Review | Trepanation of the Skull

by Phillip Meters

Review of Trepanation of the Skull by Sergey Gandlevsky. Translated by Susanne Fusso.
October 2014. Normal, IL: Northern Illinois University Press.

Growing up in a Soviet Union that was slowly collapsing, Russian poet Sergey Gandlevsky took the typical teenage rebellion and raised it to the Absolut power—drinking and begging and slugging his way through his twenties and thirties.Trepanation of the Skull is his remarkable story of survival—not just from a life-threatening tumor—but from the moral nastiness of Soviet life.

Emerging from the Soviet underground of the 1970s and 80s, Sergey Gandlevsky was voted by a Russian critics’ poll as its most important living poet. Yet the road that got him there was littered with alcoholic benders, slugfests, guardian angel mentors, accidental friendships, and even a duel. Unlike his literary predecessors with their self-aggrandizing memoirs, however, Gandlevsky refuses to romanticize or mythologize his degradation or his coterie of literary lions; Trepanation—winner of the Russian version of the Booker Prize—is a comically self-lacerating portrait of a man refusing to grow up, now forced to face the music.

The Russian poet Alexander Pushkin once wrote, “age has pushed me toward dry prose.” Poets of a certain age suddenly find themselves tackling longer narrative forms like memoir, trying to make sense of a lifespan in ways that spills beyond the bounds of compressed lyric poetry.

Trepanation is a literary tour de force, not because of its hilarious portrait of a damaged literary life in a damaged society, but because of its wildly digressive style. Like the best sort of buzzed conversations at a party of raconteurs,Trepanation spins one story off another, holding off the end of the story as long as is narratively possible. It teeters on the edge of chaos, then pulls us back. It reminds us all narratives must end, as lives must end, so that the author’s task—like some sort of kindly hangman—is to so enthrall us so completely we forget where we are heading.

At one moment early on, Gandlevsky reveals the method of his madness: “And that is the way, my strict comrade, in which I intend to write. In your fifth decade the tangle of your past is formless, like the ‘bird nest’ on the spinning reel of an inexperienced fisherman, and you can pull on any knot in this senseless tangled mass” (29).

A trepanation is a kind of operation to open the skull. This memoir functions as a sort of literary brain surgery, probing the recesses of the living past, all the elements enfolded in its cauliflower-colored labyrinth. True to its organic progenitor, Trepanation is all one large chunk, without chapter breaks. Having translated good chunks of this work ten years ago, I immediately began to consider how it might be broken in ways to entice an American publisher. We can be grateful that translator Susanne Fusso remained faithful to Gandlevsky’s original form. It is the objective correlative to Gandlevsky’s inner mayhem.

Fusso’s translation admirably retains Gandlevsky’s dizzying cocktail of literary diction and slang, his relentless allusiveness to high and low culture. Only rarely did I find myself looking back at the Russian text to question a certain phrasing. For example, when the young poet Vitya Sanchuk insults Gandlevsky’s verse dedicated to Gandlevsky’s long-suffering wife, he turns to Gandlevsky and says, in Fusso’s translation, “Excuse me.” The more sardonic “sorry” would have communicated the passive-aggressiveness more clearly.

For those not up to speed on recent Russian literature and culture, Fusso includes a thorough glossary of names, a map of places, and extensive annotations.

Trepanation of the Skull is an essential work of literary memoir, in which Gandlevsky finds a form adequate to the anarchy of midlife, having survived the collapse of a political age and his own near-demise.