The Goose Fritz by Sergei Lebedev | Translated from Russian by Antonia W. Bouis
There are two disparate aspects to The Goose Fritz: its story and its execution. In its story – one which lays on thick a generous helping of thoughtful themes concerning family history, unfinished cycles, and political upheaval – The Gooze Fritz is an undeniable victory. Its execution, however, is awkward, poorly paced, shallow, rambling, and at times baffling. At my most cruel I would call it a bore, but I don’t believe that a book with such vaulting ambitions could ever be branded as being completely without merit. I, as a reviewer, am always conscious that I speak for no-one, that any book can be worthy of having an audience (unless it’s written by Jordan Peterson), especially given the context and themes being played with here – themes which absolutely give the book an enormous weight which makes it a worthy read.
“Kirill was afraid that if we went down the family tree … to the torture cellars reeking of blood, he would learn something that would take away his right to determine his own life.”
A Successful Story
As an adolescent in Russia, Kirill took secret walks to the cemetery with his grandmother Lina, walks which eventually laid upon him the burden of knowing his family’s history – a history of which even his own parents are oblivious. Kirill’s family were German immigrants, first arriving in Russia in the 1830s. From this revelation, we are hit with the death of Lina, and thus the seed of a plan is planted in Kirill’s mind: he wishes to wade through the turbulent waters of Russia’s history and the nation’s hatred towards Germany, in order to understand the wobbly and dreadful line through history which led to him.
To make the aggressive history that Kirill is up against crystal clear, Lebedev gifts us with an early metaphor: a Russian Sergeant who lived near his grandmother’s cottage suffered dreadful PTSD. Remembering the Battle of Kursk – fought between German and Soviet soldiers – he gets drunk and strangles to death a gander that he had earlier nicknamed Fritz, seeing it as a putrid German solder that deserved to be killed. With that in-your-face message – which also gives us the book’s title – we are all squared away with regards to the stakes: Kirill learns that he is of German descent, he has grown up in a nation with a deeply-embedded loathing of the Germans, and he must find his family’s place in amongst all of this.
“The Sergeant’s anger was stale and rotten, like a two-year-old pickle; the gander was filled with pure fury, as if he had been waiting a long time to get even.”
The novel is very much caught up in the question of nationalism: what does it take to belong somewhere? You fight for a country and speak its language, and yet you still don’t belong. Where is the fairness in this? In an age of growing racism and xenophobia, of Trump and Brexit, of steadily rising fascism, this is a question that needs to be asked and discussed often and strongly.
A Failure of Execution
As I followed the adventures and investigations – through both personal and national history – of our protagonist Kirill, as he unravels the journey that his family of fascinating characters took to reach the present day, there was a question slowly and gradually growing in my mind, and I honestly didn’t know what this question actually was until perhaps a third of my way through the book. Eventually I stopped and asked myself: Who the hell is Kirill?
Of course, I know the simple answer: Kirill is a Russian-born man of German descent, with a family history kept secret due to a mix of shame and fear of persecution. What I mean by the question is that there is no characterisation to speak of; this book is far more history told as fiction than actual fiction. Lebedev is more concerned with telling a family’s history through a single character’s journey of discovery than actually characterising that man himself. And that’s fine; an author can prioritise story over character if they so wish, but this lack of characterisation results in a meandering and poorly-paced story, and an alienated audience left wondering: why should we care? We can appreciate the tumultuous history of Kirill’s family and the critical relationship between Russia and Germany from a safe distance, but we shouldn’t have to. We have a narrator; we should be in his heart, feeling it being at once pulled apart and then again stitched back together. But we don’t. We never do.
“He now saw it as a mixture of bloods carrying different inheritances, different possible destinies, boiling from contact with one another, eternally arguing for primacy.”
The narrative is expelled through rambling, grey, uninteresting lists. My god, the lists. This is a story of deep irritation at history being ignored and misunderstood; a story of disenchantment and rage. But I felt none of it. Instead, it’s all lists. He lists every item in a room as he walks in. He lists every member of his family without context. He lists an entire person’s backstory, personal history, career, and family tree without us knowing why we should care about them. Barely a page goes by without a good, long list of endless stuff.
I grew increasingly frustrated with the execution of this story, and with myself for not appreciating a tale that clearly comes from a place of rage and frustration. But where is this rage, exactly? Lists are rarely associated with rage.
The problem with The Goose Fritz lies in the fact that it is a fiction that wishes to be a history book. It is heavily invested in both political and personal history, and its very existence clearly comes from a place of deep passion, which is to be appreciated. However, despite framing this history book as a novel, Lebedev forgot to include all of what makes a narrative work. The unfortunate lack of any real characterisation, motivation, dialogue, and relationships leaves us with nothing but a history book that isn’t actually a history book. What we learn is interesting, have no doubt, but the way in which we learn it is stunted and bland. This book doesn’t know what it is and, honestly, neither do I.
All of this being said, any novel – any book at all – which deals with questions of existential belonging, of national values, historical pain, and toxic nationalism is a book worth reading. Now, today, more than ever. As a theme-delivery system this book works. More than that, it’s a valuable read. It’s just, arguably, not a very good read. In its story and its themes, its politics and its history, it is a success. As a piece of narrative fiction, it is not.
If you liked this review then you might like At Dusk by Hwang Sok-yong