The Prince and the Hatch.

A couple of weeks ago I posted about my discovery of Victor Pelevin and my enjoyment of his Затворник и Шестипалый (Hermit and Six-Toes); I’ve now read several more of his pointed and funny satires, including the one I’m about to describe, Принц Госплана (translated by Andrew Bromfield as Prince of Gosplan, available in the good collection of his early work A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia and Other Stories). The interesting thing is that the story I read afterwards, Makanin’s Лаз (translated by Mary Ann Szporluk as Escape Hatch, available along with The Long Road Ahead in this collection), has enough in common with it that the following summary can be applied to both: a member of what we might call the petty intelligentsia, not a creator but a guy who likes to read and think about things, has to accomplish a series of tasks that involve making his way through areas where dangerous enemies unpredictably appear; from time to time he drops down to a lower level to refresh himself and enjoy a bit of thoughtful conversation before returning to his tasks.

In the Pelevin, this guy is engineer Sasha Lapin, whose boss wants him to get some documents signed. The thing is that they’re all in a world of computer games, and while going to another building to meet the higher-up whose signature is needed, Sasha is concurrently making his way to higher levels of the video game Prince of Persia, which was quite new when the story was written. (The higher-up works in Gosplan, the State Planning Committee, hence the title.) But not everyone is playing the same game, so he has to help his boss figure out Abrams Battle Tank, and a tank from that game will later serve him as quick transportation. He makes his way along corridors and up stairs, occasionally confronting turbaned guards armed with swords and defeating them in battle; never having played video games myself, I was greatly aided in visualizing all this by discovering a playthrough video of Prince of Persia (thanks, internet!). At one point one of the guards knocks him out but doesn’t kill him, because he happens to be carrying a copy of The Sufi Orders in Islam, by J. Spencer Trimingham (1971) — a very influential book (available at that Bromfield may have thought was fictional, since he screws up both the author’s name and the title, calling it “John Spencer Trimmingham’s Sufic Orders in Islam.” At any rate, the guard assumes that anyone carrying such a book must be a spiritual man, so he spares his life, introducing himself as Abbas, and they have a conversation about Afghanistan (Abbas addresses him as shuravi, the Perso-Afghan term for ‘Soviet’), among other matters. I’ve just mentioned a few plot points, but the whole thing is so varied and inventive that I think almost everyone would enjoy it, and the translation seems fine (despite the confusion about the book). And to respond to D.O.’s comment in the earlier thread (“I like Pelevin, but I am surprised you care for his characters. For me, he is an ideas author and characters are more of an embodiment of ideas.”): they’re not characters in the high-literary Tolstoyevsky sense, with elaborate backgrounds and psychologies, but they’re characters in the pulp-fiction (sf/detective) sense, essentially blanks for the reader to identify with and share in the adventure. You don’t finish a Pelevin story emotionally drained and filled with deep thoughts about the human condition, but your mind has been turned in unexpected directions that may make you think about life differently and that provide many delights. I’d compare him to an sf writer like the brilliant Ted Chiang. And that’s an excellent thing in itself.

In the other novella, the guy is Makanin’s occasional autobiographical stand-in, Klyucharyov. I can’t better Lizok’s description, so I’ll just copy it here:

Escape Hatch begins with a cat standing at a door, blocking her master by not deciding whether to stay in or go out. The paragraph sums up a lot: the cat’s person, Kliucharev (the root, kliuch, means “key”), is also torn between two places. He lives on the earth’s surface, where life is dark, hungry, and violent, but uses a hole to climb underground, where lighting is natural and people enjoy good food and wine.

The hole’s opening shrinks during the course of the book, making passage more dangerous. Meanwhile, Makanin examines the stark dichotomies of Kliucharev’s life and choices: up or down, dark or light, crowd or individual, freedom or entrapment, life and death. In one scene, Kliucharev squeezes below ground, landing in a cafe, where he is offered a nice meal, a shot, and, most important, the chance to listen to conversation about Dostoevsky and the undesirability of happiness based on the unhappiness of others. He considers himself an intellectual, so the conversation causes him to come to life, writes Makanin, like a fish returning to water.

Escape Hatch is oddly suspenseful, whether Makanin shows Kliucharev navigating a crowd, a deserted street, or the hatch. Makanin also includes some nice touches, like comparing Kliucharev to a worm as he crawls through the dirt… years before genomic sequencing showed how much human and worm genes hold in common. The book’s setting, though Russian, is left vague, and it’s unclear what caused a societal breakdown.

