During the final days of World War II, a 12-year-old boy dreams of becoming a soldier in this English translation of Russian author Gelasimov’s (The Lying Year, 2013, etc.) award-winning coming-of-age novel.
Petka is a precocious boy whose vivid imagination compensates for his reality. Shunned by many in Razgulyaevka for his illegitimacy, he’s a target for bullies and spends most days on the receiving end of his Granny Daria’s stick for his boisterous behavior. But to Petka, verbal and physical abuse is merely part of his normal day, and he shrugs it off while plotting boyish fun: caring for a wolf cub, lobbing cow patties at “enemy” targets, stowing away in a barrel to steal alcohol and befriending officers at a nearby POW camp. His one friend from the village is Valerka, a weak and sickly boy who deserts Petka whenever he’s allowed to join the bullies. While Petka engages in childish activities (which begin as mildly humorous but evolve into Dennis-the-Menace type antics that can best be described as idiotic), Japanese POW Miyanaga Hirotaro secretly writes a journal detailing his family history in hopes his sons in Nagasaki will someday read it. A man of honor descended from discredited samurais, Hirotaro’s often punished for alleged escape attempts when he leaves camp in search of herbs to minister to the wounded and ill. He tries to warn soldiers about the dangers of the nearby mine but is ridiculed for his efforts. On one of Hirotaro’s forays, he crosses paths with Petka, an encounter that’s fortuitous for the boy and painful for the prisoner. Hirotaro triggers a turning point in young Petka’s life: He begins to question actions, develop his own beliefs and take responsibility for the well-beings of others. Like his young protagonist, Gelasimov’s narrative launches with manic energy and quickly scatters in a thousand directions. Although fragmented prose may be representative of a young boy’s thought processes, the author fails to clearly connect events and characters and incorporate the elements into a credible, satisfactory conclusion.
Perhaps quality of expression is diminished in translation, but Gelasimov’s coming-of-age story grows old quickly.