The Year of the Comet

by Sergei Lebedev

The Year of the Comet CoverI don’t think I can stress enough the importance of actually getting to the heart of your story in your synopsis. If that little summary on the back of your book sets people up for the wrong expectations, it can really affect the amount of enjoyment readers glean from your story. The Year of the Comet has an issue with this, not to the same extent as Graham Greene’s Orient Express, but it was at least clear enough for me to feel the need to comment on. For, I was under the misguided impression that Lebedev’s story would encompass the fall of the Soviet Union and its aftermath. Instead, the book consists of a telling of the lead up to the collapse from the viewpoint of a young man trying to grow, mature, and find a purpose during such uncertain times. While I still enjoyed the book quite a bit, I blame the misguided synopsis––at least partially––for the feeling that we finished right when we were just getting started, that we had an extended introduction and jumped away right when we were beginning the story proper.

And it’s too bad that it happened this way, because there’s a lot to love in The Year of the Comet. In the narrator’s dry, almost academic analysis of why others around him acted the way they did, we not only get a very clear characterization of him and his two grandmothers especially, but also a great frame of reference on how everyone experienced a sort of shared history differently, and how the world around them strongly influenced their personalities. And I quite liked how the author was able to effectively mute the emotions in his recollections. While the story may have been more exciting and viscerally felt if he instead chose to make these emotions loud and visible, the trade off was that the author was able to evoke a feeling of a genuine exploration of memories, of an older man who is able to separate himself from heated moments of his past and recall them more objectively.

(Of course, with a translated work, I often wonder how much of my experience would be shared with readers of the original. Was Lebedev this matter-of-fact in his original prose, or does it have more to do with Antonina Bouis’ interpretation while translating? Similarly, was the sincerity I felt present in the original text? What about the effective characterization? Is there anything that was lost in translation? Or were all these things more or less preserved when we got our English version? I’m genuinely curious about all this, and I’d love to hear some commentary from someone knowledgeable on the subject.)

In the end, The Year of the Comet was a thoughtful look at the unravelling of society and the gradual changes that erode your trust in what you thought were sturdy symbols and institutions. While there was plenty that felt ripe for further detail and exploration, I still thought it was good.