Illarion and the Dwarf (Илларион и Карлик) by Vladimir Gubin

IllarionCoverVladimir Gubin has remained in the history of Russian literature as the author of one work, which he kept reworking and polishing for 15 years, from 1981 to 1996. I’d like to start my review with two dismissals of this short novel, which only reinforce my belief that Illarion and the Dwarf has still not been properly read. The first statement is from a very brief critical assessment by a certain B. Filevsky that can be found in Issue 7, 1997, of the literary journal October.

In the same place [the afterword to the novel], it is pointed out that the author is in some way similar to Venedikt Yerofeyev and Sasha Sokolov. He is similar to them not because of the prose quality but rather on account of the propensity to fit one word to another like bricks, which causes the word masses to solidify like little Great Walls of China. The reader, consequently, is unable to surmount the obstacle. Nonetheless, a person’s stubborn resistance to the daily grind deserves respect regardless of whether one likes his book or not.

The second opinion is expressed by literary critic Mikhail Khlebnikov in his book The Union and Dovlatov (Союз и Довлатов):

The properly read and diluted Nabokov did not allow to create the plot, the characters, the banal sense. The author himself kept re-writing the work for many years, trying to balance the text and to achieve ephemeral perfection.

To realise that there are indeed a plot and characters in Illarion and the Dwarf, it is enough to read the novel just once. To have a better understanding of what actually happens, one may need a second reading, but that would be more than enough to grasp the development of the story despite the undeniable abundance of linguistic distractions. The thing is that neither the plot nor the characters conform to the expectations of the reader used to conventional realist works of fiction. In the case of Gubin’s novel, any recourse to the criteria one would normally apply to realist prose is not just wrong but laughable. When it comes to the depicted events and situations, this novel employs the bizarre, absurd, and grotesque storytelling mode dating back to the Dadaists and Surrealists. As for its language, the lineage of Illarion and the Dwarf could be traced to Andrei Bely’s rhythmic prose and lexical quirks. It is also true that there are affinities with Nabokov and Sokolov although Gubin is hardly an epigone but rather a sui generis phenomenon that needs to be rediscovered and reassessed.

The novel is set in a fictional country called Sycophantia (Лизоблюдия), which is partly a satire of the Soviet Union. While not averse to poking fun at some aspects of Soviet society, Gubin is not interested in writing just a banal allegory of a totalitarian state. It seems that the author’s primary goal is to create a hermetic yet very rich fictional world that would comfortably accommodate all the linguistic ebullience unleashed within it. You can tell a weird story in conventional language. You can tell a conventional story in weird language. Illarion and the Dwarf is a weird story told in weird language—that’s my elevator pitch.


Oleg Pakhomov’s illustration for Alexander Belyaev’s novel Professor Dowell’s Head. Image Source

The Dwarf, one of the titular protagonists, works in the Tower that resembles “a ramshackle museum shed”. The function of the Tower is to generate ideas for state legislation. These ideas are supposed to be the result of the collaborative effort of the bright minds permanently residing in the building where the Dwarf acts both as the scribe and the caretaker. The Tower intellectuals are a crabby and contentious lot with a variety of backgrounds. We learn a bit about several of them: there is a poet, an actress, a physicist, and a surgeon. The surgeon is actually the founder of the Tower, and before joining its staff he gained notoriety as the creator of “assorted humans”. He constructed them from the organs harvested from his numerous patients. The newly-minted Frankenstein’s monsters were sent to work as stevedores and freight train loaders. At some point, his interest shifted to the problem of brain preservation, which led to the creation of “the mind corporation” and the building of the Tower. The remarkable fact about the supposed highbrows now toiling inside is that all of them have been reduced to cleanly shaved amputated heads attached to the special mounts protruding from the walls of the main room. (The first parallel that comes to mind is, inevitably, Alexander Belyaev’s Soviet sci-fi classic Professor Dowell’s Head.) We quickly come to doubt the productivity of the heads as most of the time they just bicker among themselves, and it is the Dwarf who writes down the ideas for new laws and passes them off as the suggestions of the bodiless brainiacs. The non-smoking Dwarf spends his cigarette breaks on a tree branch, and it is from that elevated position that he first spots his future nemesis Illarion. The man, who is already the all-powerful ruler of the country and bears the title of Monarch, is crawling on all fours and reminds the amused spectator of a jaguar getting ready to jump on its prey. However, when the monarch takes the upright position, he begins to resemble “a pot-bellied, flabby maggot”. But make no mistake, Illarion’s beastly bearing is Chekhov’s gun that is bound to fire its anthropophagic charge sooner or later. After the Dwarf dismisses the dictator’s proposal to “lick each other” (which could be a way of asking the protagonist to swear fealty to the regime), the offended Monarch leaves, undoubtedly carrying away an enormous grudge.

