A few chapters into Happiness Is Possible, I started thinking “this reminds me of Murakami”. Zaionchkovsky’s prose style is not particularly similar, nor is the plot Murakami-esque. The reason, I think, is this: as Murakami is a sudden contrast to the Japanese classics of Natsume Soseki and Kawabata Yasunari, Zaionchkovsky’s work is a departure from the old masters (Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev) who continue to dominate Russian Literature sections in bookshops throughout the West. It’s far removed even from works such as those of Bulgakov, published in relatively recent history. (That said, following in the footsteps of all great Russian novels, it does involve a visit to the dacha.)
I think of myself as a fan of Russian literature, yet this is the first contemporary Russian novel I’ve ever read. Zaionchkovsky’s Moscow, populated with computers and mobile phones and people with emotions and relationships, seems alien compared with the continuous media portrayal of Russia as a country stuck in the past- a portrayal I never thought to question until now. Zaionchkovsky’s novel is not overtly political – sometimes it seems almost complacent in its criticisms of the state – yet it forced me to confront my own ignorance in a way that no other book has.
The novel itself is full of light and life as Zaionchkovsky weaves the city in luscious prose around the personal story at the core of the book. Sometimes it feels like a modern fable and sometimes it feels like a conversation with an old friend. It is deeply human.
(N.B. Read the foreword- it offers some good ideas to keep in mind throughout the book.)