Sunday, April 20, 2008

Vera Panova’s “Seryozha”: A Child’s View of Post-War Russia

A novella about a preschooler’s life in the post-War USSR might not sound like much fun, but Vera Panova’s gentle Серёжа (translated as Seryozha and Time Walked and A Summer to Remember) skillfully balances a child’s observations of joy and worry. Panova composes her novella of linked vignettes about Seryozha’s adventures – emotional, physical, and social – providing insights into the psychology of a child and his Soviet adults. The most constant thread in the stories is Seryozha’s relationship with his new stepfather, who works at the local collective farm.

Panova uses остранение (ostranenie, defamiliarization) frequently in Seryhozha, showing situations and objects from Seryozha’s childish perspective. Non-Russian readers in the 21st century may also feel almost like children as they witness everyday aspects of Soviet life: tight living conditions, a funeral, and the consequences of World War 2 for families. Much of the child psychology feels universal, though, including Seryozha’s mother telling him he gets on her nerves. Or children teasing one another with “жадина-говядина,” (zhadina-goviadina), a rhyming phrase that means (sort of) greedy-beef.

Panova’s portrayals of people and their settings feel honest, whether she looks at Seryozha’s lack of memory for his biological father or children’s curiosity about a body covered with tattoos. The combination of humor and pathos also feels true – particularly in the scenes where the children tattoo themselves – as do Seryozha’s thoughts and tantrums.

Seryozha is dated 1955, placing it, historically, toward the beginning of the Khrushchev Thaw. Panova was vilified a year earlier for lacking party spirit in a previous book, and Seryozha not only lacks party spirit – despite Seryozha’s stepfather’s job at the collective farm – but also includes small mentions of religion.

I found the chapter on a newly freed prisoner particularly interesting: Panova portrays with sympathy a man who claims to be innocent of the thievery for which he was jailed. Panova looks, through Seryozha’s eyes, at other questions of morality, including hypocrisy. When Seryozha calls an adult a fool (дурак) for playing a trick on him with an empty candy wrapper, he believes his mother won’t object, but she instead asks him to apologize. Seryozha begins to bond with his stepfather after overhearing him say that the boy is already far more mature than the foolish man.

The simple prose of Seryozha reads beautifully as a story of a child’s experiences, but it also resonates as a symbolic portrayal of its time: the first years after the death of Stalin, when the Soviet Union was adjusting to life under a new leader. Panova’s own life experience included the arrest and death of her second husband’s in the 1930s for alleged involvement in the Leningrad opposition after the death of Kirov.

Seryozha is the second work by Panova that I have read and enjoyed. I also highly recommend her Спутники, (The Train), a slice-of-life novel about people who work on a hospital train during World War 2. The two pieces have a lot in common: simple language, characters who feel real, and an organic quality to mentions of patriotism and ideology. Though Panova’s writing may feel effortless, her messages are not simplistic.

For more on Panova's life: Вера Панова

35 comments:

  1. Hi, I read Seryozha in Tamil, an Indian language when I was in school about 15 years ago. I was hooked... Koresdelyov (from Tamil) was and still my favorite step father...

    I was and am looking for an English version for quite sometime without success. I was introduced to Captain's Daughter and other classics thanks to the cold war bonhomie of NAM (Non-Aligned Movement) and Soviet Russia.

    Another one I heard was good but couldn't trace was 'Dirt Ball' by Bachu Aleya (may not be the right spelling as it's translated from Tamil)

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  2. Dear Vyas,

    Thank you for your comment! I'm glad to hear that you also enjoyed "Seryozha," so many years ago, reading it in Tamil.

    I might suggest looking on Amazon for a used copy of the English translation, if you want to buy it. This page lists the various names and translators.

    http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/panova.htm

    Interlibrary loan might also be able to find the book for you and deliver it to your nearest public library. Worldcat.org is a great place to start looking.

    Are there other details you can provide about the book you knew as "Dirt Ball"? Sometimes titles are changed a lot for translations -- as with "Seryozha" -- so other information might help to locate it.

    Thank you for your note and happy reading!

    L

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  3. Hello. I read this book when I was a mere child some 12 years ago. I read it in my own language, Bengali. Its title in Bengali was "Pita o Putro" (Father and Son. The copy I have belonged to my aunt who had received it as a present during the 70's. My grandmother gave it to me after she had left it behind after her marriage. I remember this book very clearly. It made a strong impression on my mind. I remember re-reading it several times during that summer holiday. It fascinated me because it told the story of a child my age who was from a different country. This particular copy is old and it's crumbling after more than 30 years of usage. I wish I could get a new copy of this book but it is no longer available in my country. It is one of those books which I will always treasure.

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    1. hi,amy. I read this great book when i was 13.it had a great impression on me.i even cried while reading the last three chapters.they were so heart touching. however i also read the Bengali version of the book,never find any english translation in the local book market.the novel is not as popular in this country as it should be.i hardly found people who read or even heard the name of this amazing novel.and now after reading your comment i have found someone who not only loved the novel but read it in the same language ^_^ anyway,i kinda feel very happy inside....
      FARHAN

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    2. Farhan, thank you for leaving this comment! It makes me happy, too, to see how much you must have enjoyed this book.