There are five sections; in two of them, Klyucharyov visits the underground world (a short but increasingly difficult passage that is described in excruciating detail), while in the others he makes even more difficult and dangerous trips through his city in order to bury his friend Pavlov. Towards the end, he visits an underground cafe where they are taking a poll: the organizers are offering tickets to all comers, and those who believe in the future should keep them, while those who don’t should return them. Dismayingly (for the organizers), almost everyone dumps their tickets on a growing pile on the floor. This is, of course, an explicit reference to one of the most famous passages in Dostoevsky, Ivan Karamazov’s peroration quoted in this LH post (“It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket”), and it shows that Makanin is playing for the highest stakes, as he always does; sometimes the attempt doesn’t satisfy me (I was disappointed by Долог наш путь [The Long Road Ahead], which seemed too preachy), but here it works brilliantly and leaves you with material for much thought.


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    Spencer Trimingham’s Islam in West Africa is well worth reading, too. Honoured place on my shelves …

    Even if you weren’t interested in the main subject (impossible!) there’s a lot of fascinating stuff about the ethnography and history of West Africa (hardly surprising in view of the importance of Islam to both.)

    And it has a nice map. You can never have too many nice maps.

  2. M.N Junaidy says

    @David Eddyshaw,

    Hello Mr/Phd/Prof Eddyshaw,

    I am new to the field of linguistics and read some of your posts pertaining to the Semitic language origin. What is your current position on that ? Are there any books that you recommend reading to get started on this topic ? Are there any books you recommend for catching fallacies in research papers ?

    My email is (in case you find corresponding by email is better).

    M.N Junaidy

  3. You can never have too many nice maps.

    Quoted for truth.

  4. This isn’t about the topic of the post, although the mention of Gosplan reminded me of it.* Years ago, I was reading an article about the Soviet system, and it mentioned (as an example of how ossified the Soviet Union’s government had become in the Brezhnev era and how the power structure resembled in some ways a system of feudal fiefdoms) that when Gorbachev took over, one of his relatively early acts was to fire the head of the central economic planning agency, who had held that position since he had first been appointed to it by Stalin. However, when I later looked up who had headed Gosplan, I saw that there had been multiple heads of the agency between 1953 and 1985.

    So was this simply an error? Was the author of the piece I had read referring to Nikolai Baibakov, who had headed Gosplan twice: from 1955 to 1957 and from 1965 to 1985? Or was there another Soviet magnate who really had been in office for more than thirty years before being fired by Gorbachev?

    * Actually, something else had already reminded me of this lingering question just the day before yesterday. Otherwise, the mention of Gosplan probably wouldn’t have moved me to ask.

  5. January First-of-May says

    The thing is that they’re all in a world of computer games, and while going to another building to meet the higher-up whose signature is needed, Sasha is concurrently making his way to higher levels of the video game Prince of Persia, which was quite new when the story was written.

    …I could swear I’ve read (and liked) that story, but I thought it was by Alex Exler. I’ll have to look it up. I’ve read it (or whatever it was that I remember) more than a decade ago.

  6. My favorite quote from this delightful story:

    – Friends! We are gathered here on the occasion both solemn and pleasant. Today marks twenty years of work of Kuzma Ulyanovich Staropopikov in the State Planning Committee. And this morning Kuzma Ulyanovich shot down his thousandth MiG over Libya!

    – Here our party organizer said that Kuzma Ulyanovich shot down his thousandth MiG today. But in addition to this, for example, he destroyed the locator near Tripoli four thousand five hundred times, and if we count all the missile boats, and add airfields, such a figure will come out … But a person cannot be measured with one figure. I know Kuzma Ulyanovich, maybe better than others – I’ve been flying with him for six months now – and now I’ll tell you about one of our raids. That was the first time I was on the F-15, and this machine, you know, is not an easy one: if you hurry up a little, if you want to turn quickly, it will freeze. And Kuzma Ulyanovich says to me before the flight: “Vasya, remember: do not be nervous, go behind and below, I will cover you.” Well, I was inexperienced then, but with ambition – what is it, I think, he will cover me when I flew around the entire Persian Gulf on the F-16. Yes … Well, we sat down in the cockpits and gave us the command to take off. We took off from the American aircraft carrier, and our task was to first sink a ship in the port of Beirut, and then destroy the terrorist camp near Al-Benghazi. We took off, which means we are going on low, on autopilots. And there, near Beirut, there are about eight locators, probably – well, you were all there …

