Dedicated to Piranesi (Посвящается Пиранези) by Joseph Brodsky

View of Flavian Amphitheatre, called the Colosseum, 1776. Giovanni Battista Piranesi.

A while ago, my tweet about the Joseph Brodsky poem apparently recounting the conversation between the too tiny figures at the bottom of Piranesi’s famous etching provoked lively interest among my literary-minded followers. Apart from the highly original premise of the poem, this enthusiasm could be explained by the fact that there is no English translation of the piece. Even the bulky Collected Poems in English doesn’t have it. Half-heartedly, I tinkered a bit with it, intending to produce a more or less acceptable English translation to satisfy the curiosity of my audience, but, after the third stanza, it became obvious that I was spawning an abomination, and that I should the last person to attempt to convey to the English-language reader the sophisticated beauty of Brodsky’s poetry. To prove that I’m not being falsely modest, I  present to you the misbegotten product of my brief and conceited endeavour (the original is rhymed, by the way):

A lunar crater or a Colosseum, or a place somewhere 

in the mountains. A man in a coat

is talking to a man clutching a staff.

Nearby, a dog is searching for grub in the garbage.


 It doesn’t matter what they’re talking about. Apparently,

About something sublime; about such matters as bliss

And aspiration for truth. It’s quite natural to converse with a pilgrim

About this insurmountable sentiment.


The cliffs, or the remnants of erstwhile columns,

Are covered in wild herbs. And the way

The pilgrim’s head is bent belies certain

reconcilement  with the world in general and


with the local fauna in particular. …


Enough. So, instead of the horrible translation, I would like to offer a brief analysis of this strange poem.

I owe the discovery of Piranesi’s etching to the outstanding commentary by Russian poet and philologist Lev Loseff, which appeared in the recently published two-volume edition of Brodsky’s collected poems. At first, I thought that the poet simply had chosen to zoom in on the pair with the dog, think up their exchange and write it down in his versed description of the print. However, as Lev Loseff points out, Dedicated to Piranesi is not a pure ekphrasis. If you magnify the image and look carefully enough, you will notice that the two people in the picture are a woman and a man, and not two men as stated in the poem. So, it would be more appropriate to regard Piranesi’s etching as the initial inspirational impetus that sent Brodsky’s poetic imagination racing.

The protagonists of the poem are a modern man walking his dog and a discalced pilgrim who clearly belongs to some earlier epoch, perhaps the 18th century, when the etching was made or, maybe, the period of Roman Antiquity, with which the Russian poet was so enamored. The violation of the arrow of time represented by their impossible encounter is echoed in the indeterminate character of the setting itself: it is difficult to tell whether the conversation takes place in the mountains or in some ancient ruins. The topic of the discussion is one of the major leitmotifs in Brodsky’s whole oeuvre: the nature of time and its influence on human beings. As the poet himself said in an interview: “if I were to summarize, my main interest is the nature of time. That’s what interests me most of all. What time can do to a man. That’s one of the closest insights into the nature of time that we’re allowed to have.”  The pilgrim prefers to walk about barefooted because the prickling sensation given to his foot soles by the stiff tufts of grass and the hard-edged gravel reminds him of the difference between the present and the past. Although it is possible to experience directly only the present, this is not always clear to human beings who are compelled to inhabit the “mixture” of the past and the present due to the evanescent character of the latter. The man in the coat, on the other hand, always wears shoes. He cannot accept the pilgrim’s fixation on the present, believing it to be of minor significance compared to the vast solidified realm of the past. Nor is he in favour of the “heat-haze” of the future (in Russian, the beautiful word marevo is used), for all too soon it acquires the features of the past. To the sceptical pilgrim’s remark about the man in the coat himself not long ago being just a spot in the said heat-haze until the two met, his opponent bitterly responds that both of them are “two pasts”, which, by getting together generate the present.

The highest point of the modern man’s speculation about time is his bringing up their creator, the Italian engraver, who was kind enough to let them both exist in his elaborate landscape, which did not require any human presence at all.  Needless to say, the microscopic size of the people in Piranesi’s etching conclusively proves his point. Landscape is the quintessence of the past, and the notion of the fleeting present introduced into it by the inclusion of the wretched creatures like them is just an indication of the artist’s generosity.

The pilgrim’s next question catches the man in the coat off guard: “So, have you emerged from the past?” It is clear that with all the past trailing behind him, a 20th-century person cannot be somebody from the past with respect to a man who used to live centuries ago. Their brief encounter creates a concentrated node of the past, present and future, which, owing first to Piranesi, who made the engraving, and then to Brodsky, who described it in the poem, starts to expand. There is no way for the man in the coat to deny it. And he acknowledges this expanding present by describing what he and his dog are doing right now: “Not really, […] we’re just taking a walk here.” And then, finally, the dead ossified landscape dominated by the ancient ruins is ruptured by the prolonged barking of the dog, celebrating this convergence of the temporal aspects, to which yet another present is added: our aesthetic experience of reading the poem at this very moment. The dog is triumphantly barking at us.

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The Secret Year (Тайный год) by Mikhail Gigolashvili

It wasn’t Sergey Eizenstein’s bombastic epic Ivan the Terrible that Mikhail Gigolashvili had at the back of his mind when writing The Secret Year, but, as he mentioned in an interview, Alexei German’s infernal fresco Hard to be a God. The sprawling, slow-paced narrative unfolds within several weeks of the year 1575, when the Russian tsar ceded the Moscow throne to baptised Tatar Khan Simeon Bekbulatovich and withdrew to his residence in Alexandrova Sloboda, a fortified settlement 75 miles north-east of Moscow. Besides committing a synesthetic assault on the reader’s senses of smell and vision by virtue of its unflinching depiction of the sordid squalor and casual cruelty of the medieval times in Russia, the novel also impresses by its masterfully archaised language modelled on the florid style of Ivan the Terrible’s epistolary writings (you might be surprised to learn that the ruthless tsar, notorious for the barbaric acts of violence, was also one of the greatest stylists of the Russian language of his time). This linguistic experiment could be compared in its ambition to the famous pastiches of 18th century English prose accomplished by John Barth in The Sot-Weed Factor and Thomas Pynchon in Mason & Dixon. It’s one of those books where not much happens, and the plot is sketchy at best. What Gigolashvili’s novel offers instead is an atmospheric experience, an invitation to inhabit a period so little documented in the historical sources that the author feels free to create his own version of this past, a psychedelic fantasia dominated by the thoughts and voice of the imagined Tsar Ivan IV, which could possibly help us understand better the original historical figure.

Alexandrova Sloboda. Engraving by Theodor de Bry (d. 1598), published by Jacob Ulfeldt in 1627.

Most of the novel’s 15 chapters adhere to the same pattern. They usually start with a description of Ivan’s dream preceding his awakening and getting ready for the busy day lying ahead. The tsar’s official routine consists of receiving a number of sundry visitors: foreign ambassadors, messengers from Moscow and more distant parts of Russia, hired professionals from western Europe, and various members of his personal entourage. His prolonged dialogues with the guests provide us with a detailed picture of the situation in the country at the time when the main action takes place as well as give informative and vivid flashbacks of the earlier days of Tsar Ivan’s reign, most notably, the 7-year period of the oprichnina, the policy of repressions, executions and forcible relocations of the nobility carried out by the corps of oprichniki, an elite military guard and political police in one. After that, we follow the protagonist on whatever personal business or adventure he has in mind on the given day until the moment he goes to bed in his chamber. At the end of each chapter except the last one there is a short section dedicated to two servants who at night arrive at the printing house to make, by hand, fair copies of the two documents drafted by the monarch himself. The first one is called the List of State Servitors and includes the names of the faithful oprichniki. The second one bears the title Memorial List of the Disgraced (Sinodik opal’nykh) and contains the names of men, women and children executed by the tsar’s order. The list of the disgraced is meant for the churches as the pious Ivan wants prayers said for the soul of each of his victims. As a matter of fact, fourteen chapters of The Secret Year invariably end with authentic excerpts from both lists placed side-by-side in two columns: the murderers next to the murdered.

David Fassmann, Gespräche in dem Reiche derer Todten, Entrevue Nr. 84, Leipzig 1725, Title Page.

The general tenor of the tsar’s official meetings is the inevitable juxtaposition of the still medieval Muscovy and her western European neighbours enjoying the technological and cultural advances of the late Renaissance. Thus, while admiring the German pocket watch given to him as a gift, the tsar bitterly regrets that his country hasn’t produced anything of the kind, for up to this moment he could only relate the notion of a timepiece to a huge tower clock. The fortepiano for the music school in the Sloboda has been imported from Italy. The pig-intestine condom Ivan is compelled to use after discovering a syphilitic chancre on his glans is the invention of an Englishman. If it were not for his German engineer and factotum Ortwin Schlosser, there wouldn’t be the indoor menagerie, the bakery, the music school, and even the water-supply system in Alexandrov Kremlin. Almost every day the sovereign has to listen to never-ending complaints about the theft and corruption in the nascent Russian Tsardom’s ineffective administrative system, which renders Russia’s backwardness in comparison to the West even more poignant: they have universities, banks, well-established schools of visual arts, newspapers — and we don’t. Possessed by the idea of accelerating Russia’s development and bringing it closer to western Europe, Ivan makes arrangements for the establishment of the first school of interpreters, correctly believing that no transmission of knowledge is possible without effective communication. Establishing this dialogue is essential, but not so easy with the Livonian War at the background. In foreign states the Russian tsar is viewed as a sadistic and obscurant tyrant and Ivan IV strongly resents this image of a monster ballyhooed by his political opponents. The bias against him is even reflected in the translation of his sobriquet, for in Russian the word “groznyi” means “formidable”, not “terrible”. When he is shown a German print portraying him as a feral beast sitting on a throne amid mass executions, Ivan has mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, he is vexed by the hypocrisy and injustice of this attitude, for there is no lack of cruelty and despotism among his political opponents either. On the other hand, he feels flattered by the awe and fear he instills in them. The introduction of this engraving, by the way, is a brilliant touch of playful anachronism on the part of Gigaloshvili, for it appeared only in 1725, on the title page of German publicist David Fassmann’s moral weekly Gespräche in dem Reiche derer Todten (Dialogues in the Realm of the Dead).

