By Ed Park
After “American,” the most overused but irresistible prefix for titles might be “The Secret History of.” Unscientific trend-spotters (me) attribute the popularity of this modern-day usage to Donna Tartt’s 1992 novel, “The Secret History.” Now bushels of articles and books promise to reveal secret histories of disco, the Beatles, Paris, the potato, emotion, various wars, myriad subcultures. (If someone writes a biography of Tartt, it should be called “The Secret History of ‘The Secret History.’ ”)
Nonfiction dominates the secret history of “The Secret History of” titles, but Ekaterina Sedia’s “The Secret History of Moscow” (Prime Books: 304 pp., $12.95 paper) really feels like a secret: an alternative world a half-dimension removed from ours, a place woven out of whisper and shadow, populated with forgotten creatures and even less-remembered thoughts. It’s a satisfying quest novel not only because of the story line (which has the appealingly rambling feel of a good Dungeons & Dragons campaign, in which chance encounters and improvised alliances modulate the narrative) but also for the way the Escher-ready landscape reflects the fragile psychology of Sedia’s main character, Galina.
Once institutionalized with a murky diagnosis of “sluggish schizophrenia,” Galina knows to keep hush about the occasional odd vision. So when her beloved, fair-haired sister, Masha, turns into a crow after giving birth in the bathroom, she tries to put it out of her mind. “You do not exist, so leave me alone,” she tells the bird, meeting it again on the street. But with the help of Fyodor, a dipsomaniacal street artist, and Yakov, the detective assigned to Masha’s case, she slips into an underworld in search of her sister’s soul.
Galina, a translator, gets translated herself into this world of outcast folk, who include Gypsies and Jews and, more fantastically, losers of Russia’s various struggles over the centuries. A veritable “Monster Manual” of that country’s legendary creatures can be found in the pages of “The Secret History of Moscow,” including Zemun, the “celestial cow” who pumped out the Milky Way, and Likho and Zlyden, “two parasitic entities . . . that attached themselves to their victim until the victim lost everything and was eventually killed by the sheer constellation of bad luck.”
“The world used to make sense,” muses Yakov, the representative of law and order who has to grapple with his topsy-turvy new surroundings. He “started to doubt that historians on the surface ever got the real meaning of anything.” Sedia convincingly portrays these two realities by having them bleed into each other, lovely lyrical flights (“a brook gurgled in its gentle idiot tongue”) and grim reality sharing the same page. We marvel at the weird inventions -- my favorite is the army of rats trained to imitate a bear -- while continuing to believe in her band of outsiders. And when the going gets truly bizarre, Sedia allows a gentle note of self-consciousness: “Galina thought it strange that mythological creatures were capable of discussing their own origins.”
Sedia’s realm of lost souls is a repository of cultural memory -- or more accurately an amnesiac’s dustbin, filled with the things she wants to forget. The territory itself is perfectly obscure, every surface containing a trace of oblivion: a “palimpsest of a path,” buildings “like the skeletons of distant shipwrecks.” A mythical boatman takes, for his fee, a memory from his passengers, and Yakov willingly lets one go. Sedia is downright lavish in her description of his deliberately ill-lighted memory palace and perversely never tells us exactly what it is he gave away. The breakdown of his marriage is rendered in a kind of rhapsody of amnesia, the metaphors overlapping and each clause adding to the mental texture:
"[P]erhaps it was she who had left him; he couldn’t remember anymore, not through the cobwebs of lies and rationalizations and retellings of the same story over and over to himself, until the details took on the shape of his words, and the words themselves became the truth and the substance, their underlying memory forever lost, like the wax mold of a death mask.”
It’s unfair to compare a writer of a certain nationality with one of her most illustrious compatriots, but there is an eye for detail and gift for simile that conjures another Russian who wrote in English: Vladimir Nabokov. Sedia sees an “average” pigeon “blooming with greens and purples, like an oil slick on a puddle, when the sun rays struck its feathers at the proper angle.” From the “You Can Judge a Book by Its Cover” Department: I was attracted to the juxtaposition of the mechanical crow and the word “Moscow,” and as I read the novel and saw that a crow and a cow figured prominently (see the aforementioned Zemun), I wondered whether the word “crown” would come up -- thinking of the “absolutely extraordinary, unbelievably elegant case” (identified by Charles Kinbote in Nabokov’s “Pale Fire”) in which three words are separated by a single letter in both English and Russian -- vorona-korona-korova.
Sure enough, on Page 229, Fyodor wonders, “Was there any significance to the fact that Peter the Great was the first czar to be crowned with a crown made in Western style, indistinguishable from those of European monarchs, and scorned the Helm of Monomakh?”
If this game of crowns and crows and cows seems too tenuous a connection, I will simply end by identifying a rara avis that appears in Sedia’s pages, a legendary bird of paradise named Sirin, about which I knew nothing before reading this book, save that it was Nabokov’s pen name.
Ed Park is an editor of the Believer and the author of the forthcoming novel “Personal Days.” His column Astral Weeks appears monthly.