Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Marquez in the USSR

[Several days after the death of Gabriel José de la Concordia García Márquez, the literary world has been offering up its memoirs of the great author. Here are Tatyana Pigareva’s recollections of Márquez’s visits to the USSR, loosely translated from the article on Cross- posted in JOST A MON.]

Our university days – at the beginning of the 80s – coincided with the Latin American boom, and among our classmates in philology there was a joke: ‘Whom do you love more – Borges or Cortázar?’ which was answered with ‘Márquez!’ The names of the ‘Holy Trinity’ were interchangeable, but the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude occurred more often not in the question, but in the answer. His fascinating and dramatic novel, appearing in Russia in the magnificent translation by Valery Stolbov and Nina Butyrina, read like a poem in one breath. It became not just a bestseller but a byword for an entire generation, which, having lived an entire age with Macondo, was not much surprised when the Soviet imperium would be ‘swept off the face of the earth by a hurricane’ but not ‘erased from people’s memories.’

In 1990, in Moscow’s Pushkin Square, a McDonald’s opened, and above it shone the country’s first advertisement for Coca-Cola. Festively honouring the end of an era evoked in the politically incorrect memoirs of Márquez – ‘The USSR: 22,400,000 square kilometres without a single Coca-Cola advertisement’ – we gathered in a company of Márquezomaniacs, and went to the Friendship Park by the Rechny railway station. There in 1957, the thirty-year old Colombian, deputed to the International Festival of Youth and Students, had planted a tree. Our idea of spontaneous performance concluded in laying a bouquet of yellow flowers (Márquez’s favourite bloom) at that same tree. The flowers could equally have been a tribute to Cervantes – in those years, the only monument in Moscow to a foreign writer was in the same park – but, of course, One Hundred Years of Solitude had long been dubbed the ‘Don Quixote’ of the twentieth century. We made merry, tossing quotations at each other; someone claimed that this wide linden was just like the chestnut of Jose Arcadio Buendía; but at that moment from the neighbouring treetop flew out a flutter of brimstone butterflies. Yellow butterflies – a clear sign from the wise Gabo – we unanimously decided to name this that same tree. On the way to the metro, someone cried out, ‘Look at the puddles – a goldfish is sure to emerge!’ The text of the ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ was firmly rooted in our lives: the golden fish would first evoke Aureliano Buendía and, only much later, Pushkin’s fairy tale.

The appearance of One Hundred Years of Solitude coincided with a major shift in Russian consciousness. The final days of the USSR were upon us: mirages of history were sprinkled with ‘fallen leaves’, life was stuck in an ill groove, and nobody wrote letters to anyone, not merely the Colonel. Everything appeared all too familiar: the non-existent trains with corpses; the sleeping sickness that destroyed memory; the commands to paint all housesin blue; generals and patriarchs. But gradually the storied parallels fell by the wayside, like a ‘transparent or ghostly’ town, and the mythic reality became paramount: an idealised model of reality where any ‘big village’ from Moscow to the suburbs could be equated with the universal village of Macondo, and any history found itself mirrored in the alembic of Melquíades.

In the middle of the 1980s, I was a guest at the translator Ella Braginskaya’s. Behind the glass door of a bookcase was a photograph: Ella and Márquez in an affectionate argument. Such surrealism! ‘Yes, this was at Vera Kuteishikova and Lev Ospovat’s, in 1979 – he was exhausted from our discussions about his artistic plans and asked how we cooked potatoes. So we began to argue about national cuisines. His eyes just lit up…’ Then Márquez explained to Ella that his entire family used to live on potatoes while he was writing One Hundred Years of Solitude, and when he wanted to send the manuscript to the publisher, he need 160 pesos, while he only had 80, and so he had to pawn a dryer and a mixer. His long-suffering wife Mercedes sighed: ‘All we needed was for the novel to sink…’ Amazing shots from this first literary visit of Márquez to the USSR survived with Yuri Greiding, an adviser on Latin American literature to the Writers’ Union. He had accompanied Márquez and family, and fortunately didn’t abandon his camera: there were pictures of the meeting at the airport, of Yevtushenko, of signings, of the Pushkin Museum, of dinners with Hispanists, of meetings at the journal ‘Latin America’. In this journal appeared the only non-pirated Soviet edition of Márquez – the writer had personally allowed Lyudmila Sinyanskaya to publish the translation of Chronicle of a Death Foretold.

The third – and final – visit of Márquez to the USSR in 1987 was to the Moscow Film Festival. He refused to travel in an entourage, but he was happy with a promised meeting with Gorbachev. Following their interview, Márquez’s verdict was: ‘You have never had a ruler of such intelligence, of such measure.’ Gorbachev’s calibre left a special trace in my own Márquezian history. At the Film Festival, I worked with the Spanish delegation; we were dining at the Rossiya hotel, and examining the slogan that proclaimed that Communism was Soviet power plus the electrification of the entire country, and adorned the thermal power station across. The producer, Enrique Gonzalez Macho, now the president of the Spanish Film Academy, waved his hand, and we were joined by his friend of a somewha t gloomy mien. I continued my story about the slogan’s mathematical operations, and of my dream of living under ‘electrification’: Communism minus Soviet rule, nothing could be better. The grim Spaniard laughed with everyone else, his eyes brightened, and he announced that he hadn’t seen a crazier hotel in his life, and if private enterprise were allowed in the USSR, he would establish a taxi service to transport guests through its corridors. He apologised, said he was tired and that he had an unbearably officious press-conference to attend, and said goodbye. The Spaniards began to talk about unfortunate films based on Márquez’s works, and that’s when I understood that it had been him. That was the chronicle of an appearance unforetold. I remembered Ella Braginskaya, and that potato.

2012 was a triple jubilee for Márquez: 85 years since his birth, 45 years since the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude, and 30 years since the Nobel Prize. In the Cervantes Institute, we decided to hold an exhibition of modern Russian artists on the themes of the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. Honoured artists responded immediately, but the reaction of the younger ones, who had taken up the novel following our invitation, was surprising: ‘What a strange book… we couldn’t grasp it… tedious, exhausting.’ Was this a generational problem? The answer turned out to be simple and unhappy. Firstly, the classic translation of the novel was by Valery Stolbov and Nina Butyrina. They had worked for years on the complex text; all the items in their house had been named after the heroes of the novel: the armchair was Ursula, the massive sideboard was Aureliano Buendía; they had engaged with the characters and discussed them constantly, honing the rhythms and styles. That text sounded natural and poetic in Russian, and became the ‘real Márquez’ for several generations. In its early editions, there had been elisions of several sex scenes, but these were later reinstated. And then in 1997 the Rusiko publishing house printed a new translation by Margarita Bylinskaya with the surprising subtitle ‘A complete translation from the Spanish’.

The translator accompanied her publication with a series of articles in the press on the imperfections and sins of the previous translation, and also informed Márquez’s literary agent that the novel had been published earlier in an abridged Soviet translation, and that only now were its mistakes corrected. As a result, when the AST publishing house acquires the legal rights for the One Hundred Years of Solitude, the only version printed is that of Margarita Bylinskaya’s translation.

This is not the place for a detailed analysis of blunders and mistakes – these could happen to anyone. The tragedy mainly lies in the intonation and stylistic register. Recall the scene of the passing of Remedios the Beauty, who had inspired the love and caused the death of her beloved. Butyrina and Stolbov rendered it: The foreigners, who heard the noise in the dining room and hurried over to take away the corpse, noticed that his skin exuded the stunning aroma of Remedios the Beauty. Margarita Bylinskaya: The remaining uninvited guests, hearing the terrible noise, rushed out of the dining room, lifted the corpse and immediately realised how strongly it reeked of the breath of Remedios the Beauty. In the same translation, instead of ‘ants crawling on the body’ (original text), there appeared ‘flesh that bristled and burned’. In Márquez’s prose there is a poetic, musical nature; in it rings the voice of the narrator, archaic and fearless. And so the erotic texts, a particular standout in the ‘full translation’ of Bylinskaya had appeared in the original translation of Butyrina and Stolbov as a stylistic revelation for Russian literature. García Márquez himself had noted that he had always wanted the book to have a poetic rather than a narrative value. The Mozart of the Caribbean captivates the reader, and if this doesn’t happen, if the tonality of the speech is lost, then even One Hundred Years of Solitude can seem ‘tedious and exhausting’ reading. And so the novel should be sought not in bookstores, but only in libraries, in the old translation. Even though the AST publishing house has confirmed that the preprint of the ‘new old translation’ is ready and has shortly gone on sale.

A few years ago in Guatemala I stumbled across a lump of ice at a beach bar. It lay on the hot sand, shimmering in a cloud of vapour. There they were, ‘ants crawling on the skin’. ‘Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.’ There is no greater wonder. To the question posed in 1979 in the journal ‘Latin America’ – ‘What do you believe in: magic realism or the magic of literature?’, García Márquez had replied: ‘I believe in the magic of real life.’ May there be with everyone that inspired solitude, with the cockerels of Ursula, the goldfish of Aureliano, the aromas of Remedios and the parchments of Melquiades.

[Also see Yan Shenkman (April 21, 2014), ‘Márquez was inspired by the Soviet Union‘, Russia & India Report.]

Polina Zherebtsova’s Diary of the Chechen War – Part 4

08/11/2009 5 comments

[This is the final part of the translation of the extracts of Polina Zherebtsova’s Chechen Diary, originally published in Bolshoi Gorod.]

2 November

I argue with Mum. I tidy up. I get ready.

Yesterday, in passing, I saw Aladdin in the distance. He nodded at me. He wasn’t alone; he was with an older man and a young fellow.

In the evenings, I narrate to the kids the fairy tales of Wilhelm Gauf. He died so young, and yet gave the world so much! Everyone listens to me attentively. The kids are called Zara, Waha, Alissa. Alissa is a niece of Tamara, from the fourth floor.

In spring, I’ll turn 15. Of course, if I’m still alive.

Mansour, who lived with us with his family as a refugee in 1995, during the first war, told everyone in the yard that I was his bride. He explained to me, “I did it on purpose. So that they wouldn’t insult you or pester you.” And then he said, “But will you wait for me?” I nodded quietly. Such an idiot!

In the absence of his father, Mansour is like the elder in the family. He resolved conflicts between all of us in the military hostel more than once during that hard winter of 1995. We often quarrelled because of the cramped, closed quarters. We had had to sleep in turns – we couldn’t all have slept at the same time in our one-room apartment.

In 1995, we temporarily housed several more refugees in our apartment. I remember we had a neighbour, Olga Stepanovna, in our own entrance. Later, through snow-covered paths over a mountain pass, from the city of Vladikavkaz, her son arrived. An anti-war miracle! Whenever the reds or the whites, thinking he was a spy, wanted to execute him, he would repeat, “Guys! My mum is old. She’s all alone. It’s war. I’m going to my mum.” They’d then let him go.

And I can barely communicate with my mother. We are constantly arguing, quarrelling. Her nerves are shattered because of the crossfire. We managed to sell all the papers, except for four that were missing.

The bombing continues nightly. In the daytime it pretty much stops.

7 November

Yesterday, my ‘elder brother’ came by. He offered to teach me Arabic. He showed me the interesting alphabet – like drawings. I agreed.

No school now. As for History, I’ve read the textbook already. Twice!

The elder brother is, of course, Aladdin. He gifted us two frocks. One, a light blue one, he gave to me. A similar one, but green in colour, he gave to my mother. In addition, he brought me a large white scarf, imported from Mecca! I dreamed about such a thing for so long! The wealthiest women among us cover their heads with scarves like this! It is white, with white embroidery.

Aladdin brought books. Different ones. Many of them. He said, “You love to read books, and time passes faster when one reads. Here are some thrillers.” He is so … unpredictable!

These are events of yesterday. Today, I took out a notebook where I practise writing – and there was money in it! It all spills suddenly over me. I barely managed not to faint! All of 160 roubles! But what for? We are thrilled with him as it is. And we’ll be grateful all our lives to him for saving us. But this is unnecessary!

Can it be that he doesn’t love me at all? Aladdin treats me like I’m little. He is friendly, but that’s it.

There was bombing yesterday. Mum and I ‘went walkabout’ for bread. We came under fire. Came home safely. We started to tidy up the house. The painful fragment in me quietened down, gave me a moment’s peace.

Today is November 7, the revolutionary holiday of the former USSR. Maybe that’s why everyone is happy!

Budur of the terrible tales of the town of Grozny.

8 November

Yesterday evening there was a terrible fire fight. Missiles and shells flew into the yard. Thumps from mortars and machine-guns. The walls shook constantly. Everyone’s window panes blew out. We had sealed our panes with paper crosses, and so they remained intact.

When we were gluing the crosses on, some of the neighbours laughed and said maliciously, “Crosses, just like the Russians have on their graves!” Mum didn’t react. She tried to advise them: “Didn’t you see the films about the war with the Germans? For safety, everybody glued on the crosses. You should do the same.” All that happened was that everybody started referring to the Russian military as the Germans.

Aladdin came in the evening and began to teach me to read. He was amazed at how quickly I learnt all the letters; I write them easily under dictation.

Aladdin was covered in clay. He explained that as he was walking, our ruined district began to get shot up. He ended up lying in a trench with a gray cat. The cat was struggling to get away. She scratched him. It turned out that that was my tomcat – Chips! Aladdin was hiding with him?

We heated up some water so that our guest could clean himself up in the kitchen. We washed his clothes. Mum said that they were wet and that she wouldn’t let him leave at night. He declined initially out of decency, but his face lit up, and he stayed! Mum and I had to jostle for space on grandma’s bed, and we arranged the sofa for our guest.

Elder brother confesses, “My friends do not understand me when I tell them that I am looking out for a Russian family. I tell them of my friendship with you. That you are normal. But they do not believe me.”

Princess Budur.

9 November

My elder brother Aladdin spent the night at ours! We talked long into the night. He fed me candy, which he fished out of his pockets.

Aladdin made himself comfortable in the apartment, and generally behaved like a real brother or cousin. I learned a lot about him, about this childhood, his mischief at school, his friends.

Then he got fed up; his attitude changed dramatically. He started to scold me for not eating properly. I wasn’t wearing the headscarf correctly. I was putting the letters together far too slowly when I read. I understood. And my Slavic blood boiled.

Mum intervened. She announced, half in jest and half-seriously that he was pompous. “When a guest starts to criticise the host, it’s time to throw him out!” Aladdin was offended. He didn’t have any breakfast, and left. But I know that he will come back! He doesn’t want to get used to us, but still he does. Mum feels sorry for him.

In the morning I again went over the rules of the Russian language. Mum gave me a dictation. Mum is asleep now. I am sitting quietly. I found several old newspapers and am reading them.

A woman leaves Rais’s house, next door. She offered to sell some cigarettes (“Astra”), the cheapest and thinnest. In all, 96 packets at 30 kopecks each.

10 November

It snowed.

No, I wrote wrongly. It was a snowstorm like in February! All the trees are white. Mum’s heart is not doing well. She took some medicinal drops and went to bed.

There’s no bread, but there’s yesterday’s leftover dumplings with grass from the garden.

A man from our building stopped by to say good-bye. We don’t know him. He has a singularly yellowish pallor. He is missing a hand. He has fine, painfully thin facial features. Everyone calls him the Black Glove. His attention had been drawn to us several days earlier. He had chanced to see how I was carried out of the car, wounded.

He introduced himself, said he came from Greece. Black Glove learnt from the gossip of our neighbours that we did yoga. That we unravelled dreams. He wanted an explanation for what he saw: “Dogs chasing me! Big ones and small ones. They want to tear me limb from limb. I try to run, but can’t. There are many dogs, an entire pack!” We understood his dream as follows: “Enemies abound. To remain means death. One must depart quickly. The hunt approaches!” This man informed us that he works in Greece. My favourite country!

Bidding us farewell at the door, the man whispered, “I will come back. Maybe in five or six years. My family is there…” On the table, we saw a few bars of chocolate.

I am filled with a giddy hope that all will be well! This is like the hope of kids awaiting New Year’s presents from Santa Claus. Or the hope after a ship sinks when, through the veil of rain and storm, people espy the shore. It is not far! Just a little effort and everyone will be saved!

