by Maxim Grigoriev
reviewed by Alex Fleming
As the unrelenting rain patters down on the streets of Porto, this outpost on the very edge of Europe, a motley group of politically minded, philosophically inclined young people gather – in cafés and bars, at parties, on walks – to set the world to rights. The problems are many (and familiar): gentrification, social cleansing, exploitation; the creeping, commodified blandness of a city centre repurposed for touristic consumption; war, flight, climate catastrophe. But where the fault lies, and how to fix it, is less clear. From September to April, under the city’s ‘tenacious’ downpours, the protagonists grapple with their desire to make a difference in an increasingly fractured and fractious world. Plans and bonds are made and broken, loyalties are tested, and, as the tensions and stakes rise, some of the group turn to drastic acts of desperation and revenge.
As a stylistic experiment, Regnet (The Rain) is extraordinary. Told almost exclusively in fragmentary – almost pointillistic – reported speech, the novel unfurls in a deluge of other people’s words. Grigoriev’s prose masterfully captures the ebbs and flows of conversation, as characters speak over and across each other, largely unattributed, like snatches of conversations overheard across a busy café. We, as readers, are left to fill in the gaps. Even the narrator’s own thoughts and speech remain unrecorded, implied only from the spaces between others’ words. The effect is both confusing and hypnotic, fragmentary and coherent, drops of rain accumulating on the street.
Grigoriev’s ability to create oblique character portraits and narratives through these elliptical dialogues is striking. The protagonists are astutely observed and their personalities nuanced and distinct, from Etelle/Ethel’s imperious stringency to Romain’s rootless pretentiousness, to Patricia’s resentful insecurities and need for control. Their complaints, jibes and backbiting feel authentic and motivated, and the conversations and debates that drive the novel are compellingly layered, even if, as we see, the characters are ultimately talking at cross-purposes.
These conversations are interspersed with poetic, parenthetical, almost cinematic interludes, as the narrator takes in his surroundings. The heavy rain and granite fabric of the city contribute to a palpable sense of oppression and gloom, rendered in beautifully weighted prose.
Much like Europe, Grigoriev’s multi-award-winning breakthrough novel, The Rain touches on themes of exile, nostalgia and a longing for a home that no longer exists. Half of the crowd are émigrés (from France and Russia, via Sweden and Ukraine), the other half are locals. While their backgrounds may vary – fuelling certain tensions – they are all to some extent united by their futile search, for a city and life that is no more. Perhaps it never was. As one of the characters says:
‘Ghosts wandered this city. Ghosts of the post-revolution dreams, ghosts of the ones who had fled, ghosts of the grandiose self-identities that never became real, ghosts of everyone who was now being kicked out,
‘They renovated the façades and stripped out the contents, and instead they got the ghosts, a roaming sorrow at everything that was never to be and everything that was driven away,’
While Porto is the primary focus of the novel’s attentions, this is very much a novel about Europe, and its cosmopolitan group of characters speak to the continent’s entangled histories and present, a geography, as one character puts it, ‘that never ends’.
For obvious reasons, Regnet is not an easily digestible read, and its fragmentary, semi-polyphonic nature can at times make for a confusing, disorienting reading experience. But for readers who are willing to engage with the blanks within the text, it is a fascinating, rich, and extremely rewarding book. Its critical reception has so far been largely positive in Sweden, and I can only echo such praise. This is a book that deserves to be read by a wide, international readership. With its damp, dusky setting, it also happens to make for perfect autumnal reading.
Albert Bonniers Förlag, 2022.
Foreign rights: William Crona, Albatros Agency.
Maxim Grigoriev was born in Moscow and moved to Sweden when he was twelve. Grigoriev’s breakthrough epic, Europe (2021) was nominated for the August Prize and VI:s Literary Prize, and won the EU Literary Prize, Svenska Dagbladets Literary Prize and SmåLits Migrant Prize. Maxim is also a literary translator from Russian and currently lives in Paris with his wife and their children.