Sunday, October 23, 2016


Over the past two years year I’ve published six works of creative literary fiction
За два годa я напечатал 6 произведений худ. прозы:

Nov., 2014: Anyway, Anyways, a collection of short stories (А все-таки, собрание коротких рассказов).

Mar., 2015: Disambiguations: Three Novellas on Russian Themes (Дисамбигуации: три повести на русские темы).

May, 2015: Own: the Sad and Like-Wike Weepy Tale of Wittle Elkie Selph (Оун: грустнейший и блин-да печальненький сказ молодого Элькина Сельфа.

Nov., 2015: The Tale of the Bastard Feverfew (a novel) (Повествование сафлора красильного (роман).

July, 2016: Googlegogol: Stories from the Data Base of Russian Literature, Inc. (Гугольгоголь: рассказы на тему о русской литературе)

October, 2016: Hard Mother: A Novel in Lectures and Dreams (Тяжелая мамаша: роман в лекциях и во снах)

On the Russian "Narod" (Common Man) and On Playing Games of Make Believe


This article first appeared in Johnson's Russia List, July 30, 2008


                 Face-Saving Fakery, Play Acting and Make Believe in Russian History and Culture

                                                            (3) Narod (The Common Man)

                        “No, no,” said the Queen. “Sentence first--verdict afterwards.”

                                                                                  Alice in Wonderland


            I have a friend (lets call him ‘Slavik’) who lives in the South of Russia. He is pure narod (common man), making a living by farming. He once farmed on a Soviet State Farm (Sovkhoz), which, after the fall of the USSR, was privatized. In typical Russian entrepreneurial style the new owner made the farmers under his control into something like serfs. He milked them like cows, for all he could get out of them. Furthermore, the villagers soon could no longer afford to keep their own cows. They were not allowed to graze livestock on the grassland verges along the side of the road, and the price of hay was exorbitant. The villagers nicknamed their new master “Beria,” after Stalin’s notorious secret police head. In what has become typical in Russian agricultural areas, “Beria,” having screwed the maximum amount of capital out of his purchase, sold everything a couple of years ago and moved to Germany, where he is now living comfortably on his profits.

Slavik lives on, farms on in the village, planting sunflowers, borrowing money for seeds and equipment, trying to eke out an existence. He never complains.

            Does Slavik have anything to complain about? Lots. When he was eighteen he was drafted into the Soviet Army. With very little training he was parachuted into Afghanistan with a group of other recruits, to fight against the mujahideen. Most of the newly arrived recruits were killed almost immediately. Slavik survived for a few months before he was seriously (almost fatally) wounded. He ended up in a military hospital in Ashkhabad, where he spent six months. In typical Soviet fashion his family was not even notified that he had been wounded until three or four months after the incident. Nobody complained. One recalls how the soldier Petrukha Avdeev was killed (fighting against the Chechens in 1851) in Tolstoy’s long story “Hadji Murad,” how he died stoically, uncomplaining. He requested that his parents and family back in the village be sent a letter. Tell them, he said, “Syn, mol, vash Petrukha dolgo zhit’ prikazal”(“Your son Petrukha wishes you a long life” [another way of saying “died”]). When the family back in the village got the news, it was received stoically. The letter they had sent Petrukha was returned, accompanied by the standard message: Your son was killed in the war, “defending the Tsar, the fatherland, and the Orthodox faith.” [1] Nothing ever seems to change in the grand round and round of Russian history, and that is Russia’s biggest problem.

            Slavik has built himself a house and owns it outright. His only other possession of any worth is a KAMaz truck. Back when he and his wife Sveta still owned a cow (before “Beria” came along and made it practically impossible for anyone in the village to feed a cow), they made extra money by selling their cheese and milk at a market in a nearby city. One day in the late nineties, on their way back from the market, they were stopped by four young men who had been following behind them in an old BMW. Swaggering up to Slavik in their leather jackets, the young men asked him, “Where’s your gas cap?”

            The gas cap, it turned out, was missing.

            “See that crack in our windshield?” said one of the sneerers. “Your gas cap flew off a few minutes back and cracked our windshield. Now you’re going to pay for that windshield.” He named an extremely high sum.

            What had happened? The scam was obvious. While Slavik was parked back at the market, they had removed his gas cap, followed him after he drove away from the market, then pretended that the cap had cracked the windshield (which had already been cracked, and which would remain perpetually cracked, as long as these thugs could shake down other innocent people).

            What could Slavik do? Nothing. He was intimidated, humiliated in front of his wife. He had to find a way to come up with the money. The four swaggering young men in leather jackets made that clear. Eventually he did pay them off. He swallowed his pride and paid, although it took him some time to come up with the money. Why didn’t he go to the police? In Russia the narod doesn’t go to the police. If he does, the policemen may spend the first ten minutes punching him around, just on general principles. They certainly won’t do anything for him. Why didn’t he write a letter to Putin? Because letters to Putin from the common man have about as much chance being read as letters to Nicholas I. Did Slavik complain? No, he went on forbearing. That’s what the Russian common man does: he forbears, pushes on with his life, pretending that all is well. He does this indefinitely. But then one day…

            Does the common man drink? And how. Drink is often the only refuge. My friend Slavik, however, is not a drinker, and neither is his father (who lives in the same village). For this they are sometimes derided by the other villagers. Being a non-drinker violates all the traditional Russian principles. Slavik is viewed as something of the village idiot. He has a nervous condition and a stutter (consequences of  his service in the Afghan War). Whenever someone in the village needs a ride somewhere, he knows that Slavik will transport him. For free. On principle Slavik will not charge his fellow villagers. So the villagers take advantage of Slavik (while ridiculing him for his naïve generosity). Slavik never complains.

            Slavik is a microcosm of the macrocosm of the Russian narod. He is, furthermore, one of the most decent examples. Plenty of common people are decent, but plenty more live far from decent lives, and the old Russian habit of finding some special, coruscating, almost religious virtue in the narod (see Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, etc.) is pure hogwash.

            All of this is a prelude to a central fact: the Russian authorities, the people in charge have been playing games with narod for about as long as Russia has existed, and those same games go on today. Given the multitude of problems facing the country, one would think that fear of its own people would be secondary. But when people are treated the way Slavik has been treated, are they going to go on persevering, uncomplaining indefinitely? Of course not, and Russian history has ample examples that they won’t. So what are the people making the big money in Russia today doing? The same thing they were doing in the much-lamented nineties—finding ways to get their money out of the country, buying property and luxurious mansions all over the world. The flight mentality (or rather, getting ready for the flight just in case) affects not only those at the highest income levels. A recent survey reveals that large numbers of the “upper middle class” would like to leave the country and are preparing for emigration. It seems that anyone who has made much money in Russia has a “just in case” scenario. Why? Because everybody knows that the common man is still being trampled upon, and, while the patience of the Russian common man is legendary, everybody knows that it has its ultimate limits.  

