How to Save a Life

A friend dubbed March “Giant Russian Novel Month” and challenged anyone who wants to join her in reading a giant Russian novel. I chose Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

[this review contains spoilers, as usual, so here’s your warning.]

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This psychological novel quickly swept me up with its cat and mouse, murderer/detective game, kind of along the lines of Tom Hanks and Leonardo diCaprio in Catch Me If You Can. The protagonist is 23-year-old Rodion Raskolnikov, an impoverished but talented student in St. Petersburg who murders a vile, cynical old pawnbroker and her sister. Even though he is poor and has dropped out of school, he doesn’t do the crime for the money. The few trinkets he steals from the pawnbroker, along with her unopened purse, he hides under a rock.

It was the perfect murder with no evidence to catch him, yet Raskolnikov is tormented by his conscience. I think this is the punishment the title refers to more than the legal punishment that comes at the end of the book. It’s almost like Raskolnikov wants the detective Porfiry, who’s been assigned to his case, to come right out and accuse him—to put him out of its misery. And yet Raskolnikov lives off of secrecy and deception. Hence the cat-and-mouse-game.

Raskolnikov finally confesses the murder to Sonya. Sonya is a young woman, deeply religious, who is forced into prostitution to keep her highly dysfunctional family afloat (three young siblings, an alcoholic father, and a raging stepmother). It is her family that Raskolnikov gives the last of his money to (not the stolen money) when he hears about their suffering. It is one of his few beautiful acts throughout the novel, complicating our aversion to him.

Incidentally, Sonya is a fascinating character in the novel because her prostitution is consistently separated from her character. Somehow, the dehumanizing transaction she’s in has not tainted her pure spirit. She’s a Christ-like figure, actually. Her role made me ask: Can you be involved in something like that and not have it define who you are? I think yes. Can the same thing be said for Raskolnikov?

Raskolnikov is one of those bright young intellectuals who gets carried away with a theory that has no grounding in reality (characters refer to him as a “monomaniac.”) He divides the world into two groups: ordinary and extraordinary men. According to him, extraordinary men can step over the law (even going as far as murder) if it’s in pursuit of a higher purpose. Their brilliance allows them to think new thoughts that the majority of people don’t understand, yet in stepping over certain obstacles, they do something “salutary for the whole of mankind” and gain glory. Raskolnikov cites Napoleon Bonaparte as one of these extraordinary men. As you can imagine, Raskolnikov believes himself to be one of these men, too.

He justifies the murder, saying, “It wasn’t a human being I killed, it was a principle!”

And when he does admit he killed a human, he tries to minimize his crime:

“I only killed a louse, Sonya, a useless, nasty, pernicious louse.”

“A human being—a louse!”

But then he admits to her that he’s lying. “I’ve been lying for a long time.”

Raskolnikov is one of the most conflicted characters I’ve encountered in literature. He doesn’t know what’s up and down, and how can he if he’s been lying to himself so long he can’t tell the difference between ground and sky?

When his sister Dunya finds out about his crime, she asks another character in the novel, “How can you save him?” And then the follow-up question lurking in the shadows: “Can he be saved?”

This seems to be the question Dostoevsky is asking throughout Crime and Punishment.

Even after Sonya urges Raskolnikov to turn himself in (which he eventually does), he still isn’t remorseful. Remorseful that his theory about being one of the extraordinary men didn’t turn out as he expected, yes, but not remorseful for murdering two humans. It’s almost like he’s mad his conscience works so well, that it won’t let him carry on with his life unhindered.

Of course there is a problem with him if he had.

I was still left wondering if Raskolnikov is repentant when we see him, in the epilogue, working at a labour camp in Siberia (he was given 8 years). Sonya follows him there on her own volition. In a beautiful scene at the end, he throws himself down at her feet, weeping. She realizes he loves her, at last. She’s loved him for a long time already.

In rereading this scene, I wonder if Raskolnikov’s repentance is implied in his ability to love Sonya, because it’s difficult (I’d say impossible) to love another if your heart is hard and closed.

