In a world of surreal distortions and impending danger, a Russian soldier struggles with the banality of evil.
This slim novel centers on Evgeny Savelyev, newly assigned as junior lieutenant to a grim outpost of the Russian army fighting Islamic militants in an unidentified land. Savelyev is a fraught man, his mind at war between notions of habit and free will, acceptance and pursuit, good and bad. In the bleak, snowbound detention center to which he’s been placed, he will be tempted with lust and ill-gotten gains, appalled by cruelty and everyday wickedness. He will also encounter innocence, elemental decency and lessons about how to conduct himself with simple moral clarity in a seemingly unredeemable world. As the soldiers from the detention center go about their midnight raids to round up suspected militants–Prendergast provides just enough details to let the reader’s imagination conjure horrible images of their fates–Savelyev dreams of a different comrade altogether, a â€œsober, moderate, hard-working, humble, peasant type, ever striving to be more, to be a prince or princess.” Two of his mates personify these traits, eschewing moral absolutism. But Savelyev is rudderless and yearns for black and white, his inexperience and desires vying with courage and the confounding complexity of human nature. Fortunately, the dolorous Savelyev never becomes ponderous; Prendergast’s writing is parsimonious, incisive and as stark as the landscape it paints. He skillfully deploys the eloquence of reticence: His characters are as bright and evocative as Persian miniatures; his skirmishes with the great existential concerns of dignity, unjust punishment and faith–the fodder of classic Russian literature–are terse but not elliptical, glancing but cutting as well, at ease with the discomforts of ambiguity. While there is little doubt about the destiny of the Russian occupation machine, where moral decay has metastasized throughout the system, even within the beast there remain opportunities for righteous individual action. Epiphany and redemption coalesce from the mists that fed Savelyev’s weakness and fall from grace, presenting a chance to derail yet another travesty. â€œYou can’t save everyone,” the good comrade tells him. â€œFirst, try just saving yourself–you. That is something special in itself.” It will also be Savelyev’s ticket to heaven.
An unlikely pilgrim and his stuttering progress, drawn with unnerving atmospherics and all the delusions and torments on the road to self-realization.