Now, just as always throughout Russian history, there is a large underclass that is shamed, humiliated, oppressed--a group of people who have experienced little or no improvement in their living standards and shared none of the enormous oil wealth that has accrued to the privileged classes. These also, as always, are the people who provide most of the cannon fodder for Russia’s military operations. Parents who can come up with the money pay the necessary bribes to keep their sons out of military service. The common people don’t have the money to pay the bribes. The people who fit into the category of those who are “just barely getting by” economically is roughly fifty to seventy percent of the total population today. There is really no middle class yet in the Western sense. It’s just the top and the bottom. This unbalanced class situation makes President Medvedev’s dreams for the future glories of Russia (a worldwide role in finance, oil sales denominated in rubles, Russia as a true global partner of the Western democracies, etc.) look bleak, if not preposterous.

The Russian people (narod) bore/bear  the brunt of suffering. That has been axiomatic in Russian, from time out of mind:

“The peasants were most likely to be killed or enslaved during Polovtsian raids [12th Century] into the Russian forests, while the aristocracy, merchants, and some artisans continued to trade profitably with the nomads.”[2]

Throughout the period of Mongol domination (1240-1480), the princes acted as intermediaries between the Tatar overlords and the people (see Halperin, p. 78), enforcing conscription, deciding which persons would be sent into slavery, collecting tribute (and siphoning off some of it for themselves before paying the Tatars). Doesn’t that sound familiar? The top dogs reap the profits, while the people forbear. In the five hundred years since the times of the Mongols little has changed. Today in Russia the new millionaires and billionaires, plus the entrenched bureaucrats, go their merry way, using and abusing the common man. The attitudes of the younger generation do not hold much promise for making things better. Do young people say, “We need to change this whole system, which is rotten from top to bottom”? No. Many of them say, “We need to get a job with the bureaucracy, say, with Gazprom, where we can prove ourselves the best crooks and make the most money. The system can’t be beat, so we’ll just join it.” The decent young people who don’t want to play crooked games remain “down on the farm” like Slavik. They try to keep their decency, work hard; or they drink and succumb to cynicism.

I once had the misfortune to deal (in St. Petersburg, 1996) with Zhenya, a sleazy operative (part KGB, part ex-military commissar, part mafia, part “New Russian”). In reference to the vouchers distributed in the Yeltsin years, he told me, matter of factly, sneering, that the voucher system amounted to one more way for schemers to steal from the people. “Narod vsegda budet obmanut” (“The people will always be deceived”) was his mantra. “We’ll beat their bare ass, and they’ll say thanks.” People such as Zhenya are certainly still around. The common people shudder when they look back at the excesses of the nineties, but they understand, of course, that despite Putin’s retaking control of the situation, the same types of leering swindlers still control most of the country’s wealth. To oversimplify somewhat, Putin got that wealth back from the biggest swindlers of the nineties (Khodorkovsky, Gusinsky, Berezovsky), then passed it out again to his own cronies--plus to the “new oligarchs” (Deripaska, Abramovich, etc.), whom he knew he had in his own back pocket. Meanwhile, the narod, the common man suffers on, as always. He may even take heart in believing that things under Putin have improved somewhat. After all, certain of his neighbors can take vacations in Turkey. Then again, Putin has made the country an economic power and renewed its prestige worldwide. The common man is a Russian nationalist, so he surely takes pride in this. Yet, deep down, the narod plays the same self-defeating games it has always played. These are games of cynicism, lack of self respect, and, ultimately, the destruction of self--through drinking and smoking, indulging in excesses, flaunting “pofigism” (the doctrine that it’s all the same to me whatever happens to me).

            None of the above implies that Russia is ripe, at present, for a revolution from below. There is no immediate evidence of that, but such a possibility is always on the minds of Russian leaders. That is why they are quick to provide low prices on vodka and bread in difficult times. It also explains why even the most innocuous of demonstrations in Russian cities is greeted by riot police (OMON) in huge numbers, often outnumbering the demonstrators. No one can explain the propensity of the Russian people to maintain indefinitely a stance of cowed resignation, but, of course, Russian history also has periods when the patience of the common man runs out. One major task for Russian leaders of the twenty-first century is to level, finally, the playing field, to relieve their people of the burden of humiliation and convince them that they will receive material benefits long due to them. As far as I can tell, the Putin-Medvedev tandem has not even begun addressing this task.

While continuing to do what the common man (narod) does best in Russian history, to work on patiently, holding its tongue, attempting to survive, the underclass of today feels enormous resentment, of course, toward the new monied elite. There have been times in Russian history, of course, when the resentment boils over and the pugachevshchina begins. That word, describing the mindless, stikhijnyj (elemental, primordial—a scary word for Russians) peasant rebellion of Pugachev under the reign of Catherine the Great (1762-1796), is synonymous with a bloodbath. The twentieth century had plenty of pugachevshchina, and unless something is changed radically, there is reason to believe that the twenty-first century will have its fair share of the same.

Probably the best descriptions in twentieth century literature of the spirit of pugachevshchina come from Isaac Babel (1894-1940). During the Civil War years following the Socialist Revolution of 1917, Babel, a Jewish intellectual, rode with Marshal Budyonnyj’s Red Cavalry forces, who were engaged in driving a Polish invading force out of Russia. Using his diary of those years (full of descriptions of grotesque cruelty) as a source, Babel first published the book of fiction Konarmija (Red Cavalry) in 1926. As an example of what Russians most fear from the long-suffering common man, let us take a detailed look at one of Babel’s stories from that cycle.  

                        “THE LIFE STORY OF MATT PAVLICHENKO”

This short story describes a kind of ritual performance played out by “Red General” Matvei (Mathew) Pavlichenko. Inspired by the glorious revolutionary year of 1918, in the midst of a twentieth century pugachevshchina (the bloody civil war), Matt Pavlichenko acts out the old game of humiliation/vengeance. On the final page of the story Matt is shown staging a performance for himself, as well as for his victim and that victim’s crazed wife. In narrating the story of his revenge he is putting on a different performance, which consists of the lively and original way that he tells this oral narrative (in a spirit of grisly play) to its audience (and to us, its readers).[3]

Matt has been shamed, not by his lowly status as herdsman on the estate of the landowner Nikitinsky, but by the master’s treatment of his wife. Early in the story (this is before the Russian Revolution) he describes how a man from the village has come to him telling tales:

“’Matt,’ he [the old villager] says, ‘the master’s been feeling up your wife in all the best spots. The master, he’s about to have his way with her. . .”

After this Pavlichenko goes to see Nikitinsky, in an attempt to “settle up” with him. Here the meaning involves settling accounts and quitting his job; the idea of “settling accounts” is to take on a different meaning at the end of the story.

“That evening I made it to the Lidino manor house on foot. There he was, my master Nikitinsky, setting all pleased with hisself upstairs, a-fiddling around, that old man was, with three different saddles. . .

“So I plants myself besides his door, hung out there for a whole hour, like a burdock plant just growing and growing, but all to no good end. Then he looked over my way.

‘What do you want?’

‘Settle up.’

‘You got designs on me?’

‘Ain’t got no designs; just want to settle up.’

“He looks off to one side for a spell, he quits looking up at the road and looks off at some sideways alleyway, and then he spreads crimson red saddlecloths out on the floor. They was brighter than the banners of the Tsar, was them cloths, and he stands up on top of them and commences to strut and crow like a rooster.

‘Freedom to them that’s free to be free,’ the old man says to me, and he goes on cock-strutting around. ‘I’ve wham-bammed and thank-you-ma’mmed every last one of your mommas, you Orthodox Christian peasants. You can settle up if you like, only ain’t there one little thing that you owe me, Matty my friend?’