Mum’s heart is bad. It is 2:35 now. Mum took her tablets, but they do not help. Her lips and hands and legs are cold. I keep telling her that she needs to sleep. I give her a hot-water-bottle in place of a heater. Before my eyes is an imaginary Aladdin. I am having an imaginary conversation with him.

I’m sitting on the sofa. Gunfire from afar. Near the factory ‘Grad.’ It’s the third time it is being strafed. The weapons used are like the Katyusha rockets of the Patriotic War in 1945. We didn’t go out for bread.

I hear the howl of aircraft. The sound is approaching us.

Icicles drip outside the window. Small stalactites. The sky is clear, blue.

At night I had a dream: in a dark basement I am fighting a battle with Death. She is black, in a long coat with a hood; in her hands is a mace. Beneath our feet is a swamp. And so many people are already in the swamp to their chests; they cannot escape and save themselves. I swing and hit Death with a cane on the head. It was a palpable blow, as though I had hit something real, alive. She recoiled, and I managed to escape from the cellar.

I described the dream to Mum. She laughed and said, “This clearly means that in this war you will certainly not perish!”

Princess Budur.

Polina Zherebtsova’s Diary of the Chechen War – Part 3

31/10/2009 3 comments

26 October

Early in the morning when there were few people about (I am reluctant to walk with a walking stick), Mum and I went to the market. I looked at the remnants of the missile. It was huge! Boys were climbing all over it. They announced that it was ‘infectious’ and had to be removed. The missile had destroyed everything around.

Some of our acquaintances arrived to trade. Mum wanted to sell on our ware, so that it wouldn’t get lost. But people were scared to oblige. “There’s a lot of theft,” they explained, and said it had gotten worse after the explosion. Twelve people had been shot on the spot for stealing. Looters were at it day and night. They took things off the dead: gold, raincoats, shoes, clothing, cosmetics. They did this under the guise of locating their family members. Some came with their children to steal. A father with a kid ‘searched’ for the mother. And the mother with her other offspring was, at the same place, looking for the father. The guards didn’t cotton on immediately to this trickery.

One of our neighbouring traders showed uncommon courage. After the rocket exploded, she dragged an injured Chechen woman to safety; at the same time, thieves ran off with her entire merchandise. But she had no regrets. I spoke to her. She had done well!

Our market has shrunk now. In the morning there are hardly two rows. Tables have been placed along the Mir Prospect. People have decided: here will be the cafe, here the barber, and here the entrances to the residences – it would be easier to seek shelter.

Seeing me with my walking-stick, passers-by and the traders joked, “A youngish grandmother!” Everyone wished me the speediest recovery.

The loudspeaker in the Mir Prospect area that used to play music throughout summer now repeated the same thing over and over: “500 people are missing; 1000 people are wounded. There is no count of people taken to villages and rural health centres.”

We burst into tears on hearing that at the candy store, a girl was killed – she was my age. Her elder sister and her mother were both wounded! Our neighbour Rosa was also killed while selling cabbages. She was eight months pregnant. Her seven children are orphaned. There are many such others.

We bought bread and went home. We were not the only ones wailing in the bus. Got home and boiled up some tea. Almost at once Aladdin appeared. I didn’t feel like talking at all.

Aladdin began to take his leave. Mum was taken aback when he put an envelope in her hands: “For the operation and medicine,” he said, “Or for food, in an emergency…” “We’ll pay it back!” I called out as he left. We were embarrassed. We knew that it wasn’t good to take money from someone we scarcely knew. But we had no way out. Without money, there would be no treatment. There were almost 200 roubles in the envelope! Aladdin asked me to call him ‘elder brother.’ I liked the idea and agreed.

Polina's House

27 October

In the morning, Aunt Maryam brightened our mood. She lives in the apartment next to ours. Ever since Mum moved into this house in December 1986, she and Aunt Maryam have been friends. Maryam kissed me and promised, ”You’ll be right as rain soon! Just bear it a little longer.” She gifted me a head-scarf, a cream coloured one with a delicate border. And powder! We had breakfast together. Maryam warned us that she would move a part of her property to her relatives in Ingushetia. And she would lodge a family from the house across to the next-door flat on the first floor. We wouldn’t be alone anymore! And if she could find a way, either she would come or send one of her sisters to help us leave as well.

We sealed up a part of the window with pieces of wood, to block shrapnel. Zolina’s little daughter came over to play with me.

28 October

Mum got ready to go to the market. She decided she would trade till lunchtime and then buy some food. Our larder is empty. Again we’ll be spending instead of saving! We quickly finished our breakfast and took with us in two light packages a few magazines and newspapers. Maybe someone will want them? Mum is a naive person.

And then began a terrible shelling! It thundered everywhere from the direction of downtown and the marketplace. The sky turned red from the fire. Mum was, like, who cares? She said it was all rubbish. Just then a woman carrying pickled cabbage in a bucket ran toward us. She was crying and talking to herself, “Everything is bloodied again! Everything has been bombed! The market is aflame!” Mum stopped her, offered her water to drink. The woman caught her breath at our front gate and said, “This is not weapons fire. It’s an aircraft! It bombed the market! There are many dead! The bomb fell at the corner by the House of Fashion, where women were selling bread!” She left, crying.

Mum collected herself. “Chop chop! We have no food. Our area is still calm. Let’s go to the nearest market, the little one, to the Beryozka stall. We’ll buy some produce.”

Mum is very stubborn. I got ready quickly. I didn’t take the scary walking stick. The road is not far, barely one stop on the bus. I went, leaning on mum.

We passed our yard successfully. We crossed the road. And we began to move through someone else’s yard. And then the airplanes roared into view. Bombs exploded. We threw ourselves across the road. We found a basement but it was quite small, there were already five people standing in it, crowding into each other. No space to enter. Back out again! Now we were at the entrance of an apartment building! Excellent, it was not locked. We squatted in the corner, under a door.

An explosion! Another explosion! A man screamed from the house opposite. The upper storeys were aflame. Another man spoke comfortingly to the injured one, “Take it easy, take it easy, I’ll just tie it up.” But the wounded man continued to scream terribly. The airplanes headed in the direction of the private sector and began to drop bombs there. We went out onto the street.

The building to the right of us was missing a corner. From below its roof, black smoke streamed out. The house across the one we had hidden in was on fire on the upper floors. The shrieks came from there.

Still driven by Mum’s obstinacy, we went further to the little market. There were goods in the stalls but no sellers or buyers!

“They’re in the shopping gallery,” guessed Mum. We entered it.

Inside was a crowd. Adults with kids, preschoolers. People sat by the marble columns and prayed. The entire floor was covered in glass. The windows had been smashed into smithereens. Some of the buyers and sellers went into the basement. We also went there.

Ovens were burning in the basement. Civilians sat around on empty wooden and metallic boxes. Women offered each other nuts and water. People prayed in Russian and Arabic. They decided: “If we have to spend the night here, we’ll give our clothes to the children. We’ll spread them out on the floor so the kids can sleep.”

It was cold. People talk to each other in low voices, as though they might be overheard. Mum and I sat around for an hour or two, for as long as the bombing went on. Everyone was frightened. Nobody wanted to go upstairs to the first market hall, let alone the street, as long the bombs were falling. At last, we came out.

We bought all that we could. And headed home on the lower side of the road, where the shopping gallery was, so that it would be easier to hide in case the bombing started again.

People came over and told us that the missile that had fallen on the market, the one that had wounded me, had been launched from the Caspian. Journalists had uncovered this news. Within only five days, the Russian army had admitted it. They had aimed the missile at another target – at the stock exchange building – but they missed. It fell on the peaceful market.

I just cannot believe that this is the third war in my life! The first was in 1994 (I was nine years old); the second, in the summer of 1996 (from 6 – 22 August; I am 11 years old) – how many neighbours perished then! And here’s the third one. Autumn, 1999 (I am fourteen).

What to do? Aladdin hasn’t come.

Our neighbour, Uncle Valera, had a surprise for me. He handed me some gifts from Muslim, a chap who lives in the first entrance to the building. A white scarf with a blue border, and gray autumn boots. Muslim is a relative of a very kind woman, Zulai. I have spoken to him all of one time. Long ago, last spring. Muslim met me on the way from school. He told me that he liked me more than Hava, his neighbour. He understands that I need to study! But if I completed 16 years of age, then we could get engaged! That’s the custom here. I had been amazed.

And now, unexpectedly, I received his short note: “If you remember me, please pray for me!”

I closed my eyes and at once saw him. A gentle face. Light eyes, dark hair. Muslim always stood in the doorway of his entrance, neat and modest. I wanted to cry. My nerves! Absolutely useless. “In vain did you, Muslim, worry about the opinions of the elders in the yard! You feared their judgment! All because my mother is Russian,” I muttered to myself, and stared at the gifts. I thought we might have become friends! Seeing his note, I felt so good in my heart. At once, I could breathe easily and freely. “Muslim! I will not forget your name in my prayers!” I promised silently. “But, forgive me, the shoes are too small for me. I gave them to Mansour’s mum. I only kept the head-scarf.”



Polina Zherebtsova’s Diary of the Chechen War – Part 2

31/10/2009 1 comment

22 October

My mum and I were wounded on 21 October, Thursday.

I saw: a woman, killed, sitting at a table. The wounded sought shelter in the cafes and at the entrances to houses. Volunteer rescuers gathered up the victims of the crossfire, and carried them off in vehicles. Those with the worst injuries were taken away first.

Suddenly a bright flash lit up the entire sky. A loud thunder followed. Frightened, we rolled behind our stall, hiding between its iron pillars. There was no other cover nearby. An explosion! And another… It felt as though the same explosion was repeating itself over and over. We ran, discarding our stock, to the courtyard of the House of Fashion. This was the very centre of Grozny. Rosa Luxembourg Street. As I ran, an huge piece of the last explosion whistled over my head.

At that moment, time stopped and moved in slow-motion, as in a film. I realised suddenly that nobody, not mum, nor anybody else would be able to save me from death if I were to cry out for help. It made me laugh; I no longer desired anything – belongings, bags, valuables. I realised that I could take nothing, absolutely nothing, with me There.

The shrapnel glinted and time returned to normal. Swishing over my head, it caused sparks to fly from the brick walls of the house it struck. My legs were suffused with agonising pain, a metal rain, but my momentum kept me going.

I collapsed after a few further steps… But then I was raised off the ground.

We threw ourselves into the doorway of a house, but instead of a door there was an iron grill that allowed nobody past. We ran back into the courtyard again, and in shock, darted into yet another entrance, where used to be the shop ‘Fisherman’. When I sat down, huddled in a corner, the agony in my legs made itself known again. Mum and Kusum pushed into the entrance, throwing aside a young Chechen woman. The woman’s knee was smashed; I could see at once the exposed white bone.

There were other women and children in the entrance. Mum said that there was a hole in her pocket and that her thigh was burning a little. She found another piece of shrapnel in her pocket. When some men looked into the courtyard, everyone shouted that the young woman without a leg should be taken away first. She had lost a lot of blood. She looked to be 17 to 20 years old. The men took her away.

The volunteer rescuers looked into the courtyard again. They were young fellows. Among them was Aladdin. They decided to take me for bandaging to a pharmacy on Victory Street (which used to be a bakery). Aladdin carried me in his arms, whispering to me, “Don’t cry, my princess! Don’t be afraid! There will be help.”

As I was carried under the crossfire, I saw three dead. They were lying separated from each other. Someone had covered them with a cardboard. One was a woman, another a man, and I couldn’t make out the third.

At the chemist’s, a woman I didn’t know pulled out the fragment out of mum’s thigh. They could only bandage my legs, as the shrapnel had embedded itself deep inside. Aladdin consoled me, stroking my head and chewed on a cupcake.

They decided that we should return home; the hospitals were overflowing with the injured, the marketplace having been filled with women, children, and the elderly. There were few men there, hardly any. We had been far from the epicentre, almost three blocks away. How many had been killed there?

We were given a lift home by some strangers in their car. Frequently I had to clap my hands over my ears – there was a ringing noise and a feeling that I might faint any moment. Everything around me appeared to swim… Did I have a concussion?

I heard someone repeatedly say, “Whoever does good to Polinka will see it; whoever does ill to Polinka will see it.” I guess it was part of a prayer. Actually, it goes like this: “Whoever does an atom’s weight of good will see it; And whoever does an atom’s weight of evil will see it.” (Sura 99) But there was ringing in my ears and in my semi-delirium, I heard my name repeated in these lines.

In the morning, the pain in my leg worsened. No sooner had we had breakfast than my mum began to beg the neighbours to take me to a doctor. The tenants on the top floor agreed. They took me in their runabout to the hospital ?9, our main hospital. The doctors immediately said, “You need an X-ray. We don’t have it. There’s no mains electricity, and the generator has been misplaced in all the confusion.” Still, I was sent to the operating theatre.

A striped cat roamed around the dark and dirty operating theatre on the first floor. He rubbed himself against the table legs and purred. At the threshold of the open doors stood weeping people. Everyone was covered in blood, their clothes torn, some draped in sheets. People ran around looking for their relatives and friends. Those with mild injuries were sitting on the floor or on chairs; they had been awaiting their turn to be examined by the doctors since the previous day. Muffled moans came from the loved ones of those who had died within the hospital walls. A Chechen woman screamed loudly: her children had been killed. A middle-aged woman asked for money for an operation on her son and for medicines. People gave her what they could.

The doctor who examined me was exhausted. He could barely stand. He told of how at night during surgery the electricity had been switched off several times as hundreds of people were being operated on. Many perished.

A young German journalist, wearing glasses and a checked shirt, asked the doctors about the numbers of casualties during the nights. What sort of injuries predominated? He asked me if I had been frightened. The doctor quoted some figures. He said that everyone couldn’t be accounted for in the confusion, because of which many people couldn’t locate their missing kin.

They forgot to anaesthetise me when they treated my wounds. I screamed, although I was ashamed of it. The doctor collected himself and gave me an injection. He looked for the shrapnel but couldn’t find any. “Without X-rays, we can’t help,” said the doctor. “We are needlessly traumatising the leg. You should go where they have a working X-ray machine.” They could only take out minor fragments. At that time, mum’s leg was bandaged. But she was able to walk.

We purchased painkillers, lots of bandage, surgical towels and antiseptics.

23 October

Yesterday a wonderful thing happened! In the latter half of the day, we had unexpected guests. Kusum and Aladdin! The same Aladdin who had carried me through the yard of my childhood! They hadn’t known our address. They found us after asking about victims. They only knew which district of Grozny we lived in, and had to search for a long time. Both were exhausted.

Mum made tea. Kusum had brought fruit. Aladdin gave us 70 roubles for bandages; he didn’t have any more money. He was silent throughout. I didn’t speak either. We didn’t look at each other; we averted our eyes. Only the adults talked – mum and Kusum.

25 October

I am crying. My wounded leg hurts worse in the evenings. All these days, the neighbours have been going into town at night. Many talk of a large tail-less rocket. They say that there is heavy radiation where it lies.

There are lots of foreign journalists in town. They managed to get through! Someone measured the radiation with a meter. People are specially coming to the market to look at the death-rocket. I ask my mum to persuade the neighbours to take me there. I want to see the filth that has brought me pain.

The Russian side refuses to comment on the bombing of the marketplace. But the Chechens do not have such large rockets. It is said that those who were near the rocket were torn to pieces; now their loved ones recognise them by the remnants of various things: buttons, shreds and pieces of clothing.

Mum bought a few loaves of bread. She distributed them ‘for my well-being’ to the neighbours who crowded around our entrance.

Mum found a walking-stick that belonged to grandma Yulia that she had bequeathed to us. It is a brown wooden hooked stick, sort of like that of Baba-Yaga. I’m learning to walk with it around the room. I repeat that I want to see rocket that killed all those people and injured me. Mum whines that we have already spent all our money; there’s none left for the operation and the medicines. Today she was at the stall for twelve hours, and she saw the rocket!


Polina Zherebtsova’s Diary of the Chechen War – Part 1

14/10/2009 4 comments

[This is a loose translation of the original Russian diary, an abridged excerpt of which appeared in the journal Bolshoi Gorod on 30 September 2009. Part 1 here, others to follow.]

