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Posts Tagged ‘Russian Literature’

My journey into contemporary Russian literature continues. This time I decided to read Elena Chizhova’sThe Time of Women‘.

The story told in ‘The Time of Women‘ is set during the late 1950s / early 1960s. A young woman gets pregnant and has a baby daughter. Her boyfriend is not in the picture, and she comes to live in a communal apartment with three older women, who are old enough to be her mother. The young woman worries about who will take care of her baby when she goes to work. The three older women tell her to not worry and they volunteer to take care of her baby. So while her mother is away at work, Baby Sofia grows up under the care of three grandmothers. The three grandmothers are different in their own ways and they teach her different things and different ways of looking at life and appreciating its beauty. There is one problem though. Sofia doesn’t speak. Whether she’ll start speaking soon or whether she will end up mute, no one knows. But her grandmothers and her mother are worried. Because in the Russia of that time, if a baby is mute, it will be taken away by the state and will be put in a special school or in an orphanage, the kind of thing that Sofia’s mother and grandmothers don’t want. What happens after this forms the rest of the story.

I loved the portrayal of the Russia of that time in the book. It was very nuanced and realistic. The way one has to depend on the government for everything, small or big – whether one wants a job, or wants to buy groceries or wants to buy a TV, or wants to get an apartment, how there is a queue for everything, how things like a TV or an apartment take a long time – it is all very beautifully portrayed. Also how money was scarce and how one always has to keep an eye on the price while buying simple things like groceries, a fabric for sewing clothes, a pastry at a bakery – it is all very realistically portrayed. Also how one’s boss or senior employees in influential positions in one’s workplace have an inordinate amount of influence on one’s personal life, asking inappropriate questions and influencing / bullying a single person or a single mom – all this is realistically portrayed. It takes us back in time and makes the Russia of that era come alive. How the people of that time, especially women, inspite of these constraints and restraints, tried to be kind, found friendship and happiness and love, is also beautifully portrayed in the book. To me, that was the central core of the book.

There are some scenes in the story which are filled with sharp humour, which is very Russian. For example, this one, which was my favourite 😊

      “How are things?” – he asks.
      “The things,” I said, “all depend on me. They won’t take care of themselves.”

And this one, which also I liked very much.

      “If people listened to you they’d still live in the Stone Age. They’d still be lighting sticks.”
      “Well, what’s wrong with that?” – Yevdokia shrugged her shoulders. – “Were the sticks bothering anyone?”

I loved ‘The Time of Women‘. It is a beautiful story of five women from three different generations, who love each other. I am hoping to explore more of Elena Chizhova’s work.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

“I tried studying ancient traditions, but they seemed dead to me, until I saw one Egyptian picture. A woman on the bank of a brook. This picture amazed me, as usually Egyptian artists painted battle scenes and almighty pharaohs. They intentionally painted them as enormous figures, and kept everyone else small, so that the viewer would get the impression that they ruled over their subjects: over their life and death. But this picture simply showed a woman on her knees, crawling along the bank of a brook. At first I thought she was a pharaoh’s wife too: there was an inscription in hieroglyphics at the top, which I couldn’t read. But then I found a translation. It was the soul of a deceased woman drinking water in the other world. I thought of her all the time when I was preparing my first work for an exhibition. I intentionally made it in black and white. Grisha liked my work, he even gave me a nickname: Brook. And I decided it was because of my surname, but he said the surname wasn’t the main thing. He simply liked the woman painted in the Egyptian tradition: according to their canon, the body and the face were painted in profile, while the eyes looked ahead… As if they were living a life separate from the body. Grisha said that I had found a precise image.”

Have you read ‘The Time of Women‘? What do you think about it?

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I wanted to read some contemporary Russian literature and so picked up Dmitry Novikov’sA Flame Out at Sea‘.

The story told in the book navigates multiple time periods, the early 1910s, the 1930s, the 1970s, the early 2000s. There is also a plot arc which spans the 16th century. The main story is about Grisha who makes trips to the Russian North to connect with his roots, and his grandfather, who inspired him deeply, and their beautiful relationship. Through their stories, the story also describes how the Russian North has transformed across the years, especially through the 20th century, from the pre-Revolution days to the communist era to the contemporary time. The part of the story which happens in the 1930s is heartbreaking. The story is sometimes told through the first person and sometimes through the third person.

The book is a beautiful love letter to the Russian North, to the White Sea, to the salmon, to the Pomor way of life. Dmitry Novikov’s prose is gentle and soft and contemplative and his descriptions are beautiful and haunting and are such a pleasure to read. I couldn’t stop highlighting my favourite passages from the book – there were so many of them.

