A dose of totally bonkers Russian SF from the Strugatsky brothers

Last year, a language missing from my reading in translation was Russian, and Karen picked me up on it 😀 when I published my annual stats. So, this year I’m making sure that doesn’t happen again by getting an early first read–it won’t be my last–of one of the Strugatsky brothers’ SF novels.

I can also participate in two tags at once with this book: the European Reading Challenge 2021 hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader, and Vintage Science Fiction Month (defined as pre-1979) hosted by Andrea at The Little Red Reviewer.

Monday Starts on Saturday by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky

Translated by Andrew Bromfield

I was looking for my copy of their most famous novel, Roadside Picnic, but couldn’t find it–it’s probably lurking in a potential book spine poetry pile somewhere, but I also had this one from 1964 on my shelves.

The introduction to this edition in the Gollancz SF Masterworks series is by Adam Roberts, who is ideally placed to comment on this novel, having written his own madcap USSR-set SF novel Yellow Blue Tibia which I loved, and having read this book, was surely influenced by this pair of authors. Roberts describes Monday Starts on Saturday thus:

In short, Monday Starts on Saturday is profoundly, beautifully left-field. It’s so left field it pretty much passes out of the field altogether and reemerges, unexpectedly, right.

The basic premise of the story is simple. Young programmer, Sasha Privalov is en route to meet friends in Karelia, when he picks up two hitchhikers, who on hearing of his profession, offer to put him up and hope to persuade him to stay and work at their institute nearby, which he does. The second and third parts of the book comprise two episodes from his new working life there.

The execution of the story though is totally bonkers, madcap, and hilarious. It’s nigh-on impossible to understand what’s going on, but I just went with the flow and enjoyed it very much. The institution in question is ‘The National Institute for the Technology of Witchcraft and Thaumaturgy’ (NITWITT!), but Hogwarts it ain’t. Those who work here are seriously studying the science of magic.

Sasha gets his first inklings of this magical world at his lodgings with old babushka Naina Kievna, who manages the museum of the ‘Log House on Chicken Legs’ from Baba Yaga. Put up in the storeroom, young Sasha will have a interesting night, with voices, ghosts, changing books and views out of the window – plus the divan, which turns out not to be a divan, but a translator (of ordinary reality into the fairytale version). It also vanishes periodically – once with Sasha lying on it.

The second episode sees Sasha now working at the Institute, and it’s his turn to work the New Year’s Eve night shift, when the Institute should be empty of workers. His main task is to prevent any spontaneous combustions, turn things off and get everyone gone by shutting up time. No sooner does Deputy Director Modest Matveevich leave him to it than his problems begin, as some of the scientists’ ‘doubles’ remain, and there’s a problem with the conveyor belt feeding herring heads to an awful creation of one of the magician scientists that is the embodiment of gastric hunger–if it doesn’t get fed… By the end of a very eventful night, everyone seems to be back in the Institute!

The third episode revolves around two story threads. The first is a form of time travel. Sasha volunteers to try it out:

[Sedlovoi] had constructed a machine for travelling in described time. According to him, a world actually existed that was populated by Anna Karenina, Don Quixote, Sherlock Holmes, Grigory Melekhov and even Captain Nemo. […]

‘Which way do you want to go–into the future or the past?’
‘The future,’ I said.
‘Ah,’ he said, and I thought he sounded a little disappointed. ‘Into the described future . . . All those science fiction novels and Utopias. Well of course, that’s interesting too. Only don’t forget that the future is bound to consist of discrete elements, there must be huge gaps of time that haven’t been filled in by any authors…’

I wasn’t sure whether I recognised any of the worlds that Sasha visited as he whizzed forwards through time other than the obvious debt to HG Wells’ Time Machine.

The immortal Monty Python Dead Parrot Sketch ©BBC

The other strand involves a dead parrot – in this case, a green one, which keeps reappearing and dying again. The translation in this edition by Andrew Bromfield dates from 2002, and I spotted his use of Pythonesque words like ‘expired’ to describe the parrot. (I got a translator’s in-joke!)

I loved the way that the Strugatskys treated magic as stuff that science hasn’t worked out yet and thus worthy of dedicated research. It’s all done very seriously, and thus is all the more hilarious for it. Their main protagonist, Sasha, is an immensely likeable everyman type, the ideal narrator to try and to understand this weird new world he has ended up in. I think that Bromfield must have had huge fun as translator, coming up with NITWITT – I wonder what the Russian equivalent was?

The main stories have a postscript by Sasha to explain some of the terms used in the book. These definitions are delightfully funny in themselves too:

Homunculus. As conceived by illiterate medieval alchemists–a human-like being artificially created in a retort. In actual fact it is impossible to create an artificial being in a retort. Homunculi are synthesised in special autoclaves and used for bio-mechanical modelling.

An author’s note by the brothers at the end tells the story of how the Strugatskys came up with the novel and its path to publication, which included the censor removing certain bits, nearly all of which have been restored to this edition.

The images this novel conjured up for me as I was reading were totally bizarre. From talking fish, to translating sofas, to ‘living water’ and literary time travel, I loved this mad, mad world. I now *must* read all the other novels by the Strugatskys available in translation, where’s that copy of Roadside Picnic (which is so I gather very different)? (9.5/10)

Source: Own copy. Arkady & Boris Strugatsky, Monday Starts on Saturday, Gollancz paperback, 243 pages.

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17 thoughts on “A dose of totally bonkers Russian SF from the Strugatsky brothers

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      There are a good handful around in English translation. I’ll try Roadside Picnic next, which is very different so I understand (film The Stalker is based on it).

  1. MarinaSofia says:

    A Russian friend recommended this book to me, saying it makes her weep with laughter every time she reads it, so I got it. It’s crazy and surreal and reminds me a little if The Master and Margarita. Just brilliant! Very different from Roadside Picnic.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      The whole of the first episode is like the mad bits of the Master & Margarita – I’d not linked them, but you’re absolutely spot on. The whole 5 kopeck piece skit and the arguments over the sofa…. 🤣

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      They mention some of them in the afterword – it was all about political interpretations, and portrayal of an official as a buffoon etc.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Souds amazing Annabel and I must find my copy! (and yay! you got a Russian book in early!) From my experience with the Strugatskys they can indeed be very left-field though I don’t think the books I’ve read are quite this whacky. I have Roadside Picnic somewhere too… Time to read some wild Russian stuff soon! 😀

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I’m keen to locate my copy of Roadside Picnic too. There were probably loads of references in MSoS that I probably didn’t get, but no matter, it was superb fun.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I believe I have ‘The Queue’ queued up in my TBR somewhere by Sorokin – thanks for reminding me. 😀

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      The novel was written before the Python’s Dead Parrot sketch – which as far as I can ascertain wasn’t influenced by the book, however this new translation gave it a little nod. The whole thing was great fun.

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