24 September 1999

We were bombed a little today. The neighbours did not go to work, they were so scared. Mum and I are off to the market – to sell our wares. I help her. There’s talk that my school is closed. Everybody says: War.

27 September 1999

In our Staropromyslovsky district, the station ‘Beryozka’ was bombed – it’s right by us. They’ve been bombing it since morning. I am going to read Shakespeare. Our library has twelve of his books. These are old books, printed early in the 20th century. My grandfather, the journalist and cameraman, bought them. He was killed in a crossfire in 1994 at the beginning of the first war.

I have terrible dreams at night.

Update: it’s evening. 420 people were killed. Many injured. Hospital №7 has been bombed. Mum and I were in the market, selling.

29 September, Wednesday.

Bombing. My favourite neighbour, aunt Maryam has left for Ingushetia. No other news.

30 September, Thursday.

They were bombing bridges. On the radio we heard that the tanks of the federal forces will likely be advancing on October 10.

I thought about it and decided that since it’s war, I should go and buy some black lingerie. It won’t need to be washed as often.

Huge queues for bread. People seem to have gone out of their minds.

1 October

Yesterday and the day before, there was bombing.

The city is rife with rumours. Often these pieces of ‘information’ contradict each other.

There would be a new round of war in August, we had been told by Professor V. Nunaev – the famous cardiologist. We hadn’t believed him, and bought new stock. On August 6, we found out that the widow of the late President Dudaev had fled from Grozny. So much information! We can only believe those who have seen things happen with their own eyes. And under no circumstances can we trust what we hear with our ears!

In the market, people were exchanging addresses, befriending each other. If there’s heavy bombardment or damage, perhaps they will have a place to go to, to stay. Nazar gave us his address. He and his wife sell all sorts of  produce. Kossior Street, №8, apartment 66. A Russian woman, too, gave us her address. Her name is Lelya. She said to us, “If you are downtown and there’s an air-raid, run to Victory Prospect to house №5; we have a big underground shelter in the courtyard.” To die, I guess, is not scary; what is scary is to lie wounded amidst the ruins and die slowly.

I thought about the various religions. They are all good, except that people are remiss in following the laws of God.

At our neighbour Fatima’s, her son died. He was only a little boy.

Polina's Diaries



5 October

Alive so far!

There’s been no cooking gas for a long time. The drains still work.

Bombardment. Our four-storeyed house has been subsiding under the vibration. In my room, the walls have separated from the ceiling.

Airplanes circled above the market today. Many people fled. Among them was that bright fellow called Vandam who studies at the Law school. Occasionally he allows me to sell from his wooden kiosk. It is convenient when it rained. But I don’t like him.

At home we boiled potatoes in the electric kettle. The gas supply has been cut off to minimise explosions and fires in the houses during cross-fires.

11 October

The fighting continues. From afar we hear rumbles like thunder. We decided to sell more newspapers. We have no way out. Nobody is buying our wares. We don’t have enough money to eat. The day before yesterday I went and met the wife of Sulim, the man who buys newspapers and magazine in bulk. She introduced herself – Sonia. And at once she gave me magazines on account.

Yesterday, our neighbour in the market, the one who sells medicines, came up to our stall with some colleagues of her son. One of them, whom I didn’t know, presented me with a beautiful little book. The woman is called Kusum. She wants me and her son to become friends. Her son is very tall, and so he stoops. He is modest, shy. His name is Daud. He attends training courses at the Petroleum Institute. There are always chemistry texts in his hands.

Daud is 21 years old, and I am 14. Mum says it is too soon for me to get married. She insists, “She must study!” Kusum is offended and says,”You are the only girl whom my son has eyes for. If you officially become his fiancee, we shall wait till you finish your ninth grade at school.” By Chechen standards, this is a flattering offer. I can see that he is a good fellow. But I like his friend better – the one who gave me the book.

Daud’s mother bought me a lovely summer shirt and solemnly handed it to me. She explained the gift thus – “To the first girl my son ever liked!”

Our neighbour, a merry fellow nicknamed Pinocchio, has not been seen for several days. He is a wonderful narrator of books and films. He sells music cassettes not far from us. He lends me cassettes to take home, to listen for free. He lives in the town of Urus-Martan.

12 October

I don’t go to school. There are no classes. I am helping mum.

Some idiot in the pouring rain doused a tree with kerosene and set it on fire the day before. The result was a massive bonfire. Just then an airplane flew over and began to circle. Everyone was terrified – what if they drop a bomb? But nothing happened.

The woman who sells medicines introduced me to her sisters. She says that everyone has taken a liking to me. But I must wear a scarf so that nobody knows that my mother is Russian and will treat me better. These adults are chatty. They are always handing me little presents. Maybe now I will have some friends?

I love scarves and shawls. I don’t like the emancipated women of the West. Any dress with a scarf to match is romantic and tender and mysterious. A friend of my mother’s advised her to make me wear a scarf. He explained: “I’ll then be able to look out for you. You will look older – you need protection!”

They don’t know that my father’s father was a Chechen. And so if you consider the male line, I’m Chechen as well. My surname is my mother’s because seven months before I was born, my mum separated from my father. She didn’t want to be reconciled with him. It’s true that I have never seen my father. I know that he has a son with his first wife, also a Russian. The woman is called Tanya. I’ve been told since I was little: “Your father is dead!” But I want to believe that this is not true.

Today my favourite and dearest aunt Leila came to our stall. Leila has always helps us. At one time she used to work with mum at the big factory, the “Red Hammer”.

No sooner had she come near us than she began to beg us to leave Grozny. My mum paid hardly any attention. She said, “I don’t know what kind of people there are elsewhere. How do they live? They have no customs or rules. I have no close relatives anywhere. No acquaintances either. I have lived here all my life since I was fifteen. Here I have the graves of two relatives – my grandmother and my father. I own my house – that is very important. Ruslan is here. So what if it’s not an official marriage? I still have support. If I leave with the child, what are we to do? Am I to live alone?”

I was very offended by that Chechen fellow, Vandam. He saw me in my scarf and burst out laughing. “Why are you all dressed up? Where are you off to?” he said. Then he spat, the swine.

Once he sent his aunt over to us to get acquainted. His aunt made much of my mum, gave her treats. This is customary in the East, to get acquainted and to introduce a boy and a girl to each other. She even openly asked for my hand in marriage to her nephew. But she concealed the fact that he already had a wife. We learned this from some other folk.

13 October

At night we listen to the booming guns. In the daytime, we ply our trade. Sonia’s attitude towards us has worsened. I don’t know if I have offended her with my frequent requests. Or have our competitors said something to her?

These days I wear a scarf like Aunt Kusum. She often praises me. She sits next to us in the market and brushes my hair. She says, “Come on, let’s get you a perm!”

Daud’s friend came over again. He bought me an ice-cream. Does he like me? I heard this from Aunt Kusum, Daud’s mum. This chap asked me, “How old are you?” When he heard that I was only fourteen, he was surprised. “You are so small! I thought you were older. You know, you look so much like Princess Budur in my favourite fairy-tale.” I laughed and declared that he was Aladdin! We looked at each other for a long time in silence. I was taken aback at my own courage. Previously I would keep quiet in the company of boys, and only listen; now here I was – talking.

Aladdin has lovely eyes. His hair is black, curly, down to his shoulders. He is definitely like a prince. I remembered that I saw him once in a dream. It was a long time ago, when I was a toddler, before I went to school.

Polina's Diaries



Aladdin told me he is 23 years old. His father has another family. He has his mother and his sister. They live in a village. Suddenly shy, he stared for a long time at his shoes,  and left without saying goodbye.

14 October

Our business is barely alive. We have money to buy food, but we can hardly save anything.

The papers have troubling news about how escaping refugees have to go half the way on foot, how they are freezing, and how vehicles carrying them are shot at on the roads. The way out of the city is very dangerous!

In the morning I went to school. Perhaps there won’t be classes till spring. All the youngsters are wearing military uniform. Many are being called up. No weapons in hand as yet, only radio-sets. The adult men have automatic weapons. Whoever is thirty years or older is armed.

Kusum is in tears, says that her son has left home. She wants my mum to help her bring him back. She begs permission to say that I will agree to marry him. If only he would abandon his new friends and come back! We support Kusum’s idea. I warn her that I would definitely help her, even if I left later. In the event, Kusum didn’t dare take me with her and went by herself. But she came back without her son. Daud said he trusted his companions and wouldn’t leave them till the end… We all wept.


Writings on the Moon

[A loose translation from an article in Le Figaro by Bruno Corty, Françoise Dargent, Thierry Clermont.]

The 1960s were marked by the conquest of the Moon. Forty years ago, Neil Armstrong walked on that new world, an achievement that was the culmination of a competition at once ideological and technological. For the Americans, this was an achievement to demonstrate their scientific superiority in the geopolitical context of the Cold War with the Soviets. To celebrate the event, the magazine Life commissioned Norman Mailer to reflect on the mission of the Apollo XI. His text, Moon Fire, has recently been reprinted in a new edition. Furthermore, an anthology gathers novels and poems celebrating the Moon. From Alexandre Dumas to Edgar Allan Poe, through Jules Verne and Pierre Boulle, Pierre Louÿs and Lamartine, writers and poets have imagined a thousand ways to walk on the moon before man finally arrived. Yet another reissue not to be missed is that of the extraordinary voyages by the Greek rhetorician Lucian who lived in the second century of our era, and was the first to describe in great detail a trip to the moon.

1969, The Year of Science

Norman Mailer had a busy 1969. At the age of 46, he had won two major awards that year – the Pulitzer and the National Book Award – for The Armies of the Night. In the process, he led a hyperactive campaign to try to win the election for Mayor of New York City, a campaign that failed spectacularly. In July, he was the reporter commissioned by Life to cover the moon mission of Apollo 11 from Houston. With his degree in aeronautical engineering from Harvard University, he was considered the best man for the job. But this was the age of the new journalism. Like Joan Didion and Hunter S. Thompson, he did not write what he saw as much as what he felt, experienced, lived through, imagined, extrapolated. The writing was unconstrained, freeing, a little crazy, passionate. His work began with an evocation of the death of Ernest Hemingway, Mailer’s God. Then the author evoked the upheavals that had shaken American since 1961.

Then, before turning his attention to the subject at hand, towards Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, the heroes of this cosmic adventure, he gave himself a pen name, Aquarius (he was born on 31 January), which he used throughout this dense, verbose, rambling work that broke into thousands of pieces of interest. In his report, he drew on the literature on UFOs, and dealt pell-mell with the equipage used, and the German designer of the Saturn V rocket, on the Moon (which he called ‘Mond’ in German, so reminiscent of the French ‘Monde’ and the Dutch and Danish ‘Maan’ and ‘Maand’), the challenges and risks of this daring adventure, the wives of the astronauts, his own marriages, Kennedy, Nixon, art, Cezanne…

For fanatic followers of Mailer and the Moon, a deluxe edition is now available: Moon Fire, sold in an beautiful box, and containing photographs from NASA and Life magazine.

On Earth as in Heaven

Here are four books for children who want to know everything about the first humans in space.

Novelistic. Even before being a technical challenge, the space race is above all a human adventure. Jim Lovell, a hero of successive Apollo missions, has penned a worthy novel. Those who dreamed of the Moon followed the path of this pioneer who succeeded in bringing back the infamous Apollo 13 safely to Earth. A documentary chapter links up the story with historical fact. (Suitable for children 11 years onwards.)

Crazy. Gravitas is not Frank Cottrell Boyce’s cup of tea. There are those who see him as the successor to Roald Dahl, but that doesn’t stop him from addressing the world through teen books that conceal accuracy under a layer of cheery good humour. Cosmic describes the adventures of Liam Digby, a boy whose adult appearance enables him to participate in a contest seeking to groom the world’s youngest astronaut. (Suitable for children 13 years onwards.)

Non-fiction. This is a book that impeccably discusses the entire subject of the Moon landings. The Moon Mission is packed with illustrations, and comes with a DVD that allows the viewer to follow the trajectory of this adventure to the stars right from its first steps. Discover it all with your family! (Suitable for children 10 years and up.)

le grandFun. The Big Cartoon Book of the Earth and the Sky is addressed to those little ones who are already somewhat moonstruck. Children can lift and turn knobs and pulleys to discover how our Solar System operates. They learn about the craters on the Moon and all about tides so that they understand, in summer, why it is that their sandcastles on the beach are swallowed up by the waves. (Suitable for children 5 years and up.)

The Eye of the Ghosts

The Moon is the leitmotif of the fantastic tales (Tales of Moonlight and Rain) of the Japanese writer Akinari Ueda.

Flaky, full and round, brilliant… The Moon is omnipresent in these fantastic tales written in Japanese in the late eighteenth century. Each of the nine stories features a man to meeting a ghost, a theme that recurs in the genres of traditional Noh theater and kabuki. The tones are alternately humorous, macabre, dreamlike.

In The Cauldron of Kibitsu, a jealous wife returns to earth to torment her rival and to eventually bring her husband to the world of darkness. Carp narrates the history of Kogi, a painter and a Buddhist monk of the tenth century who turns into fish to escape the nets of a fisherman. Akinari Ueda had a tumultuous life. Son of a courtesan of the “floating world”, a term denoting a red-light area in Osaka, he has written a handful of stories, still popular in Japan. His name has been associated with the 1953 film “Ugetsu” by Kenji Mizoguchi, whose availability on DVD along with this publication is very welcome.

Afanasii Nikitin’s Journey Across Three Seas

22/06/2009 7 comments

[In the year 6983 (1475) …In the same year that the records of Afanasii, merchant of Tver1, were obtained, he had been in India for four years2, and wrote that he had set out on his journey with Vassily Papin. I asked when Vassily Papin had been dispatched with the gyrfalcons of the Grand Duke, and was told: the year before the march on Kazan, he returned from the Horde, and perished near Kazan, shot by an arrow, when Duke Yuri marched on Kazan3. But I did not find in the records any mention of when Afanasii set out or in which year he returned from India and died. It is said he perished before he reached Smolensk4. His records he had written in his own hand, and merchants brought his notebooks to Moscow, to Vassily Mamyrev5, secretary to the Grand Duke.]

With the prayers of our holy fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, your sinful slave Afanasii, son of Nikita6.

I, sinner that I am, have written here of my voyage across three seas: the first, the Sea of Derbent, or the dariya of Khwalis7; the second, the Indian Sea, or the dariya of Hindustan8; the third, the Black Sea, or the dariya of Istambul9.

I departed from the golden-domed Cathedral of our Saviour10, having taken leave of Mikhail Borisovich11, Grand Duke of Tver, and their Graces, Gennady of Tver12 and Boris Zakharyich13.

I travelled down the Volga, and arrived at Kalyazin, at the Monastery of the Holy Trinity and the Martyrs Boris and Gleb14, and obtained blessings from the Father Superior Makarii and the holy brothers there. From Kalyazin, I sailed to Uglich, and from Uglich15, I was allowed to depart unhindered. I then arrived at Kostroma, and, bearing a passport from the Grand Duke, called on Prince Alexander16, who allowed me to leave. Untroubled, I reached Ples.

I called on Mikhail Kiselev, Governor of Nizhny Novgorod17, and Ivan Saraev, the Keeper of the Tolls, and they too allowed me to leave without hindrance. Vassily Papin had already moved on, and I waited two weeks18 in Novgorod for Hassan-Beg, the Tatar ambassador of Shirvan19. He was travelling with gyrfalcons from the Grand Duke Ivan, and he had ninety gyrfalcons with him.

I sailed with Hassan-Beg down the Volga, passing Kazan with no trouble, not having encountered anyone, and passed the Horde, Uslan, Sarai and Berekazan, and entered the river Buzan. Here we met three pagan Tatars, who falsely informed us that the Sultan Kassim20 lay in wait for merchants with three thousand soldiers on the Buzan. Hassan-Beg, the ambassador of the Shah of Shirvan, presented each of them with a caftan and a fine cloth that they might lead us safely by Astrakhan. They, pagan Tatars, took the caftans, but betrayed us to the Khan. And my companions and I left our boat and boarded the ambassador’s.