I loved ‘A Flame Out at Sea‘. It is worth reading just for the beautiful, haunting descriptions of the Russian North.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“Ask anyone whether he knows what happiness is. It’s not a quiet pier, when there’s no wind and that is already bliss. Rather, it’s a sharp instant that comes like a bite, when your whole body is suddenly pierced by what feels like pain, but it’s not pain, its joy. And your soul feels a bit lighter, as if the Mother of God up above was smiling, and you caught a glimpse of this smile and realized that it was meant for you and no one else. That tearful moment might be a kiss from your child. Or the sudden vastness of the sea, when you come from behind a rocky cape into the open sea. Or a young, inexperienced, wise night. But for me, happiness will forever be the first salmon that I ever saw, when it leaped out into the sunlight from the dark water, and froze for an instant in the rainbow of spray that flew up into the sky with it. It was nearly the first time that my mother had ever let me walk down to the river alone. I was crawling among the bushes and looking for different bugs and spiders to study them. Then I suddenly heard a splash so loud that it scared me. I looked out from the little promontory and there it was flying up. The day was dim, overcast, but there a heavenly light which shone right down on the fish from the clouds. Ever since then, whenever someone says that God does not exist, for me there is no question : I saw it, I know.”

“For me, there is nothing better in life than to go along the White Sea coast in a canoe when the weather is fine. The beauty of this border region is capable of driving you mad if you are weak in spirit. That is why the road leading here is so difficult; so that a person can grow stronger before they reach here. But once you are on the water, you move along without fearing anything. Just look carefully at the sky, the wind, the clouds, it makes your soul open wide. You admire, drink in and absorb the grace of this place – it will later serve you as a reserve to draw on after countless years of a gray existence. The coasts here are rocky, red granite – that is if you are going towards the North, towards Chupa and Keret. But if you are going south, there are fewer bare stones, the coast is even lower, and only rarely, among the swamps, will a smooth opening or a steep promontory stick out. In both places two colors dominate the coasts: red and green. They are not bright colors but saturated, thick, somewhat muted yet strong, speaking directly to one’s soul and lending a sense of calm to the eyes. The sea, if it is blocked by islands, is like a wide, slow-moving and static river that flows off towards an endless distance from which nothing returns. If the islands are far away, they seem to hang in the air, merging with the clouds and confirming their beauty with their lightness. It seems like it would be enough to blow and they would be swept away like a merry procession. But if it is open sea, then this is a feast for the soul. I do not know, I cannot understand why that open, blue, flat expanse awakens all the best emotions in a person. You feel the joy of freedom and pity for those who cannot share that joy with you, as well as a primitive sense of bravery, when you can trust only in God and your own courage.”

“When the juice was ready to drink, Grisha’s father would take from a paper bag a sweet roll that he had bought beforehand. The roll had powdered sugar sprinkled on it and was already wonderful in itself. But if Grisha washed it down with the salty tomato juice, it was delectable. At various times in his life, Grisha often looked back on these trips to the shop with his father, on the juice and the roll, and could never understand why he remembered this, what was so special about those things. Suddenly and quite unexpectedly it came to him: perhaps this was the main Russian sentiment: when things turn sweet, but they are followed immediately afterwards by salt. To ensure that you don’t enjoy things much, you don’t grow weak by allowing yourself too much, so that you keep sober. This sentiment, this constant readiness for the salt that follows on sweetness, is instilled in a person starting from childhood. Yet, at the same time, it is so much sharper, more delicious than the two tastes alone, for then they would lose much more than simply being divided in half. Salt and sweetness together, at the same time, one right after the other, inseparable. Plus, the knowledge that it would always be that way – salt following on sweetness – makes you not just stronger and faster, not just twice as much, but far more. It enables you to stand ready, to survive. Salt in turn after sweetness. Salt for sweetness.”

Have you read ‘A Flame Out at Sea’? What do you think about it?

P.S. : I read the introduction to the book just now and the introduction had a revelation which was surprising! It was like watching ‘The Sixth Sense’ but not getting the ending! But when I sit back and think about it now, I don’t agree with that revelation, though if that interpretation is true, it makes the story more surprising and shocking. My interpretation of that is different, is more nicer, is more filled with light. I can’t tell you more. If you read the book, I’d love to discuss this with you.

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One of my favourite ways of discovering a new book is through a footnote in another book. I discovered Ales Adamovich’sKhatyn‘ that way – through a footnote in Svetlana Alexievich’sThe Unwomanly Face of War‘.

During the Second World War, around 600 villages in Belarus were burnt down by the German army, alongwith their inhabitants. Only a few people survived. This book takes this fact and makes a story out of it.

Many years after the Second World War, a group of former partisans are meeting for a reunion. They are travelling through some of the old places where they lived and fought and had fun and lost some of their mates. One of them, our narrator, is a blind man, and has come on this trip with his wife and son. The narrator describes the present time, when his former partisan friends relive the past and talk about the fun they had, and he goes back in time and narrates the events of the past, when he joined the partisans as a young man and subsequently describes the terrible events that happened.

The book marries the historical events that happened alongwith the author’s own experience as a partisan during the war which results in this moving, haunting story. There are some charming scenes at the beginning, some friendship, some camaraderie, some romance, some humour. But most of the rest of the book is stark, grim, haunting and heartbreaking. I cried through most of it. It is hard to believe that all these events happened. The burning image on the cover is a heartbreaking representation of the tragic events described in the book.

I’m sharing some of my favourite passages from the book below.

