"Merciless and beautiful prose, pithy and precise . . . leaves no one unmoved."Ex Libris
"Real-life dialogues, vivid imagery, striking metaphors."Literary Russia
"A remarkable novel of social discontent written by a sure hand."SNOB
Gangsters take complete control of an industrial town with its corrupt authorities, business, and police. Defending his daughter, the protagonist accidentally shoots the chief gangster and has to go into hiding, first among the homeless at the town garbage dump, and then in the forest among Saami deer-breeders. He becomes transformed from a "little man" into a people's avenger, killing the corrupt mayor and the chief of police. Through a series of tricky manipulations, a different person is accused of the serial murders in the interests of the new gangsters, who seize control of the town in the end.
The settinga town on the Kola Peninsula above the Arctic Circle where the author spent her formative yearsis clearly meant as a portrait in miniature of all of Russia and expresses young people's social discontent. Action-packed and highly revealing, this novel abounds in interesting ethnographic details related to the indigenous Northern tribes of Saami and life in the Northern provinces.
A finalist in two major literary contests, Debut and NOS, and winner of the Northern Star Prize, Liza Alexandrova-Zorina (b. 1984) is an outstanding spokeswoman for her generation and a prolific author. The Little Man is also coming out in France and Egypt.
About the Author
Liza Alexandrova-Zorina was born in 1984 and grew up in a little town on Cola Peninsula beyond the Arctic Circle (the setting of her novel). After graduation she has been living in Moscow. She is a prolific journalist, famous blogger, and public activist. She is a popular columnist on some of the leading opposition periodicals and also heads the literature section of the “thankyou.ru” book portal.
Winner of the Northern Star Prize (2010) Liza was a finalist in two important literary competitions: Debut Prize and NOS (2012), with her novel The Little Man. Her other prize-winning book is the collection of short stories The Rebel. She has a number of other books to her name, both fiction and nonfiction. Her latest novel (a version of "God of the Flies") is pending publication.
Read an Excerpt
"Much unhappiness has come into the world because of bewilderment and things left unsaid."
Even Savely's surname was a joke: Savage, yeah right! He had a stammer, stumbled over his words and took refuge from conversations in solitude. When people around him laughed, he'd sulk and when they wept, he'd sneer. He always got out of bed on the wrong side and came upon people when he was least wanted, so that by forty, life had really started to grate. He was born in a little town and had grown up there too. From his window, he could see the school where the only thing he'd learnt was that while it's the hard-working students who solve problems, it's the failing students who set them and change the rules to suit themselves so that they always have the answer ready. Savage went unnoticed as a pebble on the road. But when the gangster Mogilev nicknamed Coffin was shot dead in broad daylight, Savely came to the notice of the whole town.
It was several hours' drive to the nearest village while the Finnish border was only a stone's throw away, so the town lived a life of its own, cut off from the rest of the country like a hunk of bread from a loaf. The gangsters ruled by terror, prowling the streets, collars turned up, a trail of ransacked wallets and destinies behind them. Several gangs shared the various districts, but it was a small town and there wasn't enough room. Coffin had the last word. He crossed himself with fingers clenched into a fig and could multiply any number by zero. The crumpled faces of his henchmen made you think of clenched fists. He had blood on his hands, right up his arms in fact. He had blown up his rivals when they were relaxing in a restaurant and thereby put an end to their protracted showdown. Only one survived. The blast ripped his legs off and the crock that was left they called Shorty. He walked on his stumps rather than crutches, supported by hands that were callused and scarred, and served as a reminder of what happened to anyone who crossed Coffin. He kept Shorty on as a mascot in the belief that he would bring him luck. And he did until the day Coffin was shot down right in front of everybody. Shorty, looking at the body, felt a gnawing pain in his stumps.
