The Flying Dutchman

Written by Anatoly Kudryavitsky Carol Ermakova (trans.)
Review by Mandy Jenkinson

Konstantin Alpheyev, a musicologist, finds himself in trouble with the KGB after the death of his girlfriend, in which it appears one of their officers is involved. He goes into hiding, calling himself No-one and renting an old house on the banks of a river, where he becomes a recluse, seemingly going mad while working on a book about Wagner. This is no ordinary house, as it was once a barge and seems to be turning itself into a 17th century ship, inspiring Alpheyev to identify with the Flying Dutchman legend.

If all this sounds strange, that is because this is indeed a strange book, meandering through time and space, jumping back and forth and merging fantasy and reality. We are often drawn into Alpheyev’s head in a series of musings and reflections, as well as into the book he is writing, and the overall effect is frequently disorientating. The novel is divided into four parts, the first focusing on his bizarre house, the second his musical education and relationship with his friend Beta, the third describing his confrontation with the KGB and the fourth concludes with a devastating flood. Wider issues such as state repression, corruption and persecution are thrown into the mix.

I had a conflicted reaction to the book finding myself, appositely, often at sea, although there is something compelling about Alpheyev’s odyssey and the lyrical writing that kept me reading. Overall, however, I didn’t find the book came together as a satisfying novel. Five short stories are included in the volume, which I found more readable but equally puzzling. Taken as a whole, the book at least gives a comprehensive overview of Kudryavitsky’s style and themes and introduces an English-speaking readership to another Russian writer.