The Goatibex Constellation (Book Review)

book reviewssoviet literatureabkhazia

Fazil Iskender's 1966 novella The Goatibex Constellation is that most timeless of things -- a satire of state-planned agriculture and journalism in the Soviet Union.

The story?

A young journalist returns home to his native Abkhazia, where the local newspaper in gripped by fervor for the republic's latest scientific achievement. Local agriculturalists, spearheaded by the support of agricultural journalist Platon Samsonovich have created a new goat/ibex hybrid called the "goatibex," whose unique biology bestows upon it a variety of claimed talents.

Naturally, the success of the project is all but assured, especially given its support from a prominent scientist, whose scientific works were the envy of others:

"There were, it is true, certain envious individuals who complained that no one had been able to repeat the great man’s ingenious experiments. Such complaints were countered, however, with the quite sensible reply that what made these experiments ingenious was precisely the fact that they could not be repeated." (16)

The novel is a bit of a shaggy tale, mixing in visits to the sea shore, a business trip to another town to investigate reports of anti-Goatibex behavior at the collective farm, memories of World War II, and moments in which our protagonist is captivated by the beauty of his country.

At one point, a grifter friend of the protagonist threatens to provide a thrilling lecture:

“Well, let me explain,” he replied with a broad sweep of his hand. “What has been the fate of the mountain ibex down through the ages? He’s always been the victim of feudal hunters and the idle scions of the nobility. They tried to exterminate him, but the proud animal refused to submit. He kept retreating farther and farther up the high and inaccessible slopes of the Caucasus, though in his heart he always longed to return to our fertile Abkhazian valleys.
And what has been the traditional role of our plain and unpretentious Abkhazian goat? She has always been the mainstay of our poorest peasantry. (...) She dreamed of an encounter with the ibex… And now, thanks to the efforts of some of our talented specialists (and Abkhazia has always been rich in talent), the mountain ibex has finally encountered our humble domestic goat—plain and unpretentious to be sure, but all the more charming for that. (...)
And it is precisely to the intimate details of this encounter that my lecture will be devoted” (79-80)

The satire is sharp without ever being weighty. When higherups from above Abkhazia decide that the Goatibex fervor needs to be quelled, none of the characters face severe consequences. The most that anyone seems to risk in terms of personal status is loss of employment. The most prominent grifters are well connected enough that even as the goatibex falls from favor, they bounce back almost immediately, continuing to scheme and prosper:

"Since it was the government itself which supported him, he could never go completely bankrupt, no matter how many times he might fail. And for this very reason, not only was his source of funds virtually inexhaustible, but his enthusiasm as well." (159-160)

Though Soviet kolkhozes disappeared after 1991, fads and ideologues remain everywhere. The Goatibex Constellation is a bit dated, but its satire is timeless. And, even if the subject matter is a bit slight, the book is just the right length -- a slim 160 or so pages, depending on the edition and print size..

Within those pages, there is enough humor and life to recommend it to anyone inclined to give it a read.