The Big Green Tent is a masterpiece of massive ambition precisely because Ulitskaya — and, in turn, her translator, Polly Gannon — are so adept at giving tangible life to the smallest details, and even those 'C-list extras.'
Some of these stories are meant to be familiar to a Russian reader, and in fact many are based on real events, just as many of the characters are based on real people. Some are thinly veiled historical figures, others are more thickly camouflaged; others are purely fictional. All of this creates an eerie landscape, as if the dead were walking among the living.
For all the novel’s reach and extension, however, there’s a hastiness that is perplexing: Ulitskaya occasionally but abruptly loses interest in one character or another, and then, practically yawning, she dashes off elsewhere...bored or her imagination having flagged, she’ll suddenly summarize a decade of a hero’s life in a paragraph.
Ulitskaya avoids the kind of psychologizing that is a trademark of Russian novel, but she masterfully renders psychology through the language of the body, sensory experience and the shifting voice of the narrator. Word choice, even word order, carry significant weight, and this is something that Polly Gannon's translation unfortunately fails to convey.
While more insight into the lives of some of the central characters and less into the lives of the tangential ones would occasionally have been welcome, it is undeniable that with this novel Ulitskaya has pulled off a multipronged feat.
Undisciplined, sprawling, even a bit chaotic, The Big Green Tent has its flaws. But for all that it is still a very interesting read as Ulitskaya covers with breathless gusto a period of Russian history unfamiliar to most American readers...You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll occasionally want to throw the book across the room in frustration — but you’ll keep reading.
While reading The Big Green Tent, it wouldn’t hurt to follow your high school English teacher’s advice and make a list of characters to reference while reading. But this range of characters and connections is what makes The Big Green Tent great.
Each satisfied demand is rewarded, and each sadness is returned with acute awareness of how full this book is of life and literature. It is not simple. But one cannot think that the author of The Big Green Tent would believe that what’s true possibly could be.