By Ho Lin
“Suddenly the front door swung open, and in walked…” This incomplete sentence, which occurs a third of the way into Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s delightful Definitely Maybe, is a tease, a taunt, and a mission statement. We’ve come to expect a certain amount of knottiness in our so-called serious literature and understand puzzlement is part of the game, yet it’s still a shock to encounter it in genre fiction, where at its best plot, character, and theme are still delivered in neat, enjoyable bundles. Suffice to say we never learn who walks in through that door and what happens immediately afterwards. Yet it doesn’t matter. Definitely Maybe is that rarest of creatures, a science fiction novella that is also a book of questions without answers.
The Strugatskys made do in a Soviet era in which circumspection was part of the deal. Boris was a bona fide astrophysicist, Arkady a Japanese literature translator. Both had a healthy suspicion of the authorities (“our valiant competent organs”) as well as an impish sense of humor about it. Written in the early ‘70s (and available in complete English translation for the first time), Definitely Maybe is most definitely of its time, with its commentary on state control and personal fulfillment, but in its wry delivery, it speaks to our contemporary scattered states of being, how we are bounced between activity and futility, insight and distraction.
“This isn’t the nineteenth century, buddy,” belches one of the characters in the book. That fact is made clear in a hurry. At first glance, our hero Dmitri Malianov doesn’t seem too far removed from nineteenth-century literary Russians: industrious yet given to drink, harried by quirky neighbors on all sides, embroiled in endless internal dialogues about the divine and the profane (“Why should there be kissing between two intelligent people? The important thing was spiritual rapport”). But before you can say Crime and Punishment, we also learn Malianov is a mathematician, calculating the interrelation of stars with diffusion matter in the galaxy, on the verge of a breakthrough — and that’s when the odd distractions begin, one after another: a succession of mistaken phone calls, an unexpected delivery of cognac and vodka, an intrusion by a lithesome friend of the wife, an ominous visit from a Ministry of Internal Affairs goon who resembles Tonton Macoute but prefers to think of himself as the Invisible Man (“They’re both capitalized”). Soon Malianov’s calculations are defaced, his cognac hijacked, his next-door neighbor murdered, and there is nothing for it but to uncover the malign intentions behind these random events.
These opening gambits play out like a locked-room mystery in which the reader is the one locked in the room. Non-sequiturs and inexplicable phenomena abound. Should we sit up and pay attention when Malianov tries to remember the joke about the two roosters (or is it three)? What to make of Malianov’s boozy comrade Weingarten, who barges in and complains that his epithelium is acting up? How about the fact that the story is presented as excerpts within chapters, with whole conversations and passages in-between excised? Most important, who’s going to feed Malianov’s poor starving cat?
Eventually we arrive at a reason (or shall we say a scheme) behind these happenings, a unified theory that explains everything and nothing. It seems Malianov and some of his more talented colleagues are all on the verge of Big Breakthroughs in each of their respective fields. All of them have been afflicted by these distractions. Is an alien super-civilization stage-managing these interruptions, to prevent mankind from making progress? Or is it an Illuminati-like group safeguarding human knowledge? Is this merely a glitch in the fabric of the universe, or a literal cosmic joke? Anyway, how can one gain proof of such meddling, if it is so far above our pay grades?
Plenty of questions, little to no answers. Not only is someone out to get us, but that someone could be something, beyond any effort at comprehension. The Strugatskys aren’t afraid to spring tricks — in addition to the aforementioned ellipses and elisions, there’s a breathtaking switch from third-person to first-person narration (that’s what you get when you start to think of yourself as a “semi-fictional hero,” as Malianov does just before the switch), a non-resolution to that murder mystery, and a finale that both ends and starts the story.
In less steady hands this would all be over-precious, even overbearing, but the Strugatskys are master storytellers above all else. Like a Rube Goldberg machine, the proceedings grip our attention from each moment to the next, even as we struggle to make sense of the entire contraption. The authors’ style is also rangy enough to accommodate the tactile and the abstract: for every flight of fancy and moment of existential terror, there’s a counterbalance, whether it’s a damn good cup of tea, a tender exchange between Malianov and his beleaguered wife, or the simple sight of a new moon perched above a nearby high-rise building. We never leave Malianov’s apartment building, and yet everything funny, crude, enlightened, and plain surreal lives within it and stretches out to greet us.
“In our century, everybody thinks that a person can come to terms with himself,” snorts Weingarten, and the bitter truth behind all the shenanigans is that we are all afflicted with the need to have things explained, to be reassured that there is agency and rationale behind all the mounting absurdities. Naturally, that reassurance never comes — the Strugatskys knew it in Soviet-era Russia, and we certainly know it in these times, where the art of living slips out of our hands the harder we grasp at it. As Malianov and his band of lovable underdogs come to grips with the notion that they are fated to be “under pressure” and ultimately “squashed,” even the heroism of a Tolstoy or a Dostoyevsky seems futile, beyond the point. And yet, as with those nineteenth-century authors of yore, the story concludes on a faint spark of hope, as a character armed with the truth trudges off to exile deep in the north, that tried-and-true destination of Russian martyrs everywhere.
“You can’t lose your sense of humor, that’s the ticket,” says Malianov, and the Strugatskys suggest that sentiment might offer us just enough succor. In their long, science-fictional view, change will take a billion years to complete — not a comforting thought, but maybe it’s the thought that counts.
By Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
Translated by Antonina W. Bouis
Melville House/Neversink Library (February 2014)