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    3. jahan ara rahmanJuly 12, 2013 at 3:18 AM

      recently i get a new copy from my nice .she collect it from her school library .
      'bishow sahitto kendrow " published it . but i am still looking for its english version .coz its my favourite novel since 40 years .still i fill the same when i read it first time .i want to collect its english version for my grandchild . "seryozha" the best book ever !

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    4. jahan ara rahman, thank you for your comment: I'm happy to hear you loved this book so much that you want to buy it for your grandchild!

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  4. Thank you for your comment, Amy! And no problem on the double post -- they happen all the time, and I just remove them.

    I'm glad to hear you enjoyed "Seryozha" in Bengali when you were younger. It's interesting to hear that the book's title was translated as Father and Son. I can imagine that it must have had a strong effect on you as a child! It's a marvelous book, and I hope you are somehow able to find another copy.

    L.

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  5. Hi Lisa,

    I read Tamil version of Seryozha when I was 16. I was immediately spell bound by the novel's realistic portrayal of a child's perception about the happenings around him. It was amazing that a little boy's feelings could be inked that well by a matured woman. I could still remember all the characters in the novel such as Mariasha, Koresthelyov, Aunt Basha, Uncle Lukyanich etc. though I am not sure about the spellings as I read this book in Tamil. I and my close friend Siva were fascinated by this novel and we still we talk about the incidents portrayed in the novel in length.
    This is one of the treasure in my library. Another russian story which impressed me is 'Fate of a man' by Mikhail Sholokhov. This is another touching story about a soldier who lost everything in the WW 2 and feels he got a new life when he meets a little boy who was also orphaned by the war.
    It is a shame that these beautiful literatures were shunned by the western world because of cold war.

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  6. Thank you for your comment and your visit, Anonymous! It's nice to hear more confirmation of Vera Panova's following in India. Several of her books have been translated into English but she does not seem to be well known in the U.S. (I learned about her from a Russian friend.) I think it's safe to say that Sholokhov is best known here for Quiet Flows the Don.

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  7. Thanks for your reply Lisa. Apologize for not mentioning my name in my earlier comment. My name is Seran and I am from India.
    Have you read 'Fate of a man'? If yes, please write about that. It would be nice to hear about a heart warming story that was unjustifiably ignored by most.
    Yes, Sholokhov was best known for the epic 'Quite flows the don'. I shall try to get a copy and read it. By the way, could you guide me if there are any online sources where I can read Vera's other writings?

    -Seran

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  8. Dear Seran,

    Thank you for your new comment. I have not read "Soul of a Man" but I have it in a collection so perhaps I will read it soon. (I am very, very partial to longer fiction so I can be extremely slow to read short stories!)

    As for Panova's writings, I haven't done a lot of searching but the only site I know of with her work is in Russian, here. I hope that you are able to find more of her books to read!
    L.

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  9. Hi!

    I read this book in Bengali, titled Pita-Putro (Father and Son) just like Amy. My copy is also very very old as i have inherited this from my mother. This book belonged to my mother and her siblings a long long ago... The book was translated and published in Kolkata,India. but now, totally unavailable.. I really like the book and read it very often.. Seeing the world through Seryozha was sooo real and wonderful!! dont know why, i still feel his mother didnt care for him much as she was supposed to,but his step father was the perfect parent... i am always a fan of russian children's literature and this is a big favorite.. i would love to pass it on to the next generation!
    Love,
    Tasira :)

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  10. Thank you, Tasira, for writing about your love for this book! It does feel very real. It's great to know that Vera Panova has so many admirers in India -- I've enjoyed her books very much, too.

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  11. In honor of Vera Panova's birthday on March 20, this blog post is linked to the LitBirthdays literary birthday calendar. http://LitBirthdays.com

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  12. Hi, it's incidental that I too have read the same two books you mentioned in this post :) I am extreamly happy with both the books and seryosha in particular is a favoirite. I completely agree with every word you have written here. I have read these books in my mother tongue - Telugu and still have to say that the translator did justice to the total feel of the book in the varnacular. and what more, I have both the books still with me :) (I baught them around 15 years ago)
    thanks for the article !

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  13. You're very welcome, Ruth -- it's nice to hear from so many of her fans in India!

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  14. I never realised that there were so many fans of Panova in India - how exciting. There is a good film based on Seryozha with Sergei Bondarchuk as Korostylev, and Sholokhov's "Судьба человека" was made into a film with Bondarchuk.

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  15. Thank you for mentioning the movies, Alexander. Yes, it's been very interesting to learn about Panova's popularity in India!

