Author: Dmitry Bykov
Publisher: Alma Books
Living Souls is a novel which delves deeply into the psyche of a futuristic Russian nation. It portrays a country in turmoil through war based on historical, political and religious differences and effectively conveys how nonsensical this war becomes. Within the dark, depressing and hopeless backdrop of a meaningless war, Bykov tells the personal stories of four unlikely couples who manage to see beyond their differences and struggle to keep their love and relationships alive. It is a novel where humanity can be seen at its most dangerous and absurd but also at its most loving and tolerant. It juxtaposes deep rooted cultural and spiritual conflicts with the ability and need for sensitivity and acceptance. It conveys the danger behind power, greed and controlling behaviour and describes how easily people can be led, influenced and subconsciously forced to act. It is a novel which touches on some serious and disturbing real issues, tragic political decision making and discrimination at its most horrific. The result of these destructive influences is pain, suffering and tragedy but beyond the darkness and hopelessness there are glimpses of compassion, grace and understanding. The book was challenging to read but immensely interesting and thought provoking.
The novel itself is fictional but makes references to many real life historical events, religions, schools of intellectual thought, political parties and Russian tribes. The two main warring factions in the book being the Varangians who in reality were Scandinavian voyagers sometimes referred to as Vikings who travelled eastwards across Russia throughout the 9th and 10th centuries, and the Khazars who were a semi-nomadic Turkic tribe who settled and ruled over portions of Russia between the 7th and 10th centuries. The book contains lengthy, detailed descriptions of these tribes and other historical and political Russian influences, particularly in the opening chapters. This I found frustrating; the plot took a long time to evolve as the flow of the narrative was restricted by the constant in-depth Russian history and military analysis. The book was originally written for a Russian audience who naturally possess a greater knowledge of their own nation's history and ability to pronounce familiar native Russian names. So language constraints and occasional translation issues certainly contribute to the laboured flow of the opening sections of the book. As the book develops however, the author finds a balanced pace and the reader gradually gains the invaluable knowledge required to make the book a captivating read. The rewards for persevering with the complex depictions at the outset of the novel are immense and come via the introduction of the human interest elements of the story in the form of the passions, emotions and personal beliefs of the four couples. By the end of the book, as the lives of these couples converge, the reader feels absorbed by Bykov's brilliant characterisations and not only equipped with the knowledge and freedom to enjoy the book, but to be engrossed by it.
The range of social issues confronted and challenged by Bykov in this novel are enormous. He addresses issues of class, government control, language, diet, homelessness, education, discrimination, media, natural energy resources, the slave trade, human rights, genocide, religion, war and numerous others besides. He depicts the vastly different cultures which come together to make up a nation of people and how the fight for supremacy of these cultures only serves to destroy the nation they seek to control. Whether the use of these issues are intended as warnings for the future, reflections on current situations within Russia or as expressions of Bykov's personal fears, it is certainly thought provoking to read the portrayal of a nation self-destructing through its own internal fight for power. Bykov also delves deeply into the spiritual world through the lives of his characters, the effect this has on their environment and the life choices they make throughout the book. He reflects and makes judgements on a number of world faiths and their impact on his fictional world. He describes the customs, rituals and traditions of a native pagan tribe and their ability to apparently control their environment through magic. He takes the reader on a journey through places which vary from being the most evil places on earth to the most magical and wondrous communities of abundance and generosity. In short, this novel if full to overflowing with a mind boggling array of issues, concepts, environments, perceptions, criticisms and comments which are all skilfully described, intelligently structured and perfectly placed within the plot. They enhance the story without confusing the reader and are sufficiently varied, yet equally dwelt upon, to allow the reader to make their own choices about what they consider to be truth.
In summary, Living Souls is a dark, oppressive and complex novel which conveys a hopeless, futile and meaningless battle for power where glimmers of light and hope shine forth in the form of loving human relationships. The novel is deep, meaningful, comical, tragic and enigmatic. This is not a light read but a compelling, thought provoking and challenging text. It may take time and perseverance for the reader to engage with the content and narrative style but once this is achieved, the book becomes an absorbing, fascinating and potentially significant piece of work.