Documents Concerning Rubashov the Gambler Paperback
St Petersburg, 1899. Obsessive gambler Rubashov has played every game in town.
Now on New Year's Eve, he finds himself on the brink of ruin, and decides to make a bid for the ultimate rush, the biggest gamble ever, to challenge the Devil to a game of poker.
Rubashov loses. His punishment is not to go straight to Hell (Hell is full and has been for years), instead he is condemned to immortality. And so begins a monumental trip through Europe, as Rubashov encounters some of the twentieth century's most notorious characters.
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 304 pages
- Publisher: Vintage Publishing
- Publication Date: 03/07/2008
- Category: Modern & contemporary fiction (post c 1945)
- ISBN: 9780099498247
- EPUB from £4.99
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Review by patrickgarson
Novels about immortality hold an undeniable appeal for me, but the challenges of sustaining a strong narrative and effective characterisation over longs periods of time are rarely overcome. Documents Concerning Rubashov The Gambler confirms to this trend, running out of steam around the halfway mark.In 1899, hopeless gambler Josef Rubashov has lost his last rouble and decides to challenge the Devil himself for one more hand. Rather than being consigned to hell upon losing (it's been full for years, apparently), Josef instead is forced to wander Europe as an immortal. Hell, it seems, is other people. "Wander" is the operative word here. The only thread to Rubashov's peregrinations is that the Devil ensures he experiences only the worst that humanity has to offer. From World War I, to WWII, Soviet Repression, Yugoslav hell, bomb-scarred Belfast, and so on, the novel becomes a catalogue of twentieth century low points, rendered by Vallgren in practically grand guignol style. The problem of this approach is that it's literally unpleasant to read. The horror is leavened by almost nothing else, and whilst this certainly allows us to empathise with Rubashov's omnipresent fatigue and despair, it doesn't make experiencing it very rewarding. Additionally it slides into the gratuitous one more than one occasion. Vallgren gamely tries to tack on some meaning to all this suffering at the end, but it's nowhere near enough, and not half as clever or profound as he thinks. With nothing in the way of a narrative to propel us forward, we're left with Rubashov himself. Unfortunately any subtlety or depth he possesses at the start of the book is flattened and crushed to a paper-thin wraith under the weight of his torments. The reaction is realistic - I suppose - but deeply unsatisfying and there are no other characters to enjoy, except the Devil, but he's more pastiche than person. This made finishing the book a real chore; there was simply nothing to keep me going. Some critics have been highly complimentary to Vallgren's twentieth century gallimaufry, but to me - without that narrative drive, characterisation, catharsis or broader point - it's just an undergraduate parlor trick. His sketches lack any genuine depth or understanding of what he's writing about, and - Like Rubashov himself - it just left me wishing for an end to it all.