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Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov

BlogAdmin28 February 2013

Picture by Ivan Bilibin. Via Wikimedia Commons

Picture by Ivan Bilibin. Via Wikimedia Commons

Traditional tales open a window onto the riches of Russian culture, finds guest poster Robert Chandler

A good anthology has a shape of its own; it is a work of art in its own right. Usually, though, it seems best to allow this shape to emerge gradually, not to impose a shape on the material too quickly.

My first idea for this anthology goes back seven or eight years. My previous anthology, Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida, had received good reviews and was selling well. My editors at Penguin Classics asked if there was any other project I would like to embark on. I at once thought of a collection of magic tales. My very first publication, in 1978, was a translation of Andrey Platonov’s retellings of traditional Russian tales and my second publication was of tales from Afanasyev (the Russian equivalent of the Brothers Grimm); both books had been long out of print, so here was a chance to bring these skazki back into circulation. And Platonov is, to my mind, the greatest of all twentieth-century Russian writers, so I usually make the most of any chance to draw attention to him.

At first I meant the anthology to begin with Afanasyev and end with Platonov. Then, however, I started playing around with some passages from Pushkin’s verse folk tales. Somewhat to my surprise – I never take anyone’s ability to translate Pushkin for granted! – these passages turned out well. First I translated some lines from the tale about the Golden Fish; since the original is unrhymed, this was not too difficult. Then I attempted the last stanza of ‘Balda’. If I could get that to be clear, sharp and memorable, I thought I would probably be able to manage the rest of the poem. The last two lines were the most difficult. Once they came right, the rest followed more easily:

The poor priest
presented his forehead
for three quick flicks of a finger.
The first
flung him up to the ceiling.
The second
cost him his tongue.
The third
plastered the wall with his brain.
And Balda said,
with disdain,
‘A cheapskate, Father, often gets more
than he bargained for.’

‘Balda’ is written in rhyming couplets, but in lines of greatly varying length. There is an improvised quality to the tale; what is striking about it is its energy, not its polish. To reproduce this jazzy energy, it seemed best to use a somewhat freer form than that of the original; my rhyme pattern, unlike Pushkin’s, is entirely irregular – and some lines do not rhyme at all.

Pushkin was one of the very first Russian writers to take a serious interest in Russian folklore. Once I was confident of my ability to translate these skazki, I knew that the book should begin with Pushkin, that it should include a large selection of oral tales collected by Afanasyev and other folklorists, and that it should end with my translations of Platonov. There has always been interplay in Russia between high culture and folk culture, so it seemed right to include both genuine oral folktales and literary retellings. (more…)

1989 in fiction: a story that is not a story

Sean LHanley17 November 2012

Tim Beasley-Murray on a story that slips under the radar of history

Pictures of 1989 - Exterior

Photo: Gribsche (Rob Sinclair). Creative Commons license via Flickr

Peter Pišťanek’s Rivers of Babylon is the best-selling Slovak novel of all time.  It tells the story of Rácz, a peasant from the Hungarian- speaking countryside, who arrives in Bratislava in Autumn 1989 and finds a job stoking up the boilers of the city’s top hotel.  With a combination of priapic brutality, Nietzschean will-to-power, and control of the heating in a freezing winter, he rises with meteoric speed to become, by the summer 1990, the head of a criminal empire, with the Hotel Ambassador, the city and its politicians in his pocket.

 This riotous and irrepressible novel is a combination of things: a video-nasty subversion of the Bildungsroman; a vicious satire of (Slovak) notions of the ethnic and moral purity of the countryside and the corruption and vice of the city (after all, it is Rácz who corrupts the city and not the other way round); and, with its cast of ballet-dancers-turned-prostitutes, intellectuals-turned-pornographers, secret policemen-turned-mafiosi and so forth, a Rabelaisian carnival of the birth of wild-East capitalism.

One of the most remarkable things about this remarkable book, however, is what it does not portray:  Rácz meteoric rise coincides exactly with the period that sees the fall of the Berlin Wall, mass demonstrations in November against the Communist regime in Prague and Bratislava, the resignation of the Presidium of the Czechoslovak Communist Party and the election of Václav Havel to the presidency at the end of December, and finally, in June, the first free elections in Czechoslovakia since 1946.  None of this appears in the novel.

(more…)

What Bulgakov can tell us about reforming nursing in the former USSR

Sean LHanley13 November 2012

Re-reading Bulgakov leads health researcher and guest contributor Erica Richardson to some sharp realisations about primary healthcare in the former Soviet Union

VelikiVrag-Medpunkt-1435

Photo: Vladmir Menkov via Wikicommons

I have now reached an age when I can go back to novels I read twenty years ago, reread them with fresh eyes and experience the joy of new discoveries.  Most recently, this has involved revisiting A Country Doctor’s Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov, a collection of short stories based on his experience as a newly qualified doctor sent to a remote region for his first job practicing medicine.  I sincerely believe it is essential reading for all new doctors and cannot recommend it highly enough.  In the 1990s, I was struck by how little had changed in the rural Russian landscape despite the electrification and mechanisation drives under Stalin.  In 2012, I was struck by the way in which different members of the clinical team were presented.

Maybe this is because I’ve recently returned from Minsk, Belarus where I was representing the European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies at a sub-regional policy dialogue on human resources in countries of the former Soviet Union.  As an aside to discussions about skill-mix and task shifting, a fascinating discussion developed around the concept of a ‘nurse’ and in the post-Soviet context, and where ‘feldshers’ fit into the picture. Nurses have their distinct heritage and philosophy which is focused on ‘care’, while the doctors are more focused on providing ‘treatment’.  So what’s a feldsher? (more…)

Letters in Russian literature: A top ten

Sean LHanley26 October 2012

1875 wmkhoriz t4k 2x2k

Image via Wikicommons. Public domain


Letters, ranging from the absurd to the tragic play an important role in Russian literature, notes Sarah Young

Letters play a significant role in some of my favourite works of Russian literature, and a couple in particular have been very much on my mind lately.  Here is my top ten, which manages to encompass everything from the absurd to the tragic. Apologies for the plot spoilers (especially in entries 10, 7 and 4), which were unavoidable. I adhere to my usual rule that no writer may appear more than once.

10. Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time. The letter Vera writes to Pechorin in ‘Princess Mary’, in which she informs him she is leaving and will never see him again, is remarkable not so much in itself as for the reaction it causes. Pechorin, so cool and calculated in his actions elsewhere, rides after her in such a frenzy that he kills his horse. The image of his anguish outlasts his own acid comment, ‘anyone who saw me at that moment would have turned away in contempt’. Russian text | English text

9. Olesha, Envy. Two letters feature prominently in part one the novel as important expressions of their authors’ personalities. Kavalerov’s outburst of hatred for the man who saved him, in chapter 11, fixes the dominant characteristics we have already defined, but Volodya’s letter, in chapter 13, is downright sinister, admitting his jealousy of Kavalerov, and hinting at a viciousness we might otherwise not suspect in his character. Meanwhile his paean to the machine has become a key passage in the formation of the New Soviet Man. Russian text

(more…)