Translation by Andrew Bromfield in 2002. Sometimes published as “Monday Begins on Saturday”.
In this supremely odd novel that is set in the 1960s in Soviet Russia, magic is real, and we have a Soviet science institute trying to make sense of it, but of course the Soviet professors do a thoroughly botched-up job of it while Soviet bureaucracy has seeped into every effort. Ok, so the story starts with young Alexander “Sasha” Privalov who picks up two hitchhikers on a road trip. The hitchhikers provide a sleeping place for Sasha in a house that is actually a museum exhibit of the NITWITT institute (National Institute for the Technology of Witchcraft and Thaumaturgy). In fact, it is a house on chicken legs with old Baba Yaga living in it, and that marks the start of a chaotic series of adventures in which Sasha is drawn into the Institute and the world of scientific research into magic.
Entering this novel, it is best to just go with the flow. The story is a madcap stream of vignettes about magical creatures and artefacts, in which Sasha is stuck between arguing scientists who all try to get hold of a magical divan inside the room where Sasha is staying. A very chaotic story in which reality keeps shifting and people appear and disappear through the walls, but if you just keep reading, a structure in the plot starts to appear. One of the writers, Boris Strugatsky, was actually working as a computer mathematician – just like the main character – at a scientific institute while writing this novel, and the book can be interpreted as a persiflage of bureaucracy. What the Strugatsky brothers also wanted to communicate is that although many people no longer believe in magical explanations for the world, ingenious use of scientific patter can be substituted for magical explanations. For the layman it makes little difference and even the scientists don’t know what they are talking about. As was the case for many Soviet scientists.
Science, sorcery and socialism all meet at the NITWITT institute. What do you think of that?
In these mere 240 pages there are dozens if not hundreds of bizarre happenings, many of them quite funny. I fear that some of it is lost in translation, though. The Strugatsky brothers wrote this for their countrymen in the 1960s Russia and has many references to myths and fairytales that were common knowledge, but also to politics and the intelligentsia of the day. For example, in one scene Sasha dons a cap that makes him invisible, and after they convince the administration that Sasha was a phantom all along, he can remove the cap and walk about, because the administrators have stopped believing in his existence. Or another instance, Sasha is held by the police and he decides that the only thing that really matters is if you believe that you are guilty of something or not. These paragraphs would have a deeper meaning to Russians reading them. No matter, it is still a great read, exhilarating and entertaining and off-the-wall, but an annotated version would be welcome.
The writers blend the magical with the scientific in interesting ways, such as that the old witch Baba Yaga, a fairy tale figure, is wearing a nylon scarf with photos of the Brussels Atomium, a symbol of science and the Atom Age. The scientists of the institute have taken the traditional place of wizards and teach the use of magical wands in their semesters. All the magical craziness is observed from the perspective of old, stuffy department heads at this institute, and these professors are all preoccupied with nonsensical experiments that have been running for decades, at institutes like the Department for Linear Happiness and the Department for Absolute Knowledge (whose motto is: “The cognition of infinity requires an infinite amount of time” Therefore it makes no difference whether you work or not. In the interest of not adding entropy to the universe, they didn’t work). Before you mention the words Harry Potter, I will say that the writers did not want to construct an immersive fantasy world but to make a point about the role of science in our modern lives. It has more in common with Terry Pratchett’s Unseen University.
There isn’t really any plot to this story and there isn’t any dramatic tension. It’s mostly about Sasha and all the characters he interacts with, and their odd personalities and how they react to all these magical events occurring around them. It is full of events and details that you glance over the first time around when you’re just trying to understand what is happening, but it is the kind of book that becomes some people’s favourite book with rereads. Personally I thought that it was a bit challenging to read because of the high pace of events and few explanations, and I had some trouble with the basic lack of plot development, but I ended up enjoying it a lot.