Written in the early 1980s, and now translated into English for the first time, Vladimir Sharov’s The Rehearsals is considered a modern literary classic in Russia. It’s a difficult read, with no chapters, sentences that can fill an entire page, and various digressions. Those attempting it will need to be up to speed on Russian history and theology first, but fortunately Oliver Ready’s bouncy translation is very readable, even when the subject matter is at its most dense and incoherent. The plot (as far as there is one) stems from the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church’s desire to bring about the Second Coming of Christ in the year 1666. He orders the Holy Land to be rebuilt in the Russian countryside, and arranges for hundreds of illiterate peasants to perform the gospels word for word, but the years slip by without the Messiah appearing. Instead, we follow the descendants of those actors as they rehearse, keep their faith alive, and hand down their roles through the generations right up until the worst horrors of Stalin’s regime and the gulags.
Sharov’s structuring and tone are unique in world literature, with some parallels to the anonymous narrators of Julian Barnes, the nation-narrative allegory of Salman Rushdie, and the historical mastery of Umberto Eco. Members of the Historical Novel Society will surely enjoy such gems as “It’s not ordinary people we know, remember, imitate and emulate, but characters in books… and the past we remember is theirs”. The Rehearsals is at times absurd, inspiring, and wretchedly depressing. However, its exploration of the Russian psyche is deeply fascinating, and Sharov packs more content into one novel than most writers can dream of in a lifetime.