Monday Starts on Saturday

Monday Starts on Saturday

Monday Starts on Saturday 1

  Copyright © 1964 by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

  Illustrations copyright © 1964 by Yevgeniy Migunov

  Foreword copyright © 2016 by Adam Roberts

  Afterword copyright © 2000 by Boris Strugatsky

  English language translation by Andrew Bromfield copyright © 2002, 2018 by Natalia Hull

  All rights reserved

  Published by Chicago Review Press Incorporated

  814 North Franklin Street

  Chicago, IL 60610

  ISBN 978-1-61373-926-6

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Names: Strugat?skii?, Arkadii?, 1925–1991, author. | Strugat?skii?, Boris, 1933–2012, author. | Bromfield, Andrew, translator. | Migunov, E., illustrator.

  Title: Monday starts on Saturday / Arkady and Boris Strugatsky ; translated by Andrew Bromfield ; illustrations by Yevgeniy Migunov.

  Other titles: Ponedel'nik nachinaetsi?a v subbotu. English (Bromfield)

  Description: Chicago : Chicago Review Press Incorporated, 2017. | Description based on print version record and CIP data provided by publisher; resource not viewed.

  Identifiers: LCCN 2017018448 (print) | LCCN 2017020595 (ebook) | ISBN 9781613739242 (PDF edition) | ISBN 9781613739266 (EPUB edition) | ISBN 9781613739259 (Kindle edition) | ISBN 9781613739235 (pbk. edition)

  Classification: LCC PG3476.S78835 (ebook) | LCC PG3476.S78835 P6613 2017 (print) | DDC 891.73/44—dc23

  LC record available at

  Cover design: Sarah Olson

  Cover image:

  Typesetting: Nord Compo

  Printed in the United States of America

  5 4 3 2 1

  This digital document has been produced by Nord Compo.


  Title Page

  Copyright Page

  Foreword by Adam Roberts

  Story No. 1: The Commotion over the Sofa

  Story No. 2: Vanity of Vanities

  Story No. 3: All Kinds of Commotion

  Postscript and Commentary

  Afterword by Boris Strugatsky


  by Adam Roberts

  Every now and then one chances upon a novel, little known in the West, that deserves to sell more copies than cookbooks. Monday Starts on Saturday is one such novel.

  As to why it is so little known in Anglophone territories, I’m not sure I can understand. It is probably true that the Strugatsky brothers are best known in the West for their great science fiction novel Roadside Picnic (1972), made into the almost unbearably powerful film Stalker (1979) by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. That film has perhaps overlaid Western perceptions of the sort of books the Strugatskys wrote. In fact the original Roadside Picnic novel is considerably more varied and perky than Tarkovsky’s cinematic masterpiece; in fact, that’s true of all the novels written by these two giants of Russian science fiction. Their output was large and varied, but they were always inventive, charming, thought-provoking, and wonderful writers. And Monday Starts on Saturday is not just an ingenious and gripping read but simply a delight from start to finish. Some novels provoke admiration, some a cooler and more distanced respect. This is a novel with which to fall in love.

  Sasha is a young computer programmer from Soviet-era Leningrad, driving north to meet up with friends for a tour of the unspoiled nature of Karelia, the region of Russia that borders on Finland. The novel was written in the mid-1960s, when computers were brand new and the size of a small house. So Sasha’s job is rather more cutting edge and high tech than is implied by the term nowadays. He picks up two hitchhikers, who persuade him to take a job with their employer, the National Institute for the Technology of Witchcraft and Thaumaturgy, or NITWiT. (There’s a similar joke in the original Russian: the name Nauchno-Issledovatelskiy Institut Charodeystva i Volshebstva is abbreviated to “NIIChaVo,” which sounds like nichevo, Russian for “It doesn’t matter!” or “Don’t mention it!”) After initial reluctance, Sasha agrees. He goes on to have a series of brilliant, wrong-footed, and often hilarious adventures.

