Roadside Picnic

Cover of Roadside Picnic.

Roadside picnic was a good book to read, and I was surprised that I didn’t find it depressing. It takes place in a small town in roughly-Canada, where an alien exclusion zone has spawned that is very much like a radioactive dump: People around it experience mutations, people at the site when it spawned lost their lives or were injured in weird ways, you should only enter the zone in a special suit, but of course people do enter without one anyways. This was published 14 years before Chernobyl, mind.

Our protagonist a is working for the institute investigating the zone when he’s not busy being in prison for his smuggling activities. He has a wife and a daughter who looks like a little monkey. As I said, Chernobyl feeling. He’s extremely irreverent and snarky and his inner monologue was a joy to read. I read the German translation, but I’ve been told this goes for the English one, too. The German translation is an utter joy to read.

I’ve been trying to put into words why this book is so very, very Russian. I think it’s the interactions between people. There’s a common assumption that everybody is scavenging and finding semi-legal ways of making do, and also that everybody could be an informer about to tattle. This common assumption is born with equanimy and alcohol, and a strong reliance on community bonds. While the protagonist is in prison, friends check in on his wife and stand up to her neighbours to end the ongoing bullying, for example. I’m waving hands here, but trust me: The whole book feels like it’s taking place in the Russian steppe, not in Canada. I’m not sure I could’ve pointed this out before moving to Western Germany. I’m still trying to find better words.

The book, of course, is slice-of-life – everything else would feel pretentious and wrong. There are starts and stops, and there is an end, but it doesn’t follow a dramatic arc: one thing happens, and then the next. Sometimes one thing leads to the next, but sometimes it doesn’t. It makes the book more real, more serious – more life-like. It could’ve easily felt depressing and kafkaesque, but it didn’t, so here I am, liking it a whole lot. Also: Look at that cover!