Classic review: The Doomed City by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, translated by Andrew Bromfield

The Doomed City is a multi-layered book, which will become ever more appealing as the reader digs deeper into its meaning. On the surface, it is a dystopian novel taking place in a city that is slowly falling apart, along with its society. Deeper in, the reader may identify additional levels, from a speculative fiction work in the vein of Dark City or The Matrix, through a character study of a very imperfect protagonist, a philosophical treatise on the dangers of idolatry or communism, to several layers of highly subversive anti-communist thoughts. The novel is incredibly complex, but also making additional re-reads incredibly rewarding.

Andrei Voronin is a garbage collector in an unnamed city. He has his small group of friends and acquaintances, in particular the former Nazi officer Fritz Heiger and the Russian Jew Izya Katzman. Andrei himself is a former Soviet youth communist, and others of his strange bunch include an American, a Japanese and a Chinese. They all got together as part of an experiment where they volunteered to be transported to this strange city by their mentors, human-looking beings that can appear on a whim. They are part of an experiment, but they don’t know what it is about. They are supposed to live according to a set of arbitrary rules, but within them as they see fit.

One of the rules is that periodically, everybody is assigned a new employment by a mysterious machine. So, Andrei, an astronomer in his previous life, is a garbage collector. To make things more interesting (perhaps as part of the experiment), the city throws various emergencies at them. At the beginning of the book, a herd of baboons appears in the city, wreaking havoc, and it is up to its inhabitants to get them under control. The man in charge of dealing with the crisis is Heiger, whose fate soon becomes intertwined with Andrei’s.

Fast forward some time, and Andrei is now working as a very ineffective police investigator. The criminals are well aware of this and are able to stonewall during his interrogation, so he often asks his colleague Heiger for help. Heiger, perhaps from his Nazi days, is able to wring confession from anyone. Andrei is reassigned to investigate the case of a mysterious building, which seems to appear and disappear in random parts of the city, and many people who enter the building are never seen again. Andrei locates the building, enters it and is placed behind a chessboard to play against the “great strategist” for the lives (or souls) of his friends and acquaintances. In this deeply metaphysical segment, Andrei not only thinks of the strategist’s past actions, but also begins questioning himself and his relationship to the strategist. At the end, confused by his own conflicting thoughts, he runs out of the house, abandoning his friends, who turn out to be only figments of his guilt-ridden imagination.

Outside, Andrei meets Katzman. Katzman, in his usual cheerful mood, reveals that he knows more about the building, and what he knows conflicts with Andrei’s beliefs. Andrei arrests him and takes him in for interrogation, where he fails as usual. He hands Katzman over to Heiger who tortures him until he determines that Katzman is not involved in any conspiracy against the city.

Fast forward again, and Andrei is now the chief editor of one of the city’s newspapers. The artificial sun had gone out, and unrest is spreading over the city. Andrei needs to go to the city hall to get permission from the chief censor to publish certain stories but runs into a revolution headed by Heiger. He returns back to his office and orders the destruction of documents, believing that Heiger will go after him and his newspaper for publishing articles critical of the former Nazi. Katzman shows up and argues that Andrei had inadvertently published stories that helped Heiger to rise in power, and he is soon proven right when Heiger sends a letter thanking Andrei for his help.

Fast forward some more, and Heiger is the city’s dictator. The sun is mysteriously back, and Andrei is Heiger’s the Minister for Science. He is tasked to lead an expedition out of the city, ostensibly to find natural resources, but also to locate an external enemy, the anti-city, for Heiger to rally against. The city itself is located on a cliff’s edge, with a sheer wall to the east and an abyss on the west side, so the expedition can only go north. Andrei assembles a team of scientists and soldiers, and heads north, across the city ruins. The scientists are proving to be useless in finding resources to support the expedition, but fortunately Katzman is able to find ancient records of water cisterns. As the discontent over the lack of resources grows, Andrei orders a halt and scouts ahead for a day, only with Katzman and one other. They find a library where the two intellectuals dig themselves in, while Andrei finds a Parthenon with statues from the world’s history, and he spends his time opining about the people represented by these statues and the nature of idolatry.