  The Institute utilizes and researches magic, treated here as a peculiar and unpredictable branch of science. Much of the humor depends on the way the Strugatsky brothers combine a well-observed portrayal of a typical academic community with the sort of magical characters and artifacts found in myth and Russian folklore.

  The brothers knew whereof they spoke. When they were writing Monday Starts on Saturday, Boris was still working as an academic astronomer and computer engineer (he became a full-time writer in 1966), and Arkady’s linguistic training meant he had a great deal of experience working for large Soviet-era organizations. However colorful and inventive the magical elements of this story, what makes the novel so vivid is its authors’ profound understanding of how these sorts of human organizations function. Function isn’t really the right word, actually. The Institute is gloriously, colorfully, and perfectly believably dysfunctional. The scholars of the Department of Absolute Knowledge, for instance, devote themselves to the study of the infinite. Since the proper study of such a thing would require infinite time, it doesn’t matter whether they work or don’t work, except that working would have the side effect of increasing the entropy of the cosmos. So they do no productive work. Most universities today follow a similar, if unacknowledged, logic.

  Readers sometimes draw comparison between this novel and the Harry Potter books. The parallels are certainly clear: both are comically inventive accounts of a group of people studying magic at an official establishment located in the north. I suppose it is possible J. K. Rowling was aware of the Strugatskys’ tale and drew some inspiration from it, but it must be acknowledged that the flavor of this novel is quite different from that of the Potter series. For Rowling’s characters, magic is a coherent system, complex but graspable and taken very seriously by those who study it. For the Strugatskys magic is far stranger and more random, although equally delightful. The gigantic talking pike that grants wishes, the mermaid in the tree, the cat who can remember only the beginning of stories, the magic coin that returns to your pocket when you spend it (but not if you accidentally drop it), the sofa that can translate dreams, the motorcycle that can zoom its rider into the imagined futures of science fiction—it’s all superbly inventive and charming and imaginative. But it is also written in a way that deliberately confounds the reader’s expectations, more P. K. Dick than J. K. Rowling. Portions of the novel remind me a little of Terry Pratchett, for the Strugatskys’ many colorful wizards, vampires, and officers, pompous or officious or simply strange, read rather like Discworld characters. But, again, Pratchett is in the business of providing coherent story lines and an identifiable ethical throughline in his novels. The Strugatskys don’t really see the world that way, and their novel is more morally open ended, more episodic. In short, Monday Starts on Saturday is profoundly, beautifully left field. It’s so left field it pretty much passes out of the field altogether and reemerges, unexpectedly, right.

  The Institute attempts to investigate magic scientifically; but it is in the nature of magic, as this novel conceives it, to resist all modes of systematization. Accordingly we might want to read the book as a satire on scientific hubris, or more specifically on science as it was practiced in the Soviet Union. One major character in the novel, Ambrosius Ambroisovich Vybegallo, is based loosely on the infamous Soviet “scientist” Trofim Lysenko, and Vybegallo’s grandiose and disastrous experiments are hilariously described here. But calling the novel “a satire on science” makes it sound much drier and less palatable than it actually is. I prefer to read it as an exploration of the place of magic in humanity’s myths and stories.

p; It’s hard to deny that magic is the default mode of human storytelling. All the old myths and poems contain transcendent magical powers and transitions; medieval romances and epics are full of fantastical and miraculous things. It wasn’t until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that a mode of storytelling arose in which nothing magical happened and verisimilitude became the watchword. We sometimes call it realism. I have nothing against realist novels, as it happens; I just think we need to acknowledge that they are the aberration in the larger context of humanity’s appetite for stories.