‘He-he,’ I says, ‘You are one comic fellow, I mean to tell you as God is my witness. Seem like it’s you who owes me my earnings.’

‘Earnings!’ the master crows out and he knocks me smack on my knees and kind of scrunches all over the floor with his feet, while he’s boxing on my ears like Father, Son and Holy Bejesus.

‘Your earnings, you say, but how come you forget that yoke of mine you ruint last year? Where is it at, my broken ox-yoke?”

‘I’ll get you back your yoke,’ I answers my master, lifting my sorry little simpleton eyes up to look at him, while I’m there on my knees before him, lower I am than any low spot there is on this God’s green earth. . .”

Time passes, and Matt can’t earn enough money to pay back his master Nikitinsky for the broken yoke.

“And so what do you think, you boys out of Stavropl’, my fellow countrymen, my comrades and dearest brothers of mine? Five blessed years the master waited on me for that debt I owed, and for five lost years there I set, lost, until such time as me, down and out and lost, me I had a visit from Year Eighteen. She come to see me riding happy-go-lucky stallions, the best sort of Kabardinian horses, that Year Eighteen, dragging behind her a humongous convoy and all sorts of songs. And O-ho-ho, you’re my sweetheart, you are, Eighteen! And sure as I stand here, must be some way we can go out with you one more time raising Hell, sweet Eighteen, dear little darling of mine. . .”

The revolutionary year 1918 for Mathew Pavlichenko, as for so many of the long-oppressed lower classes of Russia meant freedom, the kind of Russian freedom best defined by George Fedotov: “wide open spaces, vagabondage, the gypsy ethos, hard liquor, orgies of debauchery, blind sensualism, highway robbery, rioting, despotism.”[4] Of course, this is not freedom, but license, and one of the self-defeating games that Russians (Russians of the narod included) best play with themselves is the make believe that there’s no point in putting out the effort to bring democracy to the man-on-the-street Russian; he won’t know what to do with it. Even worse, he’ll immediately transmogrify democracy into the chaos that ends with despotism. No, freedom in the Western sense (so the tale goes) is not for Russians; they need somebody to control them. The usual phrase is, “Russia needs a strong hand” (repeated ad nauseam by Russians living within the country and those living abroad). It’s a “self-fulfilling prophecy,” or, to put it in the most overused cliché of modern-day punditry, it’s a “zero-sum game.” The ultimate in cynicism is expressed by the following: “As an old friend (who spoke virtually native Russian) once said, ‘The best government they ever had was the Mongol Yoke.’”

“For Russia’s entire history, the country’s blossoming, its progression, its global hegemony. . . was attained and held only in the presence of a strict, singular authority—an authority that controlled all spheres of human activity. . . Such was the case under every dictatorship, strong monarch, czar of all Rus or prince in his principality. A strong, strict, but dependable ‘hand.’ There has never been a democracy in Russia because the Russian person is not capable of it. . .”[5] Of course, if the majority of the Russian population continues to believe that Russians are “genetically” incapable of developing true democracy, then it will never be developed. But what’s even worse, if democracy is not developed, the same old dog eat dog will continue, as it always has, and the round and round of Russian history will circle back to an old familiar place: violence, gross cruelty, anarchy, blood running in rivers.

Matt becomes a “Red General.” Riding the steed of his “sweetheart,” Year Eighteen, he wreaks havoc on the Russian land. Then one day, while “laying on blood outside Prikumsk,” Matt realizes that he is only a few miles away from his old estate of Lidino. Leaving his detachment, he rides all alone over to the estate, walks in the manor house, and finds his former master Nikitinsky, serving tea to some local officials.

“Greetings,” I says to them people. “Hello, please, to you all. You going to welcome me in, master, or how is it going to be with us?”

“It’s going to be quiet, real genteel between us,” says one of them fellows, and I can tell by the way he’s talking that he’s a surveyor. “It’s going to be quiet and aristocratical-like, but now you, Comrade Pavlichenko, seem like you been a-galloping from way far off from here, being as the looks of your face is spattered with muck. Now we, the local land authorities, we believe that’s a terrible way for the looks of your face to look; so, now, how come that is?”

“On account of because,” I says, “you land folks and you cold-blooded sorts running things around here, on account of that on my looks I got one cheek that’s been all hot and burning for five blessed years. It’s burning in the trenches, burning when I’m with some split-tail; at the Last Judgment it’ll still be a-burning. At the Last Judgment,” I says, and I look over at Nikitinsky, I’m acting like real merry-making, but he ain’t got no eyes in his head no more, just ball bearings in the middle of his face, like as if them bearings rolled into place underneath his forehead, and he’s glancing me over with them crystal ball bearings, making like he’s a-winking and grinning, but looking just very out and out miserable.”

“Matty,” he says to me. “We once knowed one another, and see here now, my wife, Nadezhda, owing according to what’s been going on these times, she’s lost her reason, and she always was good to you, Matty, you had so much respect for her, now wouldn’t you like to see her, being as the light of reason has left her now?”

“Could do,” I says, and me and him go into the next room, and then he commences to touching me, first my right hand, then my left.

“Matty,” he says. “You going to be my destiny, or not?”

“No, I ain’t,” I tell him, “and forget all them fancy words. We’re all not nothing but stooges now, and God’s done run off on us. Our destiny’s a turkey, life’s not worth a crap, so drop all them fancy words and listen here, if you so desire, to a letter for you, from Lenin.”

“A letter to me, Nikitinsky?”

“That’s right; it’s to you.” Then I pulls out my notebook for the orders of the day, opened it up on a blank page, and read, though, truth be told, I couldn’t read if my life depended on it. “In the name of the people,” I read, “and for the establishmentarianism of the great glorious light of the future, I hereby order Pavlichenko, Mathew Rodionych, to deprive of their lives various folks, according unto his discretions.

“There you have it,” I said to him. “That’s the way it goes, Lenin’s letter to you.”

And he says to me, “No!

“No,” he says. “Matty, our life’s plain shriveled up and gone to the devil, and blood’s cheap these days in the Russian Empire of the Holy Apostles, but you, now, whatever blood you got coming to you, you’ll get it by and by all the same, and you’ll forget my eyes glazed over with death, so now, wouldn’t it be better if I was to show you a little stash?”

“Show me,” I says. “Might could it’ll make things better.”

So we went with him through the room again and then down into where there was this wine cellar, and he pulls back a certain brick down there and finds a little box behind the brick. Inside it there was rings in that box, there was necklaces, medals and a holy image with pearls. He tosses it over to me and then he goes all slumped down out of being so scared.

“It’s yours,” he says. “Now take that Nikitinsky sacred heirloom and make yourself scarce, Mathew; head on back to your rat hole in Prikumsk.”

That’s when I grabbed ahold of his body, took him by the gullet and the hair.

“And what do I do with this burning cheek?” I says. “How do I make things right with my cheek, people and brothers of mine?”

And then he laughed out way too loud and he’s not even squirming to get out of my grip.

“You got the soul of a jackal,” he says, and he’s give up trying to get free. “I treat you like I was talking to a officer of the Russian Empire,” he says, “and you smuthound guttersnipes, you all sucked the teats of a she-wolf. Shoot me, then, you son of a bitch.”

