Only one name finds its way onto the cover of the book, but as the title suggests, The Bastard is the child of more than one creator. Yashmilye’s hero (or alter ego) Ivan Grilenko admits as much in the introduction: ‘My letters have always contained stories. Correspondents have not always cared for this habit, a rule to which there have been three main exceptions, all female, all of whom have taken my weakness for telling stories and thrown it back in my face, with pleasing results. This novel is one result: a collaborative story, constructed through letters’.
One word at least will have set a few alarm bells ringing. That word is collaborative. For the bastard book-child of several parents seldom promises beauty. History has taught us that stories with many parents (excepting folk tales, carried across generations and softened like pebbles by the raging seas of sense) are, more often than not, a poor bunch. Get a group of friends together to forge a story and, fun as it may be, the tale that is conceived will probably be a formless compromise; a cacophony of divergent styles and ideas, a crude and careless mish-mash.
Think, for instance, of the infamous Obo Urlach project (reviewed, in a fashion, here). Fourteen talented writers came together to produce what was, by all accounts, one of the worst novels ever written. It was so bad, indeed, that the vast majority of the copies were destroyed (usually by the authors involved). I doubted for some time that the book even existed. Ironically, it was the reluctance of so many of those involved to mention it that lead me to believe it did.
The Obo Urlach book was a deformed bastard; the difference between it and Yashmilye’s novel is that the latter is fully aware of its bastard status (proved, resoundingly, by its title). Not only aware, indeed, but willing to draw the reader’s attention to it. Collaboration is the subject of the novel, not its shameful weakness. What happens when a story suffers under the hands of several writers (and Yashmilye is quite aware that most stories, his own included, do suffer under these circumstances) – that is the real story of The Bastard.
So how does Yashmilye manage to present his readers with a cruel compromise of a story without losing them? Being aware of the flaws doesn’t make the flaws go away, after all. But drawing yet another story out of them does help one understand them anew, viewing them from a fresh perspective. And this is what Yashmilye does: adding to his letters a commentary, in the shape of footnotes, which glues together the chaos of the collaboration, giving the novel a new and moving shape.
All of which begs the question – would explanatory footnotes have rendered Obo Urlach’s Fires of Wilmeldestran readable?