Documents Concerning Rubashov the Gambler

Written by Carl-Johan Vallgren (trans. Sarah Death)
Review by Doug Kemp

Josef Nikolai Rubashov, the eponymous inveterate gambler, plays a somewhat dangerous game of poker with the Devil on New Year’s Eve 1899 in St Petersburg. Not surprisingly, he loses, but Rubashov is given an odd bonus prize of immortality and then spends the whole of the 20th century in finding ways to end or mitigate this poisoned legacy. Rubashov finds himself in most of the worst episodes of the last century, and indeed witnesses many atrocious acts of mankind. He meets fellow immortals along the way, who include Paracelsus and Gilles de Rais, and then loses the only true love in his life to the whim of his Satanic controllers, who emerge regularly throughout the novel to tease and tantalise poor Rubashov – but their role is very different to that of the traditional Devil in literature. Life without end or ultimate purpose would be intolerable – it is the limited time element in our lives that gives us drive, shape and destiny. Despite being a work of pure fantasy, the novel is unsettling and provides a challenging insight into being a human.