Indeed, Dostoevsky gives us his answer to Dunya’s question in these lines:

They wanted to speak but could not. Tears stood in their eyes. They were both pale and thin, but in those pale, sick faces there already shone the dawn of a renewed future, of a complete resurrection into a new life. They were resurrected by love; the heart of each held infinite sources of life for the heart of the other.

For a man who used words to lie and reason his life away, Raskolnikov’s silence and tears are perhaps the truest response he could have.

After his epiphany with Sonya, Raskolnikov returns to his barracks, lies in bed and thinks: “Did not everything have to change now?”

I wrote in pencil in the margin: yes.

The Proposal

In the heart of the city
amidst the lights and sparkle and magic of Christmas,
Adam holds my hand and skates beside me
drops on one knee, pulls out a ring
and asks, “Charlene Kwiatkowski, will you marry me?”
I give him my “Yes!” embrace him, fall on my knees
mitts off, he slips the most beautiful ring onto my finger
and holds my hands again.

The world is blurring by us
yet our worlds have stopped—
lost in utter delight
oh, the way his eyes shine when they’re looking at mine!
We stand back up on wobbly legs
and I am still wobbling with joy,
(4 days later),
for what was, what is, and what is to come
with the man my heart so loves.

-written in the wee hours of the morning after my engagement on Dec 13, 2014. What a beautiful, surprising, and altogether perfect night!

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Sidewalls

Valentine’s Day is fast approaching, and if you’re looking for a quirky, indie-type film about finding love in the age of urban alienation, I recommend Sidewalls (2011). It’s in subtitles. I’m not just recommending it for couples — in fact, I think it appeals more to those who often find themselves on the outside looking in when it comes to love. Like the store windows Mariana designs and displays her mannequins in, the film navigates that lost space between inside and outside where you don’t really know what space you want to stand in and commit to. You want the city to see you but you also want it to swallow you.

I knew nothing about Buenos Aires before watching the film. I still don’t know much, but I did learn that it is a poorly planned city, a hodgepodge of architectural styles that looks like a blindfolded kid was handed way too many pictures and not enough cardboard and was told to make a collage. Just glue them all down!

Next to a tall one, a small one.
Next to a rational one, an irrational one.
Next to a French one, one with no style at all.
These irregularities probably reflect us perfectly. A esthetic and ethical irregularities. These buildings, which adhere to no logic, represent bad planning. Just like our lives:
We have no idea how we want them to be. We live as if Buenos Aires were a stopover. We’ve created a “culture of tenants”. (Martin)

the sidewalls between Martin’s and Mariana’s apartment buildings

There’s one way out of the oppression that results from living in a shoebox. An escape route: Illegal, like all escape routes. In clear violation of urban planning norms, there are a few tiny, irregular, irresponsible windows that let a few miraculous rays of light into our darkness. (Mariana)

You can probably already tell the film delves into the philosophical – and, of course, the architectural. I really liked the emphasis on how the architecture of the city reflects the architecture of our lives. People are not that different from buildings.

Martin and Mariana live in next-door apartment buildings and are perfect for each other in a city where they keep meeting other people who aren’t perfect for them. The only problem is Martin and Mariana have never met. A sidewall (medianeras) between their buildings separates or connects them, depending on which way you look at it.

I responded to the film with a poem. It probably only makes sense if you’ve seen the movie and, if you have seen it, you’ll recognize some lines taken directly from it:

Sidewalls by Charlene Kwiatkowski

power lines crisscross

rooftop to rooftop

apartment to apartment

 

buildings stack like dirty dishes

new china with old paris

a leaning tower of pizza

 

there is no view

behind this curtain of concrete

 

where’s waldo?

you find him at the airport, at the beach, at the mall,

but never in the city

 

if you can’t find a person when you know who you’re looking for

how can you find a person when you don’t know who you’re looking for?

 

winter is always long

full of existential questions

 

where’s waldo?

are his red and white stripes

these power lines connecting us

or dividing?

 

these buildings like faces

fronts and backs

boarded-up entrances

we don’t use anymore

 

we slip in and out by the sidewall

walk the same street, watch the same people

live such parallel lives

our lines never meet

 

Don’t let my poem mislead you though – watch the film yourself. And on the subject of side-by-side lives, check out this piece.