Monday, 30 May 2022

Visiting Vilnius: Pushkin and the Crack'd Mirror


On the edge of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, is a lovely forest park called Markučiai. It smells excitingly of moss and pine needles: as you wander across its intricate, sloping paths, you discover fishing lakes, a tiny chapel surrounded by a handful of graves, and a museum dedicated to Aleksandr Pushkin. This last might well give the visitor pause. Was Pushkin ever in Vilnius? No, although his celebrated great-grandfather was (see more below). Then why a museum in his name? I went inside to find out. At first sight, the museum appeared to be closed, and the information boards arranged between the house and the park were all in Lithuanian, a beautiful but rather opaque language. After puzzling over the pictures on the boards for a while, I tried the door. It opened, and a small fierce lady with black-button eyes, built rather along the lines of a matrioshka doll, peered at me through a tarnished glass window. In a corridor off to one side, another woman was speaking loudly to tourists in a language I couldn't follow. On my left was a dining room with a polished dark wooden table, surrounded by equally dark, ornate, rather brooding dressers, the knobs on the drawers carved like the heads of friendly gargoyles. Somehow I felt I'd fallen back in time, perhaps into a Dovlatov story. "Do you speak English?" I ventured. "Russkii?"


As if summoned specially to rescue me, another member of the museum staff appeared - a very kind and encyclopaedically informed lady from St Petersburg, Ellina by name. Ellina generously gave up what must have been an hour to show me the whole museum, from the furniture in the dining room (Pushkin's own, brought from Mikhailovskoe) to the clay golden cockerels and cats made by local children after reading Pushkin's fairy tales. She also explained the mystery of the museum dedicated to Pushkin in a city the poet had never visited: it was not Aleksandr himself, but his younger son Grigorii who had lived in the house. Grigorii married Varvara Melnikova, the daughter of a retired Russian general and the niece of Russia's first Minister for Transport, Pavel Melnikov. The Melnikov brothers were attracted to the Markučiai estate by the very factor which deterred other buyers: the construction of a new railway along its edge. Varvara received the estate as her dowry. After she divorced her philandering first husband, she met Grigorii Pushkin in Petersburg, where he held an administrative post and also curated his late father's estate. By the time they married in 1883, Grigorii was nearly fifty; Varvara twenty-eight. It was his first marriage, her second. They had no children together, but by all accounts their wedded life was blissful. For the first fifteen years they lived at Mikhailovskoe; then, after Grigory managed to sell the estate to the Russian Academy of Sciences, they settled at Markučiai. Sadly, after only six years in Lithuania, Grigorii died. Varvara remained at the house, except during the war, until her death in 1935; her dearest wish was for her property to continue to honour her extraordinary father-in-law by preserving Grigorii's relics of Mikhailovskoe. And while some items have been lost, many remain. The house is still magical, with the view from the first-floor balcony almost unchanged; Varvara's oils, mostly portraits of grazing cattle, survive on the living-room walls; and many fascinating books and trinkets from both families on display. I was no longer in a short story by Dovlatov, but possibly Chekhov.


Most of all, I was enchanted by the looking-glass. This is a large swing mirror placed at the end of a narrow corridor; the glass shines within a square mahogany frame, reflecting a distinguished bust of the poet. A large crack festooned with tiny pieces of Scotch tape runs drunkenly across one upper corner, a legacy of over-enthusiastic late Soviet remont. But what almost literally enchanted me about this mirror was Ellina's words: this was Aleksandr Pushkin's mirror, or rather his mother's, brought from Mikhailovskoe with other treasures by the poet's dutiful younger son. Pushkin the child had looked into this mirror; possibly played divination games with it, gadanie, as Tatiana and her girlfriends do in Evgenii Onegin. The young dandy Pushkin had been reflected in this mirror; perhaps he'd stopped in front of it to whisk his cravat impatiently into shape, many times during his two-year exile at his mother's estate, in between penning his first great prose works. I stared into the mirror intently, willing Pushkin to swim up out of the depths. Tears sprang involuntarily to my eyes. I was so close to Pushkin. I'd read this story. Hell, I'd translated this story...