            But I wasn’t about to shoot him, wasn’t no way I owed him a shooting. I just dragged him back upstairs to the parlor. Up there was his wife, lady Nadezhda, setting there plain out of her gourd, and she’s got the bare-blade of a saber in her hand, sashaying around the room and watching herself in the mirror. And when I dragged Nikitinsky in there, she run off to have a seat in a armchair, she’s got a velvet crown with feathers sprucing up her head, and she sets there in that chair all pert, and presents arms to me with her saber. Then I commenced to tromping on my master. I tromped him for a hour, maybe even more, and during that time I come to know what life was all about. Shooting, now—I’ll be honest with you—shooting’s just a way to get shed of a fellow. It’s like granting him a pardon, and for yourself it’s just a lousy too easy thing to do. With shooting you don’t get down to the soul, to where it’s at inside a fellow and how it makes itself shown. But me now, there’s times when I don’t take no pity on myself, I been known to tromp on the enemy for a hour, even more, cause I have this desire to learn about life, what our life on earth amounts to. . .”[6]

[1] L.N. Tolstoj,  Sobranie sochinenij [Collected Works in Twenty Volumes] (Moscow: “Khudozhestvennaja literatura,” Vol. 14, 1964, p. 57-62.
[2] Charles H. Halperin, Russia and the Golden Horde: the Mongol Impact on Medieval Russian History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), p. 17.
[3] “Zhizneopisanie Pavlichenki, Matveja Rodionycha,” in the collection, Isaac Babel’,  Konarmija. Odesskie rasskazy. P’ecy (I. Babel, Selected Stories and Plays). Chicago, Illinois: Russian Language Specialties, 1965, p. 72-76. Titled literally “A Life’s Account of Pavlichenko, Mathew Rodionich,” the story, which I (attempt to) translate here in part, is, basically untranslatable, in that it is told by Pavlichenko himself, an illiterate peasant who can’t possibly have written down the oral tale, since he can’t write. In the title he uses a wrong grammatical ending in his own name, and he narrates in a mixture of substandard literary phrases, Revolutionary rhetoric, peasant speech, and weird neologisms. All of this is blended occasionally with the neo-Romantic imagery peculiar to Babel. At least two (attempts at) translations of the story have appeared in print: (1) “The Life and Adventures of Matthew Pavlichenko,” translated by Walter Morison, in The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel (NY: Criterion Books, 1955), p. 100-06. (2) “The Life Story of Pavlichenko, Matvey Rodionych,” translated by David McDuff, in Isaac Babel, The Collected Stories (London: Penguin Books, 1994), p. 144-49.
[4] Fedotov cited in Ronald Hingley, The Russian Mind (London: The Bodley Head, 1977), p. 161. The original is G.P. Fedotov, Novyj grad: sbornik statej [New City: A Collection of Articles] (NY, 1952), p. 152.
[5] This commentary (by a Russian, “Arnven”) was posted in response to Clifford Levy’s article in the New York Times (June 3, 2008) about censorship on Russian TV. The remark about the best government being that of the Mongol Yoke is on that same NY Times blog. In opening up the series of articles by Levy to comments from the general Russian public on the Internet, the Times has done a great service to its readership. Especially interesting (should be read by any American doing business in Russia or thinking of developing a business there) is Levy’s article about William F. Browder (“An Investment Gets Trapped in Kremlin’s Vise,” July 24, 2008). What makes the article so worth reading is the plethora of insightful comments about it, from Russians as well as from other readers all over the world. Available at Scroll down to “On-Going Series” and, under this, “Kremlin Rules.”
[6] In a weird twist of fate the author himself, Isaac Babel, charged with a bizarre crime typical of the nightmare years of the Stalinist terror (spying for foreign powers and acting as an agent for Trotsky), was arrested in 1939. True to the philosophy of Matt Pavlichenko, his jailers and torturers granted him the mercy of a “pardon” (a bullet to the back of the head in January, 1940) only after tormenting him and trampling upon his dignity, not for “a hour or more,” but for months, maybe even years—the official Soviet version of his death declares that he died in Mar., 1941, and it lists his place of death as a Siberian labor camp, so we still cannot be absolutely sure that he died in Moscow in 1940.

Thursday, October 6, 2016


U.R. Bowie

(A Novel in Lectures and Dreams)
Condensed Synopsis

The year is 2021. The world is slowly recovering from the Great Catastrophe of 1996. You say there was no worldwide catastrophe in 1996. This is a work of fiction, and in this work there was. A middle-aged woman, Rebecca A. Breeze, professor of Russian literature at Oogleyville State College (Mass.), in the midst of a breakdown, has been forced by her superiors to consult a therapist. She refuses treatment by modern methods of drug and machine therapy, but agrees to describe her violent dreams. “The dreams…Russian literature sends them to me. Jesus Christ has a lot to do with it as well, but mainly it’s Russian literature.”

The dreams of Prof. Breeze constitute an extensive manuscript, the tale of the crazed Ultimian writer Eugene Ispovednikov (“The Shriver”) and his return to his native Ultimia—an imaginary country resembling Russia—where he foments a revolution and is crowned king in 1992. Disillusioned by the Catastrophe—a pandemic of bubonic plague that has left the whole world in chaos—he sets out on a pilgrimage eastward in 1999, seeking what he terms “The Unbearable Whiteness of Being.” The Shriver is accompanied by Maggie the Queen, Ivanushka the Dolt and his American compatriot Dezra MacKenzie, the Swedish mercenary Boe and his troops, the vile Bomelius (apothecary and physician to the king) and a convert from the Urinator faith, Foka Yankov.

A year later, at the turn of the Millennium, after numerous tribulations—encounters with violent sectarians of every stripe: including the Anti-Prepucors, who abhor foreskins, and the dread Castrates, who introduce our heroes to the “baptism in fire”—what remains of the Shriver’s party reaches the summit of the Magic Mountain of Dura, where the Whiteness is.

Rebecca Breeze narrates her part of the story from the year 2021, but none of the action takes place in that future time. The chapters set in Ultimia (1992-2000) alternate with chapters describing the adventures of an American professor in the Soviet Union of 1983. John J. Botkins, Jr., the prototype of Ivanushka the court fool in the Ultimia chapters and the central protagonist of the book, runs amuck in Communist Russia. He violates Soviet laws with impunity, steals Lev Tolstoy’s bicycle from the Tolstoy Museum in Moscow, sneaks into the Spartakiada rowing competitions disguised as an Estonian athlete, urinates against the Kremlin Wall—all the while propagating the joys of homosexuality, the efficacy of laughter,  and the glory of possessing a foreskin.

The Botkins chapters complement the picaresque in the chapters set in Ultimia. Pale refractions of the modern-day characters show up in future time, and the same themes are recurrent: the myth of eternal return, the meaning of laughter, the human obsession with violence, sex and scatology, the Russian soul, fathers and sons and daughters and mothers (including the Earth Mother), the yearning to perpetuate the species—while yearning simultaneously to smash all of life to smithereens—the significance of Jesus Christ in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

As the novel progresses, the role of Rebecca Breeze becomes more and more central. She is the medium through which both the Botkins story and the Ultimian picaresque—the tale of the Shriver—pass. Towards the end of the book she abandons her therapy and makes plans to go out into the very world of violence that dominates her dreams. Like Botkins, MacKenzie and the Shriver, she is seeking her own “Unbearable Whiteness of Being,” and at the book’s conclusion she is on the verge of finding it.

