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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Be as Children

by
Vladimir Sharov


general information | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Be as Children



Title: Be as Children
Author: Vladimir Sharov
Genre: Novel
Written: 2008 (Eng. 2021)
Length: 493 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: Be as Children - US
Be as Children - UK
Be as Children - Canada
Soyez comme les enfants - France
directly from: Dedalus
  • Russian title: Будьте как дети
  • Translated and with a Foreword by Oliver Ready
  • With an Afterword by Caryl Emerson

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Our Assessment:

B+ : deep dive into faith but also compelling fiction

See our review for fuller assessment.




The complete review's Review:

       Early in the novel, as narrator Dmitry just gets going, he already warns: "I'm aware that the story that follows contains too many strands". He notes that he had: "first decided that I had to write about all this nearly thirty years ago" -- and 'all this' turns out to be quite the convolute, ranging from his personal experience to biography and a much broader chronicle of events, covering a considerable swathe of (mostly twentieth century) Russian history. He also notes that: "My own experience has taught me that being at the centre of events makes you the worst possible of witnesses", and while he remains a presence throughout the novel he often steps back for considerable stretches, to focus on and document the stories of others -- individuals as well as groups --, often relying on others' testimonies and reports or, for example, newspaper records.
       There are three main strands to Dmitry's compilation. One involves his godmother, Dusya, the woman who gave him his name. She is the dominant figure in the novel, and played a significant role in Dmitry's own life and path, as do some of the important characters close to her, her spiritual father, Nikodim, and her son, Seryozha. Another strand involves Lenin, and the story of the last years of his life, when he suffered repeated strokes. And, finally, there are the Enets, a Samoyedic group whose history Dmitry -- who becomes an ethnographer -- takes an interest in.
       Dusya was "of good noble stock", married a prince, and had two sons; she lost one son and her husband in and around the Russian Civil War, and in 1927 took the veil, becoming a nun. For young Dmitry, Dusya was: "a kind of grandmother to me, an ordinary granny, whose oddities were neither here nor there", but she is, in fact: "a holy fool, whose life could have meaning only in relation to the Lord". She led a largely blameless life, but is still wracked by guilt, at not being pure and good enough; Christianity allows for absolution and redemption, and so she commits herself completely and obsessively to it:

     Without her almost daily confessions, without her fear, that monstrous fear -- would she be absolved or wouldn't she ? -- without God, who was always right there but, so to speak, in the shadows, behind the monk, everything became tasteless to her, incomplete, unfinished. Life itself began to seem unmoulded, mere possibility, and it was only now that it gained flavour and colour, became faceted and shaped.
       Dusya was convinced of the purity and innocence of children, and they loved to play with her -- but growing up meant a loss of that innocence, a disappointment that weighed greatly on Dusya, who was: "always hoping that we would stop and not grow up, that we would remain children. She held us back as best she could". As for adults, she would give up on them: "just like that, in a flash, as if each and every one of them was a lost cause".
       The title of the novel comes from the Bible, Matthew 18:3 -- quoted here, too, as a reminder, Jesus' words that:
Verily I say unto you, except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.
       This idea is also the great theme of the novel, with children seen as the ideal. Dusya's spiritual father, Nikodim, suggests that: "revolution, its aim and meaning, is a return to childhood", and goes so far as to define it:
     Revolution is the attempt to separate good and evil all over again, to make the world as simple and clear as before the Fall.
       So also one of the sub-plots in the novel focuses on Lenin's last years, in Gorki, debilitated by strokes. Dmitry learns this history from an historian -- who wrote his thesis on those last years of Lenin -- while they are recovering in a mental hospital, circumstances that allow the account to be seen as fantasy, but it also fits well with Sharov's larger picture of religion and faith remaining fundamental even in a Russia (cum Soviet Union) that tries to crush it completely. (The world Dmitry describes and moves in remains one pervaded by faith; though the son of "intelligentsia types", in adulthood he too is a regular Church-goer.)
       Sharov's suggests an amusing scenario of what might be considered inverted blasphemy (as seen from a Soviet perspective), Lenin finding God and becoming a true believer. According to Farabin, the historian Dmitry hears this story from: "From the spring of '21 onwards, Lenin really did think almost continuously about God". Lenin considers questions of sin and faith; his God is as absolute as Dusya's, setting the bar so very, very high.
       Among Lenin's great ambitions then is an 'All-Children's March to the Holy Land' -- not a "purely military venture", and one to be led by the blind (!), the goal a new liberation of Jerusalem. It -- just like the Samoyeds' would-be pilgrimage to Jerusalem (where they expect to win: "forgiveness through prayer"), and another children's pilgrimage Dmitry researches at another point -- don't pan out, but these attempts and ambitions are one of the strong threads running through the novel -- culminating then in yet another long procession, to an entirely different locale (which Dusya is convinced is: "nothing other than the hidden City of God, the famed Kitzeh").
       Inspired in no small part by Dusya's son, Seryozha, an artist who spends a great deal of his time in the northern reaches of the country, Dmitry also frequently comes to travel there, doing ethnographic work. The Enets from that region, Samoyeds who also find the faith, also hope to venture to the Promised Land -- though first their talents are used in war against the Poles, as well as in protecting Lenin. Their final attempts to reach the place where they can find forgiveness also fall short -- their poor reindeer not faring well in the southern climes, among other difficulties they faced.
       Dmitry mentions that the stories of one of those he relies on weren't told in order: "he wasn't too fussed about chronology, coherence, or narrative logic", and much the same could be said about Be as Children. It doesn't so much meander as shift about -- much, in fact, like Lenin imagines the children's brigade would on its way to Jerusalem: "the brigade will break up, and each part of it will find its own way to the Holy Land", as:
But here -- and I am quite certain of this -- the brigades must march independently, without conferring with one another and without knowing anything about anyone else. Otherwise the Centre will destroy them and that will be that, whereas a movement like this is impossible to control. Overall,' he concluded, 'in this instance I am on the side of anarchy.'
       Be as Children isn't entirely anarchic, but certainly free-moving in and across its plot-lines and life-stories. There is considerable overlap and connection between the main strands, but the narrative very much wends its way between and across them, making for a less than straightforward read. Yet it is engaging across its entire curious way, the stories and character-portraits, and the glimpses of history, captivating. Sharov's style on his circuitous path is fairly simple, yet also with a beguiling turn to it, and the book never comes to feel as long as it actually is.
       Be as Children is very much steeped in and preöccupied with religion -- but much more with questions of faith and belief than organized religion. Faith here is entirely Christian, and the god very much the Christian God, but the Church plays, at best, a secondary role. Certainly, Sharov uses it effectively; the obsession(s) might strike non-believers as odd, but don't really become tiresome -- quite the achievement.
       (Interesting, too, is the picture of the Soviet Union offered here, presented as reasonably successful in crushing and controlling institutional religion but failing completely to wipe out (Christian) faith. And there are amusing-bizarre insightful titbits strewn in, as when Dmitry reports that: "The psychiatric hospital had an excellent library, where among other things, I started reading early Christian literature and Gnostic texts" -- hardly something one would have expected in the Soviet Union.)
       Part of the pleasure of the novel comes also simply in the great range of what Sharov describes and conveys, all the while building his larger picture. So, for example, a stroke-stricken Lenin often has difficulty reading and even communicating and, reflecting on God, observes that: "He created words to help us" -- but:
     Now it was the sheer clumsiness of words that astounded him. There were millions of them, yet you could never use them to convey a taste or smell. [...] Words, he told Krupskaya, are and always will be a surrogate and a lie, and the only way pf returning to the world the Lord has given us is to renounce them.
       Be as Children is certainly an unusual novel, but it's a rewardingly rich text -- a good story, even.

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 October 2021

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Links:

Be as Children: 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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© 2021 the complete review

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