Some dreadful force was pulling him closer and closer to the mirror's yellowed, lacklustre surface. Suddenly he shuddered... he saw too alien, utterly frenzied eyes fixed on him. At the same instant he felt a sharp jerk. His mirror double had seized his right hand and forcefully tugged it under the surface of the mirror, triggering circles of ripples as if across a pool of mercury... (Aleksandr Chaianov, The Venetian Mirror)

Well, maybe not like that, but there are alternatives...

I stepped forwards and stared greedily into the depths of the mirror. My heart skipped, as though a powerful hand had gripped it; I cried out. I ran from Signora Moricci’s house, like one trying to outrace mortal danger.  (Pavel Muratov, The Venetian Mirror)

I stretched out my hand and touched the wood... I touched the glass... Ellina had disappeared on an errand, and there was no-one around except me, the mirror, and possibly Pushkin. I gazed hard into the dimness beyond my reflection, but no mercurial fingers rose from the depths to meet mine. If Pushkin was in there, he wasn't coming out to play. 

As I mentioned above, Grigorii was not the first member of the Pushkin clan to be linked with Vilnius. The poet's great-grandfather, Abram Gannibal, a military engineer and translator celebrated as Peter the Great's African (as in the title of Robert Chandler's new edited collection of Pushkin's prose experiments for NYRB Classics), was baptized at an Orthodox Church in the Old Town. The stele commemorating this event can still be seen on the church exterior.

And as for me, like Pushkin's Tatiana, I'm still wishing for a magic reflection:

Татьяна на широкой двор

В открытом платьице выходит,

На месяц зеркало наводит;

Но в темном зеркале одна

Дрожит печальная луна...

**The citations above are from my short story anthologies Red Spectres and White Magic respectively. You can buy them on Amazon or from the publisher websites via the hyperlinks. As for the final citation, this is from Book Five of Eugene Onegin, translated thus by Charles Johnston (not the best translation but the only one to hand): 'Tatyana in low-cut attire / goes out into the courtyard spaces / and trains a mirror till it faces / the moon; but in the darkened glass / the only face to shake and pass / is sad old moon'. **

Monday, 14 March 2022

A brave statement from author Anna Starobinets

 As a translator of Russian literature, I'm used to silence. My work is rarely published, my few readers rarely cite my words, and if they do, they might not credit me: if I've done my job right, they forget I exist.  But now, for the first time, I have reason to be silent; to be ashamed, even afraid of admitting what I do. Because of the tragically misguided decision of the current Russian government to invade Ukraine, and the war crimes committed by Vladimir Putin's orders even as I write this, 'Russian' is becoming a pariah word. Now is not the time to talk about Russian literature, some say; and certainly not to publish it, or to support its translation.

Thankfully, some people cannot be silent. Tolstoy couldn't. Not when he saw injustice in his own country, committed by an unelected government and without a free media to report it. Sound familiar? Anna Starobinets cannot be silent either. If you haven't heard of Anna before, or read any of her excellent work in the English of Jane Bugaeva, translator of Anna's engaging children's novels; or her fiction for adults translated by Jamie Rann and Hugh Aplin; or her heartbreaking memoir of loss translated by Katharine E. Young, read her statement below and see why you've been missing out. 


Statement by Anna Starobinets about the war in Ukraine

[This statement was posted in Russian on Facebook on March 11, 2022, and later translated into English by Muireann Maguire]

“But who needs you, anyway!” say my elderly relatives. “Live quietly in Russia. Just keep your mouth shut.” Of course, they mean something else – that as long as I gag myself with a metaphorical handkerchief, no-one will threaten me – but there’s still truth in their words. I’m not needed any more. Not needed anywhere. Neither “here”, nor “there”. I’m not needed “here”, because I call the war what it is: war. Because I insist that the people of Ukraine are peaceful, not fascists. People who are being bombed by my own homeland, controlled now by a crazy psychopath. I’m not needed “there”, because now I carry the mark of Cain. Of someone who kills his own brother every day. Because I am from Russia.