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  16. I absolutely loved this book when I was a teenager! Have you seen the eponymous film made by the then debut director Georgi Daneliya http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0054293/? Vera Panova adapted the screenplay herself. I heartily recommend Georgi Daneliya's autobiography "Безбилетный пассажир"
    http://lib.aldebaran.ru/author/daneliya_georgii/daneliya_georgii_bezbiletnyi_passazhir/

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  17. I'm glad to hear you also enjoyed this book, Steven. It must have been a lot of fun to read as a kid! I have not seen the film.

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  18. Hello! Wow it's been two years since I last visited this page! How time flies.

    Anyway, I just wanted to say that I am from Bangladesh. The book was quite popular here too, not just in India.

    P.S. Russian children's literature has always been my favourite. I still have all of my childhood collections of Russian fairytales and hope to pass it on to the next generation. :-)

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  19. Thank you for the return visit, Amy! It's nice to hear the book is popular in Bangladesh, too. Of course I'm not at all surprised: it's such a good one! Enjoy your reading!

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  20. I feel happy when i see amy's comment. I am also a Bangladeshi girl. yes the book's name was pita o putro (Father & son). i was amazed by that book. it made me cry. still i can remember my emotion when i red that. it was 7 years ago. my book was kinda new. I always love to read children's novel. without this book i never red anything by Vera Panova. can u tell me some other children's novels name by her? i will be greatfull. love u Lisa. (i know i m terrible at english)

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  21. Thank you for your comment, Oini. Please don't worry about your English -- I'm just happy that you also enjoyed the book! Unfortunately, I don't know much about many of Panova's other works: the only other Panova book I've read is her book about the hospital train, which isn't a children's novel. You might just want to look up her books that are available on languages you read and see if they fit your interests.

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  22. I was looking for this book in English and came upon your page. I read it in Korean when i was a boy during the 1980s. The Korean title was "Papa" (as in father). I was able to locate a used English version (as I cannot read Russian, unfortunately) under the title "Time Walked." Thank you very much for letting me find it.

    Other Korean-translated Russian children's books I enjoyed immensely were "There, far beyond the river" by Yuri Korinetz which was about the writer's uncle, and "Silver Crest: My Russian Boyhood" by Chukovsky.

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    1. foma, I have read all the books that you mentioned above in Korean too in my childhood and still enjoy them even now. (In fact, I still have them in my bookshelf.) I absolutely love Seryozha for its elegance and how each character is portrayed with warmth and compassion. I also like the ending for its gentleness and sensitivity, thereby keeping the spirit of the rest of the book.

      To the list of my favourite Russian children's books (which is similar to foma's), I would also add At Life's Beginning by Samuel Marshak.

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    2. Thank you for your comment, Sonya Han -- it's nice to hear from another reader who enjoys Panova so much!

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  23. Foma, I'm glad to know this post helped someone else find the book! It's wonderful to hear what a favorite it is for so many people.

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  24. hi,am anseera, an indian.I'm very glad to tell you that seryozha is my mphil dissertation topic.i read the story in english and your article helped much to get more ideas about the story. i'm very happy to tell you that i studied russian as a part of my PG program.

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    1. Thank you for your comment, Anonymous! I'm glad my post was helpful for you and hope your dissertation was (or will be) well received. Seryozha is a wonderful novel to write about.

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  25. hi,

    i read seryozha in Tamil. It is one of the books that we (my brothers and sister) remember very vividly and still quote. One of the most frequently quoted sentence is "my father will also get me a cycle" says the Lorry driver's son when he hears that Korezdelyov (tamil version of the step father's name) buys seryozha a cycle. When we are short of money at the month end for a big purchase, this is a quote used!

    New Century Book House (a publisher in India) was big on publishing soviet books. I have read many gems of soviet literature. If you like Seryozha, you should try

    Golden eagle village - mustai karim
    Tales for Alyonushka - Dmitry Mamin Sibiriyak
    Three fat men - Yuri Alesha
    Deathless Trumpeter - assorted authors
    Mountain of Gems - Russian folktales

    I have read many more books. We used to have hundreds of books from Mir, Raduga, and Progress publishers. Alas, time has devoured those books and these books are not available in India now.

    How I wish I could give my children these books in Tamil! I do have some English copies of these books.

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    1. Thank you for your comment, Munna, and your list of books -- it's fun to hear that the line about the cycle became so common in your life!

      It's interesting that you mention Yuri Olesha's Three Fat Men... I was recently reminded of Olesha and realized I hadn't read that book. Maybe that's a sign that it's time to do so!

      Wishing you happy reading!
      L.

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  26. Hi, I'am suganthi ,an indian.I read "Seryozha" in Tamil when i was 17 and lost this book. Since then I'am searching for this book in NCBH book stalls but not found.Now I want to introduce this novel to my daughter who is 16 now. While searching for this book,i landed up in this site. I am a great lover of russian novels ,Particularly writer Chingiz aitmatov's novels. Happy to hear from u all!

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    1. Thank you for your comment, Suganthi -- I hope you find a copy of the book for your daughter!

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