A bit later, we learn the backstory of Illarion’s ascent to power. He is somewhat of an existentialist philosopher. Dissatisfied with what he calls “ugh-being” (тьфу-бытие), he comes to the conclusion that the only way to defy it is to commit suicide. In one of his scholarly articles, he even swears to kill himself in the near future. A lot of people seduced by his theory readily give up their lives, whereas Illarion keeps postponing his own decisive act, held back by the responsibility of the founding figure. When the suicides become widespread across the country, the alarmed government hires a cavalry detachment from a neighbouring state and tasks it to hack the dangerous thinker to pieces. Illarion fearlessly proclaims that he is happy to accept his lot and doesn’t give “a rat’s …” (“a pigeon’s …” [dick] in the original, i.e. “до Гулькина…” [хуя]) about the murderous horde. These words have an unexpectedly powerful impact on the detachment: the horses fall down and the cavalrymen begin making mincemeat out of one another with their cutlasses. After this incident, all the ministers step down, and the victorious Illarion assumes unlimited authority over the country. He surrounds himself with a band of henchmen called smart alecks (нахалы) who are not unlike Ivan the Terrible’s ruthless bodyguard corps oprichniki. During one of his inspection trips, the Monarch and his loyal smart alecks come across the village Shoelaces (Шнурки), which does not conform to the requirements of the “worker-peasant chaos”. It is too tidy and too clean to be part of Illarion’s dominion. This unacceptably good condition of the renegade village is summed up by the neat alliteration brought into being by the words at the beginning and the end of this sentence: “Лужайка была вместо лужи.” (literally: “There was a lawn instead of a puddle.”). Moreover, the villagers have never heard of Illarion and do not happily accept him as their new ruler. Illarion’s conquest of the village takes place in an absurd and funny manner, as he “baptises” it, calling everything around after himself and ending up calling himself after himself, thus becoming Illarion named after Illarion (Илларион имени Иллариона). The fun transforms into terror when the villager called Borka Balalaikin, who invites the Monarch to spend a night in his izba, tries to whiplash an annoying cat but hits Illarion instead. The Monarch regards that as a mutiny and orders the smart alecks to burn down the village.

The conflict between the Dwarf and Illarion flares up after the smart alecks catch Illarion’s sister and deliver her to their ruler. The woman is called Pomezana (Помезана), which is an abridged version of her full name Поцелуй-Меня-ЗаНожку (Kiss-Me-On-the-Leg). The distinctive mark of her eccentric behaviour is that she never wears any clothes. What is more, she has recently taken to flying in the sky like a character in a Marc Chagall painting. After a failed attempt to liberate Pomezana, the Dwarf is thrown into prison where he is forced to recite his autobiography non-stop because if he doesn’t, an excruciatingly loud cacophony starts pouring into the cell from the loudspeaker embedded in the ceiling. While the Dwarf is safely locked away, Illarion comes up with an ingenious plan to sway Pomezana in his favour: the conniving Monarch wants to stage Pomezana’s rescue from the clutches of a villain whose role is going to be performed by Andryukha, one of his most loyal smart alecks. Illarion is hiding in a barrel with a peephole (the allusion to Diogenes is not lost upon him) while the hens and rooster released by Andryukha are pecking at the rice sprinkled over the pubis of the tied-up Pomezana. When the rooster gets over-excited and, in Illarion’s view, attempts to mate with the helpless woman, the Monarch storms out of the barrel, and all hell breaks loose. The novel ends with a closed session of the court, which is close in its spirit to the travesty trial in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, albeit behind the amusing absurdity of this extravaganza there is a sinister reminder of an individual’s utter helplessness before the judicial machine of a totalitarian state.

