The Big Green Tent by Lyudmila Ulitskaya

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Save three stray years, I have lived in Massachusetts my entire life. It’s a small state, and running into people I know is rarely a surprise. Sitting on the train in Boston, I’ll hear my name, and a former high school classmate will be four seats down. Walking through Harvard Square, I’ll pass one of my best friends on her way to dinner. Any time I meet someone from Massachusetts, I play that old game: Where did you grow up? Oh, do you know so-and-so? She’s from there too. Where did you go to high school? Oh, what about…

This phenomenon isn’t restricted to New England. Every place has its networks, no matter the size. A place can’t get much larger than Russia, and yet the world that Lyudmila Ulitskaya creates in her novel The Big Green Tent feels as intimate as Cambridge. The characters run in their own circles––the Russian intelligentsia, Moscow artists and musicians and poets, Soviet dissidents, producers of the self-published literature or samizdat, Russian ex-pats living abroad. Everyone is somehow connected, whether they know it or not.

The plot of The Big Green Tent is structured like a germ that’s being passed from hand to hand. The story begins with a group of three friends––Ilya, Mikha, and Sanya––growing up in Moscow after World War II. The boys are inseparable throughout their school years, but after they graduate, each one starts to make his own way in the world. The plot fans out. The lens refocuses to include a group of three girlfriends––Olga, who becomes Ilya’s second wife, and her friends Tamara and Galya––plus the many people they befriend, love, hate, and marry throughout their lives.

It’s fascinating to trace the trajectories of people destined to meet. Sometimes such encounters happen without any special effort of fate, without elaborate convolutions of plot, following the natural course of events––say, people live in adjacent buildings, or go to the same school; they get to know each other at college or at work. In other cases, something unexpected is called for: train schedules out of whack, minor misfortune orchestrated on high, like a small fire or a leaky pipe on an upper floor, or a ticket bought from someone else for the last movie show. Or else a chance meeting, when a watcher is standing in one spot, on the lookout for a target, and suddenly a girl glides by out of nowhere, once, twice, a third time. And there’s a weak smile, and then, suddenly, like dawn breaking––she’s your own dear wife…

In each chapter you find yourself playing six degrees of separation, trying to figure out how everyone is connected. When a scientist tests the effects of alcoholism in rabbits, suddenly a light bulb: Oh! This guy is the colleague of a man, who is married to a woman, who is also a scientist and the mentor of the friend of Ilya’s second wife. A few chapters later, the scientist will end up on an airplane, sitting next to Ilya, but neither of them will know they have any sort of connection.

In The Big Green Tent, even the most minor characters get their chance to be protagonists, if only for a moment––the story can move from Ilya, to Olga, to Olga’s father, to Olga’s father’s mistress, to Olga’s mother, to the funeral director who buries Olga’s mother. The plot is contagious. One character sneezes, and a dozen are infected with their own chapter. The writer Ann Rule describes this phenomenon, “There is an odd synchronicity in the way parallel lives veer to touch one another, change direction, and then come close again and again until they connect and hold for whatever it was that fate intended to happen.”

Isn’t every person deserving of these special efforts of fate? Olga, yes, certainly… But Galya? Should fate squander its efforts on an insignificant and unprepossessing couple, the daughter of the local plumber, a drunk, and the son of another such plumber from Tver, but already deceased? … It’s incomprehensible, improbably––but the generosity of fate also extends to the likes of these C list extras.

Fate is a big theme in Ulitskaya’s work. Mikha’s aunt’s son has an affair with Olga’s friend Tamara, but they meet through completely separate circumstances. Olga borrows a book from a university classmate and spills coffee on it; a friend of Ilya’s happens to find the same coffee-stained volume in the dump years later. Galya inadvertently marries the KGB agent who has been spying on Olga and Ilya. People who have never formally met, but unknowingly have deeply tangled pasts, will obliviously stand side-by-side at the same funeral. “There is a year, or perhaps a season, in almost every person’s life, when the buds of possibility burst open, when fateful meetings take place, when paths cross, when courses and levels shift, when life rises from the depths and ascends to the heights,” writes Ulitskaya. The novel is a celebration of that fateful season in the lives of her characters.

