Monday, April 20, 2009

Two from Terts: “Liubimov” and “Pkhents”

It’s difficult to believe the same person -- Andrei Siniavskii (pseudonym Abram Terts) -- wrote the busy novella Любимов (Liubimov or The Makepeace Experiment) and “Пхенц” (“Pkhents”), a restrained short story. Both pieces contain the science fictionish and/or grotesque elements Terts thought reflected life better than realism but, stylistically, the stories are opposites.

Liubimov reminds me of a pint of ice cream that’s so overloaded with the conflicting flavors of chips, nuts, and other marginally edible stuff that it’s hard to taste the ice cream itself. On the crude plot summary level, Liubimov is a dystopia of sorts concerning a bicycle repairman who leads a small city using hypnotism. In my favorite scene, unprestigious foodstuffs take on luxe flavors: water becomes alcohol, canned red peppers become beef, and cucumbers become sausage.

It’s too bad Terts piled on so many genre elements, literary devices, and tangents – folk tale, religion, unclean forces, footnotes, and on and on – that the story and its underlying questions about truth, lies, and history nearly get lost. With its spirits, inventive language, and fast pace, I can’t argue with the blurb in my book that says Liubimov descended from Gogol, Bulgakov, and Platonov. It has some wonderful material, but it’s a little too antic and crowded for my taste.

Staying with the dessert theme: if “Pkhents” were ice cream, it would be a rich vanilla with a twist of high-quality fudge or peanut butter. I read the story as an afterthought because it followed Liubimov in my book. It’s a beautifully crafted story about someone with a hunchback who lives in Moscow under false documents. I don’t want to say too much and spoil the surprise of the story – I knew what it was and wish I hadn’t – but I will say that the story is very, very touching in showing how loneliness affects us. “Pkhents” is simple and quietly funny, too, with some fantastic остранение (defamiliarization). The story is oddly mesmerizing, and I recommend it very highly.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the role these stories played in Terts’s show trial for anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda in 1966. Certain works published in the West -- Liubimov, along with On Socialist Realism and The Trial Begins – underpinned the indictment against Terts. Although “Pkhents” didn’t figure into the indictment, in his closing plea Terts invoked a line from the story about being different. He then commented, in the translation given in Max Hayward’s book On Trial, “Well, I am different. But I do not regard myself as an enemy; I am a Soviet man, and my works are not hostile works.” Terts was tried along with writer Iulii Daniel (Nikolai Arzhak) (previous post on Arzhak). Neither pled guilty. Both were convicted: Terts received a seven-year sentence, and Daniel received five years.

Max Hayward's On Trial
Abram Terts on Amazon


  1. "Pkhents" is probably the first modern Russian story I read -- it was in the reader for my Russian class in college. It's a fine story, but my all-time favorite thing of Tertz's is Golos iz khora (1973). I read the English translation (A Voice from the Chorus) and was blown away by the grim humor and honesty of his report from the Gulag; I was thrilled when I found a signed copy of the Russian edition for a reasonable price in a local bookstore. It's full of great linguistic samples, zek slang and dialect and what have you. I think you'd enjoy it.

  2. That was a lucky find in your bookstore! Thank you for the recommendation, Languagehat. I'm also looking forward to "Гололедица," which is in my collection of Terts's early fiction.

    Oddly, I think the first modern Russian story I read might have been Arzhak/Daniel's "Человек из МИНАПа."

  3. Oh, I read that too -- in fact, it might have been the first! I still have the garish little paperback somewhere.