What can I do? Stay in Russia, take to the streets every day with those who are brave enough? Get beaten in the face and kidney-punched? Get sent to prison for three years, or twenty years? Probably not twenty, of course. Three is more likely. And for the first offence, just two weeks or so. But I can’t do it. I cannot bear to leave my children. They have no-one in the world but me.

What can I do? Stay in Russia, and remain silent? Become part of it? No, I can’t do that either.

What can I do? Go elsewhere, lose everything? Everything except the shreds of my self-respect, and my children. That’s my choice. I’ve made it – and left.

I’ve come, first, to Sri Lanka. I booked and paid for this trip in the happy days before the war: I wanted to see the jungle animals, because my next Beastly Crimes children’s book is meant to be set in a jungle. Coconuts, apes, elephants, heat – I feel feverish; delirious. The jungles of Sri Lanka symbolize my homelessness. I see an elephant – and I remember I no longer have a home. I see a palm tree – and I remember I’ve given up my beloved apartment in Khamovniki, Moscow. Here I see apes – and there, my friends are packing up my life into cardboard boxes. I see snakes – and I have enough money for three months, at most. Coconuts, ripe to pluck – and I’ve left my parents and my friends. Here’s the new moon, lying on its back; and I have no idea what to do for the rest of my life.

From here we’ll move on to Georgia. Then, maybe, to Montenegro. Farther on, I see only fog: thick, like the mist above jungle pools at six in the morning.

This is the choice I have made. Silence, for me, is the very worst. The only thing I can do well is string words together in Russian. That’s all I have. I’ll comfort myself that I can still do this when far away. Perhaps I’ll be more useful like this for toppling the regime, than if I shut my mouth or went to prison. Maybe the same children who read my Beastly Crimes will do something when they grow up. Since I couldn’t do it. Since we couldn’t.

With these words, I burn my bridges. My sympathy: for Ukraine. My respect: for those who remain, to fight on.

Ich hatte einst ein schönes Vaterland.
Der Eichenbaum
wuchs dort so hoch, die Veilchen nickten sanft –
es war ein Traum.
Das küßte mich auf deutsch und sprach auf deutsch
(man glaubt es kaum,
wie gut es klang) das Wort: “Ich liebe dich” –
es war ein Traum.

(Heine, 1832)

Anna, as she tell us, cannot be silent. By speaking out on social media, and by asking me to translate her words into English so that they would reach a wider audience, she has cut off her entire life, her  income, her main readership (think how much that hurts a writer), her support networks. Frankly, under the same circumstances, I think I'd shut up. I know other Russian writers who have chosen silence; we cannot judge them. But we can judge our own choices. For too long, Western society has been silent about writing from Russia, Ukraine, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, by failing to read it; by failing to understand it; by over-politicizing it; by under-politicizing it. Readers don't choose Eastern European literature, so commercial publishers in the West rarely fund translation from these languages independently. The end result has been to throw an entire industry sector on the mercy of the Russian government's opaquely filtered funds; funds which are now likely to prove both unavailable and untouchable. Not every political statement can be translated pro bono in a few hours; and the first English translation of Zamyatin's great dystopian novel We didn't sell enough copies even to earn back its production costs). If no replacement grants for Russian literary translation is found, and if readers are not found to fill the gap commercially, then translation will cease to be funded.  Yet if translators fall silent in the English-speaking West, so will Russophone writers like Anna, like Alisa Ganieva (whose husband has been arrested for protesting in Moscow), like Mikhail Shishkin (who distanced himself from the Russian government in 2013, a year before the invasion of Crimea), like Andrei Kurkov, a proud Ukrainian who writes in Russian.

