It’s not really science fiction or fantasy, I know, but hopefully Maxim And Fyodor can sneak into some hard-sf hearts as sort-of-slipstream or part of the New Weird or something, because quite frankly it’s a cracking read. Tales set in the old Soviet Union do feel very much like communications from an alien world nowadays, and stories about alcohol-befuddled ‘philosophers’ living at the fag end of communism have a definite air of unreality about them. So although Maxim And Fyodor could be found in the mainstream fiction section of your average corporate behemoth bookstore, spiritually it belongs more in the SF/Fantasy ghetto. Which perhaps explains why it’s being sold by those not-at-all-angry-young-men-of-sf at BBR, and why it deserves a review here.
The eponymous heroes Fyodor and Maxim are alcoholic layabouts (alconauts is the memorable term used to describe them) living in penury in Leningrad and subsisting by some sort of itinerant philosophy teaching. It must be said that there’s no real plot to the book: our heroes drink, they get drunk, they do drunken things and they suffer hangovers. At one point, in a flurry of ill-advised activity, a day-trip is attempted. These adventures are related by way of various literary forms, including (but not limited to): a diary, correspondence from Fyodor, an epic poem, a film treatment, haiku and Zen Buddhist fables – even a fairly straightforward novel-esque narrative is employed! The only thing I can promise is that however I try and explain the book’s framework here you’ll be surprised when you actually read it.
Speaking of Zen Buddhism, this pops up quite a lot in the book, and Maxim and Fyodor are treated by their students, and – mock-seriously – by the author, as a pair of bodhisattvas (holy wise men). Pyotr, a student, tries to defend their wisdom:
‘PYOTR: But they really have given us…taught us something...
PYOTR: It’s hard to say in concrete terms.’
I know what he means.
The consistent (but so hilariously and earnestly written) misconception of two foolish drunks as Zen masters, the brilliantly po-faced interpretation of straightforward stupidity or pure bad manners as being somehow ‘deep’ is one of the funniest running jokes in Maxim And Fyodor; but there are plenty of others.
The closest Western comparison I can think of to Maxim And Fyodor is Withnail And I. Lines from the book, even during the time it was officially banned in the 1980s and circulated underground via typed-out copies, were apparently bandied about quite as much, if not more, than quotes from Bruce Robinson’s excellent film were in this country (the Camberwell Carrot, etc). So probably best not to quote this at any Russians you know or they may hit you.
Maxim And Fyodor is a haphazard and entirely asymmetrical book, and all the better for that – you absolutely never know what you might get when you turn the page. Embark upon reading Maxim And Fyodor with an open mind and I promise you’ll love it. There are even two strange, short fairy tales written by Shinkarev included as a bonus – now can we file it under Fantasy?