The Golgen Ass
THE SUBTITLE OF Elena Chernikova's Zolotaia oslitsa sounds intriguing: "Novel-Allusion About Love and Posthumous Life Written by a Woman in Russia and Based on the Domesticated Russian Male Material." Defined as an erotic novel, Zolotaia oslitsa (the title refers directly to Lucius Apuleius' classic, The Golden Ass) covers the young, successful Lee's lifelong chain of love affairs and relationships; from her first kiss as an eight-year old year old child to the last empathies of her posthumous life. The narrative's eroticism seasoned with fantastic and mysterious elements, the facility of the discourse, the episodic structure, and the protagonist's physical transformation suggest the novel's Roman literary prototype. The light eroticism, an important aspect of the novel, does not overshadow the captivating analysis of the impact on the heroine's personality (ranging from subtle to self-destructive) resulting from her every encounter with a man or boy (whether a lover or not), as well as with women (particularly in the fragments where Lee exists in the male body of Ghedat). Unlike Apuleius' work, Chernikova's novel focuses on her protagonist's psychological and sensual metamorphoses, revealed through the character's recollections and confessions. Additionally, Lee's fate is exposed by the mysterious and disguised fellow traveler reading to her from an enigmatic book. And though the physical journey is depicted as a latenight trolley-bus ride through the Moscow winter (which is quite an exotic way of traveling for Lee, accustomed to her husband's comfortable "car of a decent make and model"), the significance is ascribed to the retrospective journey of the character's recollections.
Contemporary Russian women's writing is generally heavily impregnated with numerous tribulations and dramatic, if not tragic conflicts, which reflect both the most recent societal changes evoked by glasnost' and perestroika, and also other ingrained problems, descending almost from the Domosto? period. Most prominent female writers such as Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, Tatiana Tolstaya, Galina Shcherbakova, and Valeria Narbikova defiantly explore previously taboo gender related topics, including sexual abuse, prostitution, unwanted pregnancies, fictitious marriages, alcoholism, unattainability of self-fulfillment, or the insoluble conflict between professional responsibilities and parental obligations. Their hardboiled literary manner often demonstrates more explicit masculine qualities than their male colleagues' writing. Chernikova's discourse, in contrast, is free of this narrative or thematic toughness, although it is not free of conflicts, difficult or controversial situations, and everyday problems. However, many of these are treated ironically, where stable gender-related stereotypes and macho attitudes (the notorious domesticated Russian male material"), widely proliferating in contemporary Russia, are openly and wittily ridiculed. Although the novel broaches some important social issues, they are presented in a subdued and allusive manner, primarily through the prism of female sensuality and personal experience.
Such an approach fully suits the generic requirements. Unfolding the complex sensuous experiences of a contemporary woman on both the realistic and the fantastic levels, Chernikova's fiction does not offer easy solutions. Her protagonist's journey, unlike that of the adventurous and easygoing Lucius from The Golden Ass, is not concluded in joy and happiness. The character's attempt to revaluate love as a significant human value, which can be interpreted in different ways, attests to this.
Generally, Chernikova's novel is dynamic, entertaining, and easy to read. It is free of the didacticism and heavy-handedness typical of many Russian and East European writers. Its major demerit lies in the loss of narrative smoothness near the conclusion. The novel's closing chapters would benefit significantly from a simpler plot, which currently incorporates features of several genres. Fantastic elements, social satire, and dystopia, to say nothing of intertextual insertions, are interwoven into an overly convoluted knot of strands, lines, and episodes which cannot be easily untangled by the reader. Still, even in its less successful chapters, the book remains provocative and thrilling.
Tatiana Nazarenko, University of Manitoba