“It was considered obligatory to fight in a cheerful manner. It was only the beginners who described the fighting seriously and in detail; Kasach’s experienced men talked of it as amusing, almost ridiculous adventures. Someone would come tearing along, having barely hooked it from the Germans, his eyes each as big as an apple, but he was already thinking up a story, trying to find something funny in what had happened just as if he had been playing some kind of cruel, but cheerful game with the Germans. If it had not turned out all right and the Germans had made our tails hot, that was made out to be funny too. And only when the dead were brought back, it was best not to go near if for some reason you had not been involved in the fight, for they would bite your head off as if you had been a stranger. In the evening they would sing songs softly and listen pensively as a prewar baritone assured Masha that “our life is splendid on sunny days”.

“If a person has found a place, a spot in your heart for ever, it is not that he just has filled a kind of vacancy that anyone might have occupied instead. He does not take up that gleaming spot of light, but he creates it, and without him it would not exist within you.”

“When you look back on what you have lived through, you only see a single line of events, but when you look ahead into the future there is a cluster of paths splaying out, and you still do not know yet which is the only one of them for you. You live through a month, a day, a minute, and what was a cluster is squeezed up together again, becomes bare like a little branch that has been pulled through a lightly clenched fist. But even after you are left with a single twig stripped of leaves, you will look back again and again, senselessly hoping to return to the moment when everything could still have turned out differently, the moment when that one bare, merciless truth had not yet emerged….”

Have you read ‘Khatyn‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Svetlana Alexievich’sThe Unwomanly Face of War‘ sometime back. I knew Svetlana Alexievich mostly as the writer of ‘Secondhand Time‘, which seems to be her most popular book. So, I was surprised when I discovered this book, which is on an unconventional topic, atleast unconventional for its time (this book was originally published in Russian in 1985, so it was far ahead of its time).

Normally, when historians and commentators and biographers write about the role of women in a major war, it is typically about how women worked as nurses and tended to wounded soldiers, like Florence Nightingale during the Crimean war, or like Vera Brittain in the First World War, an experience about which she wrote movingly in her memoir ‘Testament of Youth‘. The second type of book or story is about how women handled the challenges in the homefront when their male family members were away at the warfront. In this book, Svetlana Alexievich asks the question, what about the women who were actually at the warfront? The women who were soldiers, snipers, sappers, doctors, nurses, truck drivers, tank drivers, engineers, technicians, pilots, mechanics, cooks, laundresses, sailors, partisans? After asking this question, Alexievich goes on a quest into the past, finds out more about these women who were in the Russian / Eastern front during the Second World War, meets with many of them, interviews them and discovers their stories and compiles them into this book.

The book starts with how a young woman decided to go to the warfront, what her family’s reaction was to it, her initial experience of being one of the few women out there, how men reacted to a woman soldier or sniper working with them, how the commander treated the new women recruits. The book continues with the initial war experiences, first brush with violence and death, how these women soldiers felt about killing enemy soldiers and how this impacted them emotionally, whether they found love in the trenches in the midst of war and whether that love survived the war, whether their feelings towards the enemy soldiers changed after the enemy was defeated, how the reunion with their family went after the war, how their country treated them after they came back from the war, whether the war left a lasting impact on their lives. These and more are described in the book through the personal voices of these women. Many of these women were in their teens when they enlisted, and they joined the war effort (though no one asked them to, and sometimes inspite of family opposition) because they loved their country. They learnt complex skills on the job and did some amazing things, and when they came out on the other side (if they did), the war had changed them and they came out as different people. One woman talks about how her hair started turning grey overnight, when she stood guard for the first time for the whole night in a cemetery. Another talks about how her son couldn’t recognize her when she got back home, because he was expecting his mother to arrive, but what he saw was a soldier stepping off a horse.

After the war got over, most of these women went back home to everyday civilian life and became teachers and nurses and farmers and accountants and factory workers, many of them married and became mothers, and they quietly faded away from the limelight and were forgotten. Till a journalist called Vera Tkachenko wrote an article about them in ‘Pravda’ and brought them back to the limelight.

I want to write about the individual stories narrated in the book, but there are so many of them, that it is next to impossible to talk about them in detail. So I’ll just say this. The book was moving, heartbreaking and haunting. I cried through most of it. There were some beautiful moments, some rays of hope, and the occasional dash of humour which made us smile, but it was mostly heartbreaking. I’ve never read a book like this before, and it is hard to believe that all these terrible things happened. I’ll share some of my favourite stories below so that you can get a feel for the book.

Maria Ivanovna Morozova (Ivanushkina) Corporal, Sniper

“Well, so we got to the front. Near Orsha … The 62nd Infantry Division … I remember like today, the commander, Colonel Borodkin, saw us and got angry: “They’ve foisted girls on me. What is this, some sort of women’s round dance?” he said. “Corps de ballet! It’s war, not a dance. A terrible war …” But then he invited us, treated us to a dinner. And we heard him ask his adjutant: “Don’t we have something sweet for tea?” Well, of course, we were offended: What does he take us for? We came to make war …And he received us not as soldiers, but as young girls. At our age we could have been his daughters. “What am I going to do with you, my dears? Where did they find you?” That’s how he treated us, that’s how he met us. And we thought we were already seasoned warriors … Yes, yes … At war!”

