Captain of the Steppe by Oleg Pavlov, tr. Ian Appleby

Deep in the desolate steppe, Captain Khabarov waits out his service at a camp where the news arrives in bundles of last year’s papers and rations turn up rotting in their trucks. One Spring, he decides to plant a field of potatoes to feed his half-starved men . . .

This blackly comic novel shows the unsettling consequences of thinking for yourself under the Soviet system. Oleg Pavlov’s first novel, published when he was only 24, Captain of the Steppe was immediately praised for its chilling but humane and hilarious depiction of the Soviet Empire’s last years.

I had heard this books described as “Kafka meets Catch 22″ and got the impression from reviews and the blurb above that the Captains’ decision to plant potatoes to feed his men would play a much larger role in the novel than it actually does. I was also expecting it to be funnier but perhaps that’s just a matter of taste and sense of humour.

Captain of the Steppe by Oleg Pavlov, tr. Ian Appleby (And Other Stories, 2013)

Captain of the Steppe by Oleg Pavlov, tr. Ian Appleby (And Other Stories, 2013)

It’s taken me a while to write this up because I had been looking forward to reading this book – it was another of my first picks from the Summer Reads longlist – and I don’t like writing negative reviews unless I really hate the book, which I certainly didn’t. I found the historical aspects of the novel interesting and enjoyed the descriptions of landscapes and characters, but in the end it isn’t really the kind of book that appeals to me. I am too easily lost by political machinations, as a result of which I kept forgetting who people were and not being able to work out what they were up to. I also found the plot confusing as it switched between the characters at the camp in the Steppe and those back at headquarters, and found it hard to keep track of who everybody was – often the case with Russian novels given all the variations on the characters’ names. The cast of characters at the back would have helped more if I’d found it earlier!

Perhaps if I come back to it another time, and in another frame of mind, I might get on with it better. I can certainly appreciate the writing and others who have a better head for this kind of thing than me will surely enjoy it.

About forwardtranslations

I'm a freelance literary translator from German and French to English. The title of my blog comes from Mary Schmich's description of reading: it struck home with me, and seems especially apt for translated fiction. Here are some of my musings on what I'm reading, re-reading, reading to my children, and translating.
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