The long-windedness of the book (my edition of the novel is more than 800 pages long) from time to time is jazzed up by the elements of detective and mystery genres. In a fit of the overwhelming desire to escape from it all, the tsar makes a botched attempt to flee to England by setting off alone in a horse wagon. He doesn’t make it far from his estate before the wagon breaks down and he is robbed by two wandering artisans who fail to recognise the monarch in the dishevelled and unkempt man before them. The detective thread of the narrative is represented by the subsequent probe into the case by the best representatives of the Banditry Office (Razboinaya izba), a fledgling criminal investigation department established by the tsar in the 1570s. The other mystery to be solved is of seemingly supernatural character, most probably involving witchcraft: a stone slab with writings in an ancient language falls from the sky and maims Ivan’s factotum Schlosser. But the most impressive “interruptions” of the mostly sluggish main narrative are provided by Ivan’s dreams and hallucinations. The oneiric experiences of the tsar are as important to him as his wakeful activities, for quite often the symbolic omens received in the dreams serve for him as clues or even instructions when dealing with practical issues at hand. In dreams he can directly communicate not only with angels, but also with demons, as the powers of evil also require close attention of the God-fearing man. The workings of the devil are especially evident in his opium-induced reveries — the tsar has become addicted to the drug as a means of mitigating the pain caused by his proliferating ailments. An admirer of Hieronymus Bosch, (in the novel there is an apocryphal story of Ivan IV getting hold of a stolen Bosch painting) the tsar generates mental pictures of matching weirdness:

The black dog put its front paws on the bed and opened its maw, giving off unearthly fetor. … But it’s not the dog’s mouth – it’s a twilight temple! The Ambon is black. Pitch candles are crackling.  Bundles of bats are fluttering in the corners. The icons show the muzzles of beasts wearing cone hats. A smoking chalice is sitting on the pulpit. Hairy scorpions, long-legged spiders, fish-snakes and toad-rats are crawling out of it, arshin-long worms are stretching their naked necks. In front of the Ambon, an obese priest is swinging a thurible with something shit-smelling. Greenish glistening slugs are slithering on his shoulders, leaving slippery trails. The priest has a black face, his eyes are scarlet, his mouth is spewing smoke, and his fingers seem charred. And here is the flock bustling about the corners: some freaks tear off their own noses, ears and lips and throw them into a rusty bucket. The filled bucket travels by itself through the air and right into the hands of the priest, who pokes his mug inside and begins to chomp with such gusto that the slugs start dropping onto the floor with a hollow squelching sound.

In a dream that Tsar Ivan has several days before Archangel Michael’s day, the culmination of the whole narrative, he is visited both by Michael and his fallen companion Dennitsa, which was the Russian word for Lucifer at the time. It is Dennitsa who marks his shoulder with a branding iron, leaving the acrid smell of sulphur in the air. Perhaps, after all, the satanic forces are getting the upper-hand in the struggle for the Russian monarch’s soul. The extent of the book allows the author to explore in depth the controversial dualism of Ivan IV, who is still viewed by many as a mere caricature of wanton cruelty not unlike the Wallachian voivode Vlad III (the Impaler).  The two different sides of the tsar are shown in all their horrendousness and splendour. For those morbidly interested in the ingeniuos methods of torturing and killing human beings applied by Ivan and the members of his court there is a veritable sick feast: the condemned get fried alive in enormous frying pans with boiling oil; outlawed oprichniki murder people in the manner which in some way corresponds to their last names (e.g. a man whose last name Sobakov is derived from sobaka, the Russian for a dog, is beaten up to pulp and fed to ravenous dogs); the teenaged Ivan and his cronies let loose four bears into the throng of Muscovites on a market day and set about punching to death the panicking folk with knuckle-dusters; a literal blood bath is given to Tsar Ivan by his cruellest henchman Malyuta Skuratov, who lets ten Tatar captives bleed into a basin and then washes his sovereign in the blood using a lopped curly-haired head as a sponge; a giant albino sheatfish in the tsar’s menagerie is given the nickname Glutton because of its appetite for the cut-off human fingers, noses and ears fed to him by the same Malyuta.  This list could go on, but I think that the few examples I have given here will suffice. Alongside the pathological cruelty there is another aspect of Tsar Ivan, which is often overlooked. Here we speak not only of Ivan IV as the architect of the centralised Russian state and the founder of the incipient empire during whose reign the territory of the tsardom was considerably expanded. It is also worth considering the tsar as a very knowledgeable and creative man whose talent manifested itself not only in his famous correspondence with the runaway Prince Kurbsky, but also in a number of religious musical compositions. Offering a powerful counterpoint to the atrocities witnessed and recollected throughout the novel, the final chapter concludes with a choir of children standing against a painted backdrop depicting Paradise and singing a magnificent canon in praise of Archangel Michael, the “terrible voivode”. This hymn was composed by Parfenii Urodivyi, which was the artistic pseudonym of the terrible tsar.

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Guest Post: Luís Miguel Rosa on Dom Tanas de Barbatanas by Tomaz de Figueiredo

Dom Tanas de Barbatanas is a weird novel even by the standards of the Portuguese fiction of its time. When it arrived in bookstores in 1962, Portugal was already awash in the literary experimentalism that electrified a big chunk of the world in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Looking back, this period nowadays seems to boil down to a simplistic war between proponents of the realistic novel and innovators. It all looks now a bit theoretical and too serious; why couldn’t each novelist do his own thing and let others do their own thing without getting so aggressive about their respective positions?

In Portugal there was nothing simplistic and theoretical about this; writers took this matter very, very seriously. Portugal by then had been a right-wing dictatorship for decades. The official press and official cultural institutions promoted an official literature of doubtful quality that fulfilled a role within the larger state propaganda machine. A parallel left-wing press existed in spite of several restrictions that pooled a network of publishers, newspaper editors, journalists, critics, translators, and writers united in political opposition against the regime. For this left-wing enclave, organized and animated to a considerable extent by the underground Communist Party, the 19th century realistic novel was the only permissible model of literary expression.

This resistance literature, born at the same time as Franco was emerging victorious in Spain and Hitler was about to conquer Europe, was called neo-realismo, new realism. Since the late 1930s narrative fiction had adhered to the naturalistic principles of studying society, registering its ills critically and exposing them on the page. Novels were populated with peasants (Portugal was still deeply rural) and proletarians. Hunger, misery, class struggle, capitalist exploitation were obligatory subjects. This left-wing press essentially set the course of literature and used its resources to stifle dissenting voices that, although not aligned with the regime, were not interested in writing Marxist novels. And so the novel in Portugal in the decades after 1940 remained predominantly realistic, old-fashioned, repetitive, dull.

However, by the early 1960s a younger generation of Portuguese writers started showing dissatisfaction with the neo-realist hegemony. It did not have to be the only way, they said. Neo-realism, which had enjoyed the allegiance of most poets, novelists and intellectuals for a long time and only from time to time had to deal with a contrarian, went on the defensive. The press was a battlefield throughout the decade on which each side launched invectives against the other. I get sometimes the impression that the experimentalist craze in Portugal was carried out more to piss off the ageing neo-realists than to spite the regime. Young writers craved freedom to create as they pleased and to express reality in their own way. For them, neo-realism wasn’t realistic enough to represent the modern world. Robbe-Grillet, Sarraute, and the nouveaux romanciers were immensely popular because they gave them a readymade model to use in rejection of their predecessors. Their rebellion had a mostly French accent.

Dom Tanas de Barbatanas didn’t fit anywhere. It wasn’t a realistic novel, but it wasn’t the nouveau roman either. The critics who bothered to write about it didn’t point out anything innovative about it; it was hastily read and hastily put away as if it had no place in this battle between old and new. It couldn’t be neo-realist because the author, Tomaz de Figueiredo, hated the neo-realists not just for aesthetic reasons but because he was a conservative monarchist; it couldn’t be nouveau roman because Tomaz saw it as a fad, another school like neo-realism, and he hated following fads and joining schools because that killed the writer’s individuality, the source of creativity, what made art eternal instead of circumscribed to a circumstance.

Tomaz was born in 1902 in a family of rural aristocrats that lost its status when the monarchy was overthrown by a republican coup in 1910. Although the republic itself fell in 1926 to a military coup which installed a military dictatorship still leaning somewhat on republican ideals, by 1933 it had evolved into a regime more in the likeness of the fascist regimes popping up in Europe, under the leadership of António Salazar. Contrary to what many monarchists like Tomaz hoped, Salazar did not restore the monarchy. Although Tomaz hated the republic, the new regime wasn’t agreeable to his values either. Politically and literarily, Tomaz fit nowhere: he repudiated the Left and had few friends in literary circles; but the Right in power wasn’t the right one.

