"The big green tent revolves around banned books, a subject familiar to Ludmila Ulitskaya, one of Russia’s most acclaimed writers and, at 72, an outspoken protester against the Putin regime. Back in 1970, she was a young biologist who got fired from the Institute of General Genetics at the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences for distributing a samizdat book. She then set out on a tentative, initially unambitious literary track—a natural move for a self-described bookish girl with an unsupervised passion for reading. “I consider the bookcase my most important mentor,” Ulitskaya wrote in Discarded Relics, an essay collection that came out in 2012, by which time she had been publishing fiction—stories, novellas, novels, and plays—for more than a decade. In her latest novel, books that rarely make it onto bookshelves—blurry photocopies; barely readable carbons; dog-eared, smuggled Western editions passed around among wary friends—inspire, crush, sustain, kill. They also serve other unexpected functions. In one hilarious episode, an unsuspecting teenage girl rips up a copy of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago to stuff into her new, too-small imported boots, hoping to stretch them a size. Thus she saves the book’s owner when the KGB shows up to search his house. The scene is typical of Ulitskaya’s sprawling portrayal of the Moscow intelligentsia between 1953, the year of Stalin’s death, and 1996, half a decade after the Soviet Union’s collapse. In showing what life was like for the people who made the subversive power of books so disproportionately valuable, she skirts heroics and aggrandizing rhetoric. The Big Green Tent is like the sharp-tongued gossip that flowed in many a crowded kitchen—enlivened by dangerous undercurrents, and never boring.
"In fact, it is, if not a difficult read, then a demanding one. Each character expects our full attention, for each is awarded interiority. Every interaction could end up being important 20 pages later. Every bit player or throwaway line of poetry could be a literary or historical allusion, lovingly inserted to bring the times onto the page and then, for the reader, back to life. And, this being Russian literature, it demands that we subject ourselves to sadness after sadness. It is set, after all, “in a country where you had to live a long time” to see things set right, and in times that made doing so difficult, particularly for those who wanted to live differently.But each satisfied demand is rewarded, and each sadness is returned with acute awareness of how full this book is of life and literature. It is not simple. But one cannot think that the author of The Big Green Tent would believe that what’s true possibly could be.”
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