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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Heavy Symbols Bog Down 'Skunk'

It is hard to see how Skunk, the eponymous hero of Peter Aleshkovsky's newly translated, Booker Prize-nominated novel Skunk: A Life can sustain the author's description of being a "typical Russian saint."

The son of an alcoholic, single mother, Daniil earns the nickname Skunk (a more accurate translation from Russian would be "ferret") because of his crooked mouth and stunted legs, and his skill in killing rats in the back room of the Stargorod grocery store where his mother drinks her life away. Silent and possessed of the alert senses of a wild animal, Skunk is more at home in the company of feral dogs than with the human beings around him. And after the death of the only person who ever really loved him, his pious grandmother, Skunk turns first to pickpocketing and eventually murder.

Once he has found some degree of salvation in the northern forests of the taiga, however, Skunk is able to make the sacred stone of St. Andronicus hover above the waters of Stargorod's river. The local babushki are convinced that it is a miracle; but does that feat make Skunk a saint?

Aleshkovsky, an archeologist by training who spent several years restoring monasteries in the north of Russia, has bold ambitions not only for his main character, but also for the novel as a whole. He has written a Bildungsroman chronicling the growth to manhood and understanding of Skunk. And he has also created a work drenched in symbolism, set against the backdrop of both the struggle between the Western Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the schism between the old believers and the seventeenth century modernizers of Russian Orthodoxy.

Three is a mystical number for Christians because of the holy trinity, and everything in "Skunk" comes in threes. Most obviously there are the three parts of the novel that mirror the three phases of Skunk's life. But there are also three holy men in the story, three potential father figures for Skunk and three apocalyptic experiences that may be mystical or hallucinatory. Skunk also has three encounters with a moose, or an elk, all of which prove to be turning points in his life.

The first time Skunk meets Moose, the gang leader and gangbanger of Stargorod's teenage underworld, he is awed by his swagger. But when he witnesses Moose and his gang casually abusing the girl he loves, Skunk knows he has to kill him and frame his friends. After this he is forced to run away. The second encounter with a moose occurs in the taiga. Skunk at first feels triumphant when he kills the great beast of the north. But his evolving sense of remorse at having finished off an already wounded creature signals the awakening of his conscience. And it is a third moose called Caesar, the tame animal of the hermit Innokenty, who leads Skunk into the perilous wetlands and on to a salvation of sorts.

The monks Trifon, Boris and Innokenty represent the three different tendencies of the Orthodox Church. Father Trifon for all his piety has been compromised by the authorities of the secular state. When the spiritually sick Skunk throws himself at Trifon's feet and confesses to all his crimes, the priest's unholy instinct is to call the police, the psychiatric hospital, or both.

But the smooth-talking Father Boris is the true villain in a cassock.

He is an agent of the Catholic Church and dreams of the day when all Christians will be reunited in the one true church led by the Pope in Rome. Skunk, eavesdropping from the kitchen where he is frying fish for supper, understands little of the meaning of Boris's exegesis. But he does sense the arrogance behind his words instinctively. And when Boris makes unseemly advances towards him in the night, Skunk flees both the monk and his corrupting religion.

It is Father Innokenty, who lives alone in the inhospitable marshes of the taiga and tends occasionally to the spiritual needs of a dwindling and remote community of old believers, who comes the closest to representing a real man of God in the novel. He understands that the Russian soul cannot be cut adrift from nature and that the north is where the nation's spiritual values are preserved. The northerners' worship of rocks and trees may seem like the hangover of pagan traditions, but these people are the bedrock of the Russian Orthodox Church with their flinty faith.

Falling in love with the purity of Skunk's heart as well as his ungainly physique, Father Innokenty takes the boy on as an unofficial novice and teaches him how to connect with his faith.

Although this would seem like dense material for a novel, "Skunk" is a surprisingly quick, easy read. For it is one of the peculiarities of Aleshkovsky's colloquial style, rendered here into British slang by Birmingham University's Senior Lecturer in Russian, Arch Tait, that the theological passages pass as breezily over the reader's head as they do over Skunk's. And this is the primary problem with the novel. Skunk never develops into a sufficiently complex or cerebral character to support the full burden of his developing role.

Apart from possessing a way with inventive similes, Aleshkovsky is not an interesting or patient enough stylist to create the oppressive mood of being trapped in a tiny log cabin in the taiga by a weeklong blizzard; or the suspense of an extended pursuit of human or animal quarry. He constantly hurries the narrative on towards the next symbolic set piece such as Skunk's night helping an icon restorer clean up a terrifying rendition of the Last Judgment without pausing to tell the story effectively.

So in the end, "Skunk" the novel disappoints just as Skunk the man does.

"Skunk: A Life" by Peter Aleshkovsky. Glas. 186 Pages, $18.