Oh, leave off, said I to myself. Do you really think I want your crowds? Your people? Why, even our Saviour said -to his own mother at that -“why should I care about you?” So why should I, of all people, care about all these noisy, beastly people?
— Moscow Circles, Benedict Erofeev
Last Sunday evening, I decided to go on an 800-calorie a day diet. Working as a caretaker across two schools, while on a zero-hour contract, this diet lasted until the salient leader I follow (Nicola Sturgeon) announced a lockdown. Six hours later, the same news (unsurprisingly) was delivered by the semi-sentient sausage meat wrapped in privilege, topped with an Andy Warhol wig. Since then, I’ve been eating 800-calories an hour.
While riding the tube, heading to work, wondering what would happen first, furloughed or heading to the ICU (so far - neither), I started to read Benedict Erofeev’s samizdat masterpiece, Moscow Circles. In the madness of the week, it seemed appropriate to read about an alcoholic, travelling seventy-eight miles from Moscow to a small town to see, what we believe, is his beloved and son. As we travel with our narrator, Benny, towns are jammed in the text, enjambments all over the work, we start to learn that all is not at it seems.
Suffering from delirium tremens brought on by what could be zapoi*, Benny gives us insights on Soviet culture, agriculture, architecture and politics, filtering all of Russia’s heroes through the prism of alcohol. Chekhov is pressed down to his dying moment, asking attendants to bring him champagne. Alexey Stakhanov, a hero of the socialist Soviet economic system for increasing worker productivity, becomes part of a maths riddle, given by an imagined Sphinx, asking how many times a year “…did he crap…”, bearing in mind “…he went on a bender 312 days every year” and on those days he doesn't crap. Lastly, Pushkin’s fate is pronounced as unknown, “…no one in Russia knows…” but everyone knows “…how to purify varnish”. In reality, Pushkin’s fate is known to Russians with as much clarity as we know Guy Fawkes’ fate.
Throughout these fantastic moments from an intelligent but unreliable narrator, there are glimpses of daily life that seep in giving reasons to his alcoholism and drunk journey. There is the sacking from his job as a foreman of a crew laying telephone cable. There is his love of his son, who he is separated from who he yearns to see. Then there is a scene where he describes a man cut in half by a train. With the upper-half still alive, children bring him a cigarette and laugh. The scene is written in a more structured way than what is before and after. To such changes, we have to speculate the reality, the soberness, of the section.
In a challenging world that is delivering punches steadily and from many angles, perhaps the denouement of Moscow Circles, offered twenty pages from the end, stays with us as it asserts the danger of looking for relief in addiction. Benny talks with an imaginary valet:
—You see, Peter, there’s one question which I simply cannot answer. Perhaps it’s because it’s such an important question.
— What is it?
— Have I got anything left to drink?
* Described by Emmanuel Carrère in his excellent book, Limonov, “…going several days without sobering up, roaming from one place to another, getting on trains without knowing where they're headed, telling your most intimate secrets to people you meet by chance, forgetting everything you've said and done: a sort of voyage.”