by Shlomit Gorin, M.A., Impulse Managing Editor
VENEDIKT EROFEEV'S MOSCOW-PETUSHKI: A JOURNEY THROUGH DISBELIEF
Venedikt Erofeev's novel Moscow-Petushki (1968) is at once perplexing, hilarious, tragic, light-hearted, and profound. As such, the experience of reading it parallels the experience of our psychic encounters with others in the consulting room. Reality blends into fantasy, the conscious merges with the unconscious, and through it all, no temporal or spatial demarcations are positioned as anything more than fleeting and quite dubious conjectures.
Much of what we read (or hear) seems to defy common sense. How is it possible not to see the Kremlin when scouring the streets of Moscow so many times, as is the case with the protagonist, Venichka? Has he seen the Kremlin and just does not remember? Or maybe this alcoholic intellectual is drunk as he provides this "fact" to us? Furthermore, how is it possible for him to always end up at the Kursk Station no matter in what direction he walks? The reader, like the clinician, is not on a firm footing with the narrator.
The absence of a stable foundation is progressively heightened as the story takes on a dream-like quality reminiscent of the state between waking and sleeping. In the midst of Venichka's ravings (for he is prone to talking to himself), he is visited by angels. Surely a conversation between a man and angels can take place in dreams or in that space between conscious and unconscious experience. Yet there is no mention by Venichka of being in such a state. To the contrary, he is merely leaning against a column, hungover, trying to recover. Are these angels figments of his imagination, hallucinations, common visitors in his dreams, images he conjures up to help him cope with his daily reality?
The people Venichka meets on a train possess a mirage-like quality in the way they appear as pairs - a grandfather with his grandson and a couple who uncannily resemble each other. A conversation and drinking ensue, and the personalities of everyone from Schiller and Goethe to Marx, Gorky, and Turgenev are invoked. Who is absent and who is present? What is real and what is a mirror image or mere reflection? New characters appear and disappear, we are transplanted from one period of time to another, and there is little to sustain our orientation. Following the story and ascertaining what is actually happening in contrast to what is going on in the narrator's mind becomes progressively more challenging.
After staying with the narrator through a journey that is at times pleasurable and comical, at other times heavy and tragic, we are left at the end wondering what we can believe in. Erofeev's Moskva-Petushki offers a reflection on - and a reminder of - a reality that is more fluid and uncertain than we sometimes like to or are able to acknowledge.