Savely's single life continued even after he got married. Life with his wife and daughter was like sharing a communal apartment. They took no more notice of him than they did of the pattern on the wallpaper. His wife's tongue was knife-edge sharp, she smeared Savely with taunts like buttering bread, and his teenage daughter aped her mother's manners so that Savely was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, unable to understand how he had become so estranged from his own daughter. In her disinterested gaze, like a needle to his heart, he read, "So he's alive, fine, but it would be no great loss if he wasn't!" He tried to spend longer and longer at work and when he was at home hid away in a corner like a cockroach. The "life is fun" attitude of the TV made fun of him. "Someone's got to be the loser," he thought with a shrug.
The town was so small that a whisper at one end could be heard at the other. Savely's wife changed lovers like she changed clothes and she believed that marriage aged people while love made them younger. She wasn't ashamed to appear in public on the arm of her date and, envying them from afar, Savely would cross the street or look down if he bumped into them and his wife's lover, plastering a grin on his face, would pretend they didn't know each other. At night, twisting and turning in bed, Savely would often picture his wife in bed with another man but he felt neither jealousy nor insult, only envy. He was so lonely he could have howled at the moon like a wolf and talked to his own shadow.
At work, Savage huddled in a corner behind a cupboard. It separated him from his colleagues and sheltered him from the sidelong glances he so dreaded, although, in fact, no-one paid him much attention. Someone had stuck a broken chair in his corner and a fat clay pot with a dried-out palm and Savely would squeeze past the clutter he couldn't quite bring himself to throw out.
If not for his visible bald spot and the horseshoe curve of his shoulders, Savely Savage could have passed for a teenager. He was skinny and, like all dreamers, he dragged his feet like a child. The office grind had sucked all the goodness out of the years and now he was irritated when anything new disturbed his usual routine. He'd fume when the roads were resurfaced or the street names changed or when his slippers weren't where he'd left them. He met the same people every day and only noticed them when they disappeared. He lived his life as if he were watching a boring film.
The town clung to a mining factory like a baby to its mother. The smoking chimneys could be seen from every part of town. In conversation, people would say "there" and everyone knew they meant the factory. They could nod vaguely in any direction and everyone would still know they meant the factory even if they'd nodded in a totally different direction.
Karimov, the factory manager, looked like an Italian mafioso. He had black curly hair and a hawk nose and his appearance didn't fit into the local landscape where it resembled a glossy photo pasted over a pastel drawing. Karimov had been sent two years ago from Moscow, which from here seemed so distant it might as well have been abroad, and he lived out of his suitcases in a hotel, as if constantly awaiting a transfer. Karimov helped the local orphanage and that's why people forgave him his look of disgust and the cold half-smile that never left his face and could induce a shiver even on a hot day. He was a door-step baby himself with the sticky eyes of every abandoned child. His mother had wrapped her baby in a faded dress and left him on the steps of the orphanage. The baby lay there all night. He didn't cry, just fixed his angry eyes on the locked door. In the morning, he was picked up by a passer-by who took the bundle home and opened it up on the table, the baby splayed out like a frog. The man had no children and decided that the god he didn't believe in had sent him a son.
You could set your watch by Mayor Krotov. Rushing to work in the morning, Savely would see him outside the local municipal office and in the evening the burly mayor would tumble out of it like a potato falling from a torn sack. Keeping his eyes straight ahead, he would get into his car that would tip sideways. Rumour had it that the mayor had built a medieval castle with towers somewhere out in the forest, hidden away from the townsfolk. No-one had seen this castle, however, and encrusted with rumour, it grew to the size of a town. Krotov avoided meeting Coffin who did his best to avoid him too. They communicated through the chief of police, Trebenko, who travelled between the gangsters and the civil servants like a ferry between two shores. They had tacitly split the town in two. Each part had its own laws and regulations that didn't operate in the other.
Everything is in plain sight in a small town so no-one bothered to hide. The one place of entertainment, the Three Lemons bar, brought the town's big cheeses and its lowlifes together under one roof.
