Lisa C. Hayden is one of the best-known Russian-to-English literary translators working today; she is also a participant in the RusTrans “Publish Translations” case study, for which she produced a 10,000-word sample from Alexei Salnikov’s 2017 novel Otdel (The Department). You can read more about Salnikov here and you can read a short extract from Lisa’s translation of The Department here.
Translating extended excerpts from Alexei Salnikov’s The Department was a perfect project for the rather dysfunctional summer of 2020. Salnikov’s strange and sinister world is mine yet not mine, and the hidden forces that he depicts are both personal and state-based, banal and evil.
After consulting with Salnikov’s literary agency, Banke, Goumen & Smirnova, who also checked in with Salnikov, I settled on translating three chunks of the novel. The beginning is a scene-setting necessity that describes the department itself. A lengthy section detailing the main character’s presence at his first killing contains questions too good to skip. And a visit to a co-worker’s wife shows two characters away from work.
Taken together, these three extracts show the odd world Salnikov has created, showcasing its disorienting but realistic weirdness and absurdities. Not to mention Salnikov’s sly humor. It’s my hope that these chunks of the book will capture a publisher’s imagination the way the Russian version of The Department captured mine back in 2019. As the pandemic continues to continue, I find myself ever more drawn to books with the “twisted normalcy” I mentioned in a post from my personal blog which I wrote in 2019 (see below). I very much hope a translated version of Salnikov’s peculiar world will soon be available to anglophone readers, thanks to these excerpts translated under the aegis of the RusTRANS project.
The Big Wheel Effect: Salnikov’s Chilling Department
Alexei Salnikov’s Отдел (The Department), the author’s debut novel, is one of those marvelously maddening books that’s nearly impossible to write about because the experience of reading was so total, so all-consuming, and so invasive that it moved in and occupied my psyche. The visit may be permanent. Thanks to dark humor, a macabre plot, and Salnikov’s portrayal of twisted normalcy in a place that seems irreparably fragmented, The Department is a painfully (in an almost physical sense) tense book to read. Although it’s easy enough to recount plot basics – Salnikov knows how to tell a story – it’s far harder to interpret the novel because Salnikov packs in so much, so many layers: writer Shamil Idiatullin’s blurb on the back of the Russian edition offers five possible takes on The Department (including a dystopia that reinterprets/revisits American and Soviet writings or the “we were just following orders” scenario) and I could add several more, including an old favorite, the absurdity of contemporary life.
The gist of the story is that a man, Igor, who lost his job long ago, finally succeeds at finding work in a certain murky office (the department in the title) located in an old heating plant. He has a few coworkers – his boss’s first two initials are SS, leading to a nickname – who are also, for various reasons, unemployable outcasts. They all know they’re a bit off. The most immediate reason, I suppose, has less to do with their backgrounds than with their jobs, which involve killing. Sometimes they do that by making house calls, sometimes they do the job in the department’s basement, which they call Hollywood. Either way, Igor has problems at home, too. Mild spoiler: his wife (who’s pretty successful at work, frustrated with Igor’s job situation, and even mentions PMS and menopause – I think Salnikov is one of the first Russian writers I’ve read who mentions пэмээс) will end up bailing on him, taking their son with her.
For Igor, that’s something of a relief, particularly given the nature of the department’s work, which is a strong, stressful force that serves to bond the guys: they take smoke breaks together and drink together, like lots of co-workers do, making them seem pretty normal for much of the book. At least until the next killing assignment. For me, anyway, this, another variation on the banality of evildoers, is at the root of the tension I mentioned in my opener: Salnikov shifts between relatively mundane things – bureaucracy or a wife’s affair – and that killing, resulting in contrasts that remind me of nothing more than the scene in The Shining, where Danny rides his Big Wheel over bare floors (noisy) and rugs (quiet). It’s the sound that matters there, jarring the viewer each time those big wheels hit the bare floor. In The Department, the killing sure seems pointless (slight spoiler: Igor’s job is to read dozens of inane questions to the victim, for a weird interrogation about things like fear of heights, frequency of sharpening kitchen knives, and the like) and about all that we know is that it’s brutal. And that we don’t want to look. It’s as if the plot hits that bare floor, jarring the reader’s nerves and sensibilities after the soft rug of, say, Igor talking with his son (even if there is a mention of guns, aliens, and terrorism). I should add that Salnikov made a brilliant choice in choosing Igor’s part of the killings. Allegedly the victims are threats – one is a young woman and at one point, Igor wonders who will be next: someone disabled, a child, a cancer patient, or even a panda – but the killers themselves have no idea why. They even wonder if they’re aliens. As, of course, they are themselves in their society: the department’s location isn’t even on the map. What’s scariest is that Salnikov constantly forces the reader to ponder how bad these characters’ actions are, forcing the reader to ponder what they would do in, say, Igor’s place.
All that pondering – you know what they’re doing is wrong but yet… – has a Big Wheel effect on the reader, too, and ratchets up the suspense because the reader becomes so involved. Salnikov builds a world that’s ours yet not (we hope, we really hope) ours, a place where horrible things that are part of some larger plan are hidden, occult, and in the shadows at a derelict heating plant, along with characters who aren’t clued in. Salnikov wraps up the novel’s epilogue with Igor telling a small lie, a lie he wants to believe. The novel’s final paragraph speaks about lies and illusions that, essentially, hold the world together. It’s horrifyingly homey. Ignorance is bliss. Better the sweet lie than the bitter truth.