Lola Akhmetova Foot Soldier, Rifleman

“You ask what’s the most frightening thing in war? You expect me … I know what you expect … You think I’ll say the most frightening thing in war is death. To die. Am I right? I know your kind … Your journalist’s tricks … Ha-ha-ha … Why aren’t you laughing? Eh? But I’ll say something else … For me the most terrible thing in war was—wearing men’s underpants. That was frightening. And for me it was somehow … I can’t find the … Well, first of all, it’s very ugly … You’re at war, you’re preparing to die for the Motherland, and you’re wearing men’s underpants. Generally, you look ridiculous. Absurd. Men’s underpants were long then. Wide. Made of sateen. There were ten girls in our dugout, all wearing men’s underpants. Oh, my God! Winter and summer. For four years. We crossed the Soviet border … As our commissar used to say at political sessions, we were finishing the beast off in his own den. Near the first Polish village we got a change of clothes: new uniforms and … And! And! And! For the first time they issued us women’s underpants and brassieres. For the first time in the whole war. Ha-ha-ha … Well, of course … We saw normal women’s underwear … Why aren’t you laughing? You’re crying … Why?”

Tamara Lukyanovna Torop Private, Construction Engineer

“I wrote a letter home from the army telling him that I had built and defended bridges. What joy that was for our family. Papa made us all fall in love with bridges; we loved them from childhood. When I saw a destroyed bridge—bombed or exploded—I felt about it as about a living being, not a strategic object. I wept … On my way I encountered hundreds of destroyed bridges, big and small; during the war they were the first thing to be destroyed. Target number one. Whenever we went past the ruins, I always thought: how many years will it take to rebuild it all? War kills time, precious human time. I remembered well that papa spent several years building each bridge. He sat up nights over the drafts, even on weekends. The thing I was most sorry for during the war was the time. Papa’s time …”

Maria Afanasyevna Garachuk Paramedic

“I finished medical school … I came back home, my father was ill. And then—the war. I remember, it was morning … I learned this terrible news in the morning … The dew hadn’t dried on the leaves of the trees yet, and they were already saying—war! And this dew that I suddenly saw on the grass and the trees, saw so clearly—I remembered at the front. Nature was in contrast with what was happening with people. The sun shone brightly … Daisies bloomed, my favorites, there were masses of them in the fields … I remember us lying somewhere in a wheat field; it was a sunny day. The German submachine guns go rat-a-tat-tat—then silence. All you hear is the wheat rustling. Then again the German submachine guns go rat-a-tat-tat … And you think: will you ever hear again how the wheat rustles? This sound …”

Sofya Mironovna Vereshchak Underground Fighter

“…he put me on the list to be shot … On the night before the execution, I looked back over my life, my short life … The happiest day of my life was when my father and mother, after driving away from home under bombardment for several dozen miles, decided to come back. Not to leave. To stay home. I knew then that we would fight. It seemed to us that the victory would come so soon. Absolutely! The first thing we did was find and rescue the wounded. They were in the fields, in the grass, in the ditches, or had crept into someone’s barn. I stepped out one morning to dig some potatoes and found one in our kitchen garden. He was dying … A young officer, he didn’t even have enough strength to tell me his name. He whispered some words … I couldn’t make them out … I remember my despair. But I think I’ve never been so happy as during those days. I acquired my parents for a second time. I used to think my father was not concerned with politics. He turned out to be a non-Party Bolshevik. My mother—an uneducated peasant, she believed in God. She prayed all through the war. But how? She fell on her knees before an icon: “Save the people! Save Stalin! Save the Communist Party from that monster Hitler.””

Lyudmila Mikhailovna Kashechkina Underground Fighter

“They sentenced me to death by hanging. They put me in the cell for the condemned. There were two other women. You know, we didn’t cry, we didn’t panic: we knew what awaited us when we joined the underground fighters, and so we remained calm. We talked about poetry, remembered our favorite operas … We talked a lot about Anna Karenina … about love … We didn’t even mention our children, we were afraid to mention them. We even smiled, cheered each other up. So we spent two and a half days … In the morning of the third day they called me. We said goodbye, kissed without tears. There was no fear. Apparently I was so used to the thought of death that the fear was already gone. And so were the tears. There was some sort of emptiness. I no longer thought of anyone …”

Aglaia Borisovna Nesteruk Sergeant, Liaison

“Finally, we were on their land … The first thing that struck us was the good roads. The big farmhouses … Flowerpots, pretty curtains in the windows, even in the barns. White tablecloths in the houses. Expensive tableware. Porcelain. There I saw a washing machine for the first time … We couldn’t understand why they had to fight if they lived so well. Our people huddled in dugouts, while they had white tablecloths. Coffee in small cups … I had only seen them in the museum. Those small cups … I forgot to tell you about one shocking thing, we were all shocked … We were attacking, and took the first German trenches … We jumped in, and there was still warm coffee in thermos bottles. The smell of coffee … Biscuits. White sheets. Clean towels. Toilet paper … We didn’t have any of that. What sheets? We slept on straw, on sticks. Other times we went for two or three days without warm food. And our soldiers shot at those thermos bottles … At that coffee …In German houses I saw coffee sets shattered by bullets. Flowerpots. Pillows … Baby carriages … But still we couldn’t do to them what they had done to us. Force them to suffer the way we suffered. It was hard for us to understand where their hatred came from. Ours was understandable. But theirs?”