Trebenko would pop his head round the door on holidays but would hurry away after just one glass. Antonov, a chain store owner and an aspiring local Duma Deputy, left with a different girl every night. He looked like a kind uncle, capable only of taking you on his knee to tell you a story. Antonov didn't tell any stories but he did give generous presents. He had a furrowed brow and a well-padded torso that he covered up with wide jackets a size too big so that he always seemed to be wearing someone else's suit. Antonov drank life down in big gulps and his vodka in tiny sips and he believed that anything that was for sale could be bought and anything that could be bought was for sale.
In the evening, lolling out on the veranda of the Three Lemons, Coffin would look everyone over with a glance as clammy as his moist palms and Shorty would set up a game of patience, slavering on his fingers and slobbering on the deck which bristled in his hand like a ruffled bird. He would draw the cards from a deck as if he were plucking feathers and set them out face down. The cards were marked so that he was able to guess them while the other bandits looked over his shoulder and tried to predict whether the game would work out or not. Coffin's guys would sit stiff as statues at the little tables, the passersby reflected in their shades.
Savely frequently came across his daughter at the bar. She had grown up on her own terms like nettles behind a fence. When she saw her father, she would turn away or give a laugh that was exaggeratedly loud. She wore too much makeup and blood-red lipstick and Savely wanted to rub it off his daughter's face with his sleeve. He tried to talk to his wife about it but she just brushed him aside. "Better a gangster than an insect," the gibe came. Savely felt like a beetle crushed under foot.
"A little man in a little town," he murmured to himself in front of the mirror, stroking his thin hair. "A little man ..."
That evening, like thousands of other evenings before, he was on his way home from work and turning over his usual thoughts of life passing him by like the last bus home. "I've lived the wrong way, in the wrong place, with the wrong people," he told himself.
There were some girls sitting on a bench drinking beer, lazily checking out the passersby through the glass of the bottle. "They're even more bored than I am," thought Savage as he went past. He bought a loaf of bread from a stall and munched on it as he walked along. Family meals had gone by the board even earlier than the marital bed.
Coffin was snoozing on the veranda of the Three Lemons, his legs stretched out, and a waitress nearly dropped her tray as she stepped over them cautiously. Shorty, curled up like a cat, narrowed his eyes in the sun. Rubbing his stumps, he clacked his teeth angrily, snapping at the air, and hated the entire world. The gangsters were drinking kvass in beer glasses, batting away flies and, with nothing better to do, were sizing up the passersby as if they were going through their pockets.
"You should look at every person as if they are condemned and going to die today," said Shorty, repeating the words of a sermon he'd read in a church newspaper. He'd been frequenting the church of late, leaning back to see the icons he couldn't reach to kiss. "Then people will all be kinder to one another and more tolerant ..."
"You should look at every person as if he's been told to kill you and could pull a gun on you at any time," growled Coffin, without opening his eyes. "Then people will treat one another according to their deserts!"
The gangsters held unlimited sway over the little town. People were more afraid of them than of the police because the gangsters had been laying down the law for a long time. Sometimes, people would turn to them for help and ask them to intercede with an over-zealous civil servant. If it was a minor official, the gangsters would burst into his home, empty out the safes and get him to sign the necessary papers. Coffin's right-hand man, a gangster known as Saam, called this popular justice and there were people who were only too pleased to have someone in town who would stick up for ordinary residents. On one occasion the gangsters beat a local government official so badly that he died a few hours later. "Everyone does it and so did I," the man kept saying through blood-caked lips as the doctor examined him and directed the paramedics to the morgue. "Did I really ask for too much?"
One of Savely's colleagues had gone to the gangsters too, asking them to beat up an old school friend who owed him money that he had been unable to get back for many years. The old school friend had borrowed from his pals and tried to set up his own business but had gone bust and taken to the bottle to hide from his creditors.
"What's the interest rate?" Coffin yawned into his hand.
The man made a gesture.
The gangster raised his eyebrows.
"I'm not doing it for the money," Savely's colleague explained. "I don't really need it. You take it. It's the principle of the thing. If you borrow, you've got to give it back."
"It's a good principle," said Coffin, with a wry smile. "So, I'll be waiting for you to bring the money at the same time tomorrow. You'll pay me double: for you and your friend. You can pay in instalments ..."