Hard Mother is a highly ambitious comic novel. Like any comedy in the genre of literary fiction it is undergirded with high seriousness. A book with lots of action and even more food for thought, Hard Mother is influenced, most prominently, by the works of Gogol, Bulgakov, Marquez, Nabokov, Flannery O’Connor and Philip Roth. The reader should not approach this novel with an apple in one hand and a scotch in the other. The reader should be prepared to have his/her settled notions shaken up in interaction with this book, to fight and scratch and be offended. Any literary art is, of necessity, offensive, but is also, one hopes, efficacious and good for the soul.

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Onomastics of the Russian Leaders (The History of Surnames)

[Note: this article originally published in Johnson's Russia List, May 5, 2008

                                    The Onomastics of the Russian Leaders
                                    (In Honor of the New “Bear President”)

            We can learn a lot about Russian realities by taking a look at Russian last names. My information for this article comes, largely, from the wonderful book by Boris Unbegaun, Russian Surnames (Oxford University Press, 1972). All page citations below are from the Russian translation, Russkie familii, edited by B.A. Uspenskij and translated by L.V. Kurkina, V.P. Neroznak, and E. R. Skvajrs [Squires?] (Moscow: Progress Publications, 1989).

            Surnames came late in human history to the world at large. They did not exist before the fifteenth or sixteenth century. Russia is no exception. In fact the very word for “surname” in Russian, familija, was borrowed from the West only in the seventeenth century, and a lot of Russian peasants did not have surnames right up to the day of the emancipation of serfs in 1861.[i] As you would expect, the upper aristocracy was the first social class to adopt surnames. They were based, for the most part on toponyms (place names). In other words, a prince whose domain encompassed the Vjaz’ma area became Prince Vjazemskij (most of these earliest surnames have adjectival type endings in -skij or –skoj). Among other names in this category are Obolenskij, Volkonskij, Trubetskoj, Meshcherskij, Kurbskij (Unbegaun intro, p. 20). To this very day Russians recognize these names as indicative of the origins of a person at the highest levels of the aristocracy in pre-Soviet Russia. It is noteworthy that two members of the Decembrists, who, in 1825, mounted an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the government and introduce liberal reforms inspired by the West, were Prince Evgenij Obolenskij and Prince S.P. Trubetskoj.

            As is common throughout much of the world, Russian surnames were derived, in large part, from (1) patronymics (father names, as Johnson or Jackson in English, formed by adding an ending to a given [baptismal] name) (2) names of professions or trades ( Smith, Cooper or Baker in English) (3) toponyms (see above) or (4) nicknames. Although this does not always work, there is a kind of rough class gradation involved. At the highest level (a very small category) are the aristocrats with the princely –skij/skoj names just mentioned (there is another large category of –skij/skoj names that are not of princely derivation—they are primarily of non-Russian origin: Polish, Belorussian, Ukrainian, Jewish). Next come those whose names are derived by using the patronymic suffixes (-ov, -ev, or the slightly less common –in). These names make up the most widespread category to the present day. After that come the less prestigious, lower-class names that originate in trades or nicknames. Over the course of centuries, however, these two latter categories also have frequently adopted the standard patronymic endings. For example, Tkach (‘weaver’) or Rybak (‘fisherman’) became Tkachev and Rybakov, and Medved’ (‘bear,’ nickname for a clumsy, burly type) became Medvedev (the name that Hillary Clinton recently had trouble pronouncing).

            Now we can take a look at the surnames of some of the most important Russian political leaders of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, establish their derivation, and see if any conclusions are apparent.

(1)   Lenin. According to Unbegaun (p. 83-4), this name falls into the category of “surnames formed from given (baptismal) names.” The relevant name here is Aleksandr, from which come, among others, the surnames Aleksandrov, Alenin, and Lenin. But in the case of the man once known as “The Great Ilich,” none of this information is relevant, since for him Lenin is a nom de guerre; Lenin’s real name was Ul’janov (‘Julianson’), which fits into the common category of patronymic names (“surnames derived from baptismal names”—p. 45). As for Lenin, apparently inspired by classical writers who named their characters after rivers (Pushkin’s Onegin and Lermontov’s Pechorin), he named himself after the Lena River in Siberia.[ii] The name Ilich, is not a surname, so we will not get into that here.
(2)    Stalin. Here we have another nom de guerre, meaning “Man of Steel.” His real surname, Dzhugashvili, was a Georgian name of Ossetian provenance. It came from the word dzhukha, meaning ‘garbage,’ ‘offal,’ or ‘dregs’ (p. 186): ‘Man of Offal’ or ‘Offalman.’
(3)    Khrushchev (‘Maybeetleman’) is derived from the name of an insect, the May beetle, or khrushch (p. 24). It fits into the category “surnames derived from nicknames,” in a subcategory including animal names and still another subcategory, “surnames derived from names of insects.” Two very common surnames from this subcategory (p. 151) are Zhukov (‘Beetleman’) and Komarov (‘Mosquitoman’). We may pause here to wonder what one of Premier Khrushchev’s ancestors did to deserve being nicknamed after the May beetle. Or a better question: what did the May beetle do that would suggest a resemblance to human behavior? While pollinating flowers, did he, e.g., take off his shoe and pound it on the petals?
(4)   Brezhnev (p. 224). This is a name of Ukrainian origin and, apparently, it is also in the nickname category—from berezhnyj (‘cautious,’ ‘solicitous’).
(5)   Gorbachev (p. 129, 224). Another nickname name, from gorbach (‘hunchback’).
(6)   El’tsin. This name is not listed in Unbegaun’s book, but a similar name, El’tsov (p. 151) comes from ‘a fish of the carp family’ (another nickname surname).
(7)   Putin. Also not listed. It would seem, logically, to come from put’ (‘path,’ ‘way,’ ‘road’), and it may have been, originally, a nickname: ‘Wanderer,’ or ‘Wayfarer’ (see end of this article for a different take on Putin’s name).
(8)   Medvedev (‘Bearman’—p. 146, 150). Obviously another surname derived from a nickname. There must have been a lot of clumsy, shaggy peasants nicknamed ‘bear’ all over Russia in the past, since Medvedev is a common name in present-day Russia. Unbegaun mentions two other Russian ‘bear names,’ Medvednikov or Medvezhnikov (p. 93), which may be traced back to ‘a bear hunter’ or ‘a trader in bear hides.’

The original word, medved’, with no patronymic ending added, is still used as a surname in Russia (p. 19, 29, 30, 161). These bare (no pun intended) nicknames as surnames (unlike in English and in other Slavic languages), just as trade names with no endings (Tkach, ‘Weaver’), are relatively rare today. See also Zhuk (‘Beetle’) and Sokol (‘Falcon’).

