Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 470

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?

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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 much of the novel’s sad irony. Seventeen years of genuine love—and genuine misunderstanding. Sergei has spent his short life in search of some elusive link between individual fate and national destiny—hence his confused explanation of his research, a jumble of family history and czarist police archives. Frustrated in these attempts by both his own uncertainty and the hostility of his colleagues, he turns to parapsychology and the occult as a way to connect past, present, and future, and to give him a vision of a life other than the thwarted one he now leads. Olga, however, stubbornly clings to a vision of “their life,” which he has long since ceased to share.

Yet after Sergei’s death it is Olga who finds herself the unwilling historian. She who has always regarded history as a collection of facts which simply need to be marshaled into coherent order now confronts troubling, unruly memories that refuse to be so easily organized. She may rationalize and explain, but she still cannot reduce such complex things as marriage and family and inner life to comforting clarity. Through Olga’s effort to make sense of “their life” and her own, Trifonov works on two levels: the puzzle of human relations in general and the need to come to terms with both an individual and a collective past.

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