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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Rehearsals

Vladimir Sharov

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To purchase The Rehearsals

Title: The Rehearsals
Author: Vladimir Sharov
Genre: Novel
Written: 1992 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 359 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: The Rehearsals - US
The Rehearsals - UK
The Rehearsals - Canada
Les répétitions - France
  • Russian title: Репетиции
  • Translated and with a Foreword by Oliver Ready
  • With an Afterword by the author, 'The History of a Novel' (2015)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : appealingly, dizzyingly turned novel of modern (17th-century to Soviet era) Russia

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Rehearsals takes an unusual circuit of Russian history. The novel begins:

     In 1939 Isaiah Trifonovich Kobylin ceased to be a Jew, and the Jewish nation, of which he was the last, ended with him.
       Moving first a bit forward through Soviet times, the novel circles back to the seventeenth century and lays the foundations for what then is also the final part of the novel, leading back to this initial conclusion.
       A narrator explains he learnt this story from Kobylin, in 1967, but first offer more personal background, beginning his story with his own university studies, at the University of Kuibyshev in Samara in 1958, and his acquaintance with: "a man who was trying to understand God" named Ilyin. His theological deliberations are one influence on the narrator; another is that of: "a decrepit octogenarian philosophy professor from Kiev known to the entire university as 'The Idealist'", who nominally lectures on Gogol. Moving with his family to Tomsk in 1963, the narrator moves to a new (and better) university, and comes under the wing of another dedicated professor, Suvorin.
       Among Suvorin's fields of interest is the historical 'Schism', caused by the reforms instituted by Russian Orthodox patriarch Nikon in the seventeenth century. The 'Old Believers', who wanted to stick to the old formulas and rites, were exiled -- and, as the narrator notes:
The history of Siberia, after all, is also the history of the Schism. The Old Believers who were exiled here from Russia in the seventeenth century, or fled here of their own accord, were the first to colonize and cultivate these lands. They were needed here, so the authorities didn't interfere with their faith
       Suvorin amassed a large number of manuscripts from and about these times in the course of his work, and generally passed them on to the university when he was done with them. After his death, there's some disagreement between the heirs and the university, and it's the narrator who acts as middleman of sorts, with Suvorin's library and manuscripts going through his hands, as he continues to take an interest in his professor's work. He also adds to the historical haul, a man who sold manuscripts to Suvorin -- the Kobylin introduced (so briefly) at the start of the novel -- now offering him his latest finds. The narrator's first purchase is the papers of a French theatre director, Jacques de Sertan. Because nothing in this novel is simple or straightforward, the papers are of course written not in French but in Breton, and it takes the narrator three years to find someone able to translate them (though, of course: "I found him right under my nose, in the next house along").
       Here then, finally, almost a quarter of the way into the book, the story gets to the (more or less) actual story, as Sertan's eastern European (and eventually Russian) odyssey, beginning in 1645, is the heart of the novel, and the basis for the rest. Sertan's theatrical troupe doesn't enjoy great success in those tough times -- by 1654: "his entire troupe had been reduced to a single man". Patriarch Nikon seems an unlikely savior -- after all, he: "held that the theatre was a satanic spectacle and that anyone who watched it imperilled his soul" -- but Nikon has big plans.
       Nikon's grand scheme is nothing less than a 'New Jerusalem'. In fact, he wants: "to move all Palestine's sacred places over here, onto Russian soil" (and he means everything). He also wants to put on a grand mystery play-- the grandest of mystery plays, which is where Sertan's expertise is meant to come into play. Sertan, however, is a bit overwhelmed by Nikon's grand ambitions.
       The preparations in New Jerusalem extend over years -- and come to naught. The Schism leads to arrests and then exile, the two hundred and eight souls who had been preparing for the play exiled along with Sertan, the list of them conveniently grouping them by their roles -- significant, because they didn't really let go of these on their very long journey, and then in Siberian exile. So, for example, those playing Jews stuck to the part (though the narrator admits: "I don't think they ever became real Jews, with the possible exception of one group"). The play, which had been meant to be performed only once, is in fact never put on as such -- and yet in its performers sticking to the fundamentals of their roles, the fictional identities they were to play, in their Mosslands exile, in a sense their on-going lives recreated (Biblical) history more authentically than the mere drama Sertan had been planning:
     Essentially, Sertan had created a new people and a new community, unlike any other.
       The community survives, too, in its odd state, until the twentieth century and Soviet times. Shaped by the Russian upheavals of the seventeenth century, the community is then only undone by Soviet repression.
       The Rehearsals unfolds unusually, but is ultimately effective -- the theme of cyclical repetition (of history and much else), in particular, effectively conveyed. Even as it seems to meander, Sharov's broad approach cleverly covers a great deal; if fundamentally fictional, there's much here based on historical fact, and the story reflects modern Russian history, from the 1600s through Soviet times, very well.
       The characters, even those appearing only briefly on the scene, provide a variety of insightful and entertaining angles in Sharov's complexly structured tale -- even the in-way-over-his-head Sertan, who can't escape his fate and finds that:
The country he ended up with was so inconceivable, so impossible that there had to be some mistake. Presumably, Sertan did not understand Russia, did not understand where itw as headed, what fate it was preparing itself for, and for a long time, almost up to his final days, he also failed to understand what he himself was doing here, thanks to his warped, incomplete relationships with the people with whom fate had thrown him together.
       Several of the theological and political issues at the heart of the novel -- such as the Schism -- are quite Russia-specific in this very much about-Russia novel, and some of the theological debate can be a bit wearing, but central though national and religious identity and issues are, and how very much The Rehearsals is not only steeped in Russian history but also tries to define it, that's not all there is to the novel. In fact, there's quite a bit of entertainment to the story too, including some exciting adventure. The novel might qualify as wildly imagined -- if it weren't for the fact that so much of it is factual -- and Sharov also has good fun with many of his characters and scenes. More loosely digressive than most fiction, The Rehearsals nevertheless consistently sticks to its larger story -- it's just that it turns out to be more multifaceted than the simple(r) one, of putting on a play, at the heart of it.
       The Rehearsals pulls readers along to some strange places, not so much at a slow pace but in a roundabout fashion, but it's worth the unusual ride.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 February 2018

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The Rehearsals: Reviews: Other books by Vladimir Sharov under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of literature from Russia

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About the Author:

       Russian author Vladimir Sharov (Владимир Александрович Шаров) lived 1952 to 2018.

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© 2018-2022 the complete review

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