            Russians are somehow uncomfortable with un-suffixed straight nicknames as surnames; one thing that makes for confusion is the problem of differentiating such surnames in conversation from the actual name of the animal or trade. You can’t say, e.g., “We were there with the Medveds,” if you are referring to a family named Medved’, because this sounds exactly like “We were there with the bears” (p. 29-30). For Russians the un-suffixed nickname as last name often sounds somewhat “low class” as well, probably because peasants were the last social class to acquire surnames, and, possibly, those peasants who were left with just the nickname (for their surname) were the poorest and least prestigious persons in the whole society.
            Unbegaun cites an example (p. 346) indicating that the name Medvedev was more prestigious than Medved’. In 1689 the well-known Orthodox church figure, scholar and literary man, Sylvester Medvedev (1641-1691), who had become involved in a political plot, was defrocked and renamed Senka Medved’. Part of his punishment and disgrace, therefore, involved converting his surname into a nickname, which was in tune with his lowered social status. Ultimately, he was executed.[iii]

            The most remarkable thing about the above information is that most recent Russian leaders have names that derive originally from nicknames. This proves that their ancestors were common folk, not members of the gentry (dvorjanstvo) or aristocracy. One might (dangerously) speculate that the country may well have been directed onto a Western, democratic path, had there been rulers with higher-class names in power. After all, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the two/three percent of Russians who belonged to the gentry were among the most progressive and liberal. Russians with folk backgrounds haul with them through life a huge load of psychic baggage that is, basically, undemocratic and non-progressive--reeking in fatalism, superstition and irrationality. Anti-democratic tendencies are not “in the blood” or “in the genotype,” as Russians are so fond of repeating, but they are present in the hardened stereotypes of cultural mores.

Folk mores die out very slowly; they are passed on from generation to generation. If your name is Medvedev (or even Medved’), that does not stop you from getting a good education. You may listen to Western rock music and be fascinated by the Internet, but you still have (at least subconsciously) all the detritus of your ancestors, the Medvedevs, piled up in your psyche. Can you overcome this? Maybe. Would the Meshcherskijs and the Obolenskijs (and various other people with “princely” names—the Golytsins, Sheremetevs, Vorontsovs or Yelagins) have had a better chance at throwing off the yoke of the “peasant/Asian” Russian mindset and setting off on more progressive paths? Maybe. But then again, that mindset is such a mighty source for Russian obscuritanism that even the most educated people and those with the most “high class” names often get themselves immersed in it. I have known a lot of Russians with candidate degrees (rough equivalent of the PhD), and most of these persons believe in the “Evil Eye.”

Another sad truth: Catherine the Great (whose background was far from peasant Russia) hobnobbed with the great thinkers of the French Enlightenment, but she did not direct Russia onto the path taken by Western democracies. One final example: I have never met a Golytsin or an Obolenskij with a candidate degree, but I have met (in U.S. emigration) a family of Trubetskoys whose way of thinking and behaving could serve as an exemplar for restructuring the reactionary Russian mentality and overcoming the thousand-year-old burden of stereotypical thinking. If only we could convince these Trubetskoys to return to Russia and set about propagating their mindset to the Russian masses and the new oligarchs and the ruling elite! When I suggested this to the patriarch of the family and asked him why he did not wish to repatriate himself, he answered in one word: mental’nost’ (‘the mentality’). “What, exactly, do you mean by that?” I asked, and he answered with that one word again, pounding lightly with his fist on the table: mental’nost’.

In closing we might mention one other (rare) type of Russian surname (see p. 182). In the eighteenth century certain Russian aristocrats began naming their illegitimate children by dropping the beginning syllables of their names and creating new, truncated names. Among the most famous of these are (1) Pnin-- surname of the writer I.P. Pnin (1775-1805), illegitimate son of Prince Repnin (later Vladimir Nabokov used the name for the bungling old émigré professor in his eponymous novel) (2) Betskoj--surname of the famous political figure and educator under Catherine the Great, I.I. Betskoj (1704-1795), illegitimate son of Prince Trubetskoj.

This practice has recently inspired a creative (and irreverent) Russian blogger to come up with ideas about the derivation of other surnames. According to this blogger (we will not disclose his moniker here—he probably has troubles enough already), Lenin was the illegitimate son of a certain Alenin, a swineherd who lived in a village near Simbirsk. This Alenin himself, by some skewed logic, was, ostensibly, the illegitimate son of Pushkin’s fictional character, Graf Nulin (Count Zilch). As for Stalin (Dzhugashvili), he descended (illegitimately, of course) from a certain Graf Dermóstalin, whom Peter the Great had brought to Russia from Georgia. After beginning his career as a collector of offal, this Dzhugashvili performed in the dwarf retinue of the tsar, and was, subsequently, rewarded with a new name, an estate, and a title in the nobility (“Count Krápstalin”).

Finally, Vladimir Putin, according to this anonymous Internet wag (and this is why the Russian Internet will soon be censored or closed down), is the illegitimate son of Gregory Rasputin, who did not die after all in 1916, but crawled out from beneath the ice of the Neva River in St. Petersburg, brushed himself off, and made his way, on foot, back to his native village in Siberia, where he lived on into his nineties, siring sixteen children--the thirteenth of which was Vovochka Putin.

More Russians with a sense of humor, by the way, have already assigned the new “bear president” a different nickname. He is ironically and affectionately called medvezhonok: ‘Baby Bear.’

[i] See Uspenskij’s afterword (which, in typical Russian fashion, he calls “In Lieu of an Afterword”), p. 359, and Unbegaun’s introduction, p. 16.
[ii] For more detail and further speculation on this, see p. 186 and 334. One theory about why Lenin took this name is that he was inspired by G.V. Plekhanov, the “father of Russian social democracy” and a hard-line orthodox Marxist (whose surname comes from a nickname, ‘pleshivyj’=’baldy’—p. 127). Plekhanov had named himself after the Volga River (‘Volgin’).
[iii] None of this is to suggest that someone with a plebeian nickname surname has no chance to achieve success in modern-day Russia. For example, Aleksandr Vasilievich Medved’ (born 1937) is a famous Russian athlete, who won medals at the Olympic Games three times (1964, 1968, 1972).

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Book Review, Tea Obreht, THE TIGER'S WIFE


Téa Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife (NY: Random House, 2011), 338 pp.

Like many who have read this first novel, written by a young woman still in her twenties, I marvel at the very existence of the book. How could someone this young have written a narrative this complicated, this full of insights into human nature, this teeming with art—this good? I have read several reviews of the book online and I marvel once again at the caviling, the failure to appreciate the book on the part of some reviewers. Have American readers become so inured to the genre of “domestic literary realism,” this dull, insipid stuff that dominates the publishing world these days—stories of ordinary Americans doing ordinary things, told, for the most part, in flat ordinary language—that they fail to appreciate something with genuine verve and brilliance?

Let us take, e.g., separate sentences, so many of which shine with panache: “Luka was the sixth son of a seventh son, born just shy of being blessed, and this almost-luck sat at his shoulders all his life” (191). Or separate paragraphs, consisting of lavish detail, as in this description of “the Winter Palace of Emin Pasha. . . a relic of the City’s Ottoman history”:

“The upper floor of the palace was a cigar club for gentlemen, with a card room and bar and library, and an equestrian museum with mounted horses from the pasha’s cavalry, chargers with gilded bridles and the jangling processional saddles of the empire, creaking carriages with polished wheels, rows and rows of pennants bearing the empire’s crescent and star. Downstairs, there was a courtyard garden with arbors of jasmine and palm, a cushioned arcade for outdoor reading, and a pond where a rare white frog was said to live in a skull that had been wedged under the lily pads by some assassin seeking to conceal the identity of his now headless victim. There were portraiture halls with ornate hangings and brass lamps, court tapestries depicting feasts and battles, a small library annex where the young ladies could read, and a tearoom where the pasha’s china and cookbooks and coffee cups were on display” (244-45).