We sailed past Astrakhan in the full moon, and the Khan saw us, and the Tatars shouted Do not run!, but we ignored them and fled in full sail. For our sins, the King sent all his men after us. They caught up with us at Bogun and shot arrows at us, killing one of our men, and we, in turn, killed two Tatars. At a weir20, our small vessel was trapped, and the Tatars seized it and plundered it; all my belongings were on that boat.

We reached the sea on the big vessel, but foundered on the mouths of the Volga. Then the Tatars captured us and ordered us to tow the boat back up the river to the weir. They confiscated the big ship and took four Russians captive, and they allowed us to leave, dispossessed, beyond the sea, and did not permit us back up the river, for fear we might send word.

In tears, we sailed on two boats to Derbent. In one boat, was Hassan-Beg, the ambassador, with Teziks22, and of us, Russians, ten men; in the other, six Muscovites, six men from Tver, as well as cows and our food. A storm broke out on the sea, and the smaller ship was broken upon the coast, where stood the little town of Tarki. Several men went ashore, and then arrived some Kaitaks23 and took them all prisoner.

When we arrived at Derbent, Vassily by good fortune had come as well, while we had been robbed. And I humbly begged Vassily Papin and Hassan-Beg, the Shirvanshah’s ambassador with whom we had travelled, that they might plead for the men captured by the Kaitaks at Tarki. And Hassan-Beg went to the city to entreat Bulat-Beg. And Bulat-Beg sent a messenger to the Shirvanshah: Sire! A Russian vessel has been wrecked off Tarki, and the Kaitaks have imprisoned its crew and robbed it of its goods.

And the Shirvanshah at once sent a missive to his brother-in-law Khalil-Beg, Prince of Kaitak: My ship was wrecked off Tarki and your people came and took its crew captive, and stole its goods; would you, for my sake, send me the men and gather their goods because those men were sent to me. And whatever you want of me, send for it, and I will not deny you anything, my brother. But send those men to me, for my sake, without hindrance. And Khalil-Beg immediately released all the men to Derbent, from where they were despatched to the Shirvanshah’s camp.

We also went to the Shirvanshah’s camp and bowed to him, and begged him to grant us resources to return to Rus. But he gave us nothing as we were many. And we dispersed, weeping; those with property in Rus left for Rus, and those in debt there, went wherever they could. A few went to Shemakha and others went in search of work to Baku.

And I went to Derbent, and from Derbent to Baku, where the inextinguishable flames burn24; and from Baku, I went to sea – to Chapakur.

I sojourned in Chapakur six months, and six months in Sari, in the realm of Mazandaran. From there, I went to Amol where I stayed several months. Thence to Demavand, and from Demavand to Rayy. Here the Shah Hussein25 had been murdered, the sons of Ali, grandsons of Mohammed, and the curse of Mohammed had befallen the murderers – seventy towns were destroyed.

From Rayy, I went to Kashan and dwelt there some months, and from Kashan to Naina, and from Naina to Yazd, and sojourned here some months. From Yazd, I went to Sirjan, and from Sirjan to Tarom, where livestock are fed dates; a batman of dates is sold for four altyns26. From Tarom, I went to Lara, and from Lara to Bender – by the straits of Hormuz. And here is the Indian ocean (in Persian, Darya-e-Hindustan); from the town of Hormuz to here is about four miles.

Hormuz is on an island, and the sea floods it twice daily27. I spent the first Easter28 here, having arrived here four weeks earlier. I have not mentioned other towns, because there are so many of them. The heat from the sun is intense in Hormuz, a man burns. I remained in Hormuz for a month; on the day of Radunitsy29, I set off with several stallions across the Indian ocean on a dabba (dhow)30.

By sea to Muscat, we travelled ten days, and from Muscat to Deg, four days, and from Deg to Gujarat, and from Gujarat to Cambay. It is here that the dye and lacquer come from31. From Cambay we sailed to Chaul, and we entered Chaul in the seventh week after Easter; by sea, it was six weeks to Chaul.

And here, it is the land of India, and people are naked, their heads uncovered, their chests exposed, their hair tied in a single plait; everyone is barefoot, and they bear children every year, and they all have many children. The men and the women are naked and black. Wherever I go, I am followed by crowds, marvelling at a white man. The Prince there wears a cloth over his head and another around his waist32; the nobleman wears a cloth over his shoulders and another around his waist; the Princesses promenade with a cloth across the shoulders, and another around their legs. And the servants of the royals and of the nobility wrap a cloth around their waists, and bear a shield and a mace in their hands; some bear arrows, others daggers, and others with swords, while still others are with bows and arrows; and all are naked, and barefoot, and strong, and don’t cut their hair. And the women go about – heads uncovered, their breasts bare, and boys and girls are naked till the age of seven, their shame not covered.

From Chaul, we went overland to Pali, a journey of eight days, near the Indian mountains. From Pali, we travelled another ten days to Umri, another Indian town. And from Umri is a journey of seven days to Junnar.

A khan rules in Junnar – Khan Asad – but he serves the Malik-at-Tujar33. His armies are given to him by the Malik, and they are, it is said, about seventy thousand strong. The Malik himself leads forces of about two hundred thousand, and he has been in conflict with the kaffirs34 for twenty years, who have beaten him more than once, and he has defeated them several times. He goes among his people, Asad Khan, and he has elephants and war-horses, and warriors from Khorasan35. His stallions are brought to him from Khorasan and Arabia, some from the lands of the Turks, and some from the realm of the Chagatay, and all of them are brought by sea in dabbas – Indian ships.

And I, sinner that I am, brought a colt to India, and arrived in Junnar with him, with God’s grace, healthy; the colt had cost me 200 rubles. Winter began in India on the day of the Trinity36. I wintered in Junnar over two months.

Day and night for four months the country is covered in water and mud. During these days, they plough the land and sow wheat and rice, and legumes, and other edibles. They make wine from big nuts, called the hous-e-hind37, and toddy38. Horses are fed with legumes; they prepare khichri39, with sugar and butter, and feed it to the horses, although in the mornings, they are given leaves40.

In India, horses are not bred; in that land, bulls and buffaloes are born and bred – and the people travel on them, and carry goods, and do all these things.

The town of Junnar stands on a rock cliff, unfortified, protected by God alone. And the route to that mountain is a day long, walking single-file: the road is so narrow that two people cannot pass each other.

In the Indian lands, merchants are given rest and shelter in the courtyards of houses. The hostess cooks meals for them, and arranges beds for them, and sleeps with the guests. If you wish to have intimate relations with her, you pay two jitals; if not, you pay one. There are many temporary wives here, and intimate relations cost almost nothing, for they do love white men.

During winter, the commoners wear cloths over their loins, and another across their shoulders, a third on their heads; the princes and noblemen wear coats, and shirts and caftans, a cloth on the shoulder, another to wrap around themselves, and a third to cover their heads. O God, Great God, the True Lord, Gracious God, Merciful God!

And in Junnar, the khan took away my colt when he found out that I was not a Muslim, but that I was Russian. And he said to me, “I will return the colt and give you a thousand gold coins, but only if you convert to our faith, to Islam. If you do not convert to Islam, I will take the colt and I will make you pay a thousand gold coins as tax.” And he gave me four days to decide, until the day of the Saviour41, the fast of the Assumption. But the Lord God had mercy on His Day, He did not turn His favour away from me, sinner that I am, He did not leave me to die in Junnar among the unholy. On the eve of the Saviour’s Day, the treasurer Mohammed of Khorasan arrived, and I bowed to him and begged him to help me. And he went to the city to Asad Khan and asked him not to force me to their faith, and indeed, brought back the colt that the Khan had taken from me. And thus was the miracle of the Lord on His own Day. And so, my Russian Christian brothers, if you want to go to India, leave your faith behind in Russia, and having acknowledged Mohammed, travel to the land of Hindustan.

They lied to me, those infidel dogs: they said that they had many goods, but there are none for our lands: it was obvious that it all was for the Muslim lands, the pepper and the dyes, all cheap. They who transport goods across the sea to Muslim lands do so untaxed. But we cannot transport goods without paying duties. There are many taxes, and the sea is filled with pirates. The pirates are kaffirs, not Muslims or Christians: they pray to stone pillars, and recognise neither Christ nor Mohammed.

From Junnar, we departed on Assumption, and went to Bidar, their chief city42. We travelled to Bidar for a month, and from Bidar to Kulangiri43 for five days, and from Kulangiri to Gulbarga, five days. Between these cities, there are many towns; some days we crossed three towns, and other days, four: there were as many towns as kos44. From Chaul to Junnar, there are twenty kos; from Junnar to Bidar, forty kos; from Bidar to Kulongiri, nine kos; and from Bidar to Gulbarga, nine kos.

In Bidar, they trade horse, damask45, silk and various other products, as well as black slaves; there are no other goods. All the goods are of Hindustan; of comestibles there are only vegetables; there are no products for the Russian land. And here, everyone is black, all are villains, their women are whores; everywhere is sorcery and lies; servants kill their masters with poison.

In India, the royalty are all Khorasanian, and so is the nobility. The Hindus are all on foot, and walk before the Khorasanians, who ride stallions; the rest are on foot, walking briskly, naked and barefoot, shield in one hand, sword in the other, some with large straight bows with arrows. They wage war from elephant-back. In the vanguard is the infantry; behind them is the armoured Khorasanian cavalry, both men and horses are armoured. On the heads and tusks of the elephants are attached massive wrought spikes, weighing about a kantar46; the elephants are heavily armoured, and on the elephants are turrets, in which are twelve armoured men, all of whom carry guns and arrows.

There is one place here where lies Sheikh Alaeddin47, a holy man, and where they hold a fair. Once a year, the entire country descends upon the fair to trade; the fair lasts ten days. It is about twelve kos from Bidar. They bring horses – up to twenty thousand horses – to sell, and indeed all manner of goods. In Hindustan, this fair is the greatest; every good is bought and sold during the days of the feast of Sheikh Alaeddin (or, in our reckoning, the Protection of the Holy Virgin48). And there is an owl bird in this land49 that flies every night, calling “hook-hook“; and if it perches on someone’s house, there someone will die; and if someone tried to kill it, it burns him with fire thrown from its beak. Here, too, we find mamons50, predators that snatch chickens, and live in the hills or among cliffs. And monkeys, that live in the forest. They have a Monkey Prince, who goes about with his cohort. If anyone were to offend a monkey, it would complain to the Prince, and he would send his forces to the offender; they, arriving in town, wreck houses and kill people. It is said that the hordes of monkeys are very large, and they have their own language. They bear many offspring, and if any is born orphaned, then it is discarded along the roads. Some Hindu might then collect it and teach it various trades; if he were to sell it, he would do so at night so it wouldn’t find its way back to his house; or he might teach it tricks to amuse other people.

Spring begins with the Protection51 of the Holy Virgin; the fete in honour of Sheikh Alaeddin is also held at the beginning of spring, two weeks after the feast of the Protection; the fete lasts eight days. Spring lasts three months, and so does summer, and winter, and autumn.

Bidar is the capital of infidel Hindustan. The city is big, and there are numerous people in it. The Sultan is young, twenty years old52; the nobles rule; the knights are Khorasanian and so are the warriors.

Here dwells the Khorasanian nobleman, Malik-at-Tujar53, who leads a force of two hundred thousand, while the Malik-Khan has a hundred thousand, and the Farat-Khan has twenty thousand; and many khans have ten thousand fighters. The sultan himself leads three hundred thousand men-at-arms.

The land is heavily populated. The villagers are very poor, while the noblemen own vast lands and are very wealthy. The nobles are carried on silver palanquins; they are preceded by horses, twenty of them, in golden trim, and they are followed by three hundred riders, and five hundred foot soldiers, and ten buglers, and ten drummers, and ten flautists.

And when the sultan steps out with his mother and his wife, he is followed by ten thousand cavalry and fifty thousand infantry, and two hundred elephant, all in gold trim; before him, a hundred buglers, a hundred dancers, three hundred horse in gold trim, and a hundred monkeys, and a hundred courtesans, who are called gaurykis.

There are seven gates to the royal palace, and at the gates sit a hundred attendants and a hundred scribes. Some of them record who enters the palace, while others keep notes of who leaves. Strangers are not allowed in. The palace of the sultan is very beautiful, with intricate carvings and gilt on the stone walls. And in the palace there are vases everywhere.

At night, the city of Bidar is protected by a thousand guards under the command of kotwals54, on horse, armoured, and in each one’s hands is a torch.

I sold my stallion in Bidar for sixty-eight futuns55. I had fed him for a year. In Bidar, snakes roam the streets, as long as two fathoms. I returned to Bidar from Kulongiri during the Fast of St. Philip56, and I sold the stallion on Christmas.

And I dwelt here, in Bidar, till the Great Lent57, and befriended many Hindus. I revealed my faith to them, said that I was not a Muslim, but a Christian, a believer in Jesus, and that my name is Afanasii, and my Muslim name is Hoja Yusuf Khorasani58. And the Hindus hid nothing from me, neither their food, nor their trade, nor their prayers, nor anything else, and did not conceal their wives from my eyes.

I asked them of their own beliefs, and they told me: we believe in Adam, and bhoots59, and besides Adam, his entire race. And there are eighty-four faiths in India, and all of them believe in bhoots. And people with different beliefs do not drink with each other, or eat, or marry each other. Some of them eat mutton, or chicken, or fish, or eggs, but nobody eats beef.

Having spent four months in Bidar, I made arrangements with the Hindus to go to Parvat, their shrine (bhootkhaneh)60, that is, their Jerusalem, or what is for Muslims, Mecca. I travelled with the Hindus to the shrine for a month. At the shrine, there was a five day feast. It is a great shrine, made of stone, and cut into the stone are the acts of their deities. Twelve displays are cut around the shrine, showing the deity performing miracles, appearing in various guises: firstly, as a man, secondly, as a man but with an elephant’s trunk, thirdly, a man with a monkey face, fourthly, half man, half ferocious beast complete with tail. Cut into stone, the tail is a yard long, cast through the man.

For the feast61 of the deity, the entire country of India arrives at the shrine. Men, old and young, women and girls, all shave their hair at the shrine, beards and heads, and enter the shrine. For each head, they take sixpence62 for the deity, and for the horse, about four futs. Around twenty thousand lakh63 people arrive at the shrine, and sometimes it happens that a hundred thousand lakhs arrive.

In the shrine, cut out of black stone, is a massive idol64, with a tail extending outwards; its right arm is raised high, stretched like Justinian65, and its left hand holds a spear. It is unadorned except for a loincloth, and its face is simian. Other idols are completely naked, wearing nothing, their shame uncovered, and their wives are carved naked as well, with their shame and their children. And before the deity stands an enormous bull66, cut out of black stone and gilded entirely. The people kiss its hooves and shower it with flowers. And the deity is showered with flowers.

Hindus do not eat any meat, neither beef, nor mutton, nor fowl, nor fish, nor pork, although they have many pigs. They eat twice a day, but not at night, and drink neither wine nor mead67. And they do not eat or drink with the Muslims. Even with each other, they do not eat or drink, nor with their wives. They eat rice, and kichri with butter, and various greens, and cook these with butter and milk, and eat only with their right hands, and take nothing with their left hands. They have not heard of knives or spoons. And, on their journeys, they each carry their own pots to cook porridge. They turn away from Muslims, to prevent them from looking at their pots or food. If a Muslim casts his eye on the food, then the Hindu will not eat it. That is why they eat covered with a napkin, so that nobody would see.

They pray to the east, like the Russians. They raise both hands high and place them on their foreheads, then lie down on the ground, stretched out on the ground – these are their obeisances. When they sit, they wash their hands and feet and rinse their mouths. Their shrines are without gates, oriented to the east, and the deities stand facing the east. If a Hindu dies, he is burnt, and his ashes scattered in the river. And when a child is born, the husband takes it into his arms; a son is named by his father, a daughter by her mother. They are neither well-behaved nor do they know shame. When someone comes to them or is about to leave, they genuflect in monastic style, touch the ground with both hands, all in silence.

