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The Surgeon


In her first novel, The Surgeon, the national prize-winning author of The Women of Lazarus, Marina Stepnova, links together the stories of a ruthless medieval religious fanatic and a modern exceptionally gifted plastic surgeon to paint a grim picture of the world of the total absence of love.


Born in a small provincial town in a working class family, from an alcoholic father and a seductive yet simple-minded mother, Arkady Khripunov has a bleak future ahead: a beaten track of dull school training, followed by dreary work at the town’s only local factory during the day and joyless hours of drinking and meaningless fighting with fellow workers in the evening. This inevitable routine gets broken when Arkady, a teenage boy of 12 years old, …dies. After he recovers from the severe and deadly meningitis attack, Arkady knows two facts: this world is ugly and he is the one to correct this. At the age of 35 Khripunov becomes an exceptionally gifted plastic surgeon, obsessed with one mission, to create the absolute beauty. An endless flow of flesh and bones before him, bearers of which dream only of becoming a material for Khripunov’s practice, brings the genius surgeon to the verge of despair, when he meets his Galatea. Unaware of Arkady’s true motives, the girl eagerly agrees to become a subject of the surgeon’s experiment.

Hassan ibn-al Sabbāh is an all-powerful missionary in the late 11th century Persia. The founder of his own Islam-based religious doctrine, Hassan-I Sabbah devotes all of his life to the mission of converting people into his faith. After the successful seizure of an invincible fortress Alamut in the mountains of the northern Iran, Hassan is considered as nothing less than God’s true chosen one. The ruler of Alamut directs a ruthless campaign against local lords of other doctrines and foreign political leaders. The fortress on the mountain serves for years an ideal hideout and training base for warrior pupils of Hassan’s doctrine, whom he carefully chooses to perform his life’s mission. Trained through harsh discipline, terror and ardent religious studies, Hassan’s soldiers are turned into an invincible mechanism that stops at nothing to spread the branches of their leader’s doctrine into the world. These come to be called assassins or the fedayins, meaning “the martyrs” or “the men who accept death”. Hassan, too, is unafraid of death – nothing in this world can terrorize him, until one day he sees a young woman, his own daughter whom he ordered to kill right after her birth.

The two alternately life chronicles mold into an original gospel. An immaculate stylist, Stepnova is ruthless to the world she pictures, executing mercy to neither protagonists nor readers. One gets irrevocably mesmerized with the text, with the irresistible beauty of Stepnova’s prose, the author’s absolute command of the narrative’s pitch, its penetrating atmosphere and the author’s razor-sharp word choice. The Surgeon – a profound narration about obsession, death, madness and beauty – is an exceptional debut work, a true manifest of an arrival of a great literary master.

Stepnova has fingers of a surgeon that know how to make an ideally pitched phrase. Stepnova has a masterly command of stylistic means and lexicon that equates the genius of her character’s practice of surgical instruments. <...> Stepnova demonstrates a misanthropic vision of this world yet has a most happy marriage with the language.

— Lev Danilkin, Afisha

An ultimately cruel, a mercilessly beautiful prose.

— 4itateli

A beautiful, bright, remarkable novel about how tense and uncomfortable can it become in this loveless world for one who thinks of oneself as an Ubermensch.

This novel is a rare work of fiction that you can read without understanding and yet without an urge to understand at all cost.

Book details


Novel, 2005

Elena Shubina Publishing (AST)

Novel, 2013

316 pp

Rights sold

  • Mongolian Nepko

Literary awards

  • Longlisted for the National Bestseller Award 2005

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