The rare white frog, sticking up his head in the midst of the description, is typical; as is that skull, which inserts its eyeless self into the long narrative for just that one brief moment. A page later, in the description of the trophy room, we come upon “the mounted body of a hermaphroditic goat” (246). Not for nothing does the author, in interviews, acknowledge her debt to Márquez and Bulgakov. Throughout The Tiger’s Wife the reader is swimming in the lavish world of magical realism. I suppose that the waves are too high for some readers, who can’t make it through the ornateness and the exotic splendor—who bog down in the profusion of stories within stories. Me, I love the swim.

Here is a writer who appears already a master at pulling significant detail out of her writerly insides: “he grew accustomed to the way bears died, and the way their skin came away from the body if you cut it right, heavy, blood-filled, but as accommodating as a dress pattern” (253). You read this and you think, Yes, Téa Obreht has had experience skinning a bear—although she probably never has skinned a bear. She never has practiced medicine or studied to be a doctor, so where does she get all the convincing detail to describe the life of her main character, the doctor Natalia, and the other central character, the doctor grandfather? She has lived in Yugoslavia only for the early years of her life, so how can she be so proficient at describing nature scenes in her native land?

“A greenish stone canal ran up past the campground, and this was the route I took. Green shutters, flower boxes in the windows, here and there a garage with a tarped car and maybe some chickens huddled on the hood. There were wheelbarrows full of patching bricks or cement or manure; one or two houses had gutting stations for fish set up, and laundry lines hung from house to house, heavy with sheets and headless shirts, pegged rows of socks. A soft-muzzled, black donkey was breathing softly, tied to a tree in someone’s front yard” (85).

The setting appears to be Yugoslavia in present time, dismembered by the collapse of Socialism and the wars of the nineties. The complexities of a thousand years of bloody Balkan history lurk in the background of the narrative, but the author chooses to write not exactly about Yugoslavia. She writes, rather, about a fictional place very similar to Yugoslavia. Some reviewers have faulted her for the way she fictionalizes Serbia and Bosnia, the way she manipulates historical realities to make them jibe with her narrative. But she has other fish to fry, and that’s fine with me. Her story depends on the realities of a mythological land that resembles what’s left of Yugoslavia; her story is anchored in folk superstition and the gossipy tales peasants tell, which, when repeated over and over, take on a reality of their own.

The NATO bombing of Belgrade (Mar. 24, 1999 to June 10, 1999) is featured in a wonderful description of how it feels to be bombed on the part of civilians, but Belgrade is not mentioned (it is always referred to as “The City”). The doctor Natalia lives in Serbia, but the word never appears in the book. The fictional town of Zdrevkov, where her grandfather goes to die, is apparently on the Croatian coastline. Looking at a map of Yugoslavia, you can trace the mercy mission of Natalia and her fellow doctor and friend Zóra. They cross the border near Belgrade into Croatia (which is always referred to as “the other side”) and drive to a fictional town on the Adriatic Sea.

Why this hedging around with reality? Well, for one thing, if you’re looking for a way to get your (already long) novel totally bogged down, try describing the background facts of Balkan history. Rebecca West had already done this in her monumental Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, and how many pages did it take her? She, of course, wrote her book on the eve of WW II, so she never got to the depressing rehash of the same old story—murder, rape, genocide—in the nineties of the twentieth century. Or try explaining the complexities of those recent Yugoslavian wars. Try ironing out the details of all sorts of atrocities and Western interventions in those wars. Just treating the times when NATO bombed various parts of the moribund Federal Republic of Yugoslavia—why they bombed, who the bad guys were and who the good guys, who the war criminals and who the victims—forget about it.

This is not to say that the war is not involved in Natalia’s story. The war and its consequences are everywhere. Here is the author on the breakup of Yugoslavia: “Once separate, the pieces that made up our old country no longer carried the same characteristics that had formerly represented their respective parts of the whole. . . The Nobel Prize winner was no longer ours, but theirs” (161). This same sense of surrealism also prevailed in the minds of people right after the collapse of the Soviet Union: “we’re not quite us anymore; we’re somebody else now.” With Russians that sense of unreality was exacerbated by what might have been notices posted all over what had only recently been an inveterate atheistic country: “By the way, we were wrong. There is a God after all, and you can have him back now. Enjoy.”

The grandfather’s take on Balkan wars is instructive: “This war never ends. It was there when I was a child and it will be here for my children’s children” (301). Téa Obreht accomplishes what appears to be something like an acrobat’s trick. She puts aside one thousand years of Balkan history and writes a book of magical realism, which book, however, is still firmly based in Balkan folklore, and which book constantly takes fleeting glances back at Balkan history.

The two main characters in The Tiger’s Wife are mythical rather than realistic: the deathless man and the tiger’s wife. Both of them come, at least obliquely, out of folklore. Natalia’s grandfather, one of the main realistic characters—and a finely delineated, highly sympathetic man of probity—is a medical doctor now, whose life is steeped in science and rationality. But he has grown up in a small village where superstition counts for everything. You have that mindset pounded into your head as a child, and you have a cat in hell’s chance of ever ridding yourself of it.

The peasants believe firmly in folkloric characters such as the witch Baba Roga, with “her skull-and-bones hut on its one chicken leg” (106). How far back in Slavic folklore are to be found the origins of this character? In Russian folklore she is Baba Yaga and her hut has not lost one of its chicken legs. On the same page the wood demon (леший in Russian) shows up. The villagers of Galina (the word is a woman’s name in Russia) are storytellers, as is the author of this novel. Everyone is all eyes in the village, watching incessantly from windows and doorways. And then all tongues, blathering around, gossiping, making up stories. They gossip and their gossip is transformed, folklore-style, into what for them is truth. They come to believe in the fantasies of their own superstitious souls—they believe that a woman could marry a tiger, that a man could be immortal.

Pagan superstition runs the narrative in this book. “Like everyone in the village [Galina], he [the blacksmith] had faith in the rituals of superstition. He gave money to beggars before traveling, put pennies in the shrines of the Virgin at crossroads [see below: syncretism], spat on his children when they were born. But, unlike his fellow villagers, he was renowned for having a deficit. He had been born in a lean year, without a ducat under his pillow. To make matters worse, an estranged aunt had once allegedly lifted him from his crib and praised heaven for what a beautiful baby, what a gorgeous, fat, blessed, rosy child he was—and had sealed, forever, his destiny to be impoverished, crippled, struck down and taken by the devil at some unexpected time, in some terrifying way” (120-21). Note that word “allegedly.” Maybe the aunt is a fiction, maybe she never committed this outrageous act of praise, but she is in the village said to have done it. Words have magical force. Once the story is created, then repeated incessantly, the idea of the “allegedly” is gone, and that is enough to seal the doom of the poor blacksmith—who accidentally shoots himself in the head in the midst of the tiger hunt.