In Parvat, they go on a great fast to their deity. Here is their Jerusalem; what Mecca is for the Muslims and Jerusalem for the Russians, that is Parvat for the Hindus. And they travel bare, clad only in loincloth, and the women are bare, clad only in loincloth, and others are veiled, and wearing much jewellery about their necks, and bracelets on their hands, and golden rings. O God! And inside, into the shrine, they travel on bullocks whose horns have been covered with wrought copper, and three hundred little bells around their necks, and hooves covered with copper. And they call their bullocks acha.

Hindus address their bulls as father, and their cows as mother. They bake bread and prepare their food over dung fires, and mark their faces and foreheads and entire bodies with the ash. On Sundays and Mondays, Hindus eat only once in a day. In India, there are many unattached women, and that is why they are cheap: if you have intimate relations with her, give her two copper coins68; if you want to throw your money to the winds, give her six. And there you have it. Slave-concubines are cheap: four coins for a good one; five coins if she is black and lovely, a dark jewel, small and good.

From Parvat, I arrived at Bidar fifteen days before the Muslim festival of Ulu Bairam69. I do not know when it will be Easter, the Sunday feast of Christ; I am guessing by the signs: Easter arrives nine or ten days ahead of the Muslim Bairam. I have nothing with me, not one book; I took them with me from Rus, but when I was robbed, I lost them, and I did not observe the rites of the Christian faith. I do not observe the Christian feasts, neither Easter nor Christmas; I do not keep the fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. And, dwelling among the unbelievers, I pray to God to save me: “Lord God, You are the True God, the Great God, the Merciful God, the All-Merciful and All-Hallowed One, the One God, King of Glory, the Creator of Heaven and Earth.”

And I am returning to Rus with the thought: I have lost my faith, I have kept the infidel fasts. The month of March passed and I started to fast with the Muslims on Sunday, I fasted for a month, ate no meat, took no Muslim food, ate bread and water twice daily, and did not lie with a woman. And I prayed to Christ Almighty who created Heaven and Earth, and did not address God by any other name. Lord God, Merciful God, Lord God, God is Great, God is the King of Glory, All-Merciful God – it is all you, O Lord.

From Hormuz to Kalhat is ten days, and from Kalhat to Deg is six days, and from Deg to Muscat70 is six days, and from Muscat to Gujarat, ten days, and from Gujarat to Cambay, four days, and from Cambay to Chaul, twelve days, and from Chaul to Dabhol, six days. Dabhol is the last Muslim harbour in Hindustan. And from Dabhol to Kozhikode is twenty-five days’ journey, and from Kozhikode to Ceylon, fifteen days, and from Ceylon to Shabat, a month, and from Shabat to Pegu, twenty days, and from Pegu to southern Cathay, a month – all the way by sea. And from southern Cathay to the north, six months on dry land, and for days by sea. And the Lord will make me a roof over my head.

Hormuz is a great harbour, and people come here from all over the world; there is every kind of merchandise here; whatever is born anywhere in the world, you will find in Hormuz. The duty is onerous: on any good, they levy a tenth.

Cambay is the harbour for the entire Indian sea. And they produce here alacha and rough linen71, and also the blue dye, and lac, and cornelian, and salt.

Dabhol is also a large port. Horses from Egypt are brought here, and from Arabia, and Khorasan, Turkestan, from Bandar-Hormuz; from here, on dry land, it is a month to Bidar and Gulbarga.

And Kozhikode is the port for the entire Indian sea. God forbid that any vessel pass by it: if anyone passes by it, he will not remain safe on the sea for much longer. And there is grown black pepper and ginger and muscat flowers, and areca-nut, and cinnamon, and cloves, and spicy roots, and adrak72, and various other roots. And everything here is cheap. And slaves are numerous, good and black.

And Ceylon – not an unimportant port on the Indian ocean, and there, on a high peak, lies the forefather Adam. And near that peak one finds precious stones – rubies, fatis, agates, garnets, crystal, and corundum73. Elephants are born there, and they are priced by size74, and cloves are sold by weight.

And the port of Shabat75 on the Indian Ocean is also big. Khorasanian merchants are paid daily wages in teneks76, both big and small. When a Khorasanian weds, the ruler of Shabat gives him a thousand teneks for sacrifice (на жертву), and fifty teneks every month as allowance. In Shabat is produced silk and sandalwood and pearls – and all are cheap.

And Pegu is a large port as well. Indian dervishes dwell there, and precious stones are produced there: mani, yakut, kirpuks77, and the dervishes sell these stones.

The Chinese port is also a big port. Ceramics are made there and sold by weight, cheaply. Wives there sleep with their men in the daytime, and at night, go to the visiting foreigners and sleep with them, and they give the foreigners money, and bring with them delicious food, and sweet wine, and ply the merchants with food and wine, so that they are loved by them, and they love the merchants, white men, because their own men are black. And if the wife conceives a child, then the husband gives the merchant a gift. If a white child is born, the merchant is given three hundred teneks, and if a black child is born, then the merchant gets nothing, save for the food and drink, which is deemed free by Chinese custom.

Shabat is three months’ journey from Bidar; and from Dabhol to Shabat is two months by sea, and from Bidar to South China is four months by sea; they produce ceramics there, all cheap. And to Ceylon by sea is two months; to Kozhikode is a journey of a month.

In Shabat, they produce silk and inchi – pitched pearls – and sandalwood; elephants are valued by their size. In Ceylon are found ammon78, and rubies, and фатисы, and crystal, and agate. In Kozhikode, pepper is grown, and nutmeg, cloves, and fufal fruit, and flowering nutmeg. In Gujarat, lacquer paint is produced, and in Cambay – sard (or carnelian).

In Raichur, diamonds are produced, from old and new mines. They are sold at five rubles a carat79; the really fine ones are sold at 10 rubles a carat. Five keni for a carat of diamond from the new mines, black stones are four to six keni, and white diamond is one tenek. Diamonds are produced in stone mountains; and paid for by the cubit of those stone mountains – two thousand gold funts for a new mine, ten thousand for an old mine. Malik-Khan owns those lands, serving the Sultan, thirty kos from Bidar.

And the claim of the Hebrews that the citizens of Shabat are Jews – this is false. They are not Jews, nor are they Muslims, or Christians; some of them follow a Hindu faith. They do not eat or drink with Jews or Muslims. Everything in Shabat is cheap. Silk is as abundant as sugar, and everything is very cheap. Mamons and monkeys dwell in their forests, and they attack people on the roads, and so because of these mamons and monkeys, the people are dare not travel at night.

From Shabat, on dry land, is a journey of 10 months, and by sea, is four months aukyik80. The stomachs of domesticated deer are cut to extract musk; wild deer, hunted on the fields and in the forests, lose their scent, and their musk is not fresh.

I celebrated Easter on the first day of May in India, in Muslim Bidar81, and the Muslims celebrated Bairam in the middle of the month82; I began to fast on the first day of April. O Russians of the true Christian faith! He who travels to many lands, falls into many ills and loses the faith of Christ. And I, slave to God that I am, Afanasii, have suffered for my Christian faith. Already four Great Lents and Easters have passed, and I, sinner that I am, do not know when it is Easter or Lent, nor do I observe Christmas, or any other holy feasts, nor Wednesdays, nor Fridays: I have no books. When I was robbed, my books were taken from me. And I, after many troubles, went to India, because I had nothing to return to Rus with, left as I was without any goods. I celebrated the first Easter in Kain, the second in Chapakur83 in the Mazandaran lands, the third in Hormuz, the forth in India among the Muslims, in Bidar, and many here are unhappy with the Christian faith.

Malik, the Muslim, urged me to adopt the Muslim faith. I said to him, “My Lord! You hold your prayers, and I, too, pray. You pray five times, and I thrice. I am a foreigner, and you are a native.” And he said to me, “It is clear that you are not a Muslim, but neither do you observe the Christian rites.” And I thought about this deeply, and said to myself, “Woe is me, damned am I, I have strayed from the path of truth, and knowing no other, must find my way. Lord, God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth! Do not turn thy face away from your servant, grievously sinful though I am. Lord! Save me and forgive me, for I am your creation; do not let me, O Lord, stray from the path of truth, guide me to the path of truth, for out of necessity was I unvirtuous before you, O Lord, all my days lived in sin. My Lord, my Father, you are Merciful and Compassionate! Praise be to God! For four Easters now have I dwelt in Muslim lands, and did not abandon Christianity. God alone knows what will befall me in the future. O Lord my God, I rely on you, save me, O Lord my God.

In great Bidar, in Muslim India, on the Great Night towards the Great Day I saw how the Pleiades and Orion entered into the dawn, and the Great Bear stood headlong in the East.

On the Muslim feast-day of Bairam, the Sultan made a ceremonial departure: with him went twenty great viziers, adorned with mighty armour, with turrets. In the turrets sat six men with cannon and guns, and on the big elephants, twelve men. And on each elephant were emblazoned two great banners, and mighty swords weighing a kantar, were attached to their tusks, and on their necks, enormous iron weights84. Between its ears sits a man in armour wielding a large iron hook with which to direct the elephant. A thousand horses decorated in golden trappings85, and a hundred camels with drums, and three hundred trumpeters, and three hundred dancers, and three hundred concubines. The Sultan’s caftan is decorated with corundum, his cap with a huge diamond, his sadak86 golden with corundum, and three swords all in gold, and a golden saddle, and all trappings golden, everything in gold. Before him, a kafir runs, carrying a canopy87, and behind him are many on foot. Behind too is a rogue elephant, covered in damask, chasing people away, a big iron chain on his trunk with which he chases horses and people away so that they do not approach the Sultan.

And the Sultan’s brother sits in a golden palanquin, above him a velvet canopy above him, and a cupola of gold and corundum, and he is borne by twenty men.

And the Makhdum88 sits in a golden palanquin as well, and the canopy above him is silken with gold cupola, and he is borne by four horses in golden trappings. And near him are a great many people; before him are singers and dancers in numbers; all with swords and sabres unsheathed, with shields and darts and spears, with straight, large bows. And all the horses are armoured, with sadaks. And everybody else is bare, wearing only loincloths, their shame covered.

In Bidar, the full moon lasts three days. There are no sweet vegetables in Bidar. Hindustan does not suffer from extreme heat. Hormuz and Bahrain, where pearls are produced, are very hot, and in Jeddah and Baku and Egypt and in Arabia and Lara. It is hot in Khorasan, but not quite so much. It is very hot in Chagatay. In Shiraz, Yazd and Kashan, too, it is hot, but there is a wind. In Gilyan it is humid and torrid, and in Shemakha, it is torrid; in Baghdad, it is hot, and in Homs and Damascus; but not so much in Aleppo.

In the district of Sivas and in the land of Georgia, everything is in abundance. And everything in the land of the Turks is plentiful. And plentiful is Moldavia, and food is cheap there. And Podol is plentiful. But God save Rus! O Lord, save her! God, preserve her! There is no country like her in this world, even if the Emirs89 of Rus are at each others’ throats. May there be justice in Rus! My God, my God, my God, my God!

O Lord, my God! I beseech you, save me, Lord! I do not know my way – where do I go from Hindustan? If I go to Hormuz, there is no route to Khorasan from Hormuz, or to Chagatay, or to Baghdad, or to Bahrain, or to Yazd, or to Arabia. Everywhere we see the dissension of princes. Uzun Hassan-Beg90 murdered the Shah Mirza Jahan, and Sultan Abu-Said91 has been poisoned; Uzun Hassan-Beg has subdued Shiraz, but that country has not accepted him, and Mohammed Yadigar92 does not go to him out of fear. And there is no other way. To go to Mecca – that means to accept the faith of the Muslims. Because of their faith, Christians do not go to Mecca – they would be converted there to Islam. But to live in Hindustan – I have to hold myself back because everything there is so dear: on food alone I, a single man, spent two and a half altyns a day, although I did not drink wine nor mead.

Malik-at-Tujar took two Indian towns93 that supported piracy in the Indian Ocean. He seized seven princes and their treasury: sacks of corundum, diamonds, rubies, a hundred bags of costly goods, and his army took other items innumerable. He besieged them for two years94, and his forces numbered two hundred thousand, and a hundred elephant, and three hundred camels.

Malik-at-Tujar returned to Bidar with his army on Kurban Bairam (or in our reckoning on the day of St Peter). And the Sultan sent ten viziers to meet him at ten kos, and a kos is ten versts, and with each vizier, he sent ten thousand of his own armed forces, and ten elephants in armour.

Every day, five hundred people sit down to a meal with Malik-at-Tujar. With him dine three viziers, and with each vizier, fifty people; there are, further, a hundred lords who have pledged allegiance to him. In the stables of Malik-at-Tujar are two thousand horses, a thousand of whom are saddled night and day at the ready, and a hundred elephant in the stables. And every night, the palace is guarded by a hundred men in armour, and twenty trumpeters, and ten men with drums, and ten big tambourines, each beaten by two men.

Nizam-al-Mulk, Malik-Khan and Fathulla-Khan seized three big towns95. Their armies numbered a hundred thousand men and fifty elephant. And they captured corundum without number, and many other precious stones. And all the diamonds and rubies were bought up on behalf of Malik-at-Tujar, and he forbade the masters to sell them to the merchants who had come to Bidar at the time of the Assumption.

The Sultan comes out on procession on Thursday and Tuesday, and three viziers ride out with him. The Sultan’s brother promenades on Monday with his mother and sister. And two thousand women are borne out on horse and in golden palanquins, and before them are led a hundred horses in golden armour. And there many on foot, and two viziers and ten ladies of the court, and fifty elephant covered in cloth. And four people sit on each elephant, naked but for their loincloths. And the women on foot are naked, bearing water to drink and to wash, but one does not drink water from another.

On the day of memory of Sheikh Alaeddin (or, in our reckoning, the Protection of the Holy Virgin), Malik-at-Tujar led his forces from Bidar against the Hindus. His forces numbered fifty thousand, and the Sultan sent him his own forces, numbering fifty thousand, and with them, three viziers and thirty thousand men. And with them were a hundred armoured elephant with turrets, and on each elephant were four men with harquebuses. Malik-at-Tujar went to fight Vijayanagar, a great Hindu kingdom.

And the prince of Vijayanagar has three hundred elephant and a hundred thousand armed men, and fifty thousand horse.

The Sultan advanced from Bidar in the eighth month after Easter98. With him went twenty six viziers – twenty Muslim viziers and six Hindu viziers. With the Sultan went a hundred thousand cavalry, twenty thousand infantry, three hundred armoured elephant, and a hundred wild animals in chains.

And the Sultan’s brother was accompanied by hundred thousand cavalry, a hundred thousand infantry, and a hundred armoured elephant.

And with Mal-Khan, advanced twenty thousand cavalry, sixty thousand infantry, and twenty armoured elephant. And with Beder-Khan and his brother went thirty thousand cavalry, a hundred thousand infantry, twenty-five elephant, armoured and with turrets. And with the Sul-Khan came ten thousand cavalry, and twenty thousand infantry, and ten armoured elephant with turrets. With Vizier-Khan came fifteen thousand cavalry, thirty thousand infantry, and fifteen elephant, armoured and with turrets. And with Kotwal-Khan came fifteen thousand cavalry, forty thousand infantry, and ten elephant. With each vizier came ten thousand, and with some others, fifteen thousand cavalry, and about twenty thousand infantry.

With the ruler of Vijayanagar came his forces of forty thousand cavalry, and a hundred thousand infantry, and forty elephant, armoured, each with four men wielding harquebuses.

Twenty-six viziers accompanied the Sultan, and with each vizier came ten thousand cavalry, and twenty thousand infantry, and with some viziers, fifteen thousand cavalry and thirty thousand infantry. The great Hindu viziers, four in number, led forty thousand horse and a hundred thousand men-at-arms. The Sultan was angry at the Hindus for bringing so few men with them, and added another twenty thousand infantry, and two thousand horse, and twenty elephant. That was the might of the Muslim Sultan. The faith of Mohammed supported him. And God knows the true faith. The true faith is to know one God, and to take His name everywhere with purity and a clean heart99.

On the fifth Easter, I decided to return to Rus. I left Bidar a month ahead of the Muslim feast of Ulu Bairam100, in the faith of Mohammed, Prophet of God. But I do not know when it is Easter, the Resurrection of Christ, and I fasted with the Muslims during their fast, and I broke my fast with them, and marked Easter in Gulbarga101, ten kos from Bidar.