Of course, the way this novel is written is more important than what it is written about. This becomes evident from the very first paragraphs, which describe the swarms of blood-thirsty fleas causing mayhem among the citizens of Sycophantia. We do not know this yet, but the sporadic attacks of these uncannily trained insects are Illarion’s doing. From time to time, he orders his servants to release the fleas into public places as the indispensable “scourge of the masses”. The whooshing of the nasty swarms is conveyed by the repeated sibilants, something that a good English translator would be able to recreate after some time of concentrated effort. With your permission, I will limit myself to a less creative translation.

Блохи — вот ураган! Эта сыпучая мгла без единого пятнышка света спешила навстречу тебе — как опилки железа навстречу магниту. Стихия, чирикая, чиркала по корпусу носа, настропаляла глаза прослезиться, царапала незащищенную плоть, ела теплую шею, не кашу.

Вторжение длилось ускоренно, длилось оно всего ничего.

Миниатюрные кайзеры вдруг исчезали долой с оскверненных участков улиц так же стремительно, так же внезапно, как и появлялись, однако последствия пиршества блох, анабиоз опрокинутой попранной чести, парша в очаге катастрофы, разбитые рваные бусы, непарные туфли, клочки шевелюр и медали на мостовой, подтверждая жестокость явления, свидетельствовали мудрецу на заметку, что против орды вампиров еще нигде во всем индюшатнике не придумано средств обороны.

[Fleas—what a hurricane! That powdery haze without a single speck of light was rushing towards you like metal shavings to a magnet. The chirping element scratched the hull of the nose, inciting the eyes to tear up, scraped the unprotected flesh, ate not mush but the warm neck.

The invasion was rapid; it happened in the blink of an eye.

The miniature kaisers suddenly vanished from the defiled street sections as precipitously, as abruptly as they had appeared; however, the aftermath of the fleas’ feast—the anabiosis of the overthrown and trampled honour, the mange in the focus of the disaster, the shattered and scattered beads, the unmatched shoes, the tufts of hairdos and the medals on the cobbles—gave word to the wise, confirming the cruelty of the event, that no means of defence against the horde of the vampires has been invented in the whole turkey coop.]

Gubin’s rhythmic prose deserves a separate article, perhaps even a monograph, so I will just lightly touch upon it, giving you a couple of examples. Some of his sentences are likely to spark an acute sensation of déjà-vu in any reader who has been exposed to the Russian canonical translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey. It is a peculiar feeling when you realise that a scene or a description in the novel suddenly bursts into a dactylic hexameter or at least into its truncated version. Just look at this sentence:

Пусть у реп|тилий по|верх орга|низма свой |собственный| панцирь

—́UU | —́UU | —́ UU | —́UU | —́UU | —́U

или сво|я чешу|я сере|брится на| пузе.

—́UU | —́UU | —́ UU | —́UU | —́U

(Let reptiles have their own carapace on their bodies and let silvery scales shine on their bellies.)

To give you another example, related to the above-mentioned attack of the fleas, here is a weird participial phrase metered in amphibrachic pentameter:

“многие сразу потели,

танцуя| вприсядку| плюючу|ю польку| содома”

U—́U | U—́U | U—́U | U—́U | U—́U |

(many broke out in a sweat, squat-dancing the spitting polka of Sodom)

There are more likewise ingeniously metered sentences and phrases scattered throughout the text, and I cannot stress enough how important this rhythmic ornamentation is to the overall aesthetic experience of reading the novel.