Right smack in the middle of this crazy pagan world is grandfather as a young boy in that village. Educated later as a medical doctor, he steeps his life in scientific logic, but deep down in his soul, one part of him still believes in the myth of the tiger’s wife, the woman he befriended as a child. He fights valiantly against accepting the story of the deathless man—whom he has personally encountered several times in his life. But in the end, when he knows he is dying of cancer, he goes off in search of that deathless man—who is also what they call a mora, a kind of psychopomp who cares for dead souls for forty days, then guides them to the other world.

The best stories in the book involve these two mythic characters, the tiger’s wife and the deathless man. There is the wonderful description of grandfather’s first encounter with the latter. This comes subsequent to an attempted murder. The deathless man is not only immortal, but he also has the ability to see the deaths of others. Making the mistake of telling a peasant in a village that he will soon die, the deathless man is assaulted, drowned. Then, at his own funeral, he sits up in the coffin and asks for water. Whereupon he is shot in the back of the head (58-62). When grandfather comes upon him in the church, still in that coffin, the deathless man, of course, having been drowned and shot, is still not dead.

Téa Obreht has a wonderful way of weaving descriptions of such mythic proportions into the realistic narrative. At one point the deathless man tells of how the wandering souls of the dead sometimes get lost, cannot find their way home again, and “begin to fill up with malice and fear,” which extends to their loved ones (186). Grandfather’s wife believes thoroughly in such superstition, insisting that the family observe the proper customs for assuring that (1) his soul does not take offense and (2) properly finds its way to the next world. American readers may have difficulty believing that even educated Serbians are so enveloped in superstition, but anyone who has studied the Slavic world realizes that this is the way things are. Of the many educated Russians I know, many with the equivalent of the Ph.D., seldom do I find one who, e.g., does not believe in the evil eye, or in omens.

We are two thousand years into the era of Christianity, but pagan superstition is still paramount all over the world. The Slavs, it sometimes appears, value pagan beliefs as much or more than Christian beliefs, but the most common practice is to blend the two. In the Balkans as well as in Russia syncretism (this dual belief) is rife. For example, when Natalia arrives at the town on the Adriatic, she comes upon a group of fellow Serbians who are digging in a vineyard. It turns out that they are searching for the body of one of their countrymen, the cousin of one Duré. During the recent wars Duré had to abandon his dead cousin, whom he buried in this vineyard. Now some old conjure woman has informed him that the cousin’s ghost is dissatisfied and vengeful; the spectre is spreading disease over the whole family.

The only way to appease the ghost of the cousin is to find the corpse, dig it up and give it a proper burial. Certain pagan incantations (also provided by the conjure woman) must be read over the remains.  As the diggers clean the bones, they intone these ancient chants. Meanwhile, the local Catholic priest tosses a censer about, censing the pagan ritual with Christian incense (more syncretism). The diggers also take care to break the thigh bones, thereby insuring that the ghost can’t walk about and return to haunt them. Later the remains of the heart (or what is a symbolic representation of the heart) have to be buried at a crossroads, where the mora-psychopomp can come to retrieve them, care for them for the requisite forty days, and then transport them to the other world. Natalia the doctor keeps watch in the night at the crossroads, and when a figure appears to dig up the jar with the “heart” she too—despite her education in science—half believes that this is the deathless man whom her grandfather has told her about.

“Even before he handed me the jar I had admitted to myself that my desire to bury the heart on behalf of his family had nothing to do with good faith, or good medicine, or any kind of spiritual generosity. It had to do with the mora, the man who came out of the darkness to dig up jars, and who was probably just someone from the village playing a practical joke—but who was, nevertheless, gathering souls at a crossroads sixty kilometers from where my grandfather had died, a ferry ride from the island of the Virgin of the Waters. . . Or it would be the deathless man, tall and wearing his coat, coming down through the fields of long grass above the town—smiling, always smiling—and then I would sit, without breathing, in some bush or under some tree while he dug up the jar, probably whistling to himself, and when he had it in his hand, I would come out and ask him about my grandfather” (266-67).

All of this narrative line—concerning death and the deathless man and fear of the dead—has its foundation in the ancient and atavistic fear of the dead worldwide, endemic in human society from time out of mind—and by no means extirpated when the Enlightenment came along.

As the author tells us, there are two stories “that run like secret rivers” through grandfather’s life, and through the whole book: the story of the tiger’s wife and the story of the deathless man (32). The tiger’s wife shows up early on (p.4), when grandfather tells little Natalia, “I once knew a girl who loved tigers so much she almost became one herself.” It’s as if the whole story is conjured up out of the imagination of a four-year-old girl who goes with her grandfather to see the tigers at the zoo. It is based on tales told her by her beloved grandfather, and an event at the zoo sparks the tale: the day she and grandfather saw a tiger maul the arm of a careless employee.

The main story line of the novel is supplemented by tales of minor characters, as if the author just had so many resplendent stories to tell that she could not resist getting them all into the book. Some readers have complained of the superfluous accessories, but I love reading all the different side narratives.  About the butcher in the village, about the apothecary who is a secret Muslim.  About Mića the Cleaver, he who distributes cadavers to the medical students (154-56). Another tale, that of Dariša the Bear, begins with a story that is not true (238), as do so many of the stories told throughout the book. Without the untrue tales, the fantastications, the novel would be much shorter, and much less intriguing.  A subtheme of the novel is storytelling, the power of words.  

The tiger’s wife (while in love with a tiger) is legally married to the butcher Luka, a kind of weird intellectual in the midst of pagan superstition, who, despite his education, takes up wife beating.
I find it interesting how we get this description of violence wreaked upon a woman from the point of view of the abuser. How many American woman writers could/would write it this way? Then again, one of the book’s few weak points—and it is glaring—is the treatment of the title character. We have a book called The Tiger’s Wife, which suggests that she is the central character, but it turns out that she is not. Not really. A big problem is that she is consistently portrayed as a vague, unrounded figure. We see absolutely none of the action from her point of view. We never even learn her real name. We have no idea what she is all about, who she really is inside. In showing this deaf-mute character to us the author as if makes us, the readers, deaf and mute in our perception of her. She does not speak to us.

The other main mythic character, the deathless man—in contrast to the tiger’s wife—is vibrantly alive and accessible. The tiger’s wife exists only as a piece of village folklore. The village gossip tells tales, invents her—she is a creature of mythmaking, storytelling, not a real person. She is said to have been impregnated by the tiger. As if aware that this narrative line would take the book too far off into fantasy, the author does not follow it to its logical conclusion:  the birth of a half human/ half tiger. The fetus dies with the tiger’s wife when the apothecary poisons her. Given the limitations of this vaguely delineated character, I think that the book could have done with a different title.

To me the main character of the novel is the grandfather. He is the only real person who has encountered both the mythical deathless man and the mythical tiger’s wife. All of the narrative proceeds with constant sideways and backwards glances at the grandfather, who—despite his concourse with chimerical creatures—is thoroughly based in the reality of everyday Balkan life. “All along my grandfather had hoped for a miracle but expected disaster” (240). What better way to express the feelings of a denizen of the Balkans?

The Tiger’s Wife has so many good sentences, good paragraphs, so many good stories within stories about stories. What more could a lover of literary art ask of a book?