26 July 2008

Subway Reading: Vladimir Kunin's Intergirl: A Hard Currency Prostitute

In the first month of my stay in Russia, I watched a good amount of television. There was just something so comforting about sitting down with the idiot box after a long day of trying to exist in a foreign language and figure out how to do all the basic tasks of life in a new place. The problem was that between my nagging jet lag and basic exhaustion, I would really only catch little snippets of shows and movies before falling asleep or, more often, slipping into a half-conscious daze of letting the words and images wash over me without really paying them any mind.

Recently, as I read Vladimir Kunin's Intergirl (1987) (Russian text here) during my subway commutes, I realized that I must have unwittingly watched about half of the 1989 movie version of this story in different bits and pieces last summer. At first, I couldn't really figure out why parts of the plot seemed so familiar. My first guess was that Kunin was trotting out such customary conceits of late Soviet dystopic literature and films that his story simply rhymed with other 1980s cultural artifacts. To be specific, there’s an imperiled young woman, corrupt officials, and a naïve stalwart of the system with an absent alcoholic father thrown in, for good measure. In this kind of literature, every character is a work-to-rule type, putting in the bare minimum to move the plot along.

And the stock plot runs like this: Tanya, the daughter of a Leningrad schoolteacher, has turned from a good-girl nurse into an interdevochka, a sex worker who services foreign tourists and businessmen at the local Intourist hotel and dreams of escaping to the West, should one of her regulars fall for her. And in the very opening scene, she gets her wish when her Swedish customer proposes marriage. What follows is the story of her problems trying to get out of the country, bribing various officials, co-workers and her own father to get the proper forms filled out. All the while, Tanya shields her mother from learning out how she makes ends meet and keeps her Swedish fiancé blissfully unaware of all her difficulties. For all her troubles, we get a portrait of the underbelly of Soviet life and its inherent hypocrisies.

In the movie, it looks roughly like this:

[Apologies to non-Russian speakers, I couldn’t find an available variant with subtitles.]

In other words, Intergirl is part of that first generation of dark, gritty portrayals of the contradictions of the last throes of Soviet society. In the cinematic world, think of Little Vera (Malen’kaia Vera) or Kings of Crime (Vory v zakone), a genre that seems to have reached its culmination in last year’s disturbing hit from Aleksei Balabanov, Cargo 200 (Gruz 200).

And while the plot, characters and prose lacked flourish, the book did give my noodle some fodder to think about in terms of the conventions of this particular genre of Soviet dystopic in which a young woman is invariably sacrificed to demonstrate the ills of the system. In particular, I got to wondering if there were any examples of these dystopics that don’t deploy a certain formula of nationalism, honor and gender at the heart of their critique. This, in turn, made me re-assess Gruz 200: can this movie, if we accept it as the ultimate expression of this genre, be considered the parodic critique of the interplay of these elements?

Maybe not, but pondering this question got me to re-reading Victor Erlich’s wonderful study of Russian formalism in order to jog my memory about Yuri Tynianov’s theories of literary evolution. Then I got to thinking about Erlich’s study as a model of intellectual history possibly useful to my dissertation writing.

In conclusion, while the novel wasn't great, for subway reading, it wasn't a total waste as it got me to re-outline a couple chapters of my dissertation. That's not bad, right?

Coming up next in the subway series: James T. Farrell’s The Silence of History.


kg said...

A small thing, but it's wonderful the way chewing bubble-gum - as done by shameless Tatiana - is one of the markers of moral depravity. It was so ubiquitous in the late 80s... My grandmother still believes that on some not very subconscious level...
Also, the phrase "Ya lyublyu khorosho odevatsya" never sounded so poignant :).
I think calling Gruz 200 a "hit" is a bit generous... It's not a movie I'll ever be able to watch (and hence judge), but the reviews I saw were VERY mixed.
Also, Balabanov's birth patronymic, if IMDB is to be trusted, is "Oktyabrinovich." Which, in retrospect, explains a lot...

BusterPh.D.Candidate said...

Yeah, I knew "hit" was an over-sell, but I liked that double meaning, that is, the movie both made a splash (we can agree on that much, right?) and assaulted the viewer. But, yeah, fine, it was no Simpsony.

kg said...

You could have just said that the movie had weight-y subject matter :). (or that it "made a killing," but that, again, would not be entirely accurate).

BusterPh.D.Candidate said...

OK, kg, you know that weighty line was a little lame, right? Ain't no emoticon gonna save it, no matter how long it stares at me all sideways.