The Sultan came to Gulbarga with Malik-at-Tujar and his forces on the fifteenth day after Ulu Bairam. The war was not a success for him – they captured one Hindu town102, but many of his men died and much of the treasury was spent.

The great Hindu prince is mighty, and his army is large. His fortress is on a mountain, and his capital Vijayanagar is very great. There are three moats by the city, and a river flows through it. To one side of the capital are dense jungles, and on the other side is a valley, a wonderful place, suitable for all. That side is not passable – the route goes through the town; the town cannot be taken from any side: the mountain is huge, and the depths of the forest thick and thorny. The host stood below the capital for a month103, and many men died of thirst, and many more died of hunger. They could see the water, but could not get to it.

Hodja Malik-at-Tujar captured another Hindu town; he captured it with force, having fought night and day; for twenty days, his forces did not drink or eat, but assailed the city with cannon. And five thousand of his elite warriors perished in the seige. He took the town and killed twenty thousand men and women, and took another twenty thousand, both young and old, as prisoner. The prisoners were sold at ten teneks a head, and some at five, and the children were sold at two teneks apiece. There was no treasure, and he didn’t capture the capital.

From Gulbarga I proceeded to Kalloor. Carnelian is produced in Kalloor, and it is processed here and transported throughout the world from here. Three hundred weaponsmiths dwell in Kalloor, decorating weapons. I stayed there five months and went thence to Golconda. There is a great market there. From there I went to Gulbarga, and from Gulbarga to Aland. From Aland, I went to Amendri, and from Amendri to Naryasa, and from Naryasa to Suri104, and from Suri to Dabhol, a port on the Indian Ocean.

Dabhol is a large town, and people come here from the Indian and the Ethiopian seas. Here I, accursed Afanasii, slave of the Highest God, Creator of Heaven and Earth, bethought to myself of the Christian faith, and the Baptism of Christ, and the fasts established by the holy fathers, and the apostolic precepts, and focussed my mind to return to Rus. I boarded a dabba and discussed the fare on the ship – and I paid two gold coins for the journey to Hormuz. I sailed away from Dabhol during the Muslim fast, three months before Easter105.

I sailed on the dabba for a month without seeing anything. The next month, I saw the hills of Ethiopia, and everybody shouted, “Allah pervodiger, Allah konkar, bizim bashi mudna nasyn bolmyshty“, which, in Russian, meant, “My God, My Lord, My God, All-Highest God, King of Heaven, here You decided that we should perish!

In that land of Ethiopia, we spent five days. With God’s mercy, no ill befell us. We sold much rice and pepper and bread to the Ethiopians. And they did not seize our ship.

From there, we sailed sixteen days to Muscat. In Muscat, I greeted the sixth Easter. To Hormuz, I sailed nine days, and stayed in Hormuz for twenty days. From Hormuz, I went to Lar, and stayed in Lar for three days. From Lar to Shiraz I travelled twelve days, and stayed in Shiraz seven days. From Shiraz, I travelled fifteen days to Eberk, and stayed in Eberk ten days. From Eberk to Yazd was nine days, and I stayed in Yazd eight days, and from Yazd, I travelled five days to Isfahan, where I stayed six days. From Isfahan I went to Kashan, where I was five days. From Kasham I went to Qom, and from Qom to Sava. From Sava to Soltaniya, and from Soltaniya to Tabriz, and from Tabriz, I went to the camp of Uzun Hassab-Beg. In his camp I remained ten days, because there was nowhere to go from there. Uzun Hassan-Beg sent forty thousand warriors upon the Turkish Sultan106. They captured Sivas. They seized Tokat and burnt it to the ground, and captured Amasa, and many villages, and went to war with the ruler of Karaman107.

From the camp of Uzun Hassan-Beg, I went to Erzinjan, and from Erzinjan to Trebizond.

At Trebizond, I arrived during the Protection of the Blessed Virgin, and remained for five days. I boarded a vessel and discussed the costs – to pay for myself with gold coins for the journey to Kaffa; on board, though, I had to indebt myself for the gold, to be paid back in Kaffa.

And in Trebizond, the Pasha and subashi caused me much ill. They took my goods to their fortress on the hill and searched everything. And whatever was good, they stole. They were searching for letters, because I had come from the camp of Uzun Hassan-Beg.

With the mercy of God, I reached the third sea, the Black Sea, which in Persian is the Sea of Stamboul. With a fair wind, we sailed for ten days and arrived at Bon; here we were met with a strong north wind that forced us back to Trebizond. Because of the strong wind, we waited in Platan for fifteen days. We attempted to sail upon the sea twice, but the wind cruelly blew us back, and didn’t allow us to sail. The True God, God the Protector! Other than Him, I know no other God.

We crossed the sea, but it took us to Balaclava, and from there we went to Gurzuf, and we waited there five days. With God’s mercy, I arrived at Kafa nine days before the Fast of St Philip.

With God’s mercy, I crossed the three seas. The rest, God knows, Allah the Protector judges. Amen! Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim. Allah-u-akbar, good God, good Lord. Jesus the Spirit of God, peace to you. God is great. There is no God but God. God the Provident. Praise the Lord, thanks be to God All-Conquering. In the name of God the Compassionate, the Merciful. It is God, other than whom there is no God, who knows all that is secret and manifest. He is Merciful, Compassionate. There is no God but God. He is King, Holiness, Peace, Saviour, Judge of Good and Evil, Almighty, the Healer, the Exalted, the Creator, the Designer, the Releaser of Sin, Punisher, Solver of all problems, the Nourisher, Triumphant, Omniscient, the Restorer, the Protector, the Ennobler, the Merciful, the Punisher of Sin, All-hearing, All-seeing, the Righteous, the Just, the Good.109


  1. This annotation, dated to 1474-1475, most likely belongs to a compiler of independent annals circa 1480.
  2. Afanasii Nikitin’s journal to India can be dated from the middle of 1471 to the beginning of 1474, based on a study of the relationships between the dates of Russian calendar and Moslem lunar calendar.
  3. The reference is to the advance on Kazan by the brother of Ivan III, Prince Yuri Vassilyevich Dmitrovski, which ended in 1469. Of the putative ambassador, Vassily Papin, of the Grand Duke to Shirvan, there is no record.
  4. Smolensk till A.D. 1514 was in the dominion of the Lithuanian state.
  5. Appointed by Ivan III, during the invasion of Khan Akhmat in 1480. Led the fortification of Vladimir in 1485.
  6. The patronymic (surname) of the author of the memoir is only mentioned at the beginning of the manuscript (but appears only in the Troitsky manuscript, not in the rewritten chronicles).
  7. Sea of Derbent, or the Caspian Sea.
  8. Sea of Hindustan, or the Indian Ocean.
  9. Stamboul is the Turkish derivation of the Greek Constantinople, from Istimpoli.
  10. The main Cathedral of Tver, dating from the 12th century. From its name, the land of Tver was often called the domain of the Holy Saviour.
  11. Mikhail Borisovich, Grand Duke of Tver, 1461-1485.
  12. Gennadii, Bishop of Tver, 1461-1477, previously a boyar from Moscow.
  13. Boris Zakharyich, Governor, commander of Tver forces in the battles of Vassily the Dark against his enemy, Dmitri Shemyakii. Established the order of Borozdin, later absorbed into the service of Moscow.
  14. Trinitarian Monastery in Kalyazin, a town in Tver, established by Father Superior Makarii, as mentioned by Nikitin. The Church of Boris and Gleb was situated within the monastery.
  15. Uglich – a town in the possession of the Grand Duchy of Moscow.
  16. Kostroma-on-Volga numbered among the possessions of the Grand Duchy of Moscow.
  17. Nizhny Novgorod, since 1392, in the domain of the Grand Duchy of Moscow.
  18. The phrase two weeks repeated later in the sentence seems to be an error of the transcriber.
  19. Shah Farrukhsiyar ruled the Khanate of Shirvan, 1462-1500.
  20. Sultan Kassim, the second ruler of the Khanate of Astrakhan.
  21. Weir, a wooden barrage on the river, used to trap fish.
  22. Tezyk, a common name for a Persian merchant.
  23. Kaitak, a mountainous province in Daghestan.
  24. Evidently, the reference is either to ignited oil wells, or the temples of fire-worshippers.
  25. In the days of remembrance of Imam Hussein (who died in Karbala (not Rayy, as Nikitin states) in Mesopotamia in the 7th century), processionists exclaim, “Ha Hassan! Ha Hussein!” These days are observed by the Shiites at the beginning of the Muslim lunar year (in 1469, the festival of Bairam came at the end of June/beginning of July). The desolation of the area of Rayy is connected with the wars of the 13th century.
  26. Batman (Persian) – a measure of weight, comprising several poods. Altyn – a unit of counting money, comprising six coins.
  27. The tides in the Persian Gulf rise and ebb every twelve hours.
  28. The latest research implies that Nikitin observed the third Easter in Hormuz outside the frontiers of Rus. Perhaps the traveller wanted to indicate that this was his first Easter after arriving at the Indian Ocean.
  29. Radunitsy: an old Slavic festival, held nine days after Easter.
  30. Dabba (Marathi) – a sailing boat without an upper deck. There was a massive import of horses into India to replenish the cavalry and fulfil the demands of the local nobility over many centuries.
  31. The allusion is to the deep blue dye, indigo, and the preparation of lacquer.
  32. The reference is to the turban (fota in Persian) and dhoti (Indian), which along with the women’s clothing, the sari, was made of rough textile.
  33. Asad-Khan of Junnar, native of Gilyan, is mentioned in Indian chronicles as a person close to the Grand Vizier, Mahmud Gawan, who bore the title Malik-at-Tujar, the Lord of Merchants.
  34. Kafir (Arabic) – unbeliever; this is what Nikitin, following Islamic tradition, called the Hindus at first; later on, he called them Hindustanis and Indians.
  35. Khorasanians – here and in the sequel: Muslims not of Indian origin, natives of various regions of Asia.
  36. Perhaps during the monsoon season: in India, this extends from June to September. Trinity is the fiftieth day after Easter, and falls in May-June.
  37. Hous-e-Hind (Persian) – coconuts.
  38. Nikitin refers here to the juice extracted from the palm tree.
  39. Khichri – an Indian dish of rice and spices.
  40. These appear to be green leaves of the tree Dalbegria sissor, which have been used in India since ancient days to feed horses.
  41. The Day of the Saviour falls on August 6. The Feast of the Assumption runs from August 1 to the Day of the Assumption, August 15.
  42. Bidar at the time was the capital of the Bahmani Sultanate.
  43. Kulangiri – it is not clear what town Nikitin had in mind.
  44. Kos, a measure of distance in India, about ten kilometres.
  45. Damask – a coloured silk fabric, embroidered with brocade.
  46. Kantar – an Arabian measure of weight, about three poods.
  47. Sheikh Alaeddin, a local Muslim holy man.
  48. The Protection of the Blessed Virgin falls on October 1. Further on, Nikitin observes that the feast in honour of Sheikh Alaeddin is held two weeks after the Protection.
  49. Nikitin refers to local beliefs, among others the cult of the owl, and the cult of the monkey.
  50. Mamons – a small carnivore.
  51. Evidently, the author is talking about the new season that begins in October after the monsoons.
  52. The year Nikitin arrived in India, the sultan Mohammed III was seventeen years old; and he was 20 when Nikitin left India.
  53. Nikitin thus named the Grand Vizier, Mahmud Gawan, a native of Gilyan.
  54. Kotwal (Persian) – a commandant 0f a fort.
  55. Futuns – it is possible that Nikitin refers thus to the golden coins known as fanam.
  56. The Fast of St. Philip lasts from 14 November to Christmas.
  57. The Great Fast begins seven weeks before Easter.
  58. The custom to use Oriental names, consistent with the Christians, was common among the Europeans who lived in the East. Hoja Yusuf Khorasani – Lord Yusuf of Khorasan.
  59. Boot (Persian) – an idol; here, a god of the Hindu pantheon.
  60. Bootkhana (Persian) – a house of an idol, a temple.
  61. Here, Nikitin is talking about an annual festival in honour of Shiva, celebrated in February/March.
  62. Sheshken – a silver coin, worth six kens.
  63. Lakh (Hindi) – a hundred thousand.
  64. Here: a statue of Shiva. His attributes: snakes wrapping around his body (Nikitin said ‘tail’), and trident.
  65. Statue of Justinian I (527 – 565) in Istanbul.
  66. Statue of the bull, Nandi, vehicle of Shiva.
  67. Mead – a drink from honey
  68. Copper coin (Nikitin called it a jital).
  69. Ulu Bairam – a great holiday, the same as Kurban Bairam (Feast of the Sacrifice) – one of the most important holidays in Islam. There are 10 to 13 months in the Islamic lunar calendar, whose correspondence with the solar calendar varies every year. Later on, Nikitin says that the feast was held mid-May, from which the year can be determined – 1472.
  70. The chronicler appears to have inserted these words: they contradict the indicated times (in the Troitsky manuscript, these words do not appear).
  71. Alacha (Tatar word, meaning ‘mixed’) – fabric of silk and paper yarn. Pestryad – Rough linen or cotton fabric of the multi-coloured threads.
  72. Adrak (Persian) – a type of ginger.
  73. Fatis – a stone used in the manufacture of buttons; babaguri (Persian) – agate; binchai (possibly from the Persian banavsha) – garnet; crystal – possibly beryl; sumbada – corundum.
  74. Lokot (cubit – roughly the length of the lower arm from the elbow to the fingertips) – an ancient Russian measure of length , about 38-47 centimetres.
  75. Shambat – either Bengal or the land of Champa in Indochina.
  76. Tenek – a silver coin, of varying value in different places.
  77. Mani (Sanskrit) – ruby; yakut (Arabic) – corundum, more often blue (sapphire), rarely red (ruby); kirpuk (carbuncle) – ruby.
  78. Ammon – a precious stone, possibly diamond.
  79. Pochka (carat) – an ancient Russian measure of weight for precious stones (‘heavy’ – one twentieth; ‘light’ – one twenty-fifth of a zolotnik. Approximately 0.21 grammes and 0.17 grammes respectively).
  80. Aukyik (in the Troitsky manuscript, aukik) – the text is unclear. Possible meanings – a) a type of ship (Arabic gunuk), b) distance.
  81. Nikitin did not observe his fourth Easter outside the frontiers of Rus at the appropriate time: Easter does not occur after April 25 (according to the Julian calendar).
  82. Kurban Bairam fell on May 19 in the year 1472.
  83. Regarding this point, it has been suggested that Kain is a distortion of some place or the other in the Trans-Caucasus – possibly, Nain in Iran; but Nikitin visited Nain after Chapakur, in which case, he celebrated his first Easter outside Rus in Chapakur, and his second in Nain.
  84. Nikitin mistook big bells hanging off the necks of elephant for heavy weights.
  85. It was customary to precede the procession of a nobleman with horsemen in full regalia, demonstrating the wealth and grandeur of the owner.
  86. Sadak – a set of weapons: bow and quiver with arrows.
  87. Possibly Nikitin has in mind the chhatra (Hindi), the ceremonial canopy, a symbol of power.
  88. Makhdum (Arabic) – Lord. Title awarded to the Grand Vizier Mahmud Gawan in May 1472 following the conquest of Goa.
  89. Beg (or bey, Turkish), synonymous with the Arabic emir: a title of feudal rank.
  90. Jahan-shah Kara-Koyun, ruler of Iran and neighbouring lands, was killed in November 1467, following conflict with his rival, Uzun Hassan-Beg.
  91. Sultan Abu-Said, ruler of Central Asia, raided the Transcaucasus; surrounded by Uzun Hassan-Beg and his ally Farrukhsiyar, was captured, and executed in February 1469.
  92. Mohammed Yadigar – rival of Abu-Said – seized his kingdom following his death.
  93. According to the Indian chronicles of the wars of 1469-1472, two coastal towns were taken – Sangameshwar and Goa; the latter, as evident from the correspondence of Mahmud Gawan, was invested February 1, 1472.
  94. The reference is to the siege of the fortress of Kelna in the same war.
  95. In agreement with contemporary Indian chronicles: three towns were seized – Warangal, Kondapalli, and Rajamundry. The commander of the forces was Malik Hassan, titled Nizam-ul-Mulk.
  96. The transcriber made a mistake here, using the word ‘arrived’, which reappears in the following phrase.
  97. Virupaksha II, Maharaja of Vijayanagar, ruled 1465-1485. Nikitin refers to him as the Hindu Avdon and Hiindu Sultan Kadam in the sequel.
  98. Sultan Mohammed III advanced on Belgaum on March 15, 1473 (per the correspondence of Mahmud Gawan).
  99. This statement by Nikitin is reminiscent of the Persian expression “The Mohammedan faith suffices”, and shows the peculiarity of his philosophy. It cannot be reduced to mere religious tolerance: elsewhere in his chronicle, Nikitin uses the expression ‘God knows’ to reflect his uncertainty (‘God alone knows what will happen’). Nikitin believes that the only features of the True Faith that are relevant are belief in one God, and moral purity. In this, he is not far from the beliefs of Russian heretics in the 15th century, who claimed that anyone could become beloved of God, as long as he held to the path of truth.
  100. In 1473, this festival began on May 8.
  101. Clearly, Nikitin observed his sixth Easter in May, again not at the correct time, just as his previous one.
  102. Belgaum, the siege and conquest of which in 1473 is corroborated in Hindu chronicles.
  103. Nikitin refers to the unfortunate siege of Vijayanagar (unfortunate to the besieging forces).
  104. It is not clear which towns between Aland and Dabhol Nikitin is referring to.
  105. Nikitin here indicates the correspondence in that year of two intersecting dates in the Muslim and Orthodox calendars: in 1474, Ramadan began on January 20, and Easter fell on April 10.
  106. The Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II ruled 1451-1481.
  107. The kingdom of Karaman changed hands several times during this period. The deputy of the Sultan was Mustafa, the son of Mehmed II. The hereditary ruler of Karaman was Pir Ahmed (died 1474), an ally of Uzun Hassan-Beg.
  108. Subashi – the commander of defences of a town; Pasha – a deputy of the Sultan.
  109. Afanasii’s final behest to God is a mixture of Arabic and Persian prayers to Allah (Allah-u-akbar, bismillah al-rahman al-rahim, la illaha ill’allah), and pleas to Jesus for forgiveness and mercy. He appears by this time to have been quite unable to distinguish between the words for God in use in the lands he had travelled, and those that he should have employed in his own native context [See Alam & Subrahmanyam below].