Nina Vasilyevna Ilinskaya Nurse

“I remember a battle … In that battle we captured many Germans. Some of them were wounded. We bandaged their wounds; they moaned like our lads did. And it was hot … Scorching hot! We found a teapot and gave them water. In the open. We were under fire. An order: quickly entrench and camouflage yourselves. We started digging trenches. The Germans stared. We explained to them: so, help us dig, get to work. When they understood what we wanted from them, they looked at us with horror; they took it that once they dug those pits, we would stand them by those pits and shoot them. They expected … You should have seen their horrified looks as they dug … Their faces …And when they saw that we bandaged them, gave them water, and told them to hide in the trenches they had dug, they couldn’t come to their senses, they were at a loss … One German started crying … He was an older man. He cried and didn’t hide his tears from anyone …”

I loved ‘The Unwomanly Face of War‘. I am glad I read it, eventhough it was mostly heartbreaking. I hope to explore more of Svetlana Alexievich’s work.

Have you read ‘The Unwomanly Face of War‘? What do you think about it?

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I decided to start October with ‘Uncle Vanya‘ by Anton Chekhov. This is my third Chekhov play after ‘Three Sisters‘ and ‘The Seagull‘.

Uncle Vanya‘ starts in typical Chekovian fashion. There is a country estate, there are family, friends and relatives there, they talk for most of the time and there is not much of a plot, there is inappropriate kind of love with one character being in love with another character’s wife or husband, some of the characters contrast the beauty of thought and ideas and aesthetic sensibilities with the humdrum and boredom and challenges of everyday life (I noticed this last thing for the first time when I watched the Russian film adaptation of Chekhov’s play ‘Platonov‘). There is even a gun which goes off in the end. All typical, vintage Chekhov. There are beautiful lines spoken by different characters throughout the play. Many of my favourites were spoken by a doctor called Astrov. The story ends in typical Chekovian fashion. Was it happy or sad? I am not going to tell you that 😁

I loved ‘Uncle Vanya‘. I don’t know why the play is called ‘Uncle Vanya‘, because another character, the doctor Astrov, has a bigger part in the story and speaks many of the beautiful lines. The translation by Laurence Senelick reads very well and is filled with footnotes in which Senelick explains the finer points of translation or describes what Chekhov or someone else thought about a particular line or scene. The play has a beautiful introduction by the translator which describes how the play came into being, analyzes the characters and the story and sets the play in context in the Chekhov pantheon. It is best to read the introduction after you read the play.

If you have a Russian soul – you don’t need to be Russian to have a Russian soul, some of us have a Russian soul though we were not born Russian – or if you have literary, artistic, aesthetic and philosophical sensibilities which are embodied in a Russian soul, you will love this play.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite lines from the play, spoken by, who else, but Astrov.

“Russian forests are toppling beneath the axe, the habitats of birds and beasts are dwindling, tens of thousands of trees are perishing, rivers are running shallow and drying up, gorgeous natural scenery is disappearing irretrievably, and all because lazy human beings can’t be bothered to bend down and pick up fuel from the earth. Am I right, madam? A person has to be an unreasoning barbarian to destroy what cannot be re-created. Human beings are endowed with reason and creative faculties in order to enhance what is given to them, but so far they have not created but destroyed. Forests are ever fewer and fewer, rivers dry up, wildlife is wiped out, the climate is spoiled, and every day the earth grows more impoverished and ugly.”

Well, Chekhov wrote these lines in 1898, and it has been 122 years, and nothing has changed. Human beings continue to be stupid. Einstein once said, “Two things are infinite : the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.” Human beings continue to prove him right. It is sad and tragic.

Have you read ‘Uncle Vanya‘? What do you think about it?

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Anton Chekhov mostly wrote only short stories and plays. His longest story and probably his only novel was this one, ‘The Shooting Party‘. I have wanted to read this for a long time. I finally read it today.

The story told in ‘The Shooting Party‘ goes like this. A man walks into a magazine editor’s office. He looks handsome and distinguished. He tells the editor that he has written a novel based on a real event. And he hands over a manuscript to the editor. The editor says that he can’t promise anything but he will read the manuscript and see what he can do. The story told in the manuscript goes like this. The narrator is an investigating magistrate who lives and works in the countryside. He is friends with the count who owns the nearby estate. The count is travelling most of the time and occasionally drops by at his estate. Then he calls our magistrate and they party for days. The narrator describes their parties and adventures. At one point the narrator meets a beautiful young woman who lives nearby. There is mutual attraction. A lot of things happen after that – love, wedding, seduction, affairs, fights, heartbreaks, jealousy. At around three-fourths into the story, one of the main characters is dead. It looks like this character was murdered. The rest of the story is about finding out who the murderer is.

I think ‘The Shooting Party‘ is probably not Chekhov’s best work. For a significant part of the story, it is more and more parties and people getting drunk, and seductions and affairs and jealousy and fights. Chekhov tries to do a Turgenev here, but, in my opinion, it doesn’t work. Turgenev was a master at this kind of plot. Chekhov – maybe the play or the short story form was more his thing, or maybe he wrote this book when he was young, before his style matured. Wish he had tried his hand at a novel again, later in life.

