Harbin Moths 

Published by

AST, Moscow

Rights acquired

Le Tripode, Paris

Bata press milenium, Macedonia

“The best Russian novel of the year has been published in Estonia – ‘Harbin Butterflies’ by Andrei Ivanov, perhaps the most interesting and promising Russian writer today.” Chastny Korrespondent

The action of the novel “Harbin Moths” takes place in Revel (Tallinn) from the 1920s to the 1940s. The main characters are émigrés from Soviet Russia, mainly from the intelligentsia, who by the whim of fate have been transported to the Estonia of the time of the First Republic. Counts become taxi drivers, officers steal and take to drink, ladies turn into housekeepers or go mad from the desire to copulate. Some are forced to drudge at factories, offices or the numerous émigré publications, others receive good incomes from smuggling (moonshine to Finland, soap, nails and matches to Russia) and turn them into cocaine, while others spend their last energy on fighting the Bolsheviks, seeing salvation in fascist ideology. They live as if they were at a train station waiting for an echelon to take them to their homeland, where they will be able to take moth-eaten frock-coats and hats out of their chests of drawers. All of them are mad in their own way, and all are doomed. The impeccably elegant aristocrat Kitaev travels from country to country, spends time in restaurants and casinos, to dull the monstrous boredom of his existence. Lying in another hotel room and looking at the rotating blades of the ceiling fan, he imagined “how the roulette wheel is spinning somewhere, and he is lying, like a token, in expectation.” The civil servant’s son Lyova fills his life with cocaine, to stop from being like his father, hunched over in his Estonian office. The editor of the émigré newspaper Stropilin runs to a doctor, because he thinks that the nails of his younger son are growing with “proletarian” plates.

“Russians can be recognized by their old hats. They sit by the “Mermaid” on benches under the willow trees – in patched-up coats or ragged fur coats. The crows perch above them in the branches. The sky is clotted like cream. The wind blows pieces of paper over the promenade. It tugs someone’s umbrella. The horn honks. The hats move, they look at a car driving past. Leaves, pieces of paper, lanterns. They just sit there. The newspapers rustle. Their suits wear out. They float along the paths of the Kadriorg Park. They stand here and there, like chess pieces.”

The central figure of this panopticon, the main character and sometimes also the narrator (the author of the diary notes) is Boris Rebrov, who lost his family during his flight from Russia, and like the majority, simply tries to survive – he works as a photographer, sells his pictures where he tries to “capture fleeing time”, writes articles in various publications and spends years creating a brilliant collage of the Tower of Babel. An artist of light and a Daguerreotypist (“the cobblestones glistened like eggplants. The puddles blossomed with maple leaves”), he tries to be like everyone else – he goes to various émigré meetings, gets drunk, and even contemplates marrying an Estonian woman. But as a true artist he feels the disharmony of the world in which he is just an untouchable wanderer, a butterfly who flies to the flame, and burns his wings, in order to strive once more towards the source of destruction tomorrow. Like Virgil, he leads the reader through the circles of émigré hell. “At the circus I saw a horseman with a monkey on his shoulders, the horseman didn’t care, he kept jumping and jumping, but the monkey was shaken around, it was thrown from side to side, the poor thing bared its teeth, as it flew around, trying to grab a hold of something, dangling in the air, not understanding which way was up and which way was down… Just like a Russian emigrant.”

Thanks to his long work in the archives in Tallinn, including with materials of memoirs, the author is able to recreate the atmosphere of the time very accurately – an Estonia which was a token in the game between the USSR and Nazi Germany, an Estonia which was a transit point, or a place of final repose for many Russian emigrants, an atmosphere of hope and despair, heated political debates, interest in the occult, of indifference and petty vindictiveness.

But “Harbin Moths” is not a historical novel in the literal sense. It is not a book about (or not only about) how “fascism takes root in a person, and not even about the karma that is woven in the most unexpected way, when a person tormented by circumstances does not know where they have ended up or what they have got into it, but it is rather about the ripples and the waves in which every one of us flounders, regardless of political or aesthetic predilections.” (Dmitry Bavilsky)

The novel leads the reader “into a timeless corridor” under the name of universal solitude. Boris tries to take part in external life, in political discussions, drinking bouts and orgies, and even agrees to hide propaganda literature sent from Harbin, where the center of the All-Russian Fascist Party is located, and which is intended for distribution in the USSR. But he is swamped in gloom, Revel remains alien, it “doesn’t open up to him”, and instead of praying he conjugates Latin verbs. “Have you ever seen a rat on the street? It runs along the wall of a building, constantly keeping next to the wall. Just like me – there’s always some book, some system, whether it’s Schopenhauer or Hartmann… I can’t take a step myself. And you want an idea. Where could it come from? I can’t feel myself… I live like in a dream. I want to run away, but I can’t move from the spot… How the mind is organized! The same images over and over again. Nothing unexpected. You put Rembrandt in your head and take out Picasso… Time goes by, the world turns over, but everything inside me remains unchanged. I could be famous or get rich, but inside I know what I am – fear, trembling and that green booth… What does the rock I sit on care about me? The same goes for everything else. It’s outside of me! Even love… it’s outside of me!”

The artist is increasingly gripped by a feeling of indifference to everything, primarily towards himself. The surge of pity he feels for the son of the dead occultist writer Timofei, so fragile and trusting, is replaced by the idea that no one can be helped. The theme of solitude and exile is not only heard on the level of emigration, losing the country of your childhood, but on the level of the universe.

“The power of this text is that it is real. ‘Harbin Moths’ recreates and artistic but absolutely real world… A gloomy boy, drinking in an empty Estonian apartment, surrounded by the ghosts of his family. The reader becomes like him. Personal tragedy against the background of a common tragedy, and the double of the main character, who is the double of the author, and who becomes a double of himself.” (Vladimir Lorchenkov)

At the end of the novel, the main character only has the strength left to fight the pale lilac moths that are carried with the propaganda literature from Harbin, but they swiftly overrun not just his room, but the entire town. Their “lilac dust grew from chapter to chapter, symbolizing the wave of increasing trouble, or the intensification of social hysteria (the fascist element, communist aggression)”, only to end with the mad vision of Timofei: with a deafening crash the cannons fire and the metallic clatter of steel moths, which rise into the night sky and disappear in the direction of the border.

At the end of June 1940, a coup takes place in Estonia. “Demonstrations with red flags. A portrait of Stalin was hung on the town hall.” Many emigrants are arrested, while others expected arrest. Boris manages to flee the country by boat with a fake passport in his pocket, and he vanishes into the mist of the Baltic Sea.

“Ivanov confidently builds an effective modernist structure, borrowing Kafka’s cerebral labyrinths, the stream of consciousness from Joyce and the “roman nouveau”, and from Platonov, a strange torturous intonation, which intentionally slows down reading. On the other hand, it’s unlikely that these borrowings are conscious. Andrei Ivanov’s book is impeccably self-sufficient, and stylistically accurate to the level of authenticity when you believe the author at his word. At every word.” (Yekaterinentalsky kvartet)

Andrei Ivanov was born in Tallinn/Estonia in 1971, studied languages and literature at the University of Tallinn and worked as a teacher; he spent many years in Scandinavia, living in a refugee camp and the famous Hesberga hippy commune on the island of Fünen and travelling extensively around Norway. He now lives and works in Tallinn. Ivanov has won several literary competitions and awards, including the Estonian ‘Cultural Capital Prize’ for the novel Hanuman’s Journey to Lolland in 2010, the Russian Prize and the Mark Aldanov Prize, and was shortlisted for the Russian Booker Prize for two of his novels.