Even so, life for a monarchist was relatively easier since the monarchist movement had been one of the lynchpins of the 1926 coup; they were trustworthy, especially after so many had been pacified by Salazar with major positions in government. Tomaz was also programmed by temperament not to care about politics; making art was his sole passion and he despised writers who wasted their time serving parties and Power. Tomaz led a peaceful, acquiescent life in the countryside, with occasional trips to Lisbon; he worked as a notary, complaining in letters and prefaces that in his double status as aristocrat and writer it was unworthy of him to have to earn a living. A real writer can’t produce in the coffe breaks between his responsibilities at the office! Because of this, he vociferated in letters, Portugal had lost countless masterpieces that he had never had the time to write. But he couldn’t earn a living from writing anyway because his novels were too dense and demanding for most readers. Tomaz’ novels have a vast vocabulary, mixing regionalisms with the most erudite terms; he wrote in long, sinuous sentences that seemed to be mocking the short telegraphic sentences employed by the neo-realists. His novels were also mostly autobiographical, which gave them a sensation of hermetism and of writing for himself, a sensation heightened by their plotlessness. He frequently used first-person narrators whose recollections amble to their own rhythm. He was also daring in other ways, like avoiding dialogue. When his first novel came out in 1947 (he was aged 45), he was compared to Proust and Faulkner, comparisons he rejected in behalf of his sacred individuality.

Tomaz lived between 1941 and 1960 in a small provincial town called Estarreja. He wrote his novels and his remarkable poetry at cafés and at his hotel room. He had little to do with the literary milieu in Lisbon; from time to time he published a short-story or article in a newspaper. He translated Colette’s The Vagabond. For years, before moving from Lisbon to Estarreja, he was an art critic. Politics didn’t interest him and it wasn’t a crime anyway to long for the king in exile. He lived in a world of his own, made up of his recollections of an idyllic Portugal prior to being “ruined” by the republicans, disdaining the vulgar, bourgeois present. And yet troubles went looking for him. His letters show a noticeable growth in his hatred of Salazar from the ‘50s onwards. Besides not having restored the monarchy, a more personal matter had put an end to his indifference to the regime: his oldest son, also Tomaz, had joined the Communist Party and was wanted by the political police, the PIDE, for revolutionary activities. When he was caught, Tomaz senior had to use all his connections and grovel as he hated to do in order to help him. But what drove him literally crazy was being accused of embezzling funds at the civil registry.

Tomaz, with his aristocratic contempt for a life in the civil service, joyfully shirked his responsibilities at the civil registry and absented himself whenever he could to write, leaving two subordinates in charge. Unsupervised, they used the opportunity to steal money. When the authorities got wind of this, Tomaz was charged with the crime. He defended himself, was cleared of the charges, got his job back, then retired soon after because of health issues. I’m simplifying here; this was a martyrdom that dragged on through 4 or 5 years, with occasional losses of faith in God (he was Catholic, obviously), and suicidal thoughts.

The accusation had been so severe an attack on his sense of honor that he was afflicted by depression. Honor was all that he had left in this sordid world of exiled kings, a plebeian rising to dictator, and writers prostituting themselves to Parties. The whole world was corrupt, vile, fascists no better than republicans; even the other monarchists had sold out by joining the regime out of interest, reneging their principles. He was purer than others; that’s what set him above others since nobility titles were meaningless now. And then he had that last consolation taken away from him. Tomaz’ depression led him to be committed to an institution; he was subjected to shock therapy. This was a golden period for his poetry because he wrote hundreds of poems just to cope with madness; he’s one of the few genuine cases I know of someone retaining his sanity through the power of poetry. His letters from this period are as bleak as the poems: they’re all about him saying farewell to his few friends one by one, thinking that he’d never write again, that the part of his brain had been amputated that contained his talent, that his ability to feel had been damaged, diminished.

Thus despondent, defeated, he got into a fight in 1960 with a local monarchist for reasons never fully understood. In Tomaz’ case, fights involved actual fists; he boasted that he had left his family’s coat of arms, in a ring he wore, impressed on his enemy’s flesh. He loved to brag about his physique. Dom Tanas de Barbatanas started as a short-story after this incident and was intended to parody his enemy. This event and his need to get even – getting even is the engine propelling many of his books – led to a big novel with 700 pages split in two volumes, making it still one of the longest Portuguese novels ever written. Part of its development is chronicled in his letters; his circle of close friends awaited it with glee, even if some later complained about its abstruseness and excesses. Tomaz also spoke of it with enthusiasm, and it’s clear that its humor helped him overcome his depression. However, the press in general overlooked it. Nowadays it’s a cliché to say that Tomaz has been shunned because of his politics, but that’s inaccurate; he’s ignored because he’s a challenging writer. Although his oeuvre was reprinted a few years ago, he’s still unknown to the public at large.

Dom Tanas didn’t find an audience because it’s a novel that requires attention, patience and commitment from the reader. Its sesquipedalian syntax requires one reading just to identify its subject, and a second reading to get the gist of the information. His vocabulary was gigantic, so after looking up the six or seven words that stop the reading in its tracks, a third reading is in order to finally make sense of the sentence. The fourth reading, optional but essential, is to soak up the sheer gorgeousness of the language. José Saramago’s long sentences seem like school compositions compared to them. António Lobo Antunes’ Fado Alexandrino is its rightful successor, but even that one is rather tame and straightforward by comparison. Dom Tanas’ artistry is a baroque brocade of alliteration, rhymes, trains of subordinate clauses, thick paragraphs, Latin expressions, archaic words and spelling, and even regionalisms that no dictionary will explain. Tomaz had no sympathy for the people excepting the loyal servants of his childhood; there is no social concern for the people even though the people lived in abject poverty during the regime; he only loved in them their colorful language, which he recorded in notebooks when he went hunting with his remaining rich friends. Surrounded by peasants, hunters, house maids, woodsmen, shepherds, he listened to them and recorded their words, sometimes updating dictionaries by hand. Hell, he even published a dictionary. With this word-hoard he created a unique language that seems like a pastiche of how people spoke in 18th century Portugal, although it was his own invention. He knew that living people assume that people spoke in the past always with an excess of orotundity, so he made it orotund as hell. Trying to even translate a paragraph is folly; the ideal translator would need to have Paul West’s or Alexander Theroux’s domain of the English language.

The novel is kind of plotless. A nameless panegyrist pens the protracted praise of a dead aristocrat, Dom Tanas de Barbatanas, the world’s most fearless swordsman, the strongest puncher in a brawl, the smartest thinker ever to grace a University, the most gallant seducer and lover, the most lyrical poet, the most skilled counselor in political matters, a strategic genius, the most everything at everything. It’s so ridiculous, so exaggerated, it undermines the veracity of the portrayal, and Dom Tanas disappears submerged by the colossal style employed by the panegyrist, who becomes the real protagonist in an inimitable performance of linguistic virtuosity.

When the first volume came out in 1962 (the second one is from 1964), the few critics who wrote about it incorrectly described it as a picaresque novel. Even the two scholars who’ve bothered to study it repeat this mantra. Tomaz himself called it a “Quixote of Vileness”, but even so comparisons should be used carefully. Classic picaros like Lazarillo de Tormes and The Swindler are about conmen who trick others out of their money; Don Quixote is about a madman who tricks himself (and other characters) about reality. Dom Tanas is about a servile narrator botching his duty to trick the reader. Don Quixote owes to picaresque novellas its colloquial language and its hero evokes the fading values of the questing knight. Don Tanas is a panegyric with the bombastic, florid language of the panegyric that is about a nobody who has no values although the panegyrist tries to imprint on him the values of a questing knight.

Its structure is so unusual that I don’t even know another novel that uses it. The novel is in fact an intersection of three classic genres: it plays up the outdated values of chivalric romances and some tropes like the healing potions (which in Dom Tanas’ seedy world is reduced to a hemorrhoid-healing unguent that he dutifully applies to the ass cheeks of the powerful he wants to ingratiate himself with); it has the down-to-earth comedy and social criticism of the picaro; and it uses the Greek panegyric to mock the language of power.

This novel, as I’ve said, came out at a time when Portugal was no less interested in the avant-garde novel than Europe, the USA, and Latin America. It was ignored also because it was not the right avant-garde. Younger novelists flirted only with the nouveau roman and were too busy dismantling the traditional novel to consider Dom Tanas anything but the kind of antique they were too good for. And yet the similarities are many: they rejected plot – Tomaz used the most linear plot available, the biography, to show how a life’s story is just a speech construction. They rejected character – Tomaz named a novel after a character, something rare at the time, and yet he showed how a ‘character’ is just a category created by language. They avoided grandiloquence – Tomaz reveled in its potential for ridicule. They were suspicious of omniscient narrators, so was Tomaz. Dom Tanas is a self-conscious novel about the danger of fiction to fool readers. Besides, the panegyric is an essentially deceptive genre since its goal is to embellish, to lie, to seduce, as was so much of the state propaganda around him.

It’s a comic masterpiece of exaggeration. Dom Tanas doesn’t just have a good lineage, his surname is older than the Portuguese kingdom. He wasn’t just born, omens announced his birth. He didn’t just graduate from the University of Bologna, he earned the title of ‘General Doctor’ in all arts and sciences. Although hints indicate here and there that the Tanas clan is poor, the panegyrist imagines a sumptuous dinner the size of a chapter that could have happened. The second volume ends with an epic epanodos of hyperbolic comparisons to major figures of history. The reader, by the way, will do well to keep a manual of rhetoric to check what words like ‘epanodos’ mean because Dom Tanas is first and foremost an exercise in rhetoric and how its techniques hide a pathetic, petty life.

