When I was a second year undergraduate I took a course in early Russian history. Little did I know the course syllabus included four mandatory movie nights. And so in September of 2001 I had my first exposure to Russian cinema in the form of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev. At the time, I found it to be a long, slightly ponderous, and particularly detail oriented (painfully so if my classmates were to be belived) film. At the same time, there was a certain beauty about it. Even though I spent nearly three and a half hours engaged with Andrei Rublev, on some level I understood I had only just scratched the surface of the story it was attempting to tell. As I struggled with compartmentalizing my thoughts on David Nickle’s Rasputin’s Bastards, I found myself recalling that film night in History 296. And just like my inaugural encounter with Tarkovsky, David Nickle has left me both somewhat in awe of the grand work laid before me, and desperately hoping I won’t have to write about it on an exam.
Rasputin’s Bastards is a bit of an oddity. It’s not a spy novel, even though there are a lot of spies in it. Nor is it a Cold War alternate history, despite the vast swaths of narrative taking place in and about the Soviet Union and a Russian eugenics/research program to militarize psychic powers. The story layers metaphors upon metaphysical metaphors, leaving the task of sorting things out largely to the reader. Even the characters defy a certain easy classification. To name one as the protagonist is to take an amorphous and evolving being and foist it into a role for the sake of convenience. I do hope Mr. Nickle will forgive my continual comparison of his book to other things, but in some ways Rasputin’s Bastards reminds me Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear series. As is the case in Metal Gear, one of the central questions to this novel is that of what happens to weapons once the war is over?
The short answer involves spiritual gestalt and a submarine.
Exploring such a question in detail, as well as many others, justifies Rasputin’s Bastards word count. In his prose, Nickle is remarkably eloquent and nuanced. Rich, detailed, and occasionally quite experimental – particularly when the author is attempting to convey a psychic conversation in plain text – there’s little within the novel that comes across as needless exposition. In that sense the mystery of City 512 and its post-Cold War fallout is a many layered onion containing a hydra at its core.
All the while the novel executes feints and counter-feints with almost every character’s sense of self. With a turn of a page key players find out that they are not what they think they are; their entire life is a KGB crafted lie meant to keep their body in a certain place, at a certain time, so that a psychic could remote view through them. It’s a structural gambit that could have very quickly devolved into a narrative, not to mention existential, mess. Yet these damaged people remain identifiable despite learning fundamental (un)truths about themselves. Moreover, those who, in the language of the novel, dream walk the pre-programmed sleepers, committing an act which falls somewhere between voyeurism and a particularly vile form of assault, manage to remain accessible to readers. The casual acquisition, use, and disposal of truly human resources should make certain individuals within the story utterly reprehensible, yet I always wanted to know more about them. I’ll concede this desire for subsequent detail might simply speak to my own taste as a reader. However, I think it is quite the skill to create ambiguous characters who, despite their obvious shortcomings and seeming dedication to Machiavelli rather than Lenin, remain attractive to the audience.
The challenge in reading Rasputin’s Bastards is quite similar to what a person faces when they sit down to watch a Tarkovsky film. Because of the novel’s length as well as its slow yet methodical pacing, there’s a danger it will lose a reader amid the psychic quagmire. About half way through the novel I found myself thinking, “I know a lot about these people, but what has really happened to move the story along?” Frequently there are chapters which offer zero forward movement with respect to plot.
In those moments, the novel works by creating a rich history for the story’s key players. As such, Nickle is providing depth though shading which then serves to inform the motivations and rationale of other characters. It’s not messy, but it’s certainly unconventional. I’d say the book stops just short of a Catch-22 level of asynchronicity. Thus Rasputin’s Bastards is a novel to be read with intensity and purpose, as an active agent attempting to piece together the mysteries and truths of City 512. Readers who approach the text expecting the author to do the work for them will likely be disappointed before the page count hits triple digits.
As novels go, I’m putting Rasputin’s Bastards in the “Classic Russian Film” category. It drills down on its own conceits and concepts without getting preachy. It presumes a certain sort of intelligence and patience from its readers but pays strong dividends for those who stick with it until the end. Since even the simplest of the book’s characters connect to complex motivations, the novel offers an ensemble cast which bucks the traditional protagonist/antagonist dyad. While every novel is likely a painstaking effort on the part of the author, rarely is said labour so easily perceived and appreciated as in Rasputin’s Bastards.
Rasputin’s Bastards by David Nickle
Published by ChiZine Publications