Tuesday, December 4, 2007

A Bright Spot or a Dark Cloud?: Andrei Gelasimov’s “Zhanna”

Are you an optimist or pessimist? If you’re not sure, try reading Andrei Gelasimov’s short story “Жанна” – “Zhanna” transliterated but “Joan” in this translation.

One Russian site hosting the story includes comments from readers and Gelasimov himself, who writes that people find either optimism and light or darkness and Satanism in the story. Gelasimov concludes that it’s not the story that causes the polarization but readers themselves, who interpret the story’s problems from their own perspectives.

A first-person narration about a teenage mother’s life with her disabled son does indeed sound quite gloomy, but Gelasimov infuses both his heroine and his story with a subtle sense of hope.

“Zhanna” is written in a stripped-down style that doesn’t overload the reader’s senses with superfluous emotion, imagery, or pop culture references: Gelasimov includes just enough of these details to unify the narrative. Zhanna tells her story as an actual teenage girl might, jumping between doctor appointments, her mother’s dreams of France, childhood memories, and her son’s difficulties. Her life and troubles feel quite real and, though I don’t often like a flat-sounding narrative voice, this one fits the character.

This English translation by Alexei Bayer captures the mood and simplicity of the Russian original quite nicely. Though I find the choice of “Joan” instead of “Zhanna” for the narrator’s name somewhat curious, I suspect “Joan” makes the story feel more universal to non-Russian readers. Incidentally, the story mentions a song about a stewardess: it is “Стюардесса по имени Жанна” (“A Stewardess Named Zhanna”), Vladimir Presniakov’s irritatingly catchy perestroika-era pop hit. (Bonus link! Presniakov singing the song on YouTube.)

I wish I could list other works by Gelasimov that have been translated into English, but I don’t know of any. I enjoyed Gelasimov’s novel Год обмана (The Year of the Lie) very much, particularly a section of diary entries that were published separately as “Нежный возраст” (“The Sensitive Age”). The novel blends genres – coming of age, action – with humor and observations about life and lies, creating a satisfying and touching picture of one contemporary Russian family’s quirky life. On Proza.ru, Gelasimov recommends The Year of the Lie as a fun text and “Zhanna” for its sincerity. I concur.

A Related Reading. Thematically, “Zhanna” reminded me a bit of a novella by Liudmila Petrushevskaia, Время ночь (The Time: Night), a first-person narrative about three generations of dysfunctional family problems. Both stories have also been read in theaters as solo shows. Although I recommend The Time: Night as a look at societal breakdown in the late Soviet period, it takes a hysterical tone and feels claustrophobic, contrasting with Zhanna’s even tone and emptying apartment. Both narrators feel authentic, but I’d much rather spend a day with Zhanna’s quiet struggle than Anna’s shouting.


  1. Thank you for your favorable note on my translation. In defense of the choice of Joan over Zhanna I want to point out that there is a strong connection in the story between the protagonist and Zhanna d'Ark (Russian for Joan of Arc, of course). It would have been impossible to capture both the Stewardessa Zhanna allusion and the Joan of Arc one, so I opted for the latter since I think it's more important for the story. Jeanne would have worked as well.

  2. Alexei,
    Thank you for your comment and your