A panegyric is not so much life without the boring bits, as life without life. Where the biographer puts facts, the panegyrist puts facundity, augmentation, maximalist rhetoric. In ancient Greece orators were expected to invent; a panegyric doesn’t deal with how one life was lived, but how life should ideally be lived by all. It’s fundamentally didactic, using a personal life to impart an ethics shared by the community. Even if the deceased being honored had no virtues, the panegyric had the duty of creating an example of civic decency to be followed. What’s funny about reading 18th century panegyrics is spotting occasional moments of self-awareness when the panegyrist admits that he’s just adding a virtue to his subject because that’s what the genre demands. Tomaz wasn’t inventing his novel’s self-consciousness, he was playing the genre’s rules for laughs. The novel’s humor is born from the tension between the panegyrist’s puissant deification of Dom Tanas and the truth about this man’s mediocrity, a situation all too common in Portugal. The apogee of the genre was in the 17th century, but it limped on until the 19th century when it was reinvented in the press. It’s also insinuated that he’s writing this on behalf of Dom Tanas’ son, Dom Badanas, his “friend”. In a regime where journalists would sell their services for money, such friends were common. Tomaz’ friend Agustina Bessa-Luís, one of the few novelists he deemed praiseworthy, thought that Dom Tanas was Salazar. Perhaps. But he’s a type. Portugal was and is a nation of bronze statues, of marble busts dotting public gardens, of formalities and lots of titles behind one’s name. The Portuguese use different verb modes depending on the situation and the level of intimacy they have with the person they’re addressing. The way language shapes behavior is something they’re daily aware of.

The novel starts in the 18th century, before the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake, and follows Dom Tanas’ education from childbirth until his meeting the major politician of his time, Sebastião de Carvalho, better known as the Marquis de Pombal, Lisbon’s rebuilder. The Marquis was a modernizer: he reformed education, opened the country to Europe, tried to reign in the Inquisition, and expelled the Jesuits from Portugal, whom he considered the source of all national evils. This move didn’t sit well with Tomaz, him being the nephew of a Jesuit priest, and brought up in a Jesuit school in Galicia during the Republic. If Tomaz didn’t like the Marquis de Pombal, Dom Tanas is worse because he seeks the Marquis’ favor to rise in society; in essence he’s an arriviste, like so many monarchists who bowed down to Salazar. Dom Tanas, however, is above all a container of the flaws the Portuguese perceive in other Portuguese: he’s a coward, a dunce, an ass-licker, a schemer; ultimately he’s the kind of aristocrat Tomaz hated because the aristocracy was his ideal of ethics.

Dom Tanas also partook in a movement towards awareness of Portugal as a historical enigma in need of answers; Portuguese writers couldn’t just register and report reality, as the neo-realists had done until then; it had to be investigated through its myths, symbols and history to explain how it had become what it was. Given the solemnity enforced by the regime, it was no wonder that this history is tirelessly mocked and shown as false, grotesque, ridiculous. The regime had manufactured a mantle of myths to cover it under. Tomaz’ novel mocks Portugal’s love for rhetoric, empty speeches, ceremonies, and the pedantry of its intellectual class. It was a savage attack on a Portugal made of scheming, incompetent arrivistes, and most of it rings true. Tomaz was a nationalist, a monarchist commonplace, but in the novel he relaxes, he writes against himself, he even laughs at his cherished world of aristocratic values and privileges.

When the first volume came out, Tomaz was 60. The younger novelists half his age who embraced the nouveau roman had a different relationship with language. They were very anti-rhetorical; there were reasons for that: rhetoric, eloquence, the political speech, Salazar’s voice invading the living room through the radio, pomp, public ceremonies, and Propaganda, were an oppression upon the quotidian. Language was a shield against reality. Since well-behaved language seemed to belong to the State, they heaped violence on it, they twisted linearity, smashed syntax, wreaked havoc in punctuation, delighted in nonsense, until literary language was reshaped into something no one would mistake for the clichés uttered at political rallies. Tomaz did the opposite: he embellished language to the point of unusability; he was so rhetorical, so artificial, he exposed language as nothing but a tool of power to be manipulated in the service of lies. He didn’t hide his debt to Francisco de la Isla’s 1758 novel Frey Gerundio de Campazas, a Spanish satire on baroque preachers in which overblown rhetoric is also the butt of endless jokes. Instead of abjuring tradition, he used it to mock tradition. The Baroque birthed Tomaz, he was his time’s most baroque novelist, but he turned its excesses into an indictment of a country that preferred ornamental words to ideas and ideals.

Dom Tanas de Barbatanas is unique in Portuguese fiction because it’s about bombast, and Portuguese novelists have always been wary of bombast. They like short novels, everyday words. Whereas the English and French novel adopted the journalistic style early in the 18th century, Portugal remained mired in baroque rhetoric into the 1800s. I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that the British and American literature had so many stylists in the 1960s. In Portugal, however, a long prejudice against this Baroque past always implied a policing of style. It was easier thus to follow the French novel, which employed deliberate anodyne prose, than making such a radical overturning of “good taste”. As such, Dom Tanas is an island of extravaganza in Portuguese fiction. In it there’s pleasure in form and structure, in revitalizing old genres, and in questioning the nature of storytelling. Although Tomaz didn’t follow foreign literature, his fiction was always a bit more in synch with it, a bit ahead of what his countrymen were doing. In the 1940s he was one of the first novelists to develop techniques similar to Faulkner’s. Some of his novels from the late 1960s predate what we now call autofiction. Dom Tanas had less to do with the French novels being translated than the English-language novels not being translated, less to do with Tropisms and Jealousy than The Alexandria Quartet, The Public Burning, Ada or Ardor, The Sot-Weed Factor, those big comical, extravagant novels that were of course utterly ignored in Portugal in the 1960s. Perhaps, then, its oblivion was inevitable too.

However, it’s one of the few Portuguese novels I’d single out as worthy of translation. It’s a hilarious verbal tour de force, drawing its strength from the novel’s past but also fresh, unique, unlike anything written in the 20th century, and for those reasons deserving of more attention, of better readers.


About the Author

Luís Miguel Rosa was born in Lisbon in 1984. He published his first book, Nova Arte de Conceitos, in 2017. He blogs regularly at his bilingual blog, Homem-de-Livro, where he writes about literature in Portuguese and English.


Here you can read Miguel’s interview with The Untranslated.

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The Great Untranslated: Pałuba by Karol Irzykowski

In his introduction to Celina Wieniewska’s translation of Bruno Schulz’s short-story collection The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories, literary scholar and translator David A. Goldfarb dwells on the difficulties posed by the polysemy of the Polish word pałuba and mentions in passing the novel of the same name, which is little known even in Poland and is completely obscure to the rest of the world. This is what he has to say:

A particularly poignant symbol of the mythic potential of all matter in Schulz is the figure of the pałubaPałuba is a word so untranslatable that Celina Wieniewska cannot settle on a single English word for it, and sometimes simply passes it over. One scholar of Schulz, Jerzy Jarzębski, has said that pałuba is a Polish word that must be translated into Polish every time it is used. In the relevant sense, it might be translated as ‘hag’ or ‘witch,’ or it could refer to an effigy or doll in the form of a hag. […] The term pałuba enters the language of Polish modernism as the title of a radically experimental novel first published in 1903 in Lviv by the critic and essayist Karol Irzykowski.

I was unable to find this rare word in any bilingual dictionary, so I consulted this online monolingual dictionary of the Polish language, which provided the following meanings:

  1. daw.«niezgrabna lalka lub figurka»
  2. daw.«o osobie przypominającej taką kukłę»
  3. daw.«nakrycie wozu; też: kryty wóz»
  1. old. awkward doll or figurine
  2. old. about a person, resembling such a doll
  3. old. covering of a cart; also: covered cart

In the brief Britannica entry on Irzykowski, The Hag is suggested as the appropriate English translation of the title. However, in the 2014 French translation of some extracts from the novel, the title was rendered as La Chabraque, which obviously reflects an attempt to capture the ambiguity of the original. The word chabraque can either mean a saddlecloth or a prostitute.

We haven’t begun to discuss the book yet, and we’re already confused! Come to think of it, that’s the best introduction of the undervalued literary gem, which Irzykowski started writing as a precocious 19-year old and which, upon its publication in 1903, inaugurated the era of self-reflexive writing and metafictional games long before such frivolities became mainstream. It wouldn’t be a gross overexaggeration to say that Irzykowski, virtually single-handedly, paved the way with his audacious experiments for the future classics of Polish literary modernism, who are still better known than him: Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, Witold Gombrowicz, and, naturally, Bruno Schulz.

In Irzykowski’s lifetime, Pałuba was mostly dismissed  as a perplexing oddity by the critics who could not understand whether they were dealing with a critical essay masquerading as a novel or with a half-baked novel that lapsed into literary criticism. The true recognition came only after the Second World War, although the novel has never gained wide readership, remaining the object of scrutiny and veneration mostly within the circles of the initiated literati.

Irzykowski’s “novel” is obviously not one, and for us, raised on Nabokov’s Pale Fire and for whom this contradiction seems so mundane, it is very hard to imagine what it was like to come across such a rebellious misfit amidst the preponderance of traditional  forms of storytelling offered by the realist novel, the dominant genre at the end of the 19th century. Pałuba is a collection of five different texts, and the actual novel, which is called Pałuba (A Biographical Study)  (Pałuba (Studium biograficzne)), is just one of them. Besides this short novel, which narrates the story of the Polish landowner Piotr Strumieński and his two marriages (first to Angelika, and, after she commits suicide, to Ola), there is an allegorical novella titled The Dreams of Maria Dunin (A Palimpsest) (Sny Marii Dunin (Palimpsest)) and three critical essays. The novella tells us about an archaeologist who discovers a secret brotherhood devoted to the task of digging for the mysterious ancient Bell whose ringing is supposed to cause great calamities and destruction, and whose existence is as dubious as the veracity of the account itself. The essays give commentary on both the novella and the novel, on the connections between them, as well as insightful reflections on a range of philosophical, psychological and literary topics that seem to have preoccupied Irzykowski’s inquisitive mind ever since his student days at the Faculty of Philosophy in the University of Lwów, at the beginning of the 1890s.