For several weeks, the man delivered the money to the gangsters, packing the tight little bundles into a plastic bag. He had to go into debt himself, sell his old car and his wife's rings and then, once he no longer owed the gangsters anything at all, he happened upon the old school friend and, pulling him into a hug, he dragged him into the nearest shop for a drink. "You can divide people up into those who don't pay their debts and those who pay off other people's," he mumbled after the second glass. His friend, rubbing his blueing nose, nodded in agreement.
Antonov came out of the Three Lemons gleaming like a polished boot. Looking at his red, fleshy face, Savely remembered the chubby little boy from the parallel class who was always eating between lessons, his sandwiches wrapped in greaseproof paper in his briefcase. His classmates used to laugh at him, clipping him round the ear, and he would wipe his hands on his trousers and chase them down the corridors. Savely was also picked on in class so he tried to make friends with the school fatty. When he went up to him, however, the boy looked him arrogantly up and down and turned away. Antonov hadn't changed much in thirty years. Savely looked at his own reflection in the bar's dark window and thought that he was still the same stooped and clumsy boy he had been thirty years ago, plodding home, his satchel clutched to his chest. Looking around, Antonov dived into a huge jeep and the driver, whose face looked like a hand giving the finger, switched on the engine.
After Antonov came Savely's daughter in a flashy dress of her mother's that hung on her like a lowered flag. Vasilisa was unsteady on her feet, treading cautiously in her high heels, her cheeks flushed crimson with alcohol. Savage had long been aware of a smell of tobacco and cheap wine when Vasilisa came home late but now he was absolutely stunned: one of Coffin's henchmen was putting the girl in the car next to Antonov. The whole town knew the boss never left the bar with the same girl twice and Savely, remembering all he had heard about his antics from the old ladies in the neighbourhood, was practically gagging with rage.
Gasping for air like a fish out of water, he hurled himself towards the car but the gangsters blocked his path.
"M–m-my d-daughter, d-daughter!" Savage stammered.
"Daughters flower after hours," chuckled Coffin, rubbing his swollen eyelids. "We'll bring her back in the morning."
He rocked back on the wicker chair again, a sign that the conversation was over. Savely was determined to drag Vasilisa out of the car come what may but, as he rushed forwards, he stumbled and fell onto the table. The glasses rolled onto the floor, sloshing kvass all over the gangsters. Furious, Coffin leapt to his feet, fists clenched, and seeing his Adam's apple bobbing in his throat and the vein standing out on his forehead, the gangsters prepared to fight.
Antonov opened the car window and hate pounded in Savely's temples at the sight of his shiny cheeks.
"Okay, mate?" smiled Antonov. "Nothing to worry about. We're just going for a drive."
"What are you talking to him for?" drawled Vasilisa. "He's no-one."
"You should be s-shot!" Savely exploded.
In a little town, either you kill boredom or boredom kills you.
"Get me a gun." Coffin told his aide, wiping his kvass-soaked trousers with a handkerchief. "And quickly!"
He devoured Savely with eyes that burned right through his pockets and Savely began to feel uncomfortable. Sensing fun and games ahead, Shorty jumped out of his seat and got under their feet. Smacking his lips and positively buzzing with curiosity, he was trying to work out what Coffin had come up with.
Saam brought over the double-barrelled shotgun Coffin always kept in the boot. He was breathing hard and his lips trembled with excitement. Coffin smirked when he saw this and raised an eyebrow in surprise but he failed to read his fate in the other's face.
"Take it. Shoot yourself," he said, offering the gun to Savely.
Two aides rushed over to Coffin, helpfully seized the gun and put the barrel to Savely's chin and his finger on the trigger.
"Or shoot me," Coffin said, looking straight ahead as if he were looking into a mirror. "If you don't, I'll shoot you."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Little Man"
Copyright © 2018 Liza Alexandrova-Zorina.
Excerpted by permission of GLAS New Russian Writing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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