Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Two Teas: Dmitry Danilov’s “Black and Green”

I’m glad Zakhar Prilepin’s list of favorite books and stories from the noughties reminded me that I had Dmitry Danilov’s Чёрный и зелёный (“Black and Green”) on my e-reader—Danilov’s novella about the wanderings of a tea salesman was fun to read, a lovely example of form and content intertwined. I enjoyed Danilov’s Horizontal Position very much, too (previous post), but “Black and Green” somehow felt even better, more homey… I’d like to think it’s all the tea, though I suspect I just feel even more at home now in Danilov’s world, finding humor and humanness in a place that initially felt bland and sketched but now feels full and almost cozy in its spareness.

Danilov tells “Black and Green” in a first-person voice that resembles the narrative voice of Horizontal Position: the anonymous storyteller of “Black and Green” uses clipped, stripped language, too, offering minute detail about what he sees in his travels and work but saying little about his background or the family he needs to feed. Though the bulk of “Black and Green” describes tea-selling trips to places outside Moscow, Danilov begins his story by describing a dull night job in an office, then an attempt to sell books and postcards to bookstores. It’s futile in the summer. Come back later. Okay.

It’s difficult to convey the strange pleasure of reading “Black and Green.” In terms of detail, the descriptions of tea and towns are wonderful, particularly if you are a tea drinker and/or have been to Russia, but I think this bit, about the narrator’s tea trips with a car owner, Sasha, gets at the essence of what I love so much about how Danilov writes:

Стали ездить с Сашей. Это, конечно, гораздо удобнее и приятнее, чем на электричках, да и вдвоем лучше, хотя последнее и не факт, потому что когда едешь куда-нибудь далеко один, не болтаешь, и больше шансов впасть в полумедитативное остолбенение и заметить вещи, которые в нормальном состоянии заметить трудно.
I began riding with Sasha. Of course this was much nicer and more convenient than taking electrichkas, and, sure, it’s better to work together, though the latter is not a hard-set rule because when you go somewhere far away by yourself, you don’t chat, so there are more chances to fall into a semimeditative stupor and notice things that are difficult to notice in a normal condition.

Kazansky Station, Moscow, with elektrichka trains.
Photo: Dmitry Danilov
In a later section titled “Rage Against the Machine,” the narrator describes his own experiences driving, concluding that driving wears on the nerves, which is hardly interesting or poetic, qualities he implies he found on public transportation. That follows up nicely on the appealing “semimeditative stupor” in the passage above: Danilov’s use of repetition, short sentences, and seemingly irrelevant details all fit beautifully with the paradoxical daze that envelopes his narrators and acts on the reader. He piles on seemingly dull information but stops short of overload, creating unexpectedly nuanced pictures of situations and atmospheres. And what the narrator of “Black and Green” doesn’t say—about his wife, his clients, his aspirations—is at least as important as what he does say, pushing the reader’s imagination to feel the significance of the gaps.

“Black and Green” includes everything from advice on brewing green tea—Maybe I’d like the stuff if I made it properly?— to quietly humorous summaries of towns. The brief entry for the town of Chekhov, for example, ends with this: “Чехов – не очень хороший город. Чехов – очень хороший писатель.” (“Chekhov is not a very good city. Chekhov is a very good writer.”) The novella also includes a passage about a funeral for a friend who committed suicide. Danilov captures drabness before the funeral:

“Серый день и серый дым из огромной серой трубы. Перовская улица, недра неприятного района Перово. Серые пятиэтажные здания и грязно-белые девятиэтажные здания.”   
“Gray day and gray smoke from a huge gray smokestack. Perovskaya Street, the heart of the unpleasant Perovo area. Gray five-storey buildings and dirty-white nine-storey buildings.”

One of Danilov’s best writerly gifts is that he stops when he’s written enough… just as his narrator in “Black and Green” knows when it’s time to leave the tea trade for an office job, before he tires of tea and no longer enjoys his clockwise sweeps through the Moscow region, loaded down with packages of tea.

A Few Notes:

  • “Black and Green” mentions the Tunguska Event so, as promised, I’ve initiated a Tunguska Event tag
  • “Black and Green” was shortlisted for the Andrei Bely award in 2010, along with Horizontal Position.
  • Литературная газета recently published an interview with Danilov; it’s here.

Level for Non-Native Readers of Russian: 2/5, not especially difficult language; novella length. An especially good choice for readers who’ve visited Russia.

Disclaimers: The usual. I met Dmitrii Danilov at BookExpo America.

Up Next: Dmitrii Lipskerov’s 40 лет Чанчжоэ (The Forty Years of Chanchzhoeh), an odd piece of work about a town invaded by hens. And short stories galore, including St. Petersburg Noir. Then even more stories: Andrei Rubanov’s Стыдные подвиги (Shameful Feats/Exploits… I’m still not sure…), a collection of short stories that I’ve been reading at the beach.


  1. Replies
    1. Это вам спасибо, Дмитрий, за повесть!

  2. 40 лет Чанчжоэ (The Forty Years of Chanchzhoeh)

    I know nothing about the book, but Чанчжоэ looks very much like a Cyrillic transliteration of Chinese, in which case it would represent Changzhuoe (чан = chang, чжо = zhuo, э = e).

    1. Thank you very much, Languagehat! The book takes place in Russia, in the steppe... it's very odd. Does the Chinese name mean anything like "chicken city"?