Lyudmila Ulitskaya

Lyudmila Ulitskaya

But The Big Green Tent is also about the messiness of human connections. The book opens with Stalin’s death, and his shadow is on every page. The plot is saturated with the anti-Semitism and xenophobia of that time, and also the fear, doubt, cynicism, and paranoia that Stalin fostered. It’s everywhere. As Mikha says at one point, “How strange our Soviet––or maybe Russian––life is: you never know who will denounce you, report you to the authorities, or who will help you out; or how quickly those roles might reverse.” In a society completely overrun by fear, many human connections are not serendipitous and wonderful, but dangerous. Friendships with foreigners only end in trouble. Contraband manuscripts end up in the wrong hands. Self-published manuscripts read by an informer could mean death. The threats of arrest, interrogation, house searches, and labor camps loom over every relationship; it seems to be a matter of when not if. The more friends you have, the more connections you make, and the more KGB informers you may know. So many people are at risk when one person is brought in for interrogation. The Big Green Tent is not a light read. The story deals with some of the darkest, most difficult moments of Russia’s past.

Reading The Big Green Tent takes patience. In the stereotypical fashion of Russian novels, Ulitskaya’s book is long—just under 600 pages. For the most part, the translation is extremely smooth, though there are a few awkward moments when a stiff or clunky Soviet acronym doesn’t come across quite right. Polly Gannon should be commended for her translation––she does remarkable work finding English equivalents for strange Russian idioms, and translating elements of Russian culture that Western readers may miss.

The biggest challenge of The Big Green Tent, though, is its breadth of characters. It takes effort to keep track of the dozens and dozens of individuals in the book––from real historical figures such as Stalin, Mayakovsky, Shostakovich, and Brodsky, to those made-up ones who feel they should be a part of history. You can’t take too many breaks from the text or you’ll forget who everyone is. While reading The Big Green Tent, it wouldn’t hurt to follow your high school English teacher’s advice and make a list of characters to reference while reading. But this range of characters and connections is what makes The Big Green Tent great. Ulitskaya returns to the same scenes and events, telling them from the close-third-person perspectives of different characters. Just as in real life, a scenario can pass right by one person, while it changes someone else’s life. Ulitskaya also explores the overlapping of places––events that happen years apart on the same street, in the same park.

We live not in nature, but in history … And Pasternak walked down this very lane twenty years before. And one hundred fifty years ago––Pushkin. And we are walking down it, too, skirting the eternal puddles.

Time feels fluid in The Big Green Tent. In the same sentence you’ll see Ilya taking photographs and the KGB agent, who will later confiscate Ilya’s photo collection, holding the negatives. People die and are resurrected, brought back to life by memory and story. It’s as if Ulitskaya is trying to make sense of life, returning to the same thoughts, the same memories, to understand why things happen and how the world is woven together.

What I find miraculous about Ulitskaya’s book is that these connections between characters never feel forced. As a writer of nonfiction, I’m often hard on novelists and short story writers: Oh, I’ll think, as two characters will happen to meet on the street or sit next to each other on a plane, how convenient. Of course that can happen in this novel, because someone is making it all up.

But events like these––serendipitous, coincidental, strange, lucky––do happen in real life. Just the other night, my boyfriend and I were out in Harvard Square for dinner. As we decided where to eat, he was telling me that he needed to get in touch with a friend of his. We peered in the window of Charlie’s Kitchen, shook our heads at the masses of Harvard undergraduates, and decided to head to Grendel’s Den. We walked into the dark basement restaurant, took a seat at the bar, and my boyfriend glanced at the man sitting to his left: it was the friend he had just been talking about. Neither my boyfriend nor his friend lives nearby. It was strange and unexpected, but there they were.

Life is stranger than fiction, and Ulitskaya uses her fiction to explore the strangeness of life. But The Big Green Tent is also a love letter to the power of fiction. Ilya, Mikha, and Sanya originally become friends because of their shared love for their school’s literature teacher, Victor Yulievich. After university, Mikha teaches language and literature to deaf-mute children outside Moscow. Ilya helps create samizdat, self-published books of illegal prose and poetry. References to the great Russian writers dust the prose like snow, as do references to the many Western books, such as George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four, that penetrated the Iron Curtain and found their way into the characters’ hands. The prose itself of The Big Green Tent is a tribute to the Russian masters. The novel has some of the sprawling, decade-spanning story of Tolstoy, the fluidity of time and memory of Nabokov, the crushing Soviet reality of Solzhenitsyn and Ginzburg, the absurdity of Gogol, the political commentary of Bulgakov, the guilt and angst of Dostoevsky, and the lyricism of Akhmatova and Mayakovsky, with Chekhov’s gun hanging over the whole thing. The literature within the book offers a reminder: even when we are surrounded by threats and fear, there are things—like poetry and prose—that can bring people together; things worth living for.

E.B. Bartels is the author of Good Grief: On Loving Pets, Here and Hereafter, forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in spring 2021. For more about E.B., visit her website or follow her on Twitter at @eb_bartels. More from this author →