Primary sources:

  • Serge A. Zenkovsky, Afanasii Nikitin’s Journey Across Three Seas, in Medieval Russia’s Epics, Chronicles, and Tales, rev. ed. (New York, 1974), 333-353.
  • (Ed.) Ia. S. Lur’e and L.S. Semenov, Хождение за три моря Афанасия Никитина. (Leningrad, 1986). Available online here.
  • Secondary sources:

  • Gail D. Lenhoff and Janet L. B. Martin, The Commercial and Cultural Context of Afanasij Nikitin’s Journey Beyond Three Seas, Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas, 37/3 (1989), 321-344.
  • Gail Lenhoff, Beyond Three Seas: Afanasij Nikitin’s Journey from Orthodoxy to Apostasy, East European Quarterly, 13/4 (1979), 431-447.
  • Other references:

  • Mary Jane Maxwell, Afanasii Nikitin: An Orthodox Russian’s Spiritual Voyage in the Dar al-Islam, 1468-1475, Journal of World History, Vol 17, No. 3.
  • L. S. Semenov, Путешествия Афанасия Никитина (Moscow: Nauka, 1980)
  • Muzaffar Alam, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Indo-Persian Travels in the Age of Discoveries: 1400-1800 (Cambridge University Press, 2007).
  • Categories: books, history, india, russia, trade, travel

    The 10 Favourite Books of a Hundred Francophone Writers

    [A loose translation of a recent piece on Télérama, Les 10 livres préférés de 100 écrivains francophones, 12 March 2009]

    What are the works by our authors’ bedsides? Well, not surprisingly, we find Proust’s ‘A la Recherche du temps perdu‘, but also Faulkner’s ‘Absalom! Absalom!’, and of course, ‘La Princesse de Clèves’ (with all due respect to some). We present to you the 100 winners over the next ten days (a set every day). This should make some fascinating reading, especially in view of the Salon du Livre being held in Paris at the moment.

    Favourite Authors

    What are your ten favourite books? This is the simple question we asked a hundred writers. We do not intend to carry out a scientific investigation; rather, we hope to gain a modest understanding of where, literally speaking, the French and Francophone writers of today come from. Under the auspices of which great authors do they place themselves? Which books, undisputed masterpieces or lesser works, nourished them, and continue to do so? To put it simply, which books are on their bedsides, their favourite books? When dark omens announce the disaffection of the public for literature, clearly there are no more effective promoters for reading than the writers themselves.

    The choices we were given by the hundred authors comprise a formidable diversity – over three hundred titles were cited. And in many of these lists of ten books (and sometimes eleven or twelve or more, because some authors refused to stick to the restriction out of a sense of rebellion, or because it was impossible to choose merely ten), there was a pleasant admixture of both literary heavyweights and slighter, more cosy books that are not so popular.

    Obviously the writers didn’t limit themselves to any linguistic pigeonhole. Thus, among the twenty most cited favourite authors, we find foreigners such as Faulkner, Dostoyevksi, Virginia Woolf, Joyce and Kafka, in the same breath as Flaubert, Céline, Stendhal or Rimbaud. These selections also highlight the preponderance of prose fiction; there were a few poets listed (Rimbaud, Baudelaire, …); and other than Shakespeare and Beckett, the world of theatre was generally absent (and even Beckett was preferred more for his novels than his dramatic works). And only one person included a comic in his list of ten titles: Pierre Assouline (the biographer of Hergé) mentioned one of the adventures of Tintin, The Blue Lotus.

    We would also point out that contemporary writers are not absent, although they appear rarely in the lists. Yves Bonnefoy, Jean Echenoz (Ravel), Pierre Michon (Vies minuscules), Parick Modiano (Un pedigree) and Philippe Sollers (Paradis) appear, unsurprisingly, amongst our “great contemporaries.” Alongside them, perhaps more unexpectedly, are Jean-Jacques Schuhl (Rose poussière among the preferred books of Chloé Delaume), Xavier Houssin (16, rue d’Avelghem, chosen by Régis Jauffret) or Alain Mabanckou (Verre cassé, cited by Gilbert Gatore), but also Pierre Pachet and Renaud Camus… And, among the foreigners, Philip Roth, García Márquez, Ian McEwan, J.M. Coetzee and the admirable W.G. Sebald (who died in 2001)…

    One shade dominates above all: that of Marcel Proust, A la recherche du temps perdu cited by a third of the writers. In second position, but far behind Proust, is Ulysses by James Joyce, who appears in the choices of thirteen out of the hundred writers surveyed. Then comes the diptych by Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey. The triumph of Proust does not really surprise the essayist and teacher Olivier Decroix1

    As Julien Gracq wrote, A la recherche du temps perdu is a kind of fertile ground for writers. It is an inexhaustible book, a work that never ends, very diverse, with some aspects anchored in the nineteenth century, and in other ways perfectly modern. The inexhaustible character is also related to the large freedom of Proust, who mixed essay-like passages with reflections on art or on writing, and autobiography to boot. Lastly, this is a book which one can read several times and at different stages in one’s life, and in which one can make new discoveries, as though it had never been read before.

    Two years ago, the Times had made a similar list based on the preferences of a hundred and twenty-five Anglo-Saxon writers (English, American, Australian, …), who chose Tolstoy as their favourite author, whose two great novels Anna Karenina and War and Peace were respectively first and second amongst the most quoted books. In the top five were also found Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and Nabokov’s Lolita, and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Shakespeare followed, as did Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, La Recherche, the stories of Chekhov, and the grand and marvellous Middlemarch by George Eliot. Closely observing this synthesis, one of the commentators pointed out that the collective preference, as it appears in this list, goes clearly to large dramatic novels that speak about love and death, and are propelled by unforgettable characters.

    The French writers, on the other hand, at least those that we interviewed, tend towards the great modern works of the twentieth century rather than the large romantic frescoes preferred by the Anglo-Saxons. So we find Joyce and Kafka and Woolf who express more doubt than assurance in the supremacy of the character, and the interest is less in pure narrative. As Olivier Decroix says:

    All these authors, including Celine and Rimbaud, are seized with an interrogation on the subject. What is a character? What is a point of view? Who is speaking? The character, according to their lights, is always threatened. They are authors who raise the question of identity. They authors who question reality by delivering some deformed image, unreal, to try to say something new, something unprecedented.

    These questions on the personnages and the perception of the world that were current throughout the 20th century thus remain fully alive today for French writers, continues Olivier Decroix. He adds:

    I am struck by the thought that, fifty years ago, in her essay L’Ere du soupçon, Nathalie Sarraute cited Flaubert, Proust, Dostoyevsky among the authors on whom a writer must base himself to make a break from the literature of the nineteenth century and create a new novel. A half-century later, one finds the same trio as though the idea of what is new, what is modern, has not changed at all. As though one has not abandoned the notion of questioning the character, such as exists in realistic fiction.

    But perhaps we should stop the analysis there. Let us not draw general conclusions from choices that are often deeply personal and unique. We should not forget that as we share their ten favourite books, a significant number of authors emphasised that had they created their lists a few days before or later, they would have been quite different. Finally, let us point out an unexpected and sympathetic curiosity: the presence of La Prin­cesse de Clèves among the “winners”, in a very high place. Without doubt, this work by Madame de La Fayette has received sincere attention from a number of authors, and benefited especially from the news of repeated attacks made on it by Nicolas Sarkozy since February 20062. This assumption is corroborated by the progress of sales of the novel in bookshops: from seven thousand copies a year, its sales, in the three pocket editions by Gallimard, abruptly doubled last year, causing the unexpected reprinting of the novel.

    The most cited authors
    Marcel Proust (33 times)
    William Faulkner (24)
    Gustave Flaubert (23)
    Fyodor Dostoyevsky (16)
    Virginia Woolf (15)
    James Joyce (14)
    Franz Kafka (14)
    Louis-Ferdinand Céline (13)
    Samuel Beckett (11)
    Arthur Rimbaud (11)
    Stendhal (10)
    Mme de La Fayette (9)
    Léo Tolstoy (9)
    Malcolm Lowry (9)
    William Shakespeare (9)
    Herman Melville (9)
    Primo Levi (9)
    Georges Bataille (9)
    Jean Giono (9)
    Charles Baudelaire (8)
    Homer (9)
    André Breton (8)
    Albert Camus (8)
    Miguel de Cervantès (8)

    The most cited books
    A la recherche du temps perdu, Marcel Proust (33 times)
    Ulysses, Joyce (13)
    Iliad and Odyssey, Homer (9)
    La Princesse de Clèves, Mme de La Fayette (9)
    The Sound and Fury, William Faukner (8)
    Absalon, Absalon!, William Faulkner (8)
    Les Fleurs du mal, Baudelaire (8)
    Sous le volcan, Malcolm Lowry (8)
    Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantès (8)
    L’Education sentimentale, Gustave Flaubert (7)
    The Bible (6)
    Fictions, J.-L. Borges (6)
    Journal, Franz Kafka (6)
    Moby Dick, H. Melville (6)
    Les Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (6)
    Une saison en enfer, d’Arthur Rimbaud (6)
    Anna Karénina, Léo Tolstoy (5)
    Correspondance, Gustave Flaubert (5)
    The Divine Comédy, Dante (5)
    Les Liaisons dangereuses, Choderlos de Laclos (5)
    The Master and Margerita, de Mikhaïl Boulgakov (5)
    Mémoires d’outre-tombe, Chateaubriand (5)
    Récits de la Kolyma, Varlam Chalamov (5)
    Si c’est un homme, Primo Levi (5)
    Voyage au bout de la nuit, L.F. Céline (5)

    (Nathalie Crom, Télérama n° 3087)


    1. Olivier Decroix is the notable author of the essay “Le Romantisme” (with Marie De Gandt, Bibliothèque-Gallimard) and of the annotated edition of Victor Hugo’s Hernani (FolioPlus-Classiques)

    2. Apropos the presence of this novel in the entrance examination to the civil service, Nicolas Sarkozy said that it was useless to learn, and was no doubt put in the examination syllabus by an imbecile or a sadist. He himself, he said, suffered on account of it.

    Update: 19 March: It appears that the French are out in force to show their dislike for Sarkozy. How do they demonstrate it? Why, by reading La Princesse de Clèves! Check out the story here.

    Categories: books, france

    The Phenomenon of Authors Whose First Language Isn’t French Writing In French

    09/01/2009 4 comments

    [In Le Figaro, Françoise Dargent ruminates about non-native writers who chose French to express their literary talents. Loose translation follows.]


    [Atiq Rahimi; photo credit: Le Figaro]

    Several foreign writers have published books in French this past autumn. This phenomenon is not new. A number of authors, and not small number at all, have abandoned their mother tongues. They explain themselves.

    They are foreigners but they have decided to write in French. One recalls many celebrities such as Milan Kundera who translated his own novels, Samuel Beckett, who confessed that he had been liberated by James Joyce’s imprints in choosing a foreign language for himself, or even Casanova, whose Memoirs in ten volumes were written in the language of Molière, at the time considered the most international tongue of all. Why did they decide one day to abandon their mother tongues and make French their language of writing? Most certainly, there are as many responses to this query as personalities and backgrounds of the individuals concerned, but it is clear that even as the French language lost its influence in the world, it has retained its aura for the writers. The latest Goncourt prizewinner, the Afghan Atiq Rahimi, is the latest illustration of this. When Le Figaro questioned him last November on the subject, Rahimi, whose previous three novels were written in Persian, replied simply, “To begin with, I didn’t even ask myself the question; I didn’t think about it. When I returned to my country in 2002, I rediscovered my culture… and the desire to write in French. Singué Sabour, The Stone of Patience,  flowed directly in French. In fact, it was difficult for me – I don’t know why – to address these important subjects, these taboos, in my mother tongue. French gave me the possibility to express myself with some freedom.”

    … For many writers, the choice is even seen as a kind of rebirth. “When I wrote in Spanish, the influence of Lorca was very strong,” recalled Eduardo Manet. “French allowed me to be more sober.” The Cuban-born exiled writer established himself in France at the end of the 1960s. He wrote a score of stories and a baker’s dozen novels, all in French. He remembered nostalgically his Haitian nurse rocking him to sleep with Creole lullabies, and said that he was still delighted by the finesse of the French poets whose works he subsequently devoured. “When I decided to change my language, I was already fluent in English, I could have easily adopted it. I adored American music and cinema, but I hated the imperialism (of the United States). French appeared to me to be the language of writing. The foreigners who were living in Paris, such as Beckett, Arrabal or Ionesco, had all chosen it. For us Latin Americans it was an obvious choice, and that’s all there is to say.”

    In the 1960s, during a period when English was all-powerful, the adoption of French appeared as a paradoxical choice, dictated by shifting necessities. Thus, Jonathan Littell caused widespread astonishment when his novel, Les Bienveillantes appeared in French, and not in English. The American author, resident in Barcelona, generated considerable national pride, and was venerated further when he won the Prix Goncourt in 2006. Today, translations of his book are closely monitored by a very punctilious Littell – he sent a letter of precise recommendations to the translators – and there was much surprise that he  himself did not want to translate his novel from French to English.

    One doesn’t choose a language other than one’s own without being particularly picky. The example of Milan Kundera, who wrote in French to signal his rift with his country of origin, is particularly instructive. In 2003, he spoke (in another interview with Le Figaro) of the books he had previously written in Czech. “It is in France that my publishing house publishes my books first, in their authorised versions. I say ‘authorised versions’ because I performed the translation into French of all my old novels, sentence by sentence, word by word. Since then, I have considered the French text as my own, and I allow the translation of my books from the Czech as well as from the French, with a slight preference for the latter solution”

    The Slovene author Brina Svit says she writes a book twice: firstly in French, and then in Slovenian. “Objectively speaking, I had no reason to change the language: I had a very good translator and an excellent editor,” she explains. “Then came a sense of emancipation, of writing against oneself, of owing nothing to anyone. French gave me a freedom, a frankness, a sensation of being a young author : I am all the time in the process of learning, of asserting something.”