 Don't let that happen. If you have a choice, don't choose silence.  

Disclaimer:  I have reviewed Anna's memoir Look At Him, and chaired an online talk about it where Anna spoke vividly despite having Covid at the time; and finally, I wrote an essay about Anna's science fiction for the LA Review of Books. This year, I was hoping - I am still hoping - to invite Anna to my University to participate in a seminar about coping with child loss. 


Saturday, 19 February 2022

Punishing the Hunter - Not the Reader




Yulia Yakovleva is one of the most entertaining and deft contemporary writers working in Russian today: she hops with agility between YA literature (we loved her The Raven's Children, which was longlisted for the 2020 Read Russia Prize) and adult detective thrillers like Punishment of a Hunter (Pushkin Vertigo, 2021) - although both titles we've so far have been set in the early Soviet period. There's plenty of political idealism, casual animosity, frustration, and filth to enjoy - I particularly appreciated the details in Punishment of a Hunter about the sheer difficulty of getting laundry done in a communal apartment. But while there's a wealth of Communist social context to enjoy, you may well find the plot too engrossing to notice - as Yakovleva's hero, Leningrad police detective Vasily Zaitsev, tries to solve a series of grisly crimes committed in his city. 

Meanwhile, I was trying to solve the mystery of why this excellent crime novel is called Punishment of a Hunter instead of The Leningrad Murders or Comrade Death or some such similarly suggestive, run-of-the-crime-mill name. The Russian title - literally, Suddenly Out the Hunter Runs - didn't help me either. Only as I approached the end did everything make sense - odd title, cute illustrations adorning every new chapter, and the oddly recurring theme of Dutch Masters in the Hermitage Museum. I can't explain without spoilers, so I'll summarize by calling Yakovleva's novel an ek-phras-tastic thriller: an honest, much-wronged detective lead recalling the excellent Arkady Renko of Martin Cruz Smith's late-Soviet crime series, a macabre serial killer who could have dropped out of a Chris Carter novel, and a setting straight out of one of Bulgakov's communal-apartment comedies. There's even a basis in historical fact for the big reveal (if not for the serial killings).

This is a novel where names, especially traditional 'speaking names' that reveal information about their bearer's character - are important, and Yakovleva's translator Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp has done a splendid job with this. She kept the hero's name, Zaitsev (a relatively common Russian surname) although English readers lose the subtle association with the hare (zaets), a game animal which features in the titular Dutch canvas by Paulus Potter (and hence the theme of the hunter becoming the hunted, important for Yakovleva's plot, is harder to discern). Another, less savoury detective is called Kishkin in the original (which evokes Tripes or Offal for the Russian reader); Ahmedzai Kemp smoothly changed this to the similarly evocative 'Uglov'. It's a 'speaking name' that works well in English, and one could certainly argue that this novel has quite enough evisceration going on already. I particularly enjoyed Ahmedzai Kemp's lively touch with dialogue, which always sounded vivid and real. There's a wonderful exchange between Zaitsev and a 'cabbie' (izvozchik), who, like all taxi drivers since the dawn of time, draws him into a political discussion. Zaitsev tries to close this down by trotting out some formulaic Sovietese: 'I'm just setting out the political situation in the country'. In Ahmedzai Kemp's translation, the cabbie responds, 'Ooh, check you out. Where you from then?' The original has 'Ty otkuda gramotnyi-to takoi' (Or, 'Where was it you learned to speak like that'?). I normally like my translations literal, but I admired the chutzpah of that 'Check you out'. It brought the cabbie to life in my head - just as any well-written text should achieve for its characters.

Pushkin Press are doing a laudable job of commissioning translations of crime fiction (including vintage detectives) from several languages through their Vertigo series: if you like historical crime, intelligent Russian fiction and a Soviet setting, check it out. It's worth hunting down.