A strong man’s love

Issue 4/2004 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

One day a Russian weight-lifter finds he has been transformed into a successful sumo wrestler in Tokyo. Zinaida Lindén’s first novel I väntan på en jordbävning (‘Waiting for an earthquake’, Söderströms, 2004), is a highly unusual story of a strong man and a great city, Leningrad.

Born in 1963 in Leningrad, Zinaida Lindén studied Swedish language and literature in her native city. In 1995 she moved to Turku, publishing her first book in Swedish a year later. Her two collections of stories, Överstinnan och syntetisatorn (‘The colonel’s wife and the synthesizer’, 1996) and Sheherazades sanna historier (‘The true stories of Sheherazade’, 2000), show a talent for effective narrative and a rich, unfettered imagination.

In I väntan på en jordbävning she adopts a confidential, conversational style in presenting her principal character, Ivan Demidov, as he chats to a woman he meets on a train from Helsinki to Moscow; she is a writer with a strong resemblance to Lindén herself. As the train rushes on, the pile of cigarette-ends grows higher, and night shades into dawn, the fantastic story of Ivan Demidov’s life unfolds.

Training from an early age at a specialised sports school in Leningrad, the young Demidov, a country lad who feels like a stranger in the great city, briefly finds common ground with a teenage cello-student, Nonna Rozenberg. Eventually he achieves his ambition of being a successful weight-lifter, but like so many other sportsmen in the 1970s, he gives into the temptations of doping. Afflicted by pyromania and depression, he needs treatment in a mental hospital, but has the good fortune to be taken under the wing of a Japanese businessman with whose help he turns into ‘Demidov-san’ – and in due course becomes a successful sumo wrestler.

Fantastic, certainly, but the reader willingly buys the burlesque twists of the story, hoping the hero will eventually succeed in taking a firm grip on his destiny. As he battles his way through a lifetime of privation and hardship, Demidov is a most unexpected new-comer to the world of Finland-Swedish fiction, not least for his frustrated attempts to carry the whole weight of the world on his own shoulders, a lifelong obsession which forms a central theme in the novel.

In her study of Demidov, Lindén deliberately makes use of the classic dramatic structure of boys’ adventure stories, particularly the work of well-known authors like James Fenimore Cooper, Jules Verne and Mark Twain.

Her hero is an unsuspecting explorer on a dangerous journey, but she repeatedly comes to his rescue, guiding him towards yet another life, yet another struggle and yet another victory. By leaving his diaries to the writer he has met on the train, Demidov ensures that his life story is transformed into a literary achievement – a victory perhaps comparable in his world to the successful execution of a 180 kilo bench press.

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