In “The Big Green Tent,” published in Russia in 2010, Ludmila Ulitskaya presents a kaleidoscopic view of a cast of passionate artists, dreamers and dissidents, stretching from around the time of Stalin’s death in 1953 into the 1990s.
In the broadest sense, “Tent” is about the lives of three close schoolboy friends — Mikha, Sanya and Ilya — and their challenging paths to and through adulthood. But a book of this length is anything but simple. Indeed, the first sentence, which Ulitskaya echoes later nearly to the letter, sets a theme: “It’s fascinating to trace the trajectories of people destined to meet.”
After a thorough introduction to the boys, their families and their beloved literature teacher, Victor, Ulitskaya begins to pan around (sometimes skipping around chronologically) and zoom in on the lives of a wide range of supporting characters. Over the course of 32 chapters, she depicts parents, girlfriends, lovers, friends — even a cartoonist and a funeral officiator. Ilya’s second wife, Olga, assumes nearly primary character status.
A few of the stationary points in this epic, varied book are the primary pursuits of the main three: Mikha loves poetry, Sanya is a gifted musician and Ilya has a journalistic bent, favoring photography and samizdat. Additionally, literature is everywhere (with Sanya also reading sheet music and music theory), representative of a passion of the particular time and the country in general.
Victor takes the three boys and their classmates on weekly literary walking tours of Moscow, engrossing them all; the narrator later writes of the ’60s, “What lyrical abundance! Never before nor after had there been such a time in Russia. Verses filled the airless space, and themselves became the air people breathed.”
Ulitskaya traces the entire lives of the boys, two up until their deaths, the third in late middle age by the end (and still very close with a childhood friend). Often it is achievement enough for a writer to depict a vast array of characters with insight and great sensitivity for each; Ulitskaya does this and more.
Set in such a historically idiosyncratic period, “The Big Green Tent” is and isn’t all about the politics. Although Ulitskaya gets deep into characters’ quotidian musings, romances and friendships, her characters are still living within the framework of an absurd time, when maneuvering around the machinations of the KGB was simply a way of life, and people suddenly and regularly disappeared to labor camps for years on end.
While more insight into the lives of some of the central characters and less into the lives of the tangential ones would occasionally have been welcome, it is undeniable that with this novel Ulitskaya has pulled off a multipronged feat.
Kim Hedges is an editor and book reviewer in the San Francisco Bay Area.