History, Family, Poultry: reviewing The Goose Fritz by Sergei Lebedev3 min read
Essentially a novel about seeking your identity in the concealments of the past, Sergei Lebedev’s fourth novel The Goose Fritz (New Vessel Press) is a family chronicle that traces the ancestral lines of a modern-day Russian man called Kirill back through the often-hidden history of Soviet Russia. Translated into poetically beautiful prose by Antonia W Bouis, the story commences as the main character learns about his German roots through his grandmother Lina Vesnyanskaya, born Karolina Schwerdt.
I tend to judge novels like this by how the story affects me emotionally – if it stays with me during moments when I’m not reading it, it is a good book. This is definitely the case with The Goose Fritz. Throughout the years, I’ve made friends with people who have told me about their blurry ancestral lines and family secrets sometimes unravelled at the deathbed of an old relative. Coming from an old line of farmers living on the same spot since Scania was Danish, the meaning of not knowing where you come from is to me as exciting as it is unfathomable. Throughout the twists and turns of Russia’s violent modern history, this is a story that tells the woes of those who, because of societal upheavals and war, have been forced to denounce their name and heritage. About how the difference between life and death can lie in the specific order of a bunch of letters.
Knowing that it is his destiny to unravel his suppressed family history, Kirill traces his heritage back to Balthasar Schwerdt, a German doctor and homeopath who arrived in Russia during the reign of Catherine the Great. From Balthasar, the family grows in size and wealth, and by the end of the 19th century, Kirill’s great-great-grandfather, the grandson of a(nother) German steel magnate, decides to dedicate his life to medicine as the Russian Empire is about to crumble.
While money, influential contacts, and the practice of a good doctor serving the people initially seem to protect the family from destruction under revolutions and war, it is the surname Schwerdt that in the end becomes a curse that threatens to extinguish the whole family.
While I feel emotionally touched by the theme of this book and by the various destinies of millions of German-Russians who lived and perished in Soviet Russia, the characters of the book – except for the grandmother, Lina – refuse to come alive to me. Lina connects Kirill to his past; with her steady character and practical mind it is easy to imagine her as a person you could meet on the street in any Russian city – an ordinary person shaped by history.
However, following the destinies of Kirill’s other family members is like tracing the lines of a flawless and extraordinary mosaic that, to my taste, serves the purpose of the story too well – it is simply too perfect. Except for the beautiful language and touching theme, it is really the first part of the story that stands out to me. Here the relationship between Kirill and his grandmother is laid out and we get to hear the story of an old Russian soldier, who in a delirious rampage goes on a killing spree targeting his neighbor’s beloved goose, Fritz. It is a testimony to Lebedev’s excellent penmanship. Belonging to a new generation of promising Russian writers, Lebedev’s The Goose Fritz is definitely a worthwhile read.