  For the moment, however, this rejection of the power of miracles extends even to our stories about the miraculous. One feature that Rowling’s and Pratchett’s series share with pretty much all other narratives predicated upon “magic” is that the magic has rules. This is because “magical thinking” has rules—psychological rules, that is. Magical thinking is that near-ubiquitous human state of mind at work in superstition, ritual, prayer, and religion, as well as obsessive-compulsive behaviors—the belief that there is a causal relationship between human actions and beliefs and cosmic eventuality. I wonder what it would be like to write a fantasy novel in which the magic has no rules at all. That would be bracing, and might bring out this buried truth: millions who think they love fantasy because of the magic actually love it because of the rules.

  Monday Starts on Saturday isn’t quite that book, but it comes closer than any other I can think of. The Strugatskys understand that, for most people, science and magic are not opposite terms, since for most people “science” is now so complex and specialized, so incomprehensible, so apt to being translated into mere technological marvelousness, that it is in effect a form of magic. Not one person in a hundred million really understands what goes on inside his or her iPhone. The scientific publications of the Institute might as well be alchemical gobbledygook, or indeed fairy stories, as far as the average, reasonable woman or man is concerned.

  This in turn has a strange consequence, something this marvelous novel understands on a deep level. We talk about “real magic” to distinguish it from “stage magic”—which, as illusion, is of course not magic at all. It’s a “false magic.” But the irony here is that real magic is the kind of magic that can’t actually be done, whereas the “unreal” stage magic is the kind that can actually be performed. This is a nice irony, but it’s more than that. It’s symptomatic of the way performance—whether on stage, on screen, in a book, or in song—upends the logic of actuality. This curious paradox is at the heart of this superlative novel. If magic were “real,” it would insert itself into the logic of the stage, of performance and theatrical companies, or of people bickering and scheming and looking for the main chance. But if magic is unreal, not a part of the real world, then it retreats to the logic of dreams, wish-fulfillment, and psychological fantasy. And where else does this exercise in imaginative creation take us?

  Monday starts on saturday

  But what is strangest and most incomprehensible of all, is how authors can choose such subjects. I confess I find this totally incomprehensible, it is as if . . . no, no, I don’t understand it at all.

  —Nikolai Gogol

  STORY No. 1

  The Commotion

  over the Sofa


  TEACHER: Children, write down the sentence “The fish sat on the tree.”

  PUPIL: But do fish really sit on trees?

  TEACHER: Well . . . this fish was crazy.

  —A school joke

  I was nearing my destination. On both sides the green forest pressed right up against the road, giving way now and then to clearings overgrown with yellow sedge. The sun had been trying in vain to set for hours and still hung low over the horizon. As the car trundled along the crunching gravel surface of the narrow road, I steered the wheels over the large stones, and every time the empty gas cans in the trunk clanged and clattered.

  Two figures emerged from the forest on the right, stepped out onto the edge of the road, and halted, looking in my direction. One of them raised his hand. I eased off the accelerator as I examined them. They looked to me like hunters, young men, perhaps a little older than me. I liked the look of their faces, and I stopped. The one who had raised his hand stuck his swarthy, hook-nosed face into the car and asked with a smile, “Could you give us a lift to Solovets?”

  The other one, who had a ginger beard but no mustache, peeped over his shoulder, also smiling. They were definitely nice people.

  “Get in,” I said. “One in the front and the other in the back—the backseat’s pretty cluttered.”

  “Our guardian angel!” the hook-nosed one exclaimed delightedly, slipping his gun off his shoulder and getting into the seat beside me.

  The one with the beard glanced in uncertainly through the rear door and said, “Do you mind if I just . . . ?”

  I leaned over the back of my seat and helped him clear the space that was occupied by the sleeping bag and folded tent. He sat down cautiously, setting his hunting gun between his knees. “Make sure you close the door properly,” I said.

  So far everything seemed normal. I drove on. The young man with the hooked nose turned to face the back and started talking boisterously about how much nicer it was to ride in a car than to walk. The young man with the beard mumbled his agreement and kept trying to slam the door shut.