Given the obscurity of Pałuba, I was genuinely surprised to learn that it had been made into a film. Well, understandably, not all of it. In 1984 the “novel” inside Irzykowski’s intricately constructed artifact was adapted for the screen by Marek Nowicki as Widziadlo (Apparition). It makes perfect sense that the most traditional element of the book was chosen as the basis for the film. But sometimes I wonder what it would be like to see a cinematic version of the whole thing (enigmatic allegories, exegetical ramblings and all) provided, of course, that I have access to a complete translation of Pałuba first.

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The Great Untranslated: To Mythistorima tis Kyrias Ersis (The Novel of Mrs Ersi) by Nikos Gabriel Pentzikis

When asked about the great literary events that happened in 1922, you will immediately come up with the most renowned products of the annus mirabilis: T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland , Virgina Woolf’s Jacob’s Room and James Joyce’s Ulysses. Most likely, you ignore that the same year in Greece there was published Georgios Drossinis’ novel Ersi, whose principal value now lies in the fact that it served as the model for the writing of the Greek Ulysses: Nikos Gabriel Pentzikis’ The Novel of Mrs Ersi. 

Drossinis’ book is fitting material for a late-modernist parody: it tells the story of an idealised romantic and intellectual relationship of the archeologist Pavlos Rodanos and his beautiful wife Ersi. The main setting of the novel is a small Greek island on which the couple spend six months, from April until October. The main purpose for the sojourn is Rodanos’ archeological research in pursuit of his study of the female leg and hand as represented in ancient Greek sculpture. In the course of the narrative, Drossinis ostentatiously draws parallels between the perfect beauty teased out of the marble by anonymous artists of yore and the flesh-and-blood perfection of Rodanos’ wife. This Parnassian picture-perfect story of a conjugal idyll becomes the framework of the imperfect and more than bewildering modernist edifice completed by Nikos Gabriel Pentzikis in 1966. It’s been long since Drossinis’ starry-eyed opuscule sunk into oblivion. If somebody mentions it nowadays at all, they do it almost always exclusively when discussing Pentzikis’ strange novel, the Greek response to an Irishman’s response to the immortal Greek epic.

In Pentzikis’ avant-garde reworking of Drossinis’ novel,  Ersi‘s protagonists have to deal with the overwhelming presence of a third party: the narrator recounting his mission of an avant-garde reworking of Drossinis’ novel and inducting its characters into the space of literary modernism. This creative quest is narrated through  a series of dreams and hallucinations involving grotesque transformations of some of the participants of this bizarre theatre of the mind as well as varied and numerous allusions to literature, history and myth. The culmination of the said quest is the encounter of the narrator with Ersi and their highly symbolic union that is meant to represent the act of writing itself. Just like Ulysses, the novel ends with a long interior monologue – that of the male narrator lying in bed next to his wife and recapping the main events of the book we are about to finish reading.

Karagiozis, a character of Greek shadow-puppet theatre. Image Source

What is common between the Greek folklore hero Sakorafos, the humpbacked character of shadow-puppet theatre Karagiozis, and Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos’s court jester Voilas? What is the significance of all the metamorphoses undergone by the protean Ruit Horas, the embodiment of the passage of time, who accompanies Ersi on her bus trips in Chalcidice? How come that one of the narrator’s children, begotten with his wife, is literally a needle and thread? I’m afraid we might have a chance of seeking out answers to these questions only when this novel gets translated. At the end of this short article about Pentzikis we come across the following striking statement:  “If the protagonists of the OuLiPo were able to read his works they would surely have made him a leading member of their movement.” If that is not an invitation to make Pentzikis’ literary legacy available to a broader international audience, I don’t know what is.

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Guest Post: Matthias Friedrich on En Australiareise (A Voyage to Australia) by Svein Jarvoll

Not long ago, I wrote a brief post about the Norwegian writer Thure Erik Lund and his mind-boggling tetralogy Myrbråtenfortellingene. As you might already know, most of English-speaking readers first learnt about Lund from his mega-popular compatriot Karl Ove Knausgård. I have recently been told that there is one more Norwegian author mentioned by Knausgård whose writing is also challenging, experimental, difficult to translate and is little known outside his home country. The writer in question is Svein Jarvoll. His only novel En Australiareise (A Voyage to Australia) was published in 1988 and has since acquired a cult status among the few who have been capable of reading and appreciating it. The critical response, as usually is the case with challenging and unconventional novels, has mostly been that of puzzlement and incomprehension.  Matthias Friedrich, the author of the German translation of the novel, which is scheduled for publication this year, has kindly agreed to write for The Untranslated a guest post about this remarkable work of literature.


Svein Jarvoll: En Australiareise (A Journey to Australia, 1988)

by Matthias Friedrich


In Boyhood Island, Karl Ove Knausgård reflects on the way his opinions have changed in the course of time:

Never, later in the life, have I had my finger on the pulse the way I had then with the girls living around us in those years. Later, I may have doubted whether Svein Jarvoll’s novel A Journey to Australia was a good or a bad novel, or whether Hermann Broch was a better writer than Robert Musil […].

Throughout My Struggle, Jarvoll is mentioned three times: as the translator of Adam Thorpe’s polyphonic novel Ulverton, as a writer who is able to talk precisely about what he does, and as the author of a strange novel called En Australiareise. But there’s nothing more than that. “Svein Jarvoll” is a name that may appear in an annotated edition of My Struggle one day. However, he is just a footnote in a truncated literary history despite his influence on Norwegian postmodern writers such as Stig Sæterbakken or Tor Ulven who both have been translated into English.

 En Australiareise was all but ignored when it was first published in 1988. One critic wrote about the novel’s “stylistic furor”, another needed to consult far too many dictionaries and lexica – but, of all things, was happy to find a reference to the Niffen, the sports club of Nordstrand (Oslo), in a passage of the novel which is a single run-on word: the so-called makrologos. And as Jarvoll said in an interview with the Norwegian magazine Vinduet, he once met a sailor in Northern Norway who told him that he had read En Australiareise, that he had expected a kind of personal account or autobiographical narration, but that he hadn’t understood anything of it.

What strikes the potential readers when they take a first look at the novel is its apparent nonconformity. It consists of two parts: Den gule boka (The Yellow Book) and Lonaquemor (which is Catalan for The Dying Wave). These two parts turn out to be very different from each other. The first one tells the story of Mark Stoller, a Norwegian traveller (although his name isn’t Norwegian at all) who sets off in València (Spain) and ends up in Australia. In between, he visits Ireland and undertakes a long train journey to Italy where sees Florence, Pisa, and Brindisi. The second part tells the story of Emmi who also travels; but she doesn’t leave Australia’s confines. Together with her friend Alice, Emmi battles her way through the jungle where her father Buster lives in a cabin, because she wants to visit him. In the cabin, she discovers a biography of a Norwegian anthropologist called Magnus C. Ztlohmul (who has a real-life prototype, namely the ethnologist Carl Lumholtz) and reads the book’s foreword before she decides to go back home.

Another thing that strikes the potential readers is its difficulty. The prose is dense, many texts are alluded to, and Jarvoll is quite ruthless when it comes to inventing new words which are impossible to track down, such as “Australopleust” in the first chapter; this means “one who is traveling through Australia”, but has a slight ironic touch. The novel takes in everything, from Dante’s Commedia and Rabelais’  Gargantua and Pantagruel to James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man,  also featuring lesser known poets such as the Catalan Ausiàs March.

The first part itself is divided into nine chapters (or episodes); the second one is a single run-on text. There is no strict plot as the story seems to rely on coincidences and caprices. Additionally, the characters – especially Mark Stoller and his Danish girlfriend Lone, who accompanies him on his travels from Spain to Italy – just appear to be human. In fact, they are media in the etymological sense of the term – accumulators of (linguistic) signs. Their names aren’t random. For instance, Mark compares himself to Ausiàs March and takes a closer look at a poem which contains these verses: “A temps he cor d’acer, de carn e fust:/ yo só aquest que·m dich Ausiàs March.” (Sometimes, I have a heart of lead, of flesh and wood:/I am the one who is called Ausiàs March.) This poem focuses on melancholy and dying, two themes which have a significant influence on Mark Stoller: In fact, En Australiareise is a long conversation with death and the European tradition of danse macabre. Despite its morbidity, the novel is hilarious and funny; it has a Rabelaisian touch; it contains a lot of Joycean scatology. It is experimental in the sense that it intends to sketch a manner of speaking about death, the so-called thanatology, and takes into consideration every text which deals with dissolution and exitus. Right in the first chapter, Mark announces that he wants to “spall out the ground” of Dante’s Commedia, which means that he doesn’t want to construct a vertical, symmetrical world (as Dante does), but a horizontal world which could be defined, in Deleuze and Guattari’s words, as dissymmetrical: a surface which seems to be empty, but erodes bit by bit and shows that it’s composed of different layers. It’s a geological landscape with a history of its own, but it is also arbitrary in the sense that it re-orients the traveller’s point of view; he or she must concentrate on the things visible and independently connect the dots which appear to be isolated. Thus, Mark is able to undertake a voyage which leads him through the European landscape of death; he himself becomes Dante who encounters many personalities, such as the painter Buonamico Buffalmacco, who is responsible for the Trionfo della Morte in Pisa; in a long and exciting discussion with this man who seems to be the reincarnation of the defunct uomo universale, Mark develops his thanatology and listens to Buffalmacco who himself outlines the developments of his (occasionally obscene) dream life.

