Wednesday, August 18, 2010

broke down engine #2

Feel like a broke down engine, mama,
Ain't got no drivers at all...

--Blind Willie McTell
"Broke Down Engine," take 2.

So this morning I finished that book I previewed here a couple weeks ago. I'm a little overwhelmed and troubled by it, and can't really say too much yet. However, there's one passage on the next to the last page that pretty much encapsulates Shteyngart's attitude of combined pessimism and acceptance: "We were talking, placidly despite the wine intake, about global warming and the end of human life on earth.The Italians were describing our role on the planet as that of bothersome horseflies, and the planet's self-regulating ecosystems as a kind of gigantic fly-swatter."

He's an unusual guy, this Shteyngart is, of the Russian subdivision of the tribe of Ashkenaze, that slender demographic slice that consistently tests out as the most intelligent ethnic chunk among all humankind. The Russian Ashkenaze are uniquely schooled in the knowledge of misery, having endured in short order Stalin, then Hitler, then Stalin again.

Shteyngart was raised his first seven years in St. Petersburg, or Leningrad as it was called then, in an apartment overlooking a huge square dominated by an enormous cast metal statue of the man himself, old Vladimir Ilyich. In 1979, when he was seven, his family brought him to Queens, NYC, and stuck him in a Hebrew School. Thereafter, till he was 14, he ran a rut between school and home where the family continued to speak only Russian.

All this has given him a unique perspective on the subjects of decline and fall, of nobility and depravity, and what human beings are capable of. He knows, recognizes, and understands the signs and symptoms, is educated in history and psychology, and incapable of denial or of flinching before bad news. He may or may not be a great writer -- his technique impresses me as both flashy and sure of itself, but my impressions of that aspect of the book are too new to judge. As a historical chronicler, he's top-drawer.

I had to rouse myself and get out of the house for a while. Even after my morning exercise routine my thoughts were roiled and choppy, still churned up by the book's message. So here I sit at the Green Bean, decompressing. After a cold and cloudy morning the sun is shining gently on Seattle, and life is going by placidly out on the street. There's a warm breeze out of the south, and the Bean is full of the usual silent and indrawn laptop heads. it's strange to think of how fragile this all is.

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