16 November 2023
By Vic Peterson
Vic Peterson reviews Offended Sensibilities by Alissa Ganieva, translated by Carol Apollonio [Paperback, $15.95, 252pp, ISBN-9781646052233, Deep Vellum Publishing, Dallas, TX, 2022]
Alissa Ganieva’s new novel, Offended Sensibilities, is a hilarious, no-holds-barred swipe at Putin’s Russia. The plot is a kind of noir detective story that follows a series of vaguely related deaths. The satire opens with the suspicious demise of a corrupt regional official, Andrei Lymanzin, due to a ruptured aorta when hitching a ride from a passing car. Nikolai, his driver, dumps the body, and is the next to die having received a mysterious threatening note. And so on through the burlesque of characters. Each chapter is a separate episode with a distinct killing. There is often overlapping context, always grounded in the common element of a bizarre murder executed in grotesque detail.
Murder is not the only crime we are treated to. Prior to his death, Lymanzin elevated an employee, a local school head, and his mistress through nepotism. A tabloid journalist pens seamy articles, a corrupt local police official is on the take, a charlatan yoga instructor, pretentious theater-goers—double dealing permeates every level of society with an unnamed autocrat at the top. The aggregate effect on society is devastating, with no place to turn:
…the virus of calumny and backbiting permeated the town. Neighbor spied on neighbor; Cossacks patrolled the town, cracking their whips in the air, on the hunt for anyone who might desecrate the nation’s symbols, or attempt to undermine its founding principles, or defile anything holy. The region’s residents began breaking off mid-sentence; they became careful with words, took to glancing apprehensively around them; they worried they might blurt something out on social media, or ingest some foreign food by mistake— Australian meat or French cheese—or allow the devil to lure them onto some banned website through a VPN, or accidentally advocate for something inappropriate.
Not to worry, however; the parade of falsehoods resumes.
But an inspiring song rose above the rooftops. A march was being rehearsed for the Day of National Unity. A saxophone played out of tune. And in the low sky there soared, making its escape upward to freedom, a single fugitive, plump balloon.
The heart of the novel is expectations about civil society, a theme that revolves around “offending the sensibilities” of people. In the early 2010s, laws were passed, making it a crime to express views others found “offensive.” The impetus for the legislation came from the Orthodox church; Putin ensured their loyalty by enshrining their views in law. Naturally, the church was quick to take advantage of the favor.
The most prominent example for Westerners is the infamous 2012 imprisonment of punk band Pussy Riot. Members of the band staged a guerilla performance in a Moscow cathedral clergy denounced as sacrilegious. The sentence drew considerable international attention and reproach. Two of the three women arrested spent more than a year behind bars.
The incident helps frame a culture fatigued by mistrust, the target of Alisa Ganieva’s sharp satire. Her objective is moral, although she is no moralist. In a 2018 essay, One Little Experiment, she writes,
For me, nothing is complete or absolutely undeniable except certain scientific facts and laws as well as moral taboos that are inbuilt in us. You need to doublecheck and cross-check and look from other corners and other people’s shoes. Every character may be right in their own way. The contrary way of thinking would be a religious one. It gives all the answers and warns against asking too many questions. It’s all about the one and only main channel of all-covering truth. It favors monologue rather than dialogue.
Not the words of someone ingratiating herself with authority.
But Ganieva’s lampooning is not nihilistic. There is a core of humanistic beliefs that underwrite the comedy; an expectation of civil behavior, empathy, respect for laws, and disgust with corruption. Such convictions are dangerous; the borders of taboo constantly shift under a tyrant.
Ganieva is used to daring offense. In 2009, her first novel, Salaam, Dalgat! won Russia’s prestigious literary Debut Prize for authors under twenty-five. The shock was not that the novel won but that the author had used a male pen name, a fact not known until she showed up at the awards ceremony. Cultural expectations were upended. Now, after a string of successful literary works, she is one of Russian’s most promising novelists.
Carol Apollonio’s translation is superb. Ganieva is touted as having a keen ear for regional dialect and the linguistic idiosyncrasies that make language fluid. And difficult to transport seamlessly across cultures. Yet one gets the sense of a world only partly unlike ours, for the human comedy is transnational. Carol Apollonio’s prose is gorgeous throughout; such linguistic skill in translation is phenomenal.
Although Offended Sensibilities is a kind of comedy of manners, its import expands rapidly beyond niceties. The reader does not need to be an expert on Russian culture to appreciate Ganieva’s skewering of human failing. The implications ramify. What is the invasion of Ukraine but an offense against sensibility of the deepest order? A humane disposition, relying on belief in universal human values, respect for autonomy, and the goal of peace?
An idealistic notion, perhaps, but one never to abandon.