IN RUSSIA, in the reasonably near future (a couple of decades from now), former president, Vladimir Vladimirovich is slipping ever deeper into the mire of senility.
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His slow degeneration is eroding everything apart from his immense ego and his enduring aura of power, and while his condition is an open secret within close political circles, his vaunted status as a man who’d held the top position through five elections, and who’d controlled his sprawling world with a crushing grip, means that all deference continues to be shown.
But, like everything else in this fascinating, funny and sad satirical novel, the performances of his underlings are a facade.
Everyone within these pages speaks with two faces, and, almost inevitably, the words are merely to distract attention while hands fill pockets.
Bribes are an accepted part of life here, roads get built as long as all the right people get their piece of the cake, budgets exist to be pilfered, and, even at the lowest levels, kitchens lose a percentage of their food. Everyone is at it.
Only one man resists. Nikolai Sheremetev, a nurse in a mental hospital, is the exception to the rule — an honest man.
Therefore, he is generally viewed with a mixture of suspicion and derision.
Yet he is also noted for the compassion and enthusiasm that he brings to his work, which he approaches as nothing less than a calling.
And when it becomes clear that Vladimir, who lives in a luxurious if isolated dacha with a strong support staff of domestic servants and security guards, is in need of full-time care, Nikolai seems like the only viable candidate.
The work proves both challenging and rewarding, with the former leader living more and more in his own past, gloating in the full expanse of his one-time power and indulging his natural vanity, but tormented in other moments by his many treacheries, as exemplified by the relentless company of a murdered Chechen.
And while Vladimir still holds a somewhat revered position in the minds of the Russian public as the nation’s grand old man, and still gets to unofficially sign off on dirty deals and top up his already immense bank account, he is also becoming increasingly vulnerable, and afraid, as his condition worsens with each passing day.
The situation shifts in dramatic fashion when the nurse’s adored nephew, Pasha, is imprisoned for blogging negatively about Vladimir, and only a bribe of considerable magnitude — $300,000 — will secure the young man’s release without charge. Sheremetev is forced, most begrudgingly, to give up his “unRussian” ways and to use his position to raise the necessary cash.
Don’t expect the delicately comedic brutalities of a Gogol or a Bulgakov; the satire here favours the ribald rather than the subtle, and readers would have to close their eyes in order to miss the story’s various barely-masked allusions, but that is clearly the author’s intent, and the result, on such a level, makes for a very fine read.
Yet The Senility of Vladimir P has worth beyond mere satire. Beneath the compelling and amusing story, serious themes fall under consideration, such as the erosion of innocence and naivety, and the inevitably of moral decline within a society structured with corruption in mind.
Michael Honig’s own medical background, coupled with his very obvious literary skills, means that he is ideally suited to charting the slow and painful rot of dementia.
His book is in many ways a monstrous vision, perfectly in keeping with the West’s strident and often hyperbolic depiction of his real-life counterpart, a man full of bombast and rage, ruthless in his chase for power.
But he comes most thoroughly to life in those moments when the clouds part and the realisation, and dread, of his condition and its consequences, sinks in.
Then he is simply a man, vulnerable, scared and haunted by all the sins of his terrible past. And he becomes truly captivating.
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