Apart from the rhythm of Gubin’s sentences, there are also striking images to catch us unawares, to give us pause, and to make us wonder.  Gubin’s strings of metaphors and similes are also often rhythmic and frequently sport alliteration or consonance. The facial expression of the plumber Entik (a minor character), who comes to visit a psychiatrist is described as “подвижная гамма гримас” (nimble gamut of grimaces). The Tower is periphrastically called “институт-инкубатор оракульских истин” (institute-incubator of oracular truths). The scalp of the Dwarf itches “as if dogs had sprinkled the crown of his head with lightning bolts” (как если бы псы на макушку насыпали молний). This sentence fragment is yet another amphibrachic pentameter, by the way. The idle yammering of bus passengers becomes “the tentacles of the sticky and wobbly noodles of verbiage” (щупальцы липкой дрожащей лапши словоблудия). In his bombastic address to the residents of the Shoelaces village, Illarion wants to demonstrate the superiority of the technocratic society that he represents, so he comes up with an alliterative abomination that could have been spewed by any of the garbled proletarian rhetoricians in Andrei Platonov’s works: “Наука накаркала цивилизацию, предусмотрела паяльник и поезд.” My translation will be very imperfect for this: “Science predicted civilisation; it foresaw the soldering iron and the train.” (As you can see, the alliteration is lost and the hilarious use of the verb накаркать, which is derived from the verb “to caw” and means to call into being something evil, hasn’t been conveyed. That would have required more than one sleepless night, I’m afraid!) Illarion prefers to spend his leisure time at the fireplace with the state flag next to him because in its presence “the muzzle of wrinkles grows dim” (тускнеет намордник морщинок).  I could go on, but even these few examples should be enough for either winning you over or completely putting you off Illarion and the Dwarf, depending on your idea of what good literature is. I will finish by noting that the title itself is bathed in consonance and the interplay of the l’s and r’s is luxurious to the ear: Illarion i Karlik.

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10 Responses to Illarion and the Dwarf (Илларион и Карлик) by Vladimir Gubin

  1. Lucas Preuth says:

    Thank you for bringing this richly dense and wonderful novel to my attention! This book seems like a tour de force of Russian literature, I’m surprised it isn’t more widely known. The fusion of fable and literature is one that writers don’t often take upon themselves, presumably because of the sheer control of language and narrative needed to execute it well – as instanced by the length of time Gubin himself spent refining this work. It’s like William Morris meets Mircea Cărtărescu, an intricate fusion of the mythical and fantastic with the absurd and surreal. I don’t read Russian, but I gave the book a perfunctory search online and wasn’t able to find much of anything in the way of biographies, articles, or reviews about this book and it’s author, at least in the Anglosphere. Might you know where I’d be able to secure myself a copy of the book? I’d love to tackle its complex linguistic play and narrative myself when I finally get around to learning Russian. My hands are a bit full at the moment with two vastly challenging languages, Japanese and Amharic, but I’d love to have the book sitting on my shelf for when I finally settle down to undertake Russian.

  2. languagehat says:

    Thanks for this wonderful review, and how lucky you were to happen on a copy! I’ve spread the word at my place:

  3. HunterLevy says:

    Hello, Andrei! I recently came across your monumental blog from a video of Orpheus’s on YouTube. Great stuff all around.

    Apologies if you’ve stated this elsewhere, but I’m curious about your background in languages. What languages did you grow up speaking? How much of your adult life has been spent delving into languages? How long did it take you to reach fluency in the various languages that you read and analyze in? It is astounding that you are able to tackle the most esoteric and linguistically dense books of various languages, so I am eagerly curious to hear how you reached the point where you’ve arrived at today.

    All the best.

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