It was already getting dark when Ostasha blew out his piece of splinter in front of the tabernacle, left, and closed the crooked door of the chapel behind him. He sailed past the Rocks of St. George toward the isthmus of the peninsula on which Utkinsk Town stood. At the Utkinsk government harbor there was always a milling crowd of foreign and ignorant people, and so Ostasha was wary of simply leaving the boat ashore and walking to the church. He dragged the boat to an inn, where coachmen were already going to sleep under their carts, made arrangements with the owner and lifted the boat onto the hayloft. He saw the men poke their straw-covered heads out from under their carts, following the fine, light boat with their eyes, and gave the watchman another groat. Then he headed for the church.The church stood on a former serf homestead. Once upon a time, the church in Utkinsk Town had belonged to the Old Believers, but a group of townsmen, led by the runaway strelets and choir singer Fedka Inozemtsev, took the baptism of fire inside of it. The state authorities built a new temple on the ruined site, in the Nikonian heresy, so the townspeople wouldn't immolate themselves anymore. And the fortress in the Town was built a long time ago, under the Stroganovs, to defend against Bashkirs and Tatars. Today, all that was left of the fortress were two squat and craggy crooked towers, with leaky roofs and collapsed crowns. The towers were linked by a belt of rotten stockade, which had come apart like splayed fingers, leaning over the shallow and muddy ditch of the former moat. Ostasha regarded the ruins with curiosity, comparing them to the factory fortresses, which were built very differently: with sconces and bastions, with fleches and rows of fachines along the tops of the walls, without any towers at all. The town ruins smelled like must, untrodden forests, Ermak in his eagled chainmail fit for a Tsar; the factory fortresses--like fresh iron, switches, and soldiers.- Aleksei Ivanov, The Gold of the Rebellion, or Down the River of Narrows (2007)
It is difficult to figure out just what one ought to expect from a 700-page historical novel about late-eighteenth-century river drivers in the Urals. The first possibility, probably the worst, is that it will turn out be a Zolaesque exposé of state oppression, evil landlords, and heroically independent mountain folk. The second, not too far distant, is that it will turn out to be some kind of à-clef allegory of something political or other. The third, at least marginally tolerable, is that it will be a Forrest-Gump-style novel-as-theme-park, in which the main character meets all the important people and sees all the important events of his age.
Thankfully, and puzzlingly, Ivanov's The Gold of the Rebellion is none of these things. It features no politics, and state actors of any kind are so marginal to the story that they seem totally powerless. No oppressions are harped upon, no scores settled, no lectures read. The main character never leaves the Urals, and, but for the constant haunting presence of the dead Emelian Pugachev, exists completely out of time. I do not think the year is even mentioned. In short, this historical novel takes its genre so seriously that it ignores all of its treacherous conventions--and leaves even the historian helpless. It is even more impressive that Ivanov's historical and field-specific vocabulary is so vast and precise as to make him seem almost like a refugee from his own book.
The plot meanders along the river Chusovaia, where historically independent Old Believer river-drivers captain huge barges that carry iron from mountain mines to the west. The protagonist is a young man who wants to clear his dead father's name of the charge of stealing the hidden treasury of Emelian Pugachev, who had been executed several years before. A fairly banal premise--but the ensuing story is so tightly wound and yet so broad and organic that it barely resembles a novel at all. When ghosts and ghouls of various setting-appropriate kinds begin to appear in the narrative, it feels like a matter of course--which is astounding, since for a historical novel lapsing into fantasy is usually the greatest sin. (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies doesn't count.)
Yet for all that--and it should be clear that I consider The Gold of the Rebellion a masterpiece--the book is not all that interesting to read. The author has attempted, and achieved, a strange sort of marriage between a rickety off-the-shelf historical-novel narrative structure and a boisterous, living historical world which threatens to extend far beyond the limits of the text. The result is that neither spouse is adequate to the other: the structure is too thin to hold the world together, and the world is too well-developed to make the structure look useful. It is difficult to escape the feeling that the author knew how unsatisfactory the thing was and didn't care: the book could survive on its own terms. And, by and large, he was right. What is interestingness, really, when you have entire chapters devoted to Vogul ritual practices? The book willy-nilly ends up making its own genre.