Alexander Garros and Aleksei Evdokimov, two Russian journalists working in Latvia, wrote a “cyberthriller” that in 2003 won the Russian Literary National Bestseller Prize. Headcrusher, now translated into English, provides an unsettling and at times absurd entrance into Rīga’s underbelly and leaves me wondering what I dislike most: the human garbage depicted in the book, the book itself and its authors, or myself for at times sympathizing with the book’s anti-hero, Vadim Apletaev.
The premise of the book is simple. Twenty-six-year-old Apletaev works in the public relations department of REX International Commercial Bank, billed as the largest financial institution in Latvia. A former columnist for the Russian-language SM newspaper, Apletaev has gone over to the dark side—as journalists sometimes say of PR practitioners—and it’s about to get darker fast. Apletaev appears to suffer from the particular Eastern European ennui, which he nurses with emotionless sex and by playing a first-person-shooter computer game called Headcrusher.
And then one evening in the office, after his boss Andrei Vladlenovich Voronin (a.k.a. Four-Eyes) has discovered a violent anti-bourgeois diatribe on Apletaev’s computer, Apletaev smacks him on the head with a dinosaur statue.
That first murder leads to a series of other killings, as Apletaev sinks further and further into a private hell where the real world and its human filth comes to resemble the fantasy world of Headcrusher.
Other reviews have compared Headcrusher to a Quentin Tarantino film. It certainly has its similarities, what with the linguistic and physical violence. That may be enough to turn off some readers who have little stomach for such fare. And I cannot promise those who choose to engage the novel will come away any better.
Headcrusher has also been described as a work of social protest. In the context of a post-Soviet Latvia where dirty money, dirty politics and dirty crime were (and in some cases continue to be) an accepted condition, Vadim Apletaev takes things into his own hands, not unlike Danila Bagrov, the lead character in Russian director Aleksei Balabanov’s vigilante film Brat. Both are fed up with the way things are in the place they call home. However, Apletaev is so much more twisted.
Apletaev’s solution to what he sees around him is to kill. His killing at times may seem justified, but if you find yourself sympathizing with him, be sure to do a reality check and ask if killing another human being is ever justified. More unsettling is the abandon with which he kills, as if he were playing a computer game the perpetual goal of which is to make it to the next level, rather than encountering a real world in which there is no “restart” button.
When Headcrusher first appeared, it was hailed by some critics as the next big thing in Russian literature. That may say more about the state of contemporary Russian literature than about this book. It is strong stuff, but I’m still not convinced its over-the-top nature makes it worthy of the accolades. Is make-believe violence appropriate social protest, even if it is cathartic?
If you make it through Headcrusher, be prepared to ask yourself the same questions.
Alexander Garros and Aleksei Evdokimov
London: Chatto & Windus, 2005
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