For a book dedicated to the narrator’s dead grandmother, “The Vital Needs of the Dead” is surprisingly sexy. Gosha Sidelnikov’s earliest memory of Rosa is “naked and nocturnal” and she remains an active figure in his life long after her death. Sidelnikov is often relatively passive in his later relationships, with mercurial Lora, seductive Nadia, or voluptuous Valentina; sex is often described in terms of being embraced, engulfed or “dragged in.”
He compares himself to “a sports apparatus that came in handy for a breathtaking gymnastic exercise.” Women interact with him, while he is “led along by apathetic curiosity.” During a naked swimming scene, towards the end of the novel, Sidelnikov’s wish to surrender to the river’s current symbolizes his lack of volition.
“Somehow you seem a bit Proustian,” says Nadia; it is precisely the narrator’s passivity that makes him an admirable chronicler of history, an observer of lost time. The introspection of childhood and adolescence is backlit by the upheavals taking place in late twentieth century Russia.
As a student, he carries a samizdat copy of Solzhenitsyn and laughs at the inverted Soviet value system, which tries to insist that Maxim Gorky’s clunky socialist realism is superior to the uncompromising prose of Ivan Bunin. There are flashes of Bunin’s sensory brilliance in Sakhnovsky’s observations, in his detailed and unswerving physicality or in his lyrical animation of the external world.
“The Vital Needs of the Dead” was first published at the end of the 1990s, but its picture of a dying regime and of post-Soviet materialism is still resonant. Sidelnikov’s provincial hometown in the Urals barely notices the change of political system, but some locals (known as “the bandeets”) have suddenly grown “fantastically, stunningly rich.”