The postmodern writing against the power of the discourse: the example of Alexei Slapovsky
Alexei Slapovsky is one of the most significant Russian postmodern writers. For Russian literature developed postmodern aesthetics much later than most of the west-European literature, namely as late as 1980’s and 1990’s, when the postmodernism began to be reconsidered, most of the Russian postmodern authors combined postmodern aesthetics with reflections on it. Hence Slapovsky is often regarded rather as a post-realist writer. In this article I want to discuss his work of “Antiabsurd, ili Kniga dlya teh, kto ne lyubit čitat” (Anti-absurdity or a Book for those who doesn’t like reading”) (1993). This book contains a review of small stories that are like parables. “Antiabsurd” is a kind of approach consequently followed by the author in the whole book. This method is an attempt to liberate us from the power of discourse.
Michel Faucalt’s discourse theory presumes that all kind of human speech is predominated by discourse that determines all the speech and language means people use. Because there is no thought and no consciousness without words expressing it, this kind of determination seems to be total. There is no objective reality either, so there is only our image of reality, that we refer to. This presumption puts all of literature in danger, because the author loses his own style. All the author says is regarded to be dictated by discourse. This consideration leads towards another conclusion, namely that there can be no creative subject at all, and that all sort of creativity is caused by the language itself. Postmodernism abandons the idea of the author and this “death of the author” threatens to become the death of literature.
Slapovsky undermines the totality of discourse as he lets his characters act in an unexpected way. In every story of the “Antiabsurd” he imitates a discourse, but the end of every story is unpredictable from the point of view of the discourse. For instance, in the story “Gad takoy” (“Such a Bastard”) the hero is occupying the bathroom for hours. The author describes in details all the angry expressions of his neighbors towards the hero, in case he would live in a communal flat and have to share the bathroom with other people. At the end they would carry him out by arms and legs and beat him against the wall. But all this, says the author, will not happen, because the hero actually lives in his own private apartment with his own bathroom. This way the author destroys the discourse he was imitating.
The hero of the story “Pravda v glasa” (“Naked Truth”) can not stand the popular singer Echov, because his songs are silly, as himself too. The hero, a worker in a factory, goes to Moscow, meets Echov at his concert and tells him this “naked truth”. The author again is acting contrary to the discourse: Echov is ashamed about his silliness and gives up singing, against the reader’s expectations. He marries a nice girl, as silly as himself, gives birth to nice and silly children and lives happily until his old age.
In the novel “Ženihi” (“Fiancées”) the unnamed heroine has been abandoned by her lover and is searching for a man to marry in virtue of an announcement in a newspaper. This way she learns to know fifteen men, that are described in the story, and finds the fifteenth measuring up her claims: “forty-two, an apartment, a telephone, city-center, no children, but willing to have some” (A 19). But instead of marrying this man the heroine comes back to her lover announcing him, that she would stay now forever, because she is now certain of finding a good man to marry any time she wants to. The author remarks at the end that she has been staying with him for five years now, in spite of his drinking and betraying her.
In all the stories the author destroys the plot suggested by the discourse as he lets his characters act against this discourse. However, in the novel “Den roždenya” (“Birthday”) he destroys the self-offering plot by travestying his own speech. The author describes precisely which amount of alcohol every guest of the birthday party drank: “Nina Fyodorovna Bosolykina drank one glass vodka and one and a half glasses champagne. She drank no red wine. Vova Bosollykin drank twelve glasses vodka. He drank no champagne neither red wine” (A 46 ). The amount of the alcohol drank by the guests is increasing towards the end of the story: “Semyon Ivanovich Yabin drank twenty eight glasses vodka. Lira Stepanovna Yabina drank twenty eight glasses vodka too, furthermore she drank three glasses wine and one glass champagne” (A 47). The escalation makes the reader expecting a description of the following uncontrolled behavior of the guests. But the author does not picture the guests bursting into the rage, and finishes the story with the decent conclusion: “The guests enjoyed themselves very well at the birthday party of Yevgeniy Ivanovich Gordeyev!” (A 47 ).
It is the abandonment of the very idea of the truth, that allows Slapovsky to write texts, which deliberately undermine the discourse. This kind of writing is common for the postmodern aesthetics, as the exposal of the author’s method too.
The story “Vera i Pravda” (“The belief and the truth”) comments the philosophic notions of the author. The hero insists on his right and tries to persuade different people to accept the truth he declares, unless his mother tells him, she believes in his words. The hero understands that it doesn’t matter for her whether he is right or not, because she loves him and wants him to be alive and healthy and near to her. Then a wonder happened, the author remarked. Since the hero gave up the attempts to make other believe him, they believed him by themselves. The idea of the absolute truth retired with the ruin of the great narratives, and this freedom can revive the creativity which suffers under the pressure of the discourse. For Russian authors it is the socialist discourse, that they deconstruct, while for the western literature it is the discourse of the capitalist consumerism and of the mass culture. Slapovsky does not mention the signs of this discourse by name. His plots and characters are of a large generalization. He intends to deconstruct not the particular discourse, but the very idea of the discourse.
The scheme of the deconstructing of the discourse is metaphorically given in the story “Pamyatnik” (“The Monument). The plot of this story is rather simple: in the village Bolshie vorobushki there was a monument of a great man N.N. who lived there as he was a child. This village was famous only for that person and was mentioned only in relation with him. Every school teacher spoke of him as “an example and a sign”. Firstly the inhabitants were proud of the hero, further they spoke of him out of custom and finally with an irritation, because “it seemed, that except for N.N. there was nothing else estimable in the village Bolshie vorobushki at all, nor has it been in the past or will be in the future”. Out of despair, the people of Bolshie vorobushki began to drink vodka in great amounts, until a college graduate returned to the village from the city, destroyed the monument and declared, N.N. never had lived in the village and should be no longer mentioned. As a result of it, the population of Bolshie vorobushki felt freer and drank afterwards not over “the average Russian statistic rate” (A 23).
All stories in the book of “Anti-Absurdity” are based on the described scheme. The dethronement of the total power of the discourse allows Slapovsky to express positive senses. On this way he also affirms the very existence of the creative subject. The characters of Slapovsky are more complex than just a voicer of the discourse. The postmodern style is not able to give a complete picture of a human character, as any other style either, but the postmodernism in its reconsidered form presumes this complex nature of human beings, that can not be fully expressed by the means of language. And this consideration rehabilitates the idea of the human creativity and gives literature a chance of the father existence.
- Slapovsky, Alexei (1993, 2000). Antiabsurd, ili Kniga dlya teh, kto ne lyubit čitat. Moskva: Eksmo.