pederastic lust. (A little gay-bashing never hurts when you've got a sectarian moral to convey).
Skunk, fleeing home after his narrow escape from priest-rape, beats his mother's gangster boyfriend half to death (another totally reasonable, even laudable "crime"), and has to flee to the Taiga again.
But this time he doesn't even get a decent interval of peace before another monk appears. This one, Father Innokenty (I do not deign to discuss his name), rescues Skunk from a bog with the help of his tame elk (yep, "tame elk") and settles in with Skunk for a long winter of sermons and prayers and pettin' all the little critters of the woodland an'such. (Sorry. But it's hard to talk about this part of the novel without lapsing into Huck Finn's brand of English. In fact, Huck haunts every page of this novel, in the mismatched company of Raskolnikov, Chichikov and Father Zosima.)
One Father Zosima per century is enough, surely. Flannery O'Connor, one of the very small band of recent authors to weave religious morals into her work successfully, had the good sense to avoid priests as characters. I can only think of one priest in all her stories: the deaf old Irishman in "The Enduring Chill"--and she made him deaf specifically so that he would be unable to discuss religion with the pretentious young protagonist of that story.
Father Innokenty, who carries Aleshkovsky's Orthodox "moral," is, like Dostoevskii's Zosima, one of his creator's less impressive characters. if this translation can be trusted, Father Innokenty speaks what can only be called Bucolic Dostoevskiian. Here's are a couple of samples of Innokenty's speeches to poor Skunk:
"What are you staring at? A monk is just a human being, only more sinful than any other!"
"Well now, do you think I ran off here from love of the Lord?...No, young fellow, I wanted a breath of freedom. I had lived in the world, I had seen people, bureaucrats and bosses, the way the fat cats lived..."
This goes on for quite a while. You sort of wade through it as Skunk does through the bogs, hoping to reach higher ground where the pines of the Taiga grow. Skunk mostly nods along with Innokenty's sermons--a reaction some readers may share. The two of them share their little cabin (there's more than a suggestion of pederasty here too, though it seems unintended) and go on morally improving trips hither and thither. They visit a hidden Old Believer village, a real den of iquity. Then Father Zosima--whoops, I mean Father Innokenty--tells Huck--I mean Skunk--that he, Raskolnikov--I mean Skunk--must go back to the world. i.e. that provincial hellhole, Stargorod.
It was at this point that I first flung the book across the room.
Why should Skunk--a truly endearing character who has already survived everything from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome to the sort of forest fire that killed Bambi's mother--have to go home to that rotten little town? To quote Huck yet again, "It ha[s] all the marks of a Sunday-School." In other words: it makes no sense.
Nonetheless, Skunk obeys. Religious protagonists always obey idiotic directives from their spiritual mentors. Skunk goes home to find that his mother's gangster boyfriend has murdered her and is in prison, sentenced to death. With that plotline out of the way, Skunk disposes of some other dangling threads in a hurry, finally getting to have sex with Zhenka, on whose behalf he committed chivalrous murder at the tender age of thirteen. (It was the least she could do!) Then he heads back to St. Andronicus's magic rock. It levitates for him--which it jest natcherly would--and the old pious ladies, of whom there seems to be an inexhuastible supply in the region, find Skunk there in the morning, drooling, stoned and apparently dead.
But you know how it is with death in these magic realist-novels: it's no worse than a bad cold. The author revives Skunk and sends him running north toward the Taiga for the third and last time. Skunk stops in a village, gets married, beats his wife a little (within reason), drinks a little, and goes to the forest to cure his hangovers. And that's it: the end. Skunk thus ends up sort of halfway between "the world" (Stargorod) and Heaven (the Taiga). It's more generous than that prat Tolstoy was to his Anna, but less than Skunk deserves. Couldn't Aleshkovsky let him go, at last, into the forest? Because, for all its ostensibly Orthodox moral, the real message of this novel is pure animism: "Taiga good. People bad."
This is a novel with glaring faults, but that doesn't mean it's a bad novel. (Dune contains some of the worst scenes ever filmed. But Dune is not a bad film.) Skunk, even with all those monks weighing it down, still manages to levitate, especially when the author lets his protagonist loose in the Taiga for a moment or two. Aleshkovsky is a very good storyteller, and when he allows himself he describes provincial Russia concisely and memorably. Besides, Skunk is one of the few really lovable protagonists in recent fiction. That's why it's so infuriating to see him racked on this old Orthodox/Bucolic apparatus. It doesn't fit him. Can't you see it's hurting him?
Bastardry of the literary sort: that's the problem, really. Confused ancestry. The legitimate parent is Gogol. When Aleshkovsky sticks to Gogol, he's fine. When he tries to be Dostoevskii, he fails. When he does Leskov...well, not even Leskov was very good at being Leskov. That ideology--rural, Orthodox, anti-intellectual--may be a sentimental favorite with Russian intellectuals, but it's as weak and cowardly as the Wordsworthian cult of childhood. Nostalgic Orthodoxy forcan't really contain Skunk's story. All it can do is hijack that grim, funny tale and waft it away in the smoke of censers and old chants.