Sands of Time

The cover of the new English edition of Maria Galina's "Iramifications" does little justice to the novel's vibrant imagery and to the richness of its plot. In the Russian original, the cover features two men in modern suits floating through a starry Middle Eastern sky over a bas-relief of an Assyrian king. That scene, and the novel's original subtitle, "A Mystico-Ironic Phantasmagoria," hints far more successfully at the sweeping flights of Galina's imagination.
Without Galina's unfaltering irony, "Iramifications" might easily be dismissed as a thriller about businessmen in post-Soviet Ukraine, spiced up with time-machine journeys to the ancient Arab world. Galina's wit, erudition and mastery of language transform this fantasy plot into a genuine work of art.

The Russian edition of the novel is named after its two protagonists, Givi and Shenderovich. Givi is a typical Georgian first name, and Shenderovich is a characteristic Russian-Jewish surname. The combination is instantly amusing for native Russian readers, who have heard countless jokes about their namesakes. The English-language pairings of Jeeves and Wooster, or Beavis and Butt-Head, have something of the same quality, although "Givi" (the name of one of the giant descendants of the fallen angel Shemhazai) and "Shenderovich" (a Jewish equivalent of "descended from Alexander") possess much nobler etymologies.

"Iramifications" can best be summarized as a love story. Givi Mesopotamishvili, an accountant for a ferry company, is longing after Shenderovich's business partner, Alla, an alluring blonde who specializes in comparative linguistics. When their steamer anchors at Istanbul, Alla announces that she is going to do "her bit for public relations," in other words, spend the night with the captain. After Alla mysteriously disappears, Givi and Shenderovich begin searching for her in the local archeology museum, from which they are magically transported to a distant desert. They are captured first by monks and then by a werewolf, and finally are delivered to the ancient city of Iram. There they find Alla, who has acquired the form of a seductive female demon, or succubus. And though, once again, Givi does not benefit from Alla's amorous attentions, he magnanimously releases her from her harem. In the end, his devotion wins her heart, but only after he resumes his "ordinary and pathetic" lifestyle, to use the expression of James McAvoy's character in Timur Bekmambetov's recent film "Wanted."

In his quiet unassertiveness, combined with his pronounced male heterosexual libido, Givi resembles another "ordinary and pathetic" personage of world literature, namely, Leopold Bloom from James Joyce's "Ulysses." Givi shares with Bloom a penchant for daydreaming about the Middle East. Bloom imagines his wife as a voluptuous Turkish woman in a "wide yellow cummerbund" and "white yashmak." Similarly, Givi anticipates the delights of Istanbul's nightlife: "Beautiful, dusky maidens appeared to him in a swirling mist, their arms swaying like willowy branches in the wind, their tender faces concealed behind gauzy veils, precious stones glittering in their delicate navels..." Givi and Bloom also have mutual prototypes: Sindbad the Sailor and King Solomon. Like Sindbad, Givi is involved in commerce. In Iram, he plays the role of a wise king, while Shenderovich acts as the latest incarnation of Alexander the Great.

Galina's dialogue is dynamic and witty, its comic potency often stemming from the characters, who mock each other's words. At other times, the humor comes from the narrator's own juxtaposition of modern and ancient mentalities and of elevated and prosaic rhetoric:

"Consider your options, O Bounty Hunter," Givi undertook one last attempt. "Would it be not better to hand us over to the UN? They'll pay ten times as much for us..."

"I know not of this Yu-En," the Leader impatiently stamped his foot again. "Perhaps he eats from plates of gold and drinks from vessels of silver... but even were he to offer me a hundred times as much my intentions would remain unchanged."

Many of the questions Galina raises will be familiar to readers of fiction about time traveling. How far removed are we from the distant past? Is its lifestyle indecipherable, and therefore ludicrous, to later generations? Are the religions of early civilizations completely irrelevant to modern humankind, or do the spells and incantations of antiquity still affect our lives? At first glance, the old and modern worlds of Galina's novel are isolated from each other and appear to have little chance of entering into proper dialogue. As the story unfolds, however, it turns out that the universe of Givi and Shenderovich and the dimension inhabited by ancient kings and queens have many links. Shenderovich behaves "like a sheikh" in everyday life, while Givi's talent for judicious philosophizing earns him the respect of Iram's viziers and astrologers, including the enigmatic Murshid:

"My prayer rises up into the vaults of this cell," sighed Givi, "and stays there. It certainly doesn't reach God. How am I supposed to know where He is? Who He is?"

"God is what flows between your heart and its auricle, like the tears that flow from under your eyelids. He is everywhere."

"And what does one little Givi matter to him?"

"One Givi is everything to him. For you are the only Givi that he has."

Galina was born in 1958 in Kalinin, now Tver. In the 1990s, she terminated her postdoctoral research in biology in order to become a full-time writer. She is the author of 10 novels and is also known as a poet, critic and translator. Her deft turns of phrase and unexpected descriptive details recall the prose of the early Soviet satirists Ilf and Petrov and of the science-fiction writers Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. To the English reader, "Iramifications" will evoke the novels of Martin Amis and Julian Barnes. In fact, Barnes' "A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters" and "Iramifications" belong to the same genre of "hyper-fiction," which fuses fantasy with sharp satirical realism.

Humor is the most difficult quality to convey in translation, but Galina found in Amanda Love Darragh her perfect interpreter. The English version of "Iramifications" is as pleasurable to read as the Russian original. Galina's ingenuity in weaving together numerous mythological allusions and literary parallels is astounding. Apart from the Hellenic, Jewish and Arabic myths, she introduces references to popular legends and modern superstitions. The Elizabethan astrologer John Dee, the English occultist Aleister Crowley, djinns, UFOs and the infamous brigantine Mary Celeste all get mentioned, yet Galina's overpowering irony keeps the mix from descending into absurdity.

It might well happen that, in 50 years' time, "Iramifications" will repeat the fate of "Ulysses," and scholars will start writing academic articles on Galina's combination of Judaic and Islamic narrative techniques. But until that happens, we can simply enjoy the story of Givi and Shenderovich for its delightful pungency and humaneness.

Darya Protopopova is writing a doctoral thesis on Virginia Woolf at the University of Oxford and is a regular contributor to the Times Literary Supplement.

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