Black Monkey

Black Monkey
Black Monkey
AST, Astrel (2011)
ISBN 978-5-17-073246-3
288 pages
In Prilepin’s latest novel, which was shortlisted for the Big Book Prize 2012, the lost protagonist/anti-hero (unnamed throughout) a journalist and writer of political thrillers is sent on a seemingly absurd journalistic mission to uncover the truth about a group of adolescents, kept in a secret government laboratory, who do not possess the ability to empathise with fellow humans and hence are capable of the most brutal acts.

The mission is absurd because, having been taken around the facility our would- be reporter signs non-disclosure documents and is told by his editor to keep the information to himself.

Our protagonist, clearly affected by what he has witnessed, partly to research material for a new book, partly to escape from his domestic troubles then takes it on himself to explore a crime where the whole floor of an apartment building in the Moscow suburbs has been massacred, allegedly by a group of children “no older than the age of 12”.

Around this initial device and this central figure Prilepin weaves a dual narrative about an ancient legend of a Russian town attacked by a group of violent youths and the macabre and brutal exploits of a battalion of child rebel soldiers in an unnamed African country who, amongst other atrocities coldly turn on the forces that brought them into being.

On the level of plot the novel has all the trappings of a horror story/ thriller, however the novel concerns itself less with the unraveling of this mystery than with the slow disintegration of the main character’s personal life and mental health. Indeed from the first-person narrative and the often disjunctured retelling of events, the boundary between what is real, what is imaginary, what is dimly recalled becomes very blurred.

The notion of the thread, narrative, formative and historical, is prominent throughout the novel. In the opening statement there is a clear statement of the protagonists predicament:

“When I became lost – this is the interesting thing… You wander, holding a thread behind you, becoming thinner yourself, it seems, until you are just on the point of becoming smaller than the eye of a needle, smaller than the thread fed through it and frayed into a thousand smaller threads, thinner than the thinnest of these, and suddenly you are torn out of the limits of yourself, not towards non-existence but in the opposite direction – towards a state of coming into being, where everything will be explained.”

The novel may be viewed as a study of the strands that make up the individual and society in the atomized Moscow and fragmented contemporary Russia of the novel’s setting. It is a search for underlying reasons, if a troubled and ultimately failed one.

Let’s take the main character, whose brutal honesty with himself and frequent disgust at his own actions are probably the only features that redeem him to the reader. He is a father of young twins, a son and daughter, whom he clearly loves, but by the same token neglects. In some of the more strangely disturbing passages he provokes, seemingly despite himself, and psychologically torments them. Relations with his wife are strained and they hardly speak, are rarely together in their house and she eventually throws him out when she finds out about his girlfriend. The only residual passion that is shown towards his wife is through the proxy of the station prostitute who he believes resembles a younger version of her. His various encounters with her, initially a form of power play, ultimately lead to her death.

There are echoes in these encounters of Dostoevsky’s “Notes from the Underground” and its central encounter with the underground man and Liza the young prostitute. As in Dostoevsky’s work in Prilepin’s the protagonist is unnamed and constantly pushes himself towards actions that will harm him and those around him. Dostoevsky used his main character as a vehicle to polemicise with Chernyshevsky and the rational materialism of the 1870’s. Prilepin similarly uses his “overground man” as a means to answer a question that both writers addressed in their own way and which is seemingly an eternal one in Russia “What is to be done?”

The novel throws up more questions than it answers but it identifies the problem in one area, the abandonment of the nurturing function of family and state. The trope of a lack of maternal instincts runs throughout the book; from the wife that neglects her children to the mother in the laboratory who has killed hers and the young girl who asks the stoker to toss her unwanted kittens into the furnace. The inability of our hero to bring up his children adequately is a microcosm of the gangs of children that are left feral and savage. Or worse, the children that are coopted to do evil in the service of the state, as with the African child soldiers and the Russian political figure who has dark designs on the laboratory teenagers. Here we can see a direct allusion to the Kremlin’s “Grey Cardinal” 

Vladimir Surkov and his creation of the youth movement “Nashi”, street level activists tasked with the intimidation of the political opposition. A whole swathe of Russian youth, that in the words of the ecological activist Zhenia Chirikova, will have to ”undergo a complete moral re-education”.
Prilepin is an active member of the banned National Bolshevik movement, 

“The Other Russia” and is renowned for his street activism and prominent membership of the Anti-Putin opposition in Russia. His real talent lies in bringing his political vision to life in his texts, which pulse with his energy and verbal gifts.

Fellow war veteran Arkady Babchenko, and the author of  One Soldier’s War has said the following about Prilepin’s work:
“What I love about him is that he never leaves the front line. He is an active participant expressing his social and political protest both in his books, and physically on the streets.”

The poet and novelist Dmitry Bykov has said that prior to the appearance of Prilepin there were very few novelists who were willing to write about the process of social change in the country during the Putin era. Prilepin changed all that.

Review by Simon Knapper