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Book description

Captain of the Steppe sounds like the title of a pre-war boys own tale of derring-do, cover featuring a moustachioed hussar on a rearing horse. However. This captain, Khabarov, is not a dapper alpha-hero, rather hes reminiscent of the Ealing comedy little man against the system - but this being the Soviet system, not a 1950s British local council, its a darker story. One of those typically Communist Bloc satires of bizarre and pointless bureaucratic officiousness, its set in two army camps near Karaganda, Kazakhstan - a town as proverbial to the Soviets as Timbuktoo was to the British and French Empires - and in the days of Andropov when everything was starting to fall apart. Climate change gets a look-in too, as pathetic fallacy. The black humour, irony, and resigned mood in the face of a system that considers people expendable, is similar to that in other books and films about disaffected soldiers; but in tandem with the organisational decay, the novel doesnt have a big concept at heart like Catch-22 did. (Big concepts, perhaps, belong to the state.)Theres always something happening and the pace is like that of farce; however its mostly funny-in-your-head humour rather than guffawing out loud; if some descriptions and scenes were ratcheted up and exaggerated a touch, it could easily have become full-on comedy. As it is its dry and sardonic in a way that at once manages to sound rather British, whilst being perhaps more appropriate to its native environment of residual bruality than Tom Sharpe-style craziness would have been. There turned out to be some notes at the end that werent signposted in the ebook contents - useful for clarifying the relative rank of two officers whose rows were worded as if each considered the other (in)subordinate. Luckily many of the local terms were already familiar from reading another novel, about six months ago, also set in Kazakhstan; the notes also explain these.My knowledge of Russian literature is fairly pathetic. If this book hadnt appeared to be expiring on Scribd (which Ive only been using for a few days, still getting my head around it), Id have left it until Id read a few more old Russian classics. I cant comment on the alleged similarities to Gogol. As far as those to Solzhenitsyn are concerned - yes, I can see that. Its a similar environment, which the author knows from his own experience, but treated with more humour - arguably easier to do so because this is about the soldiers, not the prisoners, (though at times their conditions arent an awful lot better) and its several decades later when the regime wasnt quite as cruel - the soldiers ignore the prisoners rather than tormenting them, which, whilst likeability is hardly the point of characters like these, makes it easier for the reader to care. May 2015

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