In this character-driven novel that delves deeply into the psyches of six flawed individuals seeking life’s meaning in post-Soviet Moscow, the most enigmatic character is Russia itself.
A Simple Soul begins apparently as a romantic endeavor that turns into an enthralling perilous thriller with plot twists, humor, and retribution.
Russian-born Babenko’s novel, A Simple Soul, is filled with souls who are anything but simple. They are bored workers and wily entrepreneurs, all hardened to the murky world of Russian commerce, rampant corruption, and the decay of society. Yet each one seeks an elusive truth—happiness, love, the meaning of life. Elizaveta sees herself as a cold Venus, breaking the hearts of the men she dates, only to leap at marrying her long-ago love, Timofey, whose proposal has shady underpinnings. Alexander, her spurned lover, finds contentment in collecting words of wisdom, then loses it to despair. Seeking “his true mission,” Nicolai Kramskoy plans to steal and doctor a historical document to “prove” a connection to folk hero Pugachev, which links him to American Frank White Jr., who’s pursuing Pugachev’s alleged treasure map, along with a connection to his own Russian roots. Eventually joining them is Andrei, Nicolai’s old friend and a writer struggling to find confidence and purpose in his work.
For much of this complex story, plot is relegated to the background as internal monologues become the focus. Personal histories and meandering thought processes draw the reader into a compelling maze of metaphysics and social commentary. Each character’s life is beset by small mysteries: Elizaveta finds mysterious symbols; Frank studies star signs; even Nicolai, the most cynical of all, once ran a business called the Astro-Occult Parlor. He observes that “people here were too fond of prophets, oracles, soothsayers, and magicians of all kinds,” but it becomes easy to see why even he is drawn to peering into the future.
One could argue that Babenko’s characters all carry the same voice: intelligent, cynical, questioning, opinionated. What separates them is where that voice takes them: on personal journeys of soul-searching analysis, perhaps best exemplified in Nikolai’s comment while traveling by train:
“Any country could be proud of its limitless vastness. Any except this one: people here don’t know how to be proud of anything, and perhaps they never did. Where there’s a lot of space, there’s free will and farsightedness, but there’s also no respite and an eternal restlessness, which results in universal sadness.”
Such observations show the author’s skill in portraying the depths of functional loneliness.
As Elizaveta sums up:
“I don’t need this – riddles, higher powers. … – could the issue be with me? Do I have an overly simple soul?”
After delving into the heart and mind of this postmodern Russian, the answer can only be, not in the least. A Simple Soul transcends genres and time as its characters move across the vast lands of Russia and its ever-changing socio-economic landscape. Prepare to be transported.
Vadim Babenko, who has a doctorate in physics from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, has published six books, three are novels. A Simple Soul was nominated for Russia’s most prestigious literary awards: The Big Book Awards (the Russian equivalent of the Booker Awards) and the Russian Bestseller Awards. His stories are complex with many subtle philosophical questions and dilemmas. His prestige is sure to follow in North America as well.
[Reviewer’s Note: I found A Simple Soul a fascinating and entertaining read. I am fortunate to have been introduced to Babenko’s masterful works as they are still relatively unknown in North America. ]