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Viktor Erofeev. Piat' rek zhizni.

Viktor Erofeev. Piat' rek zhizni. Moscow. Eksmo. 2002. 240 pages. 95 r. ISBN 5-89517-022-6

VIKTOR EROFEEV is known for both his literary criticism and his fiction. As a scholar affiliated with the prestigious Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow, he published articles and books dealing with a wide variety of French and Russian writers and thinkers, including Fyodor Dostoevsky, Albert Camus, Nikolai Berdiaev, and Vasilii Rozanov. Erofeev's career as a fiction writer was marked from the beginning by controversy. As a participant in the Metropol' affair, in which two dozen young writers attempted unsuccessfully to publish a collection of comparatively daring works in Moscow in 2979, Erofeev was expelled from the Soviet Writers' Union within a year of his admission. Glasnost and the collapse of the Soviet Union a decade later enabled the writer to begin publishing his innovative and disturbing stories and novels in Russia. Since then, he has published extensively. Erofeev's style, an eclectic mixture of slang, obscenities, and poetic formulations--along with his frequent thematic attention to acts of grotesque sexuality and violence--appear calculated to affront conventional sensibilities and expand the parameters of postmodernism.

Piat' rek zhizni (Five rivers of life) is described by its editors as "the result of the writer's 'fantastic journeys' along the great rivers of various continents and cultures." The rivers in question are the Volga, Rhine, Ganges, Mississippi, and Niger. Erofeev's companion in his fantastic travels is a German woman with whom he shares sometimes bizarre sex and conversations about features of the physical and cultural landscapes they observe.

Their observations are informed by a combination of insight and prejudice often expressed with Erofeev's distinctive humor and irony. Discussion of the Volga focuses on a perceived Russian preoccupation with suffering: "The Volga is the concrete of the Russian myth. Not a river, but a motorway of tears." Journeying on the Rhine highlights Europe's obsession with bourgeois comfort and the appearance of morality. Beneath the surface, however, Europe does not adhere to the same ethical standards it seeks to impose on Russia. The Ganges offers a route to spiritual and creative discovery, and India plays the role of mysterious unconscious to Russian consciousness: "Russia conceives of itself as an unknowable entity--India realizes itself as a enigma." Traveling on the Mississippi, as in America in general, is a senseless undertaking from Erofeev's point of view because of the essential sameness of American cities. Americans live in a state of existential torpor, devoid of irony, expressiveness, or generosity of spirit. Elvis Presley's dual focus on conformity and success epitomizes American life. The Niger is truly a gateway into the land of the Other. Erofeev writes ironically of the extreme racism of Russia, but himself indulges in stereotypes of African backwardness.

Piat' rek zhizni is simultaneously a picaresque novel, a travelogue, and a journey of discovery. The fifth river, Erofeev eventually informs us, is a metaphor for insight: "Everyone has their own fifth river. ... If you find it, you won't be sorry." Traveling reveals the arbitrariness of social norms, and Erofeev completes his journey with a sense of life's unlimited possibilities. Often engaging and sometimes offensive, Piat' rek zhizni offers a disquieting glimpse into the phantasmagoric imagination of a post-Soviet Russian intellectual.

Margaret Ziolkowski

Miami University (Ohio)
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Author:Ziolkowski, Margaret
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 2003
Words:541
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