    And if Eduardo Manet plans today to take up pen in Spanish for a book of tribute to his mother, it is not a given at all that everybody else wants to return to their original languages. That applies to the Dane Pia Petersen who has just published her fifth novel, Iouri,  in French with Actes Sud. She says it is the specificity of the French language that has attracted her. “I have never given in to the spirit of the North. I love debating, I like to discuss. I felt immediately at ease with French. Even before I could speak it, I had this idea of a language with which one could develop one’s ideas. One could always fold a word into one meaning or another. “

    “French gave me a clarity and precision quite opposite to the Japanese mentality, ” said Aki Shimazaki, who has been writing in French since fifteen years ago, and whose next book, Zakuro, appears in February, published by Actes Sud. For her, the trigger was the book by the Hungarian author Agota Kristof, who wrote Le Grand Cahier in French. “I was fascinated by his simple style and profound story. At the time, I already had ideas for my novel Tsubaki. So I decided to write it directly in French. It took me three years to complete.”

    Rarely does one adopt French entirely by chance. Most of those who chose it have a link with France and its culture. Upon retiring, the American scholar David I. Grossvogel set himself a double challenge: to write his first novel on Proust and do so in French. (Le Journal de Charles Swann, published by Buchet-Chastel.) This professor of literature who introduced Jacques Derrida and other French thinkers to the United States knew that he was walking on a minefield. “My attachment to the French language is like the love of those who do not fully possess that which they like,” he says. “Of course, I also wrote this book in French for a practical reason. Find me an American editor who can speak knowledgeably of Proust! But it wasn’t easy in France either. One doesn’t walk in Proust footsteps with impunity. It is a small point of pride for me. Imagine! A Yank writing in French who is going to be published by a French publishing house…”

    Think about it: in the past few years, the Goncourt Academy has crowned the likes of Tahar Ben Jelloun, Amin Maalouf, Andrei Makine, Jonathan Littell, and last November, Atiq Rahimi! The French writers have to stand and be counted if they don’t want to be aced in their own language by the competition coming from abroad.

    Categories: books, france

    Are the old Goncourt winners still readable?

    [On Monday, 10 November, the latest Prix Goncourt was awarded to the greatest French luminary of letters of that moment. Atiq Rahimi is of Afghan origin, and his book Syngue Sabour, or Stone of Patience is of extraordinary quality, in the words of one jury member. Four days earlier, Le Figaro had published a little article about older winners of the prize. How well have their books fared in the century or so since the Academie Goncourt began celebrating the best in French literature? I offer below a very loose paraphrased translation of that piece.]

    edmond-goncourtSince its inception in 1903, the Academie Goncourt has rewarded several books that have experienced great renown: In the Shadow of Young Girls by Marcel Proust, The Human Condition, by André Malraux, or closer to our times, The Alder-King, by Michel Tournier, and The Street of Obscure Shops, by Patrick Modiano.

    Other winners, though, are now completely forgotten. Who remembers Marius Ary-Leblond? Henri Malherbe? Or Yves Navarre? Are the works to be consigned to the graveyard of memory? Or are they a treasure trove of forgotten wonders? Our critics give their opinions on some of the earliest titles: do they still touch the public at the beginning of the 21st century?

    To our surprise, most of them pass the test of time. Not only do they provide good fare, but are also of great modernity in the subjects they address.

    1904: «La Maternelle» (The Kindergarten), Léon Frapié

    The Kindergarten is a bit off-the-all in its original version of 1900. But four years later, Léon Frapié (1863-1949) attracted the jury of the Goncourt with his semi-autobiographical novel. He used his wife’s memories to paint a realistic portrait of a nursery school in an impoverished district of Paris, set in an environment that would not have been unfamiliar to Emile Zola, then dead only two years. The narrator is a young girl from a good family who is forced to find work in the brutal aftermath of her father’s death. Despite being well-educated, a rarity in those years, she is not permitted to work as a teacher. With her diploma, she is hired at 80 francs a month as an assistant at a kindergarten, where she has to serve two hundred children, a director and two matrons, two chambermaids, all of whom are dedicated to maintaining the school and the scouring of the poor.

    Over the period of a year, the young woman comforts and kisses and changes and spoils and reduces the pain of her charges, most of whom have only known a world where they have no claim on sweetness. The book protests that terrible reality in a tone not devoid of humour. The author carefully avoids pathos and casts a critical eye at the state of education of the time: the school was supposed to cure people of their worst conditions, but ends up merely perpetuating a social determinism that advocated obedience and forced respect to the elite. A century later the vision of the author continues to ring true.

    (Francoise Dargent)

    1906: «Dingley, l’illustre écrivain» (Dingley, the Famous Writer), Jean and Jérôme Tharaud

    Authored by two friends of Charles Péguy (he it was that gave them their pseudonyms, after the patron saints of writing), this book first appeared in 1902 in the Cahiers de la Quinzaine. It received the Goncourt four years later, after one of those neat sleights-of-hand for which juries are well-known.

    Dingley is a great British writer, feted widely for his works. Despite the acclamation, he feels that his life is only a shadow. One day, he encounters an entrapment of an underfed Cockney by sergeants recruiting for the Boer War, and imagines to himself the possibilities of a novel about such a person, who will be morally transformed by martial discipline and war. To add verisimilitude to his narrative, Dingley embarks on a trip to South Africa, and jumps right into the story, and discovers that war is all fighting and suffering and terrible death. At this point, he poses the question: What is the glory of the writer, even if a champion of the Empire, when compared to the men who really defend it?

    The novel is considered a satirical view of the life of Rudyard Kipling, and is written in a precise style, not without irony even its title. Formally, it is impeccable. Yet it cannot avoid a certain coldness in its narrative, which costs it considerable charm.

    (Étienne de Montety)

    [Aside: A longer and more heartfelt review of the book is by Julian Barnes in the Guardian. Check it out.]

    1908: «Écrit sur de l’eau» (Written on Water), Francis de Miomandre

    Although he was born in Tours in 1880, François-Félicien Durand spent his youth in Marseille. He was friends with Edmond Jaloux et Gilbert de Voisins, and took on the name of his mother, Miomandre, when he began to publish charming little verses and prose pieces in various papers; and became the secretary of Camille Mauclair in 1900. In 1908, Written on Water, which had scarcely sold five hundred copies till then, won, to general bewilderment, the Prix Goncourt. Few people had read the book, and its critics wrote up some peculiar things about it; the newspaper Le Temps, for instance, claimed it was a study of mores on large cruise ships!

    The book is simply a story of a young Marseillais during the Belle Epoque, a delicate fantasy married to a keen sense of observation, written as only Francis de Miomandre knew how.

    Jacques de Meillan was a young man and a young man who rose late … He rose late because the morning contained only thankless hours, difficult to deal with intelligence. He rose late because he was infinitely better lying down than standing.

    But why has posterity allowed this author to be forgotten, this auteur of delicacy, the acute translator of Cervantes and Unanumo, this writer of over fifty books?

    (Sophie Humann)

    1910: «De Goupil à Margot», Louis Pergaud

    His name doesn’t ring great bells today. Still, Louis Pergaud (1882-1915) won the Goncourt in 1910 with a collection of animal stories. Competing for the prize at the time were Guillaume Apollinaire’s L’Hérésiarque and Colette’s La Vagabonde. All praise to the auteur!

    Forests, gardens. We come across a fox, a dog, a hare, a squirrel, a frog. Their names? Miraut, Fuseline, Guerriot, Rana… Some are happy. Most of them are hungry, cold and scared. That is the life of dreams of animals.

    In these texts that have lost none of their freshness or flavour, the animals are the protagonists of little dramas. Their stories are told from their points of view. Pergaud is at ease in this exercise of anthropomorphic literature. The writing is fluid, of clarity and simplicity. Of all the adventures related, it is not easy to forget the fox, Goupil, whose fur was not considered good enough by the poacher who traps him. Spitefully, the man releases the animal into the forest, a bell tied around his neck, the poor beast condemned to tinkle it with every step it took. The fox is reduced in every ensuing hunt, such an essential aspect of a vulpine life, to a state of inferiority. Not to mention the sheer handicap occasioned by the bell during the mating season, whenever he attempted to accost a desirable female…On another note, we welcome the soberly titled Underground Rape. It deals with the exciting pursuit of a genteel taupe by a lecherous male (with a sex barbed, like a rapier of fire). Pergaud lacked neither imagination nor humour. It is high time he is rediscovered.

    (Dominique Guiou)

    1911: «Monsieur des Lourdines», Alphonse de Châteaubriant

    Timothy of the Lourdines is a country gentleman, as the subtitle of the novel suggests, a type of man not oft seen today, but one the author (1877-1951), met off and on in his youth in Brittany. This solitary squire has no time for lesser folk and is wild for his peers. To those who reproached him for never having shown himself in the city, Oh, yes! Oh, yes! he said, I shall die without having understood the true face of men! The old man has two passions: the violin, which he plays at night in the disused parts of his castle, and his woods, whose slightest change he immediately knows. He hardly ever leaves them alone. When he returns home in the evening, anxiety that a new crisis has befallen his wife seizes him: prostrated by an attack upon learning of the debts of their only son, Anthim, she has been in her room since, enormous and infirm. Her husband will do everything to spare her the discovery of their ruin… Dedicated to Romain Rolland, this tale, and the later one of La Briere, one of the bestsellers of the period between the world wars, demonstrates with ardent sensibility the burning pain of parental love, that only nature, described in a precise and powerful language, can calm.

    After the Great War, it is to Romain Rolland that Châteaubriant writes of his fears that Europe will not survive without enduring peace betwen Germany and France. In search of this goal, this mystic loses his way: he founds the journal La Gerbe in occupied Paris; this results in his condemnation in absentia as a collaborator in 1945. His literary work is quickly buried and forgotten. He dies in 1951 in an Austrian monastery where he has taken refuge.

    (Sophie Humann)

    1916: «L’Appel du sol» (The Call of the Soil), Adrien Bertrand

    When receiving the Goncourt grant for poetry, did Yves Bonnefoy, Jacques Réda, Philippe Jacottet and others spare a thought about Adrien Betrand, a soldier who died of his injuries during the Great War in 1917? It was indeed he who bequeathed funds to the Academie Goncourt with which to recompense a poet for all his work. Before making this fine gesture, Adrien Bertrand (1888-1917) had been a journalist. When the first World War broke out, his pacifist joined a battalion without hesitation, and was noted for his courage. In October 1914, his lungs were irreparably damaged by German shrapnel. Surviving under medication, he spent the next three years in bed, writing. His first novel, The Call of the Soil, was crowned by Goncourt in 1914. Not awarded because of the draft that year, he had to wait till 1916, the year that Henri Barbusse accepted it for Fire, another novel set during the Great War.

    To read the book today is to plunge anew into the nightmarish existence of soldiers in an Alpine corps. You will find everything in it: the marches, the long waits, the ennui and the anxiety that precedes combat, the clashes, the deaths, the happiness of survival. Bertrand has an acute ear for dialogue. This admirer of Voltaire loves verbal jousts. Even if it does not always avoid grandiloquence and prolix diatribes, for the most part, the novel is constructed in short sentences, encouraging the attention of the reader. The scene where the hunters penetrate a graveyard and discover the torn bodies of five hundred German soldiers, destroyed by artillery, melded into one in a macabre dance of death, is one that will remain indelibly in our minds forever.

    (Bruno Corty)

    1921: «Batouala», René Maran

    Born in Fort-de-France, the author of Batouala holds a singular place in the world of literature in the 1920s. He was one of the rare black writers of the epoch. René Maran was 34 years old when he won the Prix Goncourt. Among the jury were Léon Daudet, Lucien Descaves and the Rosnys, father and son. The manner of Maran’s victory demonstrates marvellously the eternal battles within the Academie Goncourt. The author of Batouala defeated – excuse the expression – both the hussar Jacques Chardonne (37 years old) and Pierre Mac-Orlan (about 40 years old), then at the summit of his art (this writer never does win the Goncourt prize, although he does eventually become a member of its jury in place of Descaves). The fight had been bitter: five voices for him against five for Chardonne, and it was only a second vote that allowed Maran to enter the prestigious honours list.

    It was not so much the novel as its preface that triggered the controversy. The preface was frankly political. Maran appealed to his brothers in spirit, writers of France against colonialism. Raise your voices! he thundered, against the establishment of colonial rule in Africa. His novel was set in Oubangui-Chari, one of four colonies reeling under the rule of the French in Equatorial Africa.

    The book was well received at the time. With a novel in the same vein, In France, the brothers Marius-Ary Leblond had won the Goncourt in 1909.

    Léopold Sédar Senghor has rendered tribute to Maran as one of the most fervent activists of the French-speaking world. But history is cruel. It has retained Senghor but has forgotten the first “black Goncourt”.

    (Mohammed Aïssaoui)

    1922 : «Le martyre de l’obèse» (The Martyrdom of the Obese), Henri Béraud

    In 1922, when the Goncourt prize crowned his novel The Martyrdom of the Obese, Henri Béraud, the son of Lyonnais baker, was a fearful polemicist. He criticised the modern literary elite, those he called the Gallimards, and defended the well-tempered bourgeoisie of the 19th century, the French provincials who looked smiling upon the flowing river of life. The book receives the Goncourt, but curiously enough, has to share the award with the author’s previous novel, The Vitriol of the Moon. It was as though at a time when slimness was already exalted, a novel about the obese, no matter how delicately wrought, was not considered serious enough to merit a distinguished prize. And yet what grace and style in this novel! Written by another, it would have been a pedestrian comedy. In reality, far from it.

    Béraud’s anti-hero recounts his misadventures to his companions at a bistro, in between beers, in a cheerful yet melancholy tone, courteously not dwelling too much on his fate – the fat do not have the right to be unhappy, you see, and they have to apologise constantly for being obese by showing themselves in a light mood.

    The setbacks faced by this man prefigure the tortures experienced by the extra-extra-large today. Aficionados of good cheer and fine flesh will applaud when the novelist regrets that in all things, of greed and of love, one ended up crediting the view that the lavish is entirely opposite to the refined. Béraud, himself described as having a body like a contrabass and a puce-coloured face affixed on a double-chin, very like an inflated tyre, proves otherwise with his incisive mind, that acute observer of the mores of the human animal.

    (Astrid de Vergnette)

    1932 : «Les Loups» (The Wolves), Guy Mazeline

    It begins like this: In the early afternoon in April, 1892, Maximilian Jobourg sat at the games table that had been promptly cleared by his maid, and leafed through the worn-out collection of tragedies by Racine that he had never abandoned since college. His long, ringed fingers crossed over the book, his forehead inclined, his lip sulky.

    The rest, over 600 pages long, is correspondingly high-brow. The Wolves by Guy Mazeline, won the Goncourt in 1932. Blistered by the abuse of epithets and adverbs, it is bloated in a tangled skein of a skewed plot. The author embroiders and retouches and qualifies at every turn, drowning his intent and diluting the atmosphere. Accumulating dust since its release from the presses, The Wolves narrates the saga and the Balzacian decline of a rich industrial family of Normandy at the turn of the 19th century. One scarcely comprehends why the Goncourt crowned this stodgy corpulence. Unless their decision had not been guided entirely by literary considerations… Céline’s Travels at the End of the Night had been broadly favoured by the jury, and, supported notably by Léon Daudet, had amply merited the award. A last minute turnaround tilted the scales in favour of Mazeline, and Céline had to remain content with the Renaudot. Dr Destouches had this pithy comment a few days later: It is an affair of the editors. In this case, Céline’s editor, Denoël was faced against Gallimard, with whom Mazeline had already published three works. No comment there. The outsider took the prize six votes to three; a scandal surfaced. And the name of Mazeline was inextricably linked to that of Céline. As the writer, Georges Bernanos, wrote in an elegiac article in favour of Travels in Le Figaro: Mr Céline has missed the Prix Goncourt. So much the better for Mr Céline.

    (Thierry Clermont)

    Categories: books, france