  “Pull in your raincoat,” I advised him, looking through the rearview mirror. “Your coat’s jamming it.”

  Five minutes later everything was all sorted out. “About ten kilometers to Solovets, isn’t it?” I asked.

  “Yes,” replied the hook-nosed one. “Or maybe a bit more. Only the road’s not so good, of course—it’s just for trucks.”

  “The road’s just fine,” I retorted. “I was told I wouldn’t be able to get through at all.”

  “You can get down this road even in autumn.”

  “Here, maybe, but from Korobets on it’s a dirt track.”

  “It’s a dry summer this year—everything’s dried out a bit.”

  “They say there’s rain up around Zaton,” remarked the bearded young man in the backseat.

  “Who says?” asked the hook-nosed one.

  “Merlin says.” And for some reason they laughed.

  I took out my cigarettes, lit up, and passed them around.

  “The Clara Zetkin Plant,” said the hook-nosed one, eyeing the pack. “Are you from Leningrad?”


  “Doing a bit of traveling?”

  “Yes,” I said. “Are you local?”

  “Born and bred,” said the hook-nosed one.

  “I’m from Murmansk,” declared the bearded one.

  “I suppose from Leningrad there’s no difference between Solovets and Murmansk—it’s all the North,” said the hook-nosed one.

  “No, not at all,” I said politely.

  “Will you be staying in Solovets?” asked the hook-nosed one.

  “Certainly,” I said, “Solovets is where I’m headed.”

  “Have you got family or friends there?”

  “No,” I said, “I’m just going to wait for some guys. They’re hiking along the coast, and we arranged to meet up in Solovets.”

  I spotted a large patch of rocks ahead, braked, and said, “Hold on tight.” The car started shuddering and shaking. The young man in the front hit his hooked nose against the barrel of his gun. The motor roared and stones smashed against the bottom of the car.

  “Your poor car,” said the hook-nosed one.

  “Can’t be helped,” I replied.

  “Not everyone would drive down a road like this in their own car.”

  “I would,” I said.

  The patch of large rocks came to an end. “So, it’s not your car then,” the hook-nosed one deduced.

  “Where would I get a car from? It’s rented.”

  “I see,” said the hook-nosed young man, and I thought he sounded disappointed.

  I was stung, so I answered, “What’s the point of bu
ying a car for driving around on asphalt? The places covered in asphalt aren’t interesting, and in the interesting places there isn’t any asphalt.”

  “Yes, of course,” Hook-Nose agreed politely.

  “I think it’s stupid to turn a car into a fetish,” I declared.

  “It is,” said the bearded one, “but not everybody thinks that way.”

  We talked a bit about cars and came to the conclusion that if you were going to buy anything, then it should be a GAZ-69 all-terrain model, but unfortunately they weren’t for sale.

  The hook-nosed one asked, “Where do you work?”

  I answered the question.

  “Tremendous!” he exclaimed. “A programmer. A programmer’s just what we need. Listen, why don’t you leave your institute and come to work for us?”

  “And what have you got?”

  “What have we got?” asked the one with the hooked nose, turning around to the back.

  “An Aldan-3,” said the one with the beard.

  “A very versatile machine,” I said. “And does it run OK?”

  “Well, how can I put it . . . ?”

  “I get it,” I said.

  “Actually, they haven’t debugged it yet,” said the bearded one. “If you stayed with us you could debug it.”

  “We could arrange the transfer in no time at all,” added the hook-nosed one.

  “What’s your line of work?” I asked.

  “Like all science,” said the hook-nosed one, “our work deals with human happiness.”

  “I see,” I said. “Something to do with space?”

  “Yes, space too,” said Hook-Nose.

  “I’m happy enough where I am,” I said.

  “A capital city and good pay,” the bearded passenger muttered in a low voice, but I heard him.

  “That’s not the point,” I said. “You can’t measure everything in money.”

  “I was only joking,” said the bearded one.