Söderströms, 2004. ISBN: 9515221870
Reviewed by Anne Stauss in SBR 2005:2
Under cover of darkness, on the night train from Moscow to Helsinki, Ivan Demidov tells the story of his life to a virtual stranger. The listener, much like the author of this book, is a woman, a writer, a Russian living in Helsinki. Before long, like the steadfast progress of the train through the Russian countryside, Demidov’s tale unfolds. And like the train, it leaves in its wake a landscape of impressions: Soviet life on the eve of perestroika. The USSR in the 1980s finds in our protagonist a young man with promising talents for weightlifting. Born into a working class milieu and endowed with extraordinary physical strength, young Demidov is soon snapped up by some talent scouts for a Leningrad boarding school specializing in exceptional children. His years there are spent training and competing. He travels abroad with his athletics team. He gets to taste the triumph of sweet success, of winning for his country. He is given privileges other ordinary Soviet citizens do not receive. And new winds begin to sweep across his homeland: it is the era of glasnost. As every champion athlete will come to know, competition is fierce and the pressure to remain on top ever increasing. Demidov discovers; in fact, his trainers introduce him to the idea of improving and maintaining his skills with drugs. What begins with a modest intake of anabolic steroids becomes, by the time our kindly giant has reached the pinnacle of his career in weightlifting, an entire daily menu of chemical substances, practically all of them illegal. Some disturbing details about doping and the dependence on drugs in international athletics circles are brought to light, in many instances undoubtedly mirroring reality. Inevitably, Demidov’s star begins to fade. His marriage fails. He is suspected of pyromania, having always manifested a destructive fascination with fire – a condition that appears to be aggravated by his drug abuse. He is dismissed from the Russian team. He spends a time in an institution for the mentally unstable. Later, destitution. His salvation comes in the appearance of an enigmatic Japanese entrepreneur on the scene. Forever in search of promising, new sumo-wrestling material, this future benefactor of Demidov’s whisks him off to Japan. Japan becomes a haven, a road to redemption. Living initially, once again, on the fringes of society, Demidov – or Isamashii as he is soon to be dubbed – eventually settles into what may ultimately become his niche in life. Far from succumbing to rancour or melodrama, our hero gives a humorous, matter-of-fact account of the hand he has been dealt. Those who may baulk at the idea of a book about weightlifting and sumo wrestling, fear not: the references to sport are generally brief, informative and, in fact, interesting. Demidov’s story is the story of a man as a pawn in a mightier game, and he takes what comes his way in stride: his rise to glory and subsequent fall from grace, his re-emergence on the international sporting scene. As he puts it himself: “I’m no superstar... I’m but driftwood floating on the current”. Remarkably enough, this book is written in Swedish by a native of Russia living in Finland. Perhaps for that very reason, Lindén’s prose occasionally comes across as beguilingly old-fashioned – but then, Ivan Demidov is rather an old-fashioned sort himself. Hence, sporadic streaks of Russian nostalgia sweep across the pages of the book. Towards the end, like the view from the train that is now nearing its final destination and entering urban surroundings, the narrative becomes more fragmented: we see a succession of brief situations flash by, until Demidov finally reaches home. Lindén, who has previously published two collections of short stories in Finland, was awarded this year’s prestigious Runeberg Prize for I väntan på en jordbävning. The book has been translated into Russian by the author herself, and is currently being launched in Russia.