When they return to their base camp, they find everyone dead or missing. They find out that they were gone for several days, without realizing it, and a fight broke up among the camp’s members on whether to push forward or go back. Andrei and Katzman, the only two survivors, then witness the expedition’s vehicle fall along the cliff’s edge from above them and realize that the entire city is built on a giant spiral around an enormous rock cliff. They decide to push forward. Delirious, due to the shortage of food and water, Andrei seems to encounter other people whom he believes to be hostile. He shoots the person who walks towards them and wakes up in the body of his boyhood self, back in Leningrad before the war. His Mentor’s voice lingers with him, informing him that he had reached understanding and is moving to the next level. Outside, he hears Katzman’s mother calling her son inside, as dinner is ready.

There’s so much to unpack in this very dense novel that it’s impossible to discover all the hidden treasures without reading the book several times, and even then, the book is very specific for certain types of people. But let’s start with the history of the work, before we address the most glaring feature. According to Boris Strugatsky in his afterword, The Doomed City was written in the late 1960s and early 1970s, after which it was carefully hidden from the censors and the secret police until 1988 when the first part was published, followed by the second part a year later. The English translation had to wait until 2016 until it was finally published. And yet, the book reads like the inspiration for Dark City, which in turn served as inspiration for The Matrix. We have an alternate reality, which may or may not be physical or virtual (as we realize at the end of the book when Andrei finds himself in his younger self again), Mentors who can appear anywhere, even take over the face and body of another person in the room, and the story takes place in an enclosed system from which there is seemingly no escape. Maybe someone working on the Dark City concept read the Russian version of the book, but it may just as well have been a coincidence. Be it as it is, the casual reader will pick up on this first and picture a very distinct impression of the city. I did this, even though I was aware how unlikely it was that the movie was influenced by the book, but it served me as a crutch to familiarize myself with the characters and their world. The Strugatskys intended a science fiction setting as a crutch, to hold up the reader while they poured the real substance of the book from its pages.

The most obvious narrative layer is Andrei’s characters development. The micro scale is far more noticeable. There are several instances where his thinking changes rapidly. One of the most evident examples is when he assembles the crew for his expedition and nominates a scientist whom he holds in the highest regard as the head of the group. Heiger, however, puts Andrei in charge, but the scientist comes along as the head of the science contingent. During the expedition, Andrei’s thinking about the scientist takes a sharp turn, he begins despising him, thinking of him as a traitor and incompetent. There are several such instances of this in the novel. Andrei is a very unreliable protagonist, with very poor judgment of character, and he is easily swayed to change his opinion. It makes him human and interesting on a personal level, and I truly enjoyed peeking into his thoughts.

On a macro level, the entire narrative is about the transformation of a young, convinced communist into a bitter bureaucrat who thrives in a dictatorial regime headed by a former Nazi. This is one of the most radical transformations I’ve ever seen in a book, and it’s been done so elegantly that one may miss when this process actually started. Even though there are hints that Andrei is willing to take shortcuts to the dark side when he utilizes Heiger and his interrogation methods to get what he wants, the initial break comes when he plays chess with the Great Strategist. It’s not explicitly mentioned, but many reviewers think he was referring to Stalin (I personally thought it was one of his World War II generals). He analyzes the strategist’s chess game and becomes increasingly critical of his disregard for life. He decides that he needs to run away from him, as a symbolic act of abandoning his previous conviction.

This leads to the next layer of the book, the critique of communism. There are several levels of this, but even the most superficial one is radical enough that the authors were right in hiding the novel. On the surface, Andrei’s character journey, his ruminations about Lenin, Stalin and other communist historical figures, and even the act of randomly changing employment because everyone is seemingly equal, constitute a harsh criticism of communism. Other instances range from full-blown allegories, such as the city being literally between a rock and a hard place, to such small occurrences that a casual western reader may miss them, but they’d be massive red flags to communist censors. On the east, there is an unscalable wall where balloons are mysteriously destroyed when they try to rise over it, while in the west is an abyss. Given the time the book was written, this may easily signify the iron curtain, which has been tightening around the Soviet Union, with its satellite countries in Central Europe being left outside, but not allowed to jump into the abyss of western capitalism.