There are some nice passages here and there in the book, which are a pleasure to read. One of my favourites was this one :

“Pine trees are boring in their silent monotony : they are all the same height, they all look exactly the same and they do not change with the seasons, knowing neither death nor vernal renewal. On the other hand they are attractive in their very gloominess – so still, so silent, as if they are thinking melancholy thoughts.”

There are beautiful, evocative character sketches in the story. One of my favourites is the narrator’s servant Polikarp, who is hardworking and loyal, loves reading Alexandre Dumas’ ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’, but who is also fearless and speaks his mind to his master and doesn’t think twice about screaming at his master, if his master has done some reprehensible thing. Polikarp is so cool! Another of my favourites is the doctor Pavel Ivanovich, who is wise and kind and loves knowledge and learning new things.

When one of the characters drops dead, the story undergoes a transformation and becomes a murder mystery. There are some dark, almost Dostoevsky-ian passages, in this part, and in the end when the identity of the murderer is revealed, we jump from our seats, because we don’t see that coming – the surprise is as good as the best Agatha Christies, it would have had even Hercule Poirot stumped. That revelation turns the book on its head, and we start seeing everything in new light.

It was fun reading Chekhov’s longest story. It is probably not his best work, but I am happy that I can cross it off my checklist now. I discovered that this book was adapted into a Russian movie. I want to watch that sometime. (In case you are interested, it is called ‘Мой ласковый и нежный зверь‘ (‘My Tender and Affectionate Beast‘) (A Hunting Accident). You can find it here. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have English subtitles.)

Have you read Chekhov’sThe Shooting Party‘? What do you think about it?

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I had got ‘We‘ by Yevgeny Zamyatin years back, because I heard that it inspired George Orwell’s1984‘. I finally read it for #RedOctoberRussianReads.

The story told in ‘We‘ goes like this. The time is the distant future. The world seems to be one united country. People are not called people – they are called numbers, and are given numbers, because numbers are unique. Logic and reason dominate every aspect of their lives – what time they get up, what time they go to sleep, what they do at every hour, every minute of the day is regulated, based on logic. Nothing can happen without the government knowing about it. All houses have transparent walls and doors and everyone can see everyone else. There is only one exception. When a couple are having an intimate time together, they can lower the blinds. For this they have to get advance permission from the authorities. Our main character is D-503, who is a mathematician and scientist, who is building a rocket to reach outer space. Things are going well for D-503 in this logical world, till he meets I-330. I-330 is a beautiful, mysterious woman. And before long D-503 discovers that there is an inner world, inside his mind, which is not based on logic or reason – it is wild, passionate, illogical. D-503 is torn between the logical world that he has always known and this wild passionate thing that he discovers. And then events move at a fast pace and lots of stuff happens. Can we expect anything less in a dystopian novel? How does it all end? You have to read the book to find out.

I haven’t read ‘1984‘ and so it is hard for me to compare. But if ‘We’ was the first ever dystopian novel, it must have created a stir when it first came out. Its publication was not allowed in the Soviet Union and it was published abroad. It later led to lots of problems for Yevgeny Zamyatin and all his works were banned in the Soviet Union and Zamyatin himself had to migrate abroad where he didn’t live long. It is a sad story.

To me, Zamyatin’s story depicts the tussle between reason and logic on one side and the things that make us human – like imagination, love, freedom – on the other side. It is a fascinating thing to watch. The arguments given in the story for both the sides are very insightful and thought-provoking. Zamyatin’s story came out nearly a hundred years back, and in the century that has passed, we seem to have moved more to the logic-and-reason side of things. If we are not careful and things move to their logical conclusion, it wouldn’t be surprising if we end up in a world similar to the one depicted in the book. From that perspective, this book is as relevant today as when it was first published.

I loved most of the characters in the book. Though they don’t have names but have numbers, they have very distinctive personalities. Our scientist D-503, his long-term lover O-90, and the mysterious woman he meets, I-330, are all fascinating and complex characters, whom I loved very much.

The book is filled with beautiful, thought-provoking passages. I am giving a few below.

“I wondered at the ancients who had never realized the utter absurdity of their literature and poetry. The enormous, magnificent power of the literary word was completely wasted. It’s simply ridiculous – everyone wrote anything he pleased. Just as ridiculous and absurd as the fact that the ancients allowed the ocean to beat dully at the shore twenty-four hours a day, while the millions of kilogrammometers of energy residing in the waves went only to heighten lovers’ feelings. But we have extracted electricity from the amorous whisper of the waves; we have transformed the savage, foam-spitting beast into a domestic animal; and in the same way we have tamed and harnessed the once wild element of poetry. Today, poetry is no longer the idle, impudent whistling of a nightingale; poetry is civic service, poetry is useful.”

“Every equation, every formula in the surface world has its corresponding curve or body. But for irrational formulas, for my √–1, we know of no corresponding bodies, we have never seen them…But the horror of it is that these invisible bodies exist, they must, they inevitably must exist : in mathematics, their fantastic, prickly shadows – irrational formulas – pass before us as on a screen. And neither mathematics nor death ever makes a mistake. So that, if we do not see these bodies in our world, there must be, there inevitably must be, a whole vast world for them – there, beyond the surface…”

He : “I hate fog. I am afraid of it.”
She : “That means you love it. You are afraid of it because it is stronger than you; you hate it because you are afraid of it; you love it because you cannot subdue it to your will. Only the unsubduable can be loved.”