Buonamico Buffalmacco, The Three Dead and the Three Living and The Triumph of Death, 1338-39.

Lone, whose name Mark derives from the Catalan l’ona, “the wave”, is the person who represents the novel’s style. Some elements appear as sinuated repetitions: it occurs frequently that some hypotexts, such as Dante’s poem, are transformed and parodied. Nevertheless, Mark’s etymology is false; in fact, Lone’s name is an abbreviation of the Danish Abelone, which itself is another form of Appolonia. As a cognate of the name of the Greek god of the arts (including poetry), Lone’s name sets the novel’s tone. “Lone, you whose name means ‘wave’ in Valencian, here I shall draw your contour in ten waves, and the contour which sketches the beginning of my own journey, a journey which traces a crooked M on the map” – and here, Mark lists the countries he is going to visit.

 En Australiareise remains a novel ignored by the public, even in Norway, in spite of the re-issue, which was published in 2008 in Gyldendal’s series Forfatterens forfatter (Writer’s Writer). It is poet Mazdak Shafieian who is responsible for this second edition, and who has written an informative foreword which can be read in German. A German translation has been announced by Urs Engeler and is probably going to be released in the course of 2018; the novel’s very first chapter has already been published in the literary magazine Mütze.


About the Author

Matthias Friedrich, born in Trier (Germany) in 1992, studied Creative Writing in Hildesheim (2012-2015) and is currently studying Scandinavian Literature in Greifswald. Last publication: kleine thanatoiden (Berlin, Sukultur 2016). Facebook:

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Forthcoming: The Rehearsals by Vladimir Sharov

In 1656, at the behest of Patriarch Nikon of Moscow, the building of a life-size replica of Jerusalem began on the bank of the river Istra. The trees were cut down and tonnes of additional earth brought in to fashion the typical landscape of Central Russia into the geographical semblance of the Holy Land. The imposing monastic ensemble that grew there in the course of the years of intense work, in which Nikon himself took part, became known as The New Jerusalem Monastery. The cathedral of the complex was built to resemble the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the river Istra was rechristened as the Jordan, and the surrounding terrain features received Biblical names: Mount Sinai, Mount Tabor, the Garden of Gethsemane.

Although this may sound  like something that sprang from the fertile mind of Russian writer Vladmir Sharov, this unbelievable event did happen, and you can actually visit the restored monastery in all its splendour if you ever come to the town of Istra, about 40 kilometres away from Moscow. For Sharov, this colossal construction project is just the point of departure for the construction of his own:  one of the most striking novels you are going to read in the coming year. In The Rehearsals,  the building of New Jerusalem is concurrent with the preparations for a mystery play faithfully recreating the events of the Gospels that Patriarch Nikon commissions a Breton theatre director to stage on the monastery grounds. The director uses the local peasants for the roles of the Jews, the Christians, and the Romans, as he is forbidden to employ professional actors. Since nobody is allowed to play Jesus Christ himself, that part is conferred to the empty space which the crowd of amateur thespians have to address year after year as they rehearse for the great premiere scheduled for the year 1666. Perhaps then, during the performance, Jesus Christ will descend in New Jerusalem on the bank of the Istra River, and the world will come to an end? When the time comes, we realise that the premiere will have to be postponed and that the rehearsals will continue for many more years, overshadowing by the scale of the attendant cruelty and brutality both the Biblical sources and the humble beginnings of the 17th-century.

Sharov’s dense and skillfully manipulative narrative will require all your attention. Bear with him, and you will be rewarded.  Ridden with all sorts of rabbit holes, that’s a Wonderland no Alice would visit on her own accord, for the journey would take her to the terrifying metaphysical depths of Russian and Soviet history. Translated into English by Oliver Ready (one of the five virtuosi I posted about earlier), Sharov’s staggering novel is slated to come out from Dedalus Books at the end of January. Don’t miss it.

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The Great Untranslated: Myrbråtenfortellingene by Thure Erik Lund

Let’s talk about Norwegian literature. No, we’re not going to talk about Karl Ove Knausgaard; we’re going to quote him:

You wouldn’t have read him, there’s a Norwegian writer, Thure Erik Lund, he’s the greatest prose writer in my generation. He’s ten years older than me. He’s very wild. His novels start in one place and end up somewhere completely different. His dream novel, he told me, was a novel that starts here and ends up in Chinese, and the readers should have learned Chinese by the time they got to the end. He’s untranslatable. In one of his books, there’s no people in it, it’s completely empty, but it still works, it’s just great. In Norway, Lund was the only expansive writer I knew of.

It is a bit ironic that such an overhyped author, whose books have been translated into numerous languages, should be the one to break the news to the English-speaking world about the existence of Thure Erik Lund, his complete opposite: obscure, untranslated into any other language, linguistically challenging (“untranslatable” says Knausgaard), not easily marketable. But we should be grateful for the successful author of My Struggle – now we at least know what we are missing.

Thure Erik Lund’s greatest achievement is the genrically heterogeneous tetralogy Myrbråtenfortellingene (The Myrbråten Tales) united by the presence of Thomas Olsen Myrbråten, the eponymous character. The first novel of the cycle is titled Grøftetildragelsesmysteriet (The Ditch Incident Mystery), and it relates the protagonist’s botched attempt to write a report on the protection of Norway’s cultural monuments commissioned by the Ministry of Culture. Crushed by this failure and confronted with the existential void, Myrbråten first moves to the countryside and then retreats deep into the woods to lead there a solitary existence like some of  kind of postmodern Thoreau. There he embarks upon writing his own theory of the world. Admiring  Lund’s critique of contemporary culture, literary historian Øystein Rottem has written in  a review that it is so radical as to make Thomas Bernhard and Dag Solstad “pale” in comparison.

Compromateria, the second novel in the tetralogy, is the wildest. It is a science fiction allegory that stretches the limits of imagination and language alike, notorious among the Norwegian readership for its hundreds of neologisms. The main character of the novel is an unnamed writer who makes his own books, manufacturing the paper from random bits of junk: shreds of fabric, straw pieces, crushed stones.  At some point he is transported to the futuristic world of Compromateria in which technologies and language are fused together. In his detailed analysis of the novel (unfortunately available only in Norwegian), the critic Arve Kleiva neatly sums up what to expect of Lund’s extravaganza:

What else should I compare Lund with, in a nutshell? The references or rather the associations and formal similarities are so common that they dissolve into generalities: Homer’s adventures, Dante, Rabelais, Thomas More, Baroque travel allegories, Swift, Holberg and (a far stronger resemblance) Hieronymus Bosch, Mary Shelley, HG Wells, Egil Rasmussen, the 20th century dystopia, surrealism, gonzo, sci-fi literature that the reviewer barely knows, Blade Runner, Independence Day, Matrix, Alien, X-Files, but perhaps just as much the revelation traditions,  [..] John’s Apocalypse, the Spanish Renaissance mystics and other visionary poetry. For it is the truth that speaks through this intricate and well-organised system of (alleged) lies and delirium.

The next book of Myrbråtenfortellingene bears the title Elvestengfolket (The Elvesteng Folk) and it features Thomas again as its protagonist. In this short novel we learn about Myrbråten’s earlier life, starting with his childhood in rural Norway in the 1960s and ending in the 1990s, with his arrival in Oslo, on the eve of the great tribulations recounted in the first novel of the tetralogy.

With Uranophilia, the fourth novelLund brings his daring literary enterprise to an end. Thomas is now in his sixties and lives in Oslo again, still working on his philosophical system. His ordinary routine is changed when he meets the inventor Ludvig, who has built a time machine in his shabby workshop. Ludvig initiates his friend into his scientific research, and, after the inventor’s death, Thomas continues the experiments with time travelling. Another important part of the plot is the unravelling of the arcane knowledge concealed within a 16th-century treatise called Uranophilia. The investigation of its impact on the course of our civilisation is attended by a welter of historical and cultural references in which fact and fiction are elaborately intertwined. Especially fascinating are travellers’ accounts about visiting fantastic peoples that would make Pliny and Mandeville look like certified anthropologists.

Since the only piece of information in English about Thure Erik Lund’s tetralogy that I’ve been able to unearth is this short entry on the website of Eirin Hagen Literary Agency, I mostly had to rely on Google Translate and common sense when puzzling out the meaning of the Norwegian essays and reviews to form my own opinion. Based on all the secondary sources I thus perused, I would venture to assume that Thure Erik Lund’s cycle of novels fits that rare bill of a literary work whose linguistic complexity is matched by the complexity of its ideas and imagery. The lack of any translations makes Myrbråtenfortellingene especially tantalising, and I want to believe that despite the label of untranslatability, some brave adventurer will stand up to the challenge of widening the readership of this fascinating work.

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The Harmonious Forest (O Bosque Harmonioso) by Augusto Abelaira

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No, this is not some tongue-twisting onomatopoeic coinage from Finnegans Wake. As a matter of fact, in the language of  a certain tribe inhabiting the interior of Java Island, this word is habitually used  as the coordinate conjunction equivalent to the English and. Incidentally, these people make do with only thirty words most of which have multiple meanings. For example, the word trob can convey such disparate notions as “eagle”, “sea”, “milk”, “dog”, “stone”, “mother”, “son” as well as many other ideas.

