cover image Sacred Darkness

Sacred Darkness

Levan Berdzenishvili, trans. from the Russian by Brian James Baer and Ellen Vayner. Europa, $17 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-1-60945-492-0

Berdzenishvili’s surprising, noteworthy autobiographical novel recalls life within the gulags in the last years of the U.S.S.R. Urged to recount his time there while in the care of an American doctor whose mother was born in a prison camp, the narrator presents, through a series of character-focused vignettes, a vivid and often hilarious portrait of the strange society the prisoners created. Locked away from the world, free-thinking prisoners—among them Zhora, who fervently and superstitiously loves numbers, and Butov, who takes on a Sherlock Holmes role in the camp—form strong bonds through their philosophical debates, jokes, and discussions, creating in some ways a haven rather than a prison. These are years the narrator remembers fondly, “because of the people that surrounded me, people the KGB had so zealously brought together.” Among all of these brilliant characters, there are the stories of the narrator and his brother, political dissidents imprisoned for their passionate visions of a free Georgian republic, both before and during their imprisonments. In the final chapters, Berdzenishvili’s depictions of what the gulag has taken away from him—namely, his wife and daughter—are deeply moving in their forthrightness and simplicity. Berdzenishvili pulls off both a feat of fractured storytelling and a beautiful excavation of a recent, haunting past. (Jan.)