    Ten minutes later – or maybe half an hour later, he somehow lost track of time – Kuzma Ulyanovich, having reached a large and completely deserted courtyard, went to the corner entrance. Sasha decided that it would be even more stupid to follow him further than before, and was about to turn around when suddenly two lanky guys in fashionable NATO jackets approached Kuzma Ulyanovich. Sasha could swear by anything that they weren’t in the yard before they appeared. He sensed something was wrong and quickly dived behind the fire escape, which was hammered to the bottom with boards – no one could see him here, even though he was next to the entrance.

    – Are you Kuzma Ulyanovich Staropopikov? one of those who approached asked loudly – he spoke Russian with a strong accent and, like the second, was curly, black and unshaven.

    – Yes, – Kuzma Ulyanovich answered with surprise.

    – Did you bomb the camp near Al-Jeghazi?

    Kuzma Ulyanovich shuddered and took off his glasses.

    – You yourself, who are… – he began, but the interlocutor did not let him finish.

    “The Palestine Liberation Organization has sentenced you to death,” he said, pulling a long pistol from his pocket. The second did the same.

    Maybe that’s why the Soviet Union collapsed – the planners in Gosplan spent all their time playing combat flight simulators on their PCs instead of working to save the Soviet economy.

    The game Kuzma Ulyanovich Staropopikov played was probably

    I played it at the time and I think I even bombed the terrorist camp near Al-Jeghazi a few times.

  7. Stu Clayton says

    Are there any books you recommend for catching fallacies in research papers ?

    This appears to be a tough problem, but it can be reduced to a problem in IT: is there an algorithm that, applied to any algorithm, determines whether it contains an error ? The answer is no: the problem is “undecidable”.

    Rice showed long ago that all non-trivial semantic properties of programs are undecidable. It is no giant cognitive step to the conclusion that fallacies which are syntactic or logical in nature might be identifiable by automated methods.

    In other words, your chances of finding a fallacy in a research paper should improve when you analyze the rhetoric in it. Well, if not a fallacy then a dicey argument. But we already knew that. There is no free lunch. QED

  8. M.N Junaidy says

    @ٍStu Clayton

    Thanks for the laugh. A fellow mathematician/logician/Comp scientist I assume ?

    On a serious note though, I meant the book/paper/blog post that lists the common ways of fudging data in the field. Or a book outlining the current methods of doing historical linguistic research and the shortcomings of each method. Preferably at a beginner level where jargon is defined before being used. I am completely new to the field so something to bring me up to date.

  9. David Eddyshaw says


    While it is very gratifying to be mistaken for an expert, I think you have been misled by my combination of airy self-confidence and superficially plausible glibness (“bedside manner” is the technical term.) In particular, I am far from having any particular expertise in the Semitic languages, and especially not their ultimate origin.

    However, on the much narrower question of traps for the unwary in comparative linguistics, I would recommend Lyle Campbell’s Historical Linguistics: an Introduction (though I should point out that on many specific issues he adopts a very purist attitude which is not shared by all competent scholars in the relevant fields.)

    This is good on the reconstruction of the Semitic protolanguage itself, though it does not address things like where it was spoken and by whom (all of which seems to be pretty speculative, to be honest):

    John Huehnergard has written a lot of good stuff on the early Semitic languages generally.

    There are Hatters who know much more about this particular question than I do (especially about the population-genetics aspect, where I am unpersuaded of the relevance, but also pretty ignorant of the state of the art in contemporary research.) We’ve had some recent threads about that.

  10. “Years before genomic sequencing showed how much human and worm genes hold in common” is a bit of a reach 🙂

  11. It’s just a fun side thought, not a serious statement.

  12. PlasticPaddy says

    @de, mnj
    Since linguists are not (seen as?) capable of influencing Government policies which (are seen to?) affect the average person, the demand for coffee-table books on “bad linguistics” seems to be supplied only by blogs, e.g., our gracious host’s own one, and say, Language Log, which deal with the topic incidentally. A Google search for more specific blogs throws up:
    not updated since 2015
    not updated since?
    not updated since 2016, but I find A. Pereltsvaig a pleasure to read.

  13. Lars Mathiesen says

    Lots of blogs not updated since 2016. I’m looking at Piotr.

Speak Your Mind