VLADIMIR SHAROV has said that he writes “to understand the things that remain obscure to me”. As he stood by the roadside, waiting time after time for building materials to be delivered to his family’s future dacha outside Moscow, below the New Jerusalem Monastery, this novel, The Rehearsals, with its Rabelaisian digressions, gestated within him. A phrase “idiotic phantasmagoria”, which he uses to describe crazy stories circulated in a Soviet labour camp, could well be applied to this work. Yet it is deeply serious, too.
Sharov’s narrator, a budding medieval historian, is supplied with a host of manuscripts by a mysterious figure, Kobylin, who refuses to reveal his source, and from these manuscripts uncovers the diaries of a 17th-century Frenchman, Jacques de Sertan, who is asked to produce a Mystery play about the life of Christ.
The New Jerusalem Monastery and its surrounding countryside, which Patriarch Nikon (1605-81) reconfigures to resemble the Holy Land, is the stage for the play. All the actors are illiterate peasants. As the rehearsals continue over a period of years, during which the events culminating in the Old Believer schism of 1666 take place, the actors “start moving as if Christ were really with them. . . they were unmistakably delineating Christ, His space, His bulk.”
With the removal of the Patriarch after the 1666 Pan-Orthodox Council, Sertan is arrested and exiled with his actors (playing the roles of the apostles) to Siberia, but the rehearsals continue; for the play cannot be finally performed until the Second Coming of Christ. One generation of actors, or apostles, is replaced by another — and thus begins a danse macabre, a horror fantasy, with endless repetition of atrocities.
The backdrop is Russian history and its continually revived messianic themes of God’s chosen people and the Promised Land. With the advent of the Soviet period and the horrors of the Gulag, the village community, where the rehearsals had continued, turns into a labour camp, with the Apostle Peter as camp boss and the Apostle James as the secret-police chief. The novel’s end satisfyingly connects with its beginning when the identity of Kobylin, the mystery man, is revealed: as a small child, he alone survived a massacre in the labour camp, and was adopted by Maria Trifonovna Kobylina.
The Russian word for a rehearsal is repetitsia: Sharov in this novel conveys the endless repetition of human folly and cruelty. At the same time, it is shot through with moments of hilarious absurdity, when, for example, James denounces the Apostle Peter for religious propaganda and rehearsing the play Christ the Counter-Revolutionary “with repeated attempts to bring about the Second Coming of Christ . . . in order, among other things, to bring an end to Soviet power”.
That end is clearly welcomed by Sharov; meanwhile, the reader is left wondering whether Russia’s danse macabre still goes on.
Xenia Dennen is a Russian specialist, and chairman of Keston Institute, Oxford.
Oliver Ready, translator
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