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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 Colta.ru. 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.]

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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.

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.