How generous would you be if you had to imagine yourself old? In her Debut Prize-winning novel “Before I Croak” – currently long-listed for the 2017 National Bestseller Award – Anna Babiashkina delivers a humorously unforgiving prophecy for her generation of Muscovites in 2039.
Sofia, the novel’s narrator, has been cajoled by her son into moving to The Mounds, “the cheaper sort” of retirement home, so that he can rent out her apartment in central Moscow. The Mounds turns out to be a kind of shelter for the unfulfilled creativity of its residents, whose intertwined backstories are gradually revealed. Sofia was previously a renowned journalist and the investigatory instinct remains: as she uncovers the residents’ long-buried secrets, her discoveries inspire her to write this “mockumentary novel” before she croaks.
The home's only rule is that residents do not criticize each other’s work. Initially resistant, Sofia sets herself up as a literary critic. She is ostracized, then physically assaulted, causing her to flee the home and suffer a breakdown. Living temporarily as a hermit by a bog, Sofia sleeps during the day and writes at night. Here Babiashkina parodies the extent to which technology disrupts our lives: first Sofia’s mobile starts “complaining of starvation,” then her car battery dies, then the light on her pen, so that she can no longer write. Broken, Sofia returns willingly to the home to begin her investigations in earnest.
At the heart of the intrigue is the matriarch Nata, whose need for control is both touching and psychotic. Having got herself pregnant by four different men, Nata keeps the fathers’ identities from her children, who are her personal joy and achievement. “A Muse shouldn’t push,” she says, describing her method of influence, “Instead, you have to create a whirlwind on this level surface, so that the sphere voluntarily chooses a unique trajectory towards it, attracted by the power of gravity.” Babiashkina’s real purpose, however, is not to analyze personality but to pass judgement on her entire generation – “the losers’ generation” who had “lost even before we entered the game; the prizes for which we were invited to fight were like so many glass beads with no real value.”
Choosing parody rather than a sentimental or moralizing approach, Babiashkina depicts an emotionally repressed generation who at the end of their lives resort to graphomania in an attempt to tell the truth about themselves. As a staff member points out, the previous generation “dropped dead on their vegetable beds,” having “spent their whole life digging the soil… and they couldn’t stop when they got old, and today’s old biddies… have worked in offices all their lives, typing on keyboards. And they can’t stop either. It’s progress!” More nostalgia may have been expected from a twilight-years novel, but this bleak assessment could be the reason for its omission.
Babiashkina cites Ian McEwan and Jonathan Safran Foer as her influences, but there is also a nod to Bulgakov – Sofia’s familiya is Bulgakova and perhaps the most moving sub-plot is the relationship between Nina, alleged lesbian and self-styled muse, and her tormented, inadequate Master. Although set in the future, this isn’t a dystopian novel, and the world it describes is entirely unchanged, which feels like a missed opportunity.
It is only at the end that Sofia’s caustic wit gives way to a sad lucidity. It leaves the reader with the impression that Babiashkina might have written a much more “serious” novel about her generation’s decline, but perhaps couldn’t quite bear it. Instead she has written an original page-turner that makes light work of some profound truths.