We learn this curious but hardly trustworthy factoid from The Harmonious Forest, a 16th century manuscript analysed by the narrator of Augusto Abelaira’s novel of the same name – a slim book with plenteous rewards. This Portuguese novel, published in 1982, follows in the footsteps of Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino  and Umberto Eco in its playful treatment of history and textuality, its questioning of the reliability of written documents and its preoccupation with the blurred distinctions between forgery and authenticity, the copy and the original.

The novel itself is presented as a notebook kept by  Arnaldo Cunha, a schoolteacher with scholarly ambitions who is constantly tormented by existential anxieties. The contents of the notebook are a hodgepodge of different texts that provide us with a glimpse of the narrator’s everyday life, his philosophical musings, and the subject of his research. There are four primary documents making up the text of the notebook. First of all, there is the Renaissance novel The Harmonious Forest written in Latin by the obscure 16th century traveller and polymath Cristovão Borralho. We get to know this work indirectly, either through translated excerpts or just through brief summaries provided  by Cuhna. Secondly, there is the biography of Borralho penned in Portuguese by his friend Gaspar Barbosa. Thirdly,  there are  copious annotations left in Barbosa’s biography by an anonymous 18th century political exile in Paris. Likewise, these two texts are made available to us as either quoted passages or the teacher’s retellings. Finally, the notebook contains the personal diary of Arnaldo Cunha in which he discusses the three above-mentioned texts as well as vents his numerous frustrations and insecurities. Since jumps between these four texts are rather abrupt, it requires a certain effort to keep track of the story gradually emerging through the interaction of  direct and indirect quotations, summaries, observations, digressions and interpolations.

Arnaldo Cunha is a self-conscious parody of the typical protagonist in an existentialist novel. Oppressed by the absurdity and wretchedness of everyday life, he wants to achieve something significant, knowing all too well that he is neither talented nor ambitious enough to do that. He has a lot of interests in various fields that he feeds with disparate reading, but none of his enquiries are profound enough to let him make his mark in the world. He is trapped in the limbo between his immediate surrounding, which he considers low-brow and tedious, and the unattainable realm of  stellar performance and recognition. The only way to satisfy his ambitions seems to be writing an important work (think Antoine Roquentin from Nausea). However, he realises that it cannot be a work of fiction due to his lack of imagination, so the only option on the table is a critical study of somebody else’s work. And that somebody should be virtually unknown to the literary and critical establishment, so that it would be “easy to say new things without great effort”.  The mysterious Cristovão Borralho appears to the ideal candidate for such an enterprise.

The name will be familiar to those who have read The Travels of Mendes Pinto, a 16th century travelogue chronicling its author’s adventures in Asia and Africa that warranted  justified comparisons with Marco Polo’s famous Book of the Marvels of the World.  Cristovão Borralho is mentioned in The Travels several times as Fernão Mendes Pinto’s companion.  Borralho’s The Harmonious Forest is a patchy affair. Most of the book  is made up of  the tall tales shared by his comrades aboard an India-bound vessel on the eve of its fight with a Turkish galliot. The stories are either bawdy tales reminiscent of The Decameron or fantastic adventure stories with philosophical undertones bringing to mind some of Voltaire’s Contes and Swift’s satires. If we assume that the real author of these narratives is Borralho himself, then it becomes evident that the traveller and scholar had a precocious mind that greatly outstripped his epoch and envisaged already in the 16th century some of the developments in philosophy and science which would take place only centuries later. One of the funniest stories is ascribed to Tomé Lobo (who is also mentioned by Mendes Pinto). In it we learn of an island inhabited by astute macaques who have invented their own means of communications using a chest with golden pieces as their vocabulary. Each piece stands for a specific word, so in order “to talk” a monkey has to use the relevant tokens and then put them back into the chest. Everything changes, however, with the visit of the Portuguese explorers who introduce on the island the idea of God and thus trigger a language revolution which leads the monkeys to differentiating between the signifier and the signified and thus creating the prerequisites for the democratisation of discourse: the appearance of paper words, serviceable insofar as their value is backed up by the golden pieces, and accessible to all monkeys. Tomé Lobo’s account is not just a sweeping satire of the critical theories fashionable in the 1960-1970s (i.e. structuralism and poststructuralism) – it makes fun of the common human urge to create theoretical systems explaining the world and then regarding  them as the ultimate truth. Some of the macaques bear suggestive names: Planton, Fucô, Lunan.

By and large, when describing their encounters with the indigenous population of some exotic place, the local language is one of the primary objects of the explorers’ interest. Besides the already mentioned tribe, which communicates using just thirty words, we get to know an indigenous community that has a multitude of words for each thing, each of those reflecting its specific condition: i. e. they will use different words for an eagle, depending upon whether the eagle is in the sunlight, or in the moonlight, or under the rain, etc. There is also a tribe which uses the same word to denote completely different objects: they have, for example, one word for “fish”, “triangle”, and “moon”. When there is no food and a child is hungry it is enough for the mother to point at the moon/fish and the little one will be sated.

The discoveries of the Portuguese travellers are not limited to the seas, as becomes known from  Borralho’s account of his journey to the Moon under Mem Taborda’s captainship. Needless to say, the latter has also been lifted from Mendes Pinto’s travelogue. Just like in the story about the talking monkeys, the tranquil life of the indigenous community on the Moon is overturned by the ideas the Portuguese explorers bring along. Mem Taborda and his crew, carried in a makeshift sailing vessel to the Moon from the Tibetan mountains by favourable winds, shake the seemingly solid foundations of the communist utopia built by the Lunar inhabitants. The newly arrived discover to their surprise that the locals don’t have fire arms, work only three hours a day, do not have any private property, and think little of gold because of its sheer abundance on the Moon. At first, they  deride the insatiable greed driving the adventurous subjects of the expanding Portuguese Empire. But as the intruders depart with a load of gold, they have already infected the Lunar civilisation with their avarice, and when they come back in two years’ time, they can contemplate  all the fruits of a society obsessed with accumulating wealth: social inequality, lack of resources, rebellions and repressions.

The stories are not limited solely to the quests for new lands and the enrichment of the empire. We also learn about more personal quests presented as gripping allegories: one man’s quest for God and another’s for a woman.  The former is narrated by yet another seafarer from The Travels, Vicente Morosa. It is the story of a Chinese man called Xang Tu, who sets off on a journey looking for God after his wife’s death. He closely follows the tracks left by somebody he believes to be God, uttering each time when he stumbles upon some evidence of misery or destruction: “God has passed here.” In the long run, the man realises that it is actually the Devil he might be pursuing, ultimately failing to see the difference between the two. As for the quest for a woman, this story is not to be found in Borralho’s manuscript, perhaps due to its excessively racy content. Luckily for Arnaldo Cunha, this tale appears in Barbosa’s text, and he is more than happy to summarise it for us. The protagonist of this tale has sex with a masked woman at a Venitian-style ball, and the pleasure granted to him by her vagina is so great, that he dubs it “the harmonious forest” and dedicates all his life to finding its mysterious possessor. His glass slipper is the memory of his ecstasy, so he travels the world making various women “try it on” by the only method available to him, that is, by sleeping with them. “Proustian precursor of Henry Miller?” wonders the author of the notebook after finishing his summary of this tale. But what about his own quest, does he succeed in proving that he has discovered an unknown monument of 16th century travel writing?

There’s the rub, for lacking conclusive proof of the manuscript’s authenticity at his disposal, Cunha is faced with several different possibilities, and not all of them are favourable for his grand project. The least harmful one is that Borralho never existed – Gaspar Barbosa invented him and wrote both The Harmonious Forest and the fake biography to avoid possible persecution at the hands of the Holy Office. But things could be worse. What if both Barbosa and Borralho are the witty inventions of the 18th century anonymous author of the marginalia? Then most of the revolutionary insights of the Renaissance scholar are nothing but anachronistic flourishes of a person observing the 16th century from the heights of the Enlightenment. And, of course, Cuhna’s discovery will be completely nullified if it turns out that all the three texts have been forged in the 20th century. This issue never gets resolved, but come to think of it, nor does the protagonist’s anxiety about the meaninglessness of life. As he himself neatly sums up at the end of the novel: “All that bitterness. To know that life has no sense and still keep looking for it.” Let’s leave him there. We know that he is just a function, an “existentialist” seedling in the metafictional forest of Augusto Abelaira.

“The key to the treasure is the treasure”, John Barth famously wrote in 1973. Perhaps Arnaldo Cuhna would have a hard time accepting this postmodern principle, but, at the end of the day, this is what really drives his own story. What he might believe to be a failed attempt at a search for meaning through scholarly work and self-analysis, we should regard as a masterfully constructed narrative device not only generating a plethora of meanings for each reader, but also giving  us the pleasure of watching a great ludic mind at work.

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The Virtuosi: Five Translators Whose Names are Hallmarks of Quality

Agnes Lawrence Pelton, Translation. Image Source

I have to confess that I don’t read works in English translation that often. The main reason is neither my language purism nor snobbishness but the prosaic lack of time: in order to maintain seven reading languages besides my native Russian and near-native English, I have to devote the bulk of my reading time to works of literature written in or translated into those languages, which is often a logistical, managerial and mental torment. The very nature of my blog presupposes a tangential role for English-language translators: they are rather the intended audience of The Untranslated, than its subject matter. Ideally, I would love them to read a review of some humongous, linguistically dazzling, arcana-laden novel (and there are quite a few reviewed here) and say: “Yes, I  wanna do it!” Of course, you might wonder skeptically:”Is there still anyone left who can pull it off?” Are there human beings capable of translating such bemusing behemoths as Los Sorias and El Troiacord? such a paragon of untranslatable wordsmithery as Remember Famagusta? such unjustly underappreciated, uncomfortable, mesmerising masterworks as The Absolute Marshal and Corporal? The answer is yes. Although the earlier titans of translation might be departing from the scene, either leaving this mortal coil like Gregory Rabassa and William Weaver or retiring like John E. Woods, new names are coming to the fore. There are industrious, talented, determined, and self-abnegating translators who are up to the task of struggling with the most challenging and the least commercially appealing projects to recreate in English the splendour of a foreign language masterpiece, to reinforce its deserved place in the pantheon of world literature. I have selected five such translators, of whom I’d like to think as the Shadow Cabinet of The Untranslated, for if somebody can face the challenge of rendering some of the books reviewed here in English, it is them. Based on their  achievement up to now, I have no reservations in stating that their names are hallmarks of quality and should be sought out on book covers  as vehemently as the names of your beloved authors. I have included here brief information about each of the five translators as well as excerpts from the works published in their translation. They should speak for themselves.