I enjoyed reading ‘We‘. Though there have been many dystopian novels since which have explored similar themes, as probably the first ever dystopian novel, Zamyatin’s book was a pioneering effort. This book deserves to be much better known.

Have you read Yevgeny Zamyatin’sWe‘? What do you think about it?

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I have wanted to read Alexander Pushkin’sRuslan and Lyudmila‘ for a long time and so I decided to read it now, for #RedOctoberRussianReads.

I discovered that I have three translations of the book. One of the interesting decisions I had to take was which translation to read. Initially, I thought I’ll read all three. But after I started reading, I thought I’ll read the one which appeals to me more, and which flows more smoothly for me, and reference back to the other two and read specific passages. This is what I did in the end. More about the translations in a while.

The story told in ‘Ruslan and Lyudmila‘ goes like this. The young prince Ruslan is married to the beautiful princess Lyudmila. But on their wedding night, Lyudmila is kidnapped by the evil dwarf Chernomor. Ruslan and three other young men who are his rivals ride away the next morning in search of Lyudmila. Are they able to save Lyudmila from the evil dwarf? You have to read the story to find out.

I enjoyed reading ‘Ruslan and Lyudmila‘ very much. Most of the characters were very interesting, but two of them were my favourites. When Ruslan rides through a Steppe-like plain, he spots a mountain in the middle. But when he comes closer, he discovers that it is a head, a huge head, and it is living. At present it seems to be sleeping. Ruslan takes his lance and pokes the giant head’s nostrils. The head sneezes. What happens after that – there is a reason they say ‘Don’t poke the bear‘ – you have to read the story to find out. That head is one of the most fascinating characters in the story and one of my favourites. Another favourite character was one of Ruslan’s rivals Ratmir. His life undergoes some major changes and when he comes out on the other side – you’ll have to read to find out what happened, it is so amazing.

There are six cantos in the story – yes, the story is one long poem. At the end of the fifth canto, a heartbreaking thing happens. Why does this always happen in the penultimate chapter, in the penultimate episode, in the penultimate book? Why does someone always die in the ninth episode of ‘Game of Thrones‘? Why does one of the main characters die in the penultimate volume of the Harry Potter series? I am wondering whether Pushkin started this penultimate chapter thing. But I can’t tell you what happened to whom in that chapter. That is for you to discover.

Now a word on the translations.

All the three translations were interesting and very different from each other. The first one by Roger Clarke was a bilingual edition. It had the Russian text on the left and the English translation on the right. It was an easy to understand translation and Clarke had explained in his note at the end of the book on why he translated the original into free verse and didn’t use Pushkin’s rhyming scheme. The second edition was a translation by D.M.Thomas. Thomas had tried to keep the rhyming scheme intact and he had explained in his introduction how he tried preserving Pushkin’s tetrameter intact and why he tried doing that. This was very interesting, because here we have two translators who did opposite things and tried providing justification for the same, and they both sounded convincing! The third translation was by Jacob Krup and I felt that it was written in such a way so that it could appeal to children. The Roger Clarke translation was the one which flowed more smoothly for me, and that is the one I read, while comparing passages with the other two. I am giving below the first passage from the story from all the three translations. Tell me which one you like the most.

Translation 1 (by Roger Clarke) :

“By an arc of sea a green oak stands;
to the oak a chain of gold is tied;
and at the chain’s end night and day
a learned cat walks round and round.
Rightwards he goes, and sings a song;
leftwards, a fairy tale he tells.”

Translation 2 (by D.M.Thomas) :

“A green oak by the salt sea weathered;
And to it by a gold chain bound
A highly learned cat is tethered,
Who on the chain goes round and round :
Walks to the left – he tells a story,
Walks to the right – a song he sings.”

Translation 3 (by Jacob Krup) :

“At the seashore’s a golden chain;
That golden chain entwines an oak.
A learned cat around that oak
Day and night keeps his walk :
Goes to right – a song he sings;
Returning, left – a tale he brings.”

So, who is the winner – Clarke or Thomas or Krup? 🙂

I thought I’ll share the covers of all the three editions (you can see the first cover above) and some inside pages of the third one, because it has some exquisite Russian Palekh paintings. Hope you enjoy looking at them.

This is my first book by Pushkin. I can’t wait to read more books by him. Have you read ‘Ruslan and Lyudmila‘? What do you think about it?

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This is my second book for #RedOctoberRussianReads. This is the slim 150-page book which launched Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s brilliant literary career and made him one of the twentieth century’s important writers.

