Whoever said that Russian literature is long, boring, and depressing has clearly never read Arkady and Boris Stugatsky’s novel Monday Starts on Saturday, which is a witty, hilarious, and rather short story about the members and goingson at the National Institute for the Technology of Witchcraft and Thaumaturgy (NITWITT).
The story starts with Aleksandr (Sasha) Privalov, a computer programmer, picking up two hitchhikers on his way to the town of Solovets to meet his friends. Unbeknownst to him, the two hitchhikers are scientists from NITWITT, which is in dire need of a computer programmer. During their short car ride, the hitchhikers try to convince Sasha to join their research institute and recommended him to stay at a strange inn while waiting for his friends. The strange inn, namely, the LOHUCHIL, or the Log Hut on Chicken Legs, is run by a rude, unfriendly old lady, who puts him up for the night in a room with an old divan. What happens next is hard to describe, suffice it to say that nothing “normal” happens to Sasha (and in the book) after that.
Monday Starts on Saturday is a collection of random sketches about the eccentric scientist–wizards/witches at NITWITT, dedicated to all things scientific and magical. The novel features characters and creatures from myths and legends, such as Merlin, vampires, genies, and golems, to name a few, as well as caricatures of famous Russian scientists and politicians of the era. It satirizes the practices in Russian institutions at the time, focusing not only on the unrelenting schedule of scientists (the title, Monday Starts on Saturday, eludes to the fact that scientists are always eager to work on their research for the betterment of humanity. Either that or scientists don’t have weekends to begin with) but also on unethical, useless experiments/research done in the “name of science,” which though popular with the media, have no use to anyone whatsoever.
The novel consists of three stories, one before Sasha joins NITWITT and two after the joins the institute, on the foibles, problems, endeavors, research, and activities of the strange characters that make up the equally strange (but useful?) research facility. The institute is comprised of departments such as the Department of Linear Happiness, the Department of the Meaning of Life (headed by a former Spanish Inquisitor), and the Department of Predictions and Prophecies (headed by Merlin), which carry out various research for the good of mankind. In addition to the mythological creatures working in the institute such as vampires (guarding the magical creatures in their holding cells), brownies (who are in charge of cleaning and maintaining offices), and ifrits (reformed genies employed by as guards), the institute is home to a slew of weird, enigmatic, not-too-sane characters, not the least of whom is a person in the form of two individuals, who is the head of the facility. The novel describes these colorful characters in addition to their research problems and solutions, none of which make any sense and are not supposed to.
Monday Starts on Saturday is written by brothers Arkady and Boris Stugatsky, who were a technical translator and editor and a computer mathematician, respectively. According to wikipedia, the original name of the institute is The Scientific Research Institute of Sorcery and Wizardry, which sounds a lot like the word “nothing” in Russian. The name of the institute was changed by Andrew Bromfield in the 2002 English translation to NITWITT.
Monday Starts on Saturday is a hilarious novel whose sole purpose is to entertain its readers, and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys science fiction, fantasy, magic, and a good laugh. A word of warning though, don’t attempt to understand any of the scientific explanations in the novel and don’t take it too seriously, lest your head explodes! Just sit back, relax, suspend your disbelief, and enjoy the ride.
Monday Starts on Saturday (1964) – Arkady and Boris Stugatsky (translated by Andrew Bromfield, 2002)
Gollancz; 235 pages; tpb