Adrian Nathan West is a Renaissance Man of literary translation. Not only does he translate from Spanish, German, Catalan, French, Italian, and Portuguese, but he is also extremely ambitious and as uncompromising as it gets when choosing which texts to translate. It is Adrian West who has introduced Marianne Fritz and Josef Winkler to the English-speaking reader, and it doesn’t surprise me in the least that one of his aspirations is to translate an encyclopedic novel by the Catalan polymath Miquel de Palol, provided that he finds a publisher as intrepid as himself.

From Natura Morta by Josef Winkler, translated from the German by Adrian Nathan West:

Neither ferns nor algae covered the five small sharks, ten to twenty centimeters in length, lying prone in their white styrofoam coffin, their gray skin coarse as sandpaper. A bee sucked greedily at a viscid white calamari ring, and a fat fly, blue-green and shimmery, roamed through the eye socket of a swordfish, glinting silver beneath the sun. With the long green nail of her index finger, a humpbacked woman pulled open a fish’s gill to check it for freshness. A sparrow with a piece of fish meat in its mouth, nearly a third of its weight, flew faltering to the tin roof of the seafood stand before taking off again to light on a pine tree branch in the park of Piazza  San Vittorio where it began to tear the flesh apart. While a nun, her face covered in warts, was passing her payment for the mussels she had selected to Piccoletto, the end of the white cord she wore looped over her hips fell over the neck of a slimy squid. Indignant, unnoticed by the fish- monger, she pulled the cord from the white styrofoam crate of squids.

If somebody writes a mammoth novel containing a Pandora box of horrors and narrated by an unrepentant Nazi war criminal or a one-sentence novel with an overwhelming abundance of historical and cultural allusions, there should be somebody who can skilfully render these and other similarly intimidating texts in English. Charlotte Mandell is the person in question. She is more than a translator. She is an ambassador of French language and culture in the English-speaking world.

From Compass by Mathias Énard, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell:

Existence is a painful reflection, an opium addict’s dream, a poem by Rumi sung by Shahram Nazeri, the ostinato of the zarb makes the window vibrate slightly beneath my fingers like the skin of the drum, I should go on reading instead of watching Herr Gruber disappearing under the rain, instead of straining my ears to the  swirling melismata of the Iranian singer, whose power and timbre could make many of our tenors blush with shame. I should pause the CD, impossible to concentrate; pointless reading this offprint for the tenth time. I don’t understand any of its mysterious meaning, twenty pages, twenty horrible, frosty pages, which reached me precisely today, today when a compassionate doctor may have named my illness, declared my body officially diseased,  almost relieved at having given my symptoms a diagnosis – a deadly kiss – a diagnosis we’ll need to confirm while beginning a treatment, he said, and following the disease’s evolution, evolution, there it is, there we are, contemplating a drop of water evolving toward disappearance before it reforms itself in the Great All.

Thanks to Brendan Riley, many can read Carlos Fuentes’ critical exploration of the Latin American novel from its inception until the present day.  It is also Brendan Riley who put Juan Filloy on the map for the Anglophone readership by translating his Caterva, the notorious tale of seven erudite vagabonds. However, it was just a warm-up for his current project: the translation of Luis Goytisolo’s novel-cathedral Antagony. The first Englished part of this literary monument is already available, and judging by the reaction in this post at Messenger’s Booker, it is spellbinding. I have shamelessly “borrowed” the  following excerpt from that blog post. This is what happens when a great prose stylist contemplates a great piece of architecture, as conveyed to us in a great translation.

From Recounting: Antagony, Book I by Luis Goytisolo, translated from the Spanish by Brendan Riley:

And to the right, the Portico of Faith, enraptured altarpiece centred on the presentation of Jesus in the temple, with an outline of images now solemn and impassive, now violent, like the one of John the Baptist preaching in the desert, foretelling the coming of the Messiah, all that upon an embroidered background of wretchedness and suffering, of an interwoven framework of thorns and flowers, buds, corollas, thalamus, sepals, petals. Stigmata, honeybees drawn to pollen, and superimposed on the bramble-crag crenellations, the lantern, a three-peaked oil lamp, eternal triangle, base of Immaculate Conception, dogmatic effigy rising in ecstasy, like an ejaculatory prayer from within a large cascade of sprigs and grape clusters, all those details one can spot carefully from any one of the points of the belfry towers, as you climb the airy spiral staircases, from the doorways, from the enclosed balconies sinuously integrated on the projections of architraves and cornices of the frontispiece, balconies with bulbous wrought iron railings, small contoured galleries, catwalks, small steps, intestinal cavities, twisted corridors of irregular relief, passages conjoined in a coming and going from the belfries to the façade, four intercommunicating bell towers, harmonically erect. Which, if near their bases appear rather strangely compounded with the parameters of the porticoes, as the separate, each acquiring its own shape, they becomes curving parabolic cones, the two outer pairs equal in height, the two center towers taller.

Isabel Fargo Cole doesn’t just translate from German – she also writes fiction in German. Her thick novel Die grüne Grenze was nominated for Klaus Michael Kühne Debut Prize. It is owing to her efforts that the GDR genius Wolfgang Hilbig has suddenly materialised in the Anglophone dimension to stun and enthrall his readers.

From Old Rendering Plant by Wolfgang Hilbig, translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole:

While all the other plants along the watercourse looked sickly and surfeited—all the vegetation struck me as corpulent and phlegmatic, overfertilized and overbred, its natural processes strangely retarded in the fall, when all foliage looked fatter than usual and seemed to eat its way rampantly onward, though its dark green looked dull and unclean, so that I expected to see it collapse at any moment—I thought I could see the willows devolving into hitherto unknown wildness: in the twilight, when the mist rose ever denser from the bank, they seemed transformed into fantastic creatures, the spawn of a freakishly fertile subsoil, ugly crippled excrescences that through their very degeneration had come into power and evil. I saw shapes in them like grimacing faces, not quite identifiable as vegetation, nor as any species of animal I knew; their expression had something strangely skulking, and they seemed ever ready to pull up, like worms from the mud, the roots that held them so unreliably, and shamble many-footed along the course of the waters that, for them, were both nourishment and death… In this contorted skulking, in their eldritch age, there was a spectral dignity, like invalids hobbling through weird tales, creaking and gray with craftiness…thus they seemed filled with abilities beyond their due, and like monstrous creatures long believed extinct they seemed gifted with supernatural senses that called into question the very death whose nearness bowed them down.

And of course, this list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning somebody working with the  Russian language. Oliver Ready has taken up the  challenge of translating some of the most complex prose writers of contemporary Russia: Yuri Buida and Vladmir Sharov. Thanks to him, a lot of English-language readers were astounded, puzzled, mystified and delighted by Sharov’s phantasmagoric canvas of a novel Before and During. Now that his translation of Sharov’s another apocalyptic masterpiece, The Rehearsals, is forthcoming in 2018, we can safely assume that the Russian author’s reputation among Anglophone readers will only continue to grow.

From Before and During by Vladimir Sharov, translated from the Russian by Oliver Ready:

“In music, for all his innovation, Scriabin undoubtedly remains within the bounds of tradition, albeit in the broadest, freest sense; in smells, he denies not only tradition, but culture in general. It is the destruction and negation of everything, first and foremost of organized, man-made bouquets, whether cheese or perfume. Yet still, in that cacophony of smells that permeates Scriabin’s score, two interwoven themes can be clearly distinguished: the city in its St. Petersburg guise and the Russian south – the beginning of the movement of the Mysterium to India. Both themes are treated at ostentatious length; and through them, through these smells, it becomes easier to grasp how Scriabin imagined the course of the Mysterium than, strangely enough, through the music.
“‘St. Petersburg: war and gradual weakening, the dying away of the smells of normal, manicured life, of confectioner’s shops, restaurants, bakeries, where everything—who should smell, how and where – has long been established and become a matter of habit; in their place are the smells of men engaged in their primordial labor of war, leaving for the front, briefly returning home after hospitalization, leaving once more; the artificial smells of the sick quarters: iodine, spirit, carbolic, ointments of various kinds—all this mixed up with the smell of a body rotting alive, of excrement, urine, and the rich, abundant sweat of the wounded and the dying; the smell of the desperate and hopeless struggle for life, the smell of your body being cut into pieces like meat, the table where you are carved up, your part – an arm, a leg – is already corpse, but you are clinging to life. The sweat of deadly fatigue and deadly labor. And also: the smell of freshly laundered bandages, which take the place in this world of freshly laundered linen; the smell of a rotting wound and of the bandages, white and medicine-soaked, that have just been applied to it. Yet stronger than all is the smell of corpse, and it gets stronger all the time; you can’t get rid of it, it’s the definitive, terminal smell of man – the end of life.

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