The story told in ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich‘ goes like this. Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is serving a ten year sentence in a Russian gulag. There is no reason that he should be in a prison camp, but the government has put him there for an imagined offence. Like the other millions of people that it has put there. The story describes how one typical day goes for him in the camp – how he and his campmates are woken up early in the morning, how it is freezing outside (not freezing but probably -40 degrees Celsius, which is beyond freezing, way beyond freezing), how the food they are given is a thin soupy gruel, how one has to fight and cheat and do all kinds of things to get a little extra food, how there are rules like one can wear only so many layers of clothes while going out to work, how the prisoners are expected to work in the biting cold but are not provided the tools for it, how the whole system is geared to crush one’s spirit but it doesn’t kill a person – there is more, but I’ll stop here. We see things through the eyes of Shukhov (or Ivan Denisovich – the author likes calling him Shukhov) – we go through highs and lows and our heart beats faster when we feel that he might be getting into trouble with the authorities and we pray for him, we rejoice when he is able to get an extra portion of soup or is able to hide his bread successfully or is able to find tar paper and use it to block the windows of the building he is working in so that it keeps the room warm. We become a part of the prison camp and we suffer agony and experience little joys as Shukhov and the other characters in the story go about their day. We look at our own lives, at the luxuries we have, at the food and the clothes we take for granted and which we complain about and we wonder how infinitely more privileged we are (yes, even the poorest of us is more privileged than the prisoner in the gulag). It makes us look at the world with new eyes – how totalitarian governments can give hell to innocent people, how those of us who have never gone through this are incredibly lucky. When I read the last passage in the book –

“Shukhov felt pleased with life as he went to sleep. A lot of good things had happened that day. He hadn’t been thrown in the hole. The gang hadn’t been dragged off to Sotsgorodok. He’d swiped the extra gruel at dinner time. The foreman had got a good rate for the job. He’d enjoyed working on the wall. He hadn’t been caught with the blade at the searchpoint. He’d earned a bit from Tsezar that evening. And he’d bought his tobacco.
The end of an unclouded day. Almost a happy one.

Just one of the three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days of his sentence, from bell to bell.
The extra three were for leap years.”

– when I read that, I cried.

It is so hard to believe that someone can be positive at the end of a day like this. But Shukhov is. And so are many of his fellow campmates. My heart went out to Ivan Denisovich. And to the millions of Ivan Denisoviches who have suffered. And my heart went out to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who suffered himself, and came out on the other side to tell the tale. It is so hard to believe that this book was inspired by real events and all this really happened to Solzhenitsyn and his campmates.

I am glad I finally read ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich‘. This is my first Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn book. And what a book it is. I thought the book would be too heavy and heartbreaking for me and so I have been sitting on it for years. While reading it, I thought that if things got too hard and tough to read, I will push through and read fast and get through the book. But I am glad I didn’t do that. I gave the book the time and space that it deserved and the book opened its heart and sang its song. It was a beautiful song, an unforgettable song, but it was a heartbreaking song too.

Have you read ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich‘? What do you think about it?

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It was time to read my first book for #RedOctoberRussianReads. I decided to read the slimmest book I had in my Russian reading list – ‘The Kreutzer Sonata‘ by Leo Tolstoy.

The story told in ‘The Kreutzer Sonata‘ goes like this. There are a few people travelling in a train. They are mostly strangers and don’t know each other. The discussion turns to equal rights for women and marrying for love. People have different opinions on the subject. Then one of the quieter passengers asks the others what they mean by love and whether it is possible for someone to love another for their whole life. There is some passionate conversation which happens here, and then this man, who feels that love cannot last long, tells his story to prove his point. What happens after that – you have to read the book to find that.

In ‘The Kreutzer Sonata‘, Leo Tolstoy takes aim at romantic love and the institution of marriage and fires his cannon. When it is all over, the building has collapsed and is in ruins, there is smoke all around and it is scary, heartbreaking and depressing. The love that Tolstoy talks about in the book is far removed from the beautiful love that Pierre and Natasha have for each other in ‘War and Peace‘ – this love looks more real and is filled with jealousy, anger, hurt, darkness. It is scary to read. The book is a frank portrayal of a marriage, with all the light and the darkness – mostly darkness – thrown in. When this story was first published, it created a lot of controversy, and it was censored. Tolstoy’s wife Sofya went and met the czar and pleaded with him and only after the czar acquiesced, was this story included in Tolstoy’s collected works. After we read the book, we understand why it created so much controversy.

I loved ‘The Kreutzer Sonata‘. It is a small, slim book with big font, with deep amazing insights in every page. It is a late start for me for #RedOctoberRussianReads, but I think it is a great start.

I will leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

“A terrible thing is that sonata, especially the presto! And a terrible thing is music in general. What is it? Why does it do what it does? They say that music stirs the soul. Stupidity! A lie! It acts, it acts frightfully, but not in an ennobling way. It acts neither in an ennobling nor a debasing way, but in an irritating way. How shall I say it? Music makes me forget my real situation. It transports me into a state which is not my own. Under the influence of music I really seem to feel what I do not feel, to understand what I do not understand, to have powers which I cannot have. Music seems to me to act like yawning or laughter; I have no desire to sleep, but I yawn when I see others yawn; with no reason to laugh, I laugh when I hear others laugh. And music transports me immediately into the condition of soul in which he who wrote the music found himself at that time. I become confounded with his soul, and with him I pass from one condition to another. But why that? I know nothing about it? But he who wrote Beethoven’s ‘Kreutzer Sonata’ knew well why he found himself in a certain condition. That condition led him to certain actions, and for that reason to him had a meaning, but to me none, none whatsoever. And that is why music provokes an excitement which it does not bring to a conclusion…and that is why music is so dangerous, and sometimes acts so frightfully.”

Have you read ‘The Kreutzer Sonata‘? What do you think about it?

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