The Master of Cynicism

The Master of Cynicism
The Master of Cynicism
The students of the Mathematical and Mechanical Institute in Soviet Moscow of the late 70’s and 80’s live lives that are marginal in the same way as Diogenes, founder of the Cynics; their lives and actions are characterized by marginality and extremes. From the early morning swim in the icy waters of the Moskvariver, the penchant for going up down escalators, the debates and reading that continue in the shower rooms of the student hostel after the light curfew to absurd stakhanovite efforts to smash potato gathering quotas.

Written in the form of memoirs , with rather austere numbered chapters the book is episodic, though coheres through the main theme of the restless search to find meaning against the backdrop of the vacuum left by the ongoing ideological demise of communist ideology. This serves to heighten the protagonist’s teenage angst and their existential feel for life’s absurdity.

The scenes in the student hostel bring to mind VasilliPichul’s film“Little Vera”, set in the late 80’s, which also captures succinctly the cultural and social decay of Communist ideals, in its chronicle of the lives of young people reaching adulthood in a society which they hold in open contempt, therefore the little “faith” of the title.

Gubaliovskii’s students though, rather than only seeking solace in the sensual as the key characters of Pichul’s movie do, seek to find answers to their dilemmas through the philosophy of science and epistemology. This echoes a key trope of the time, where in the light of the great achievements of Soviet physicists, such as Sakharov et al, students flocked to the maths and physics faculties,as these were considered to be the vanguard of the scientific quest; the secrets of the universe would be revealed through physics, which to a great extent has proven to be true.

But they do not confine their discussions to mathematical concepts and materialism, there are theological discussions and debates on the paranormal. In one episode Sergei Ilyichrecounts , how as a child he was terribly afflicted with warts, which were cured miraculously by a friend of his parents with a stick. He then gained the power of healing warts with sticks but lost the power and was punished , when he once accepted money for healing. The story is met with incredulity. Yet Ilyich insists on it, despite his grounding in causality and materialism. Other discussions of levitation and telekinesis bring to mind Tarkovsky’s “Mirror” and “Stalker” and evoke the intellectual eclecticism of the seventies, and its conflation of the material and spiritual, (possiblyinherited in Russian intellectual life from Soloviev and the poets of the Silver agediscussed at length by the narrator)which for better or worse seems to be absent from the highbrow culture of the 21st century.

The chapter in which the author reflects on Diogenes and the cynics is a key to understanding the novel. Living on the margins of society the cynic, in the philosophical understanding of the term, is ina position to beable to examine and test the principles on which society bases itself. Like the citation earlier in the book from Mandelshtam about poetry being “stolen air”the cynic like the poet must follow an inner compass that is independent of the strictures or demands of society. During this passage the author draws a memorable parallel between Diogenes masturbating in a public square and the art group ‘Voina’s depiction of a phallus on the raisable section of Palace Bridge in St Petersburg. The narrator avows that the approach of the cynic is in fact a way of life rather than a philosophy and therefore has more claims to validity.

Apollonich, the borderline schizophrenic, idiot –savant plays the role of a latter –day Diogenes. The narrator encounters him on a tram and they strike up a wary friendship. Apollonich is an educated “ drop out” who vacillates between lucidity and madness, but instills in the narrator a quest for knowledge which leads him to continue his research and reading long after he has graduated from university.

ltimately it is not clear who the eponymous “Master of Cynicism”is. Diogenes? Apollonich? the Soviet system or even life itself? All of the above have claims to the title in this bittersweet ironic novel, which manages to be both slight and profound. Gubailovskii finds a tonewhich allows him to switcheffortlessly from comedy to tragedy. This tragedy is inevitable as his characters edge out too far along the bough of abstract reasoning and antithesis and consequently lose the stability of the trunk. Arkadii sacrifices life lived amongst the comfort of common givens partly through feeling that this space has been tainted and usurped.

Whoever the teacher, the narrator’s education brings him to a point of exasperation, where at the novel’s end he looks up at the sky and evokes Mandelshtam again in a phrase reminiscent of the final couplet of his poem “My Era”:

And from the firmament of birds, 
The azure moist block of sky 
Pours indifference down 
On to your mortal wound.

Review by Simon Knapper