The small-scale events are so obvious that I believe the authors left them in place to bait the potential censors, so that they don’t notice the next layer of subversion. In one scene, a very common joke about the communist leadership is alluded to (A man runs down the street shouting that the Secretary General is an idiot. He is caught and sentenced for six months for insulting the Secretary General, and for ten years for revealing a state secret.) In another scene, the composer Tchaikovsky is called a pederast. Him being gay had been heavily censored in the USSR, and even in present day’s Russia, calling Tchaikovsky gay may result in a fine for “promoting LGBT”. Yet in another instance, Andrei talks about the lack of art and artists in the city, compared to scientists and technological progress. He equates this to repressive regimes, such as China, but he seems to be indirectly criticizing the same situation in the Soviet Union.

For people like me who reached adulthood in a communist regime, there are more indirect references to the system, and this is where I found the book to be incredibly subversive, as well as entertaining. Take, for example, a short interaction with a character that comes and goes without any consequence to the narrative, Pani Husakova (“pani” is the term for Mrs. in Czech and some other Slavic languages). This lady, obviously from former Czechoslovakia, is invited for interrogation by Andrei. She has no care for the world, and she mentions things that would have landed her in jail.

“Under the Germans we kept our lips buttoned up tight. After ’48 it was keep shtum again and keep an eye out. We only opened our mouths just a little bit in our golden spring—then bang, the Russians arrived in their tanks, shut your mouth again, mind your tongue”

This is as strong an indictment of the communist regime after World War II and the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968 as it gets. Russians protesting the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia were jailed for less… Then you have this:

“Standing in line you can sometimes hear things they’ll never print in any newspapers.”

For a western reader, this means nothing. For someone who grew up in communism, however, anonymous talk, in particular in long lines for products that were in short supply, was a way to share news or opinions that would not make it past state censors. Reading this sentence gave me such a strong flashback that I had to stop reading for a minute.

The entire scene is completely nonsensical. Pani Husakova is a one-bit character, and her interrogation is interrupted several times by various actors, as if to obscure her talk even more. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that at the time of writing, the General Secretary (de-facto ruler) of Czechoslovakia was Gustav Husak, who had been installed there by the Soviets right after the 1968 invasion. He divorced his first wife, Mrs. Husakova, in 1967. The Strugatsky brothers were keenly aware what they were doing and were trying very hard to hide their subversion from the censors. I picked on it only because it was park of my history, but I’m sure people with different communist histories will pick up their own little gems.

The authors had other fun with potential censors as well. In an exchange with Andrei, Katzman says the following:

“Fool,” Izya said contemptuously. “Manuscripts don’t lie. They’re not books. You just have to know how to read them.”

This allusion to their manuscript and a potential printed book was so transparent that I had to stop and laugh. It was a joke aimed directly at the potential censors, and I would have loved to see whether they were oblivious to it if the manuscript had been published in Soviet times.

Katzman is a very interesting character. He is the eternally cheerful Jew who does not break under the hostility that other characters show him. And yet, he is a far better judge of character, has a far better overview of the overall situation and would make a much better leader at any level. Even so, he never seems frustrated that opportunity kept passing him over. He acts as a contrast to the always dour Andrei or the dictatorial Heiger. Because of the treatment of Katzman, some reviewers accused the novel of antisemitism, but I see it as yet another subversive element where the authors suggest that by not listening to him, the decisionmakers doomed the city to a decline. This is further evident in the finale, where Andrei finally understands this and allows Katzman to lead him deeper into the unknown.

From a technical perspective, the book is a mixed bag. The pacing is excellent, also thanks to the limited size of the volume. However, the language and grammar don’t make this an easy reading, with too many punctuation marks and weird paragraph structuring throughout the text. I can’t blame the authors for that, though, as this is most likely a translation artifact.

I was blown away by The Doomed City. The Strugatskys managed to capture the mood and quirks of their society and time to the tiniest detail. They created a multi-layered work that may be enjoyed by people who know nothing about their underlying environment, but readers who grew up there may find the book insightful and funny (in a “through the tears” way). The narrative is subversive on several levels. It must have taken an incredible amount of courage to even write this story, even if it was left in hiding for years. This book may not be science fiction in a strict sense, but it should be required reading for anyone interested in quality literature.

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