Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Trifonov’s title embraces a number of meanings. There is the underlying religious sense of life beyond the grave, a proposition which intrigues Sergei particularly in the last months of his life. His interest is genuine, but it is also fashionable in Moscow intellectual circles of the time: Without condemning Sergei, Trifonov casts a skeptical eye on the search for otherworldly peace of mind. There is the other life Sergei seeks while still on this earth, while still trapped in Soviet byt (routine, everyday life): his mental and spiritual existence, a life outside his family, which Olga finds so puzzling and threatening. There is Olga’s unwanted new life as a widow and single mother of a teenager; there is Olga’s new start at the end of the book. All these other lives, except for the last one, come together in Olga’s remembrance without forming any coherent whole. Trifonov, in limiting her perception of events, examines the limits of any one person’s perception in general, not as a literary exercise in the possibilities of point of view but as a moral and spiritual question. Just how is one to make sense of things?

In the course of their seventeen-year conversation, Sergei the historian asks Olga the biologist if she truly believes that “we disappear without a trace....” She, the determined materialist, answers, “Do you really think we won’t?” This difference in their habits of thinking and being goes beyond characterization to create...

(The entire section is 470 words.)