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Monday, 10 September 2007


This is Nick.

"We'll keep the blue flag flying here": Comrade Abadzis inspects the newly renovated Stamford Bridge.

We've known each other since about 1979. He delights in reminding me that my first words to him were "I hate you, Nick Abadzis". I'm fairly sure he's making it up, although I always was a contrary thing, even way back then, so maybe a I did say something along those lines. But regardless of that, sometime in 1980 or 1981, I stopped hating him for long enough (if I ever had in the first place) to realise that I actually liked him rather a lot. Sitting in a tree in Richmond Park whilst on a Biology field trip, we became friends and we've pretty much stayed like that for what will soon be thirty years - friends, that is, we're not still sitting up a tree in Richmond Park.

So that, before we go any further, is my declaration of interest. Nick's just had another book published and on Sunday I had the great pleasure of finally getting to read it. Laika is the story of the second Soviet space flight. The brainchild of Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, Sputnik I had been launched on October 4th, 1957, beep-beeping to the consternation and bemusement of the non-Communist world below its orbit. Sputnik II's preparation was cruelly cut short, scheduled as it was to be launched to coincide with the fortieth anniverary of the October Revolution. This project was to go one step further than Sputnik I. This time Korolev's team would send not just a beep generator but a living creature into orbit. The catch was, they only had a month to build the thing from scratch. Now *that's* a deadline.

Laika was the heroic Husky-Samoyed crossbreed chosen to pioneer the mammalian (and Soviet) conquest of the universe stretched out enticingly beyond the earth's atmosphere. Only her name wasn't really Laika. Everyone called Kudryavka - "Little Curly" - until Korolev changed her name; Laika, 'Barker'. Sergei Pavlovich's life had been saved by a dog as he wandered the streets of Magadan, starving from his ordeal in the gulag, alerted by its barking to a discarded loaf of bread. This meeting with another, curly-tailed dog was, he believed, like his survival a proof of his destiny; at least it was if you believe Nick's story. Oh, I know telling stories is telling lies, but sometimes we need a white lie or two to get behind the even bigger lies. The lies we're told by history.

You've had my declaration of interest, but interest seems barely to do the bias involved here sufficient justice. You see, no matter how much you might not want to, when you hold in your hands a book by one of your friends, you are discreetly cordoned off from the huddled masses of the general readership. "Come this way", say the voices of the genuflecting flunkies as they lead you on your red carpetted way. Far from the harrassed and cramped readers hanging from their handrails in economy they take you; for this one rare journey you will be travelling in first class. You may indeed be holding the same 208 pages as any other reader in your eager, trembling hands, but this is one privilege you are unable to renounce. For you belong to The Party now, you are no longer a mere prole, and with that elevation there comes danger. You are no ordinary reader because you know. You know as they do not that what you are holding in your hands are not mere pages; they are years.

So how can you trust a Party man? I wouldn't trust myself. But you will just have to trust me, as little Kudryavka has no choice but to trust her handler, Yelana Dubrovsky, even though she is ultimately powerless to reward her charge's faith. Trust me, even though this will read, I know, like propaganda - how can it not? But try to see it from the propagandist's p.o.v. Imagine that you too have seen him - on the rare occasions he could be separated from the work to come and meet you and his other friends - carrying this as yet unrealised book around with him everywhere, his shoulders buckling beneath it as it grew. Imagine that you know about the deadline - not quite Korolev's for Sputnik II, but a tight one all the same - and the workload it entailed; the cramming and the topsy turvy schedule of avoiding working in the hottest parts of that heat wave two summers back. Think of him as if he was your friend working through the nightimes, asleep in the shimmering heat of the day. You too, let's pretend, have been told, that it took some special power, the interjection of some ghoulish muse to see the project through; one intense and frazzled nocturne when that spectral lady spoke through him; our friend.

So now I recline in the comfy berth of my Dacha, filled with pride and party loyalty as my delicate, unscathed fingers turn over a week or two of someone else's work. The story I've waited so long to hear finally can unfold. And this is why I can't be trusted. Because my faith was always infinite. Because I knew from the very first moment that the idea was put to me, from the simple, nailed up manifesto of the outline of the plot, that the compassion and the talent of my friend had this time found the perfect vehicle in Laika's moving tale. No, that's wrong; it is the other way around. The tale had found the man with the humanity to tell it. And even though I know I can't be trusted, that my testimony won't stand up, I will say it anyway. The tale has found the talent and the compassion to be told. Trust me, even though there's no way on earth that I could not like this book. Trust me, even if I'm drunk with pride at having had the good luck to have such a friend; Trust me, it is good. Very, very good indeed.

Of course, you can't believe me; not until you've read it for yourself. You can only trust the hairs on the back of your own neck, as I had to mine, feel them as they respectfully stand up for the eloquence of the frames and the text, a politburo of filaments rising in awe at the powerful arsenal that proceeds before them. You may or may not feel, as I did, the reassuring thrill that comes when official history is met by such a calm, interrogative conscience as Nick's; a punk cartoonist's two-fingered rejoinder to their "mad parade". You see, history may record that a dog named Laika became the first living being to reach outer space in the early hours of 2nd November, 1957, but that's only a fragment of the story that Nick tells here.

Even now, having read the book and knowing what we do of the Soviet regime, it's hard not to be impressed by the force of Korolev's will. A driven "man of destiny", he'd survived the hell of the gulag to pioneer the exploration of space. In the month between the outrageous coup of the first Sputnik and Laika's flight, he'd made the quantum leap between hurtling an object and a being into space, a development that would pave the way for all that followed in space race. But that miracle of a month was to be the little dog's tragedy; they simply hadn't time to plot a way to bring her back to earth. Korolev is plausibly humane in Nick's hands; this is no witch hunt after all, just a wise reckoning of motives a balancing of the scales. In other hands this could be sad but sloppy propaganda. But Nick is far too wise for that.

We see Korolev and the other humans in this story (and the canines they are masters of) as vital, living beings who have been made stooges by history. They are liberated from their role as muppets here. Characters like Yelana Dubrovsky, the dog-handler who bonds with her charges and Oleg Gazenko (whose unrequited passion for the same Yelana Alexandrovna is so beautifully, subtly, delicately suggested here) can't be seen as villains. They're victims, as we all are, of the propagandists' vice. The insistence of the regime that the launch of this boastful orbit be made to coincide with the anniversary of the Revolution meant that no plans were ever made to return poor Laika to that despairing, undeserving soil; one more shoddy tragedy to add to the millions more suffered under that regime. The poor pup's passion unfolds with terrible certainty. The author's vision remains clear-eyed throughout, remaining so even as your own blurs with tears as you read on. You can't believe it's just a colour-filled line that's died up there in the heavens, in torment, not put to sleep humanely as the Soviet's pretended. Another dead line. But it isn't a line, it is a dog that's died. A dog and a lie; sometimes it takes a white lie to tell the bigger truth.

But don't trust me, you can't I am too close to the story. Rather, trust the text and, if you have them, show it to your kids. It will stand them in good stead. Because they will need, and their kids will need, as we once needed, perhaps still do, to guard against the propaganda. It hasn't gone away, just becomes ever harder to pick up on. But Laika and Kudryavka, the little curly-tailed stray dog remembered in its pages, show us how it's done.

"Laika" By Nick Abadzis is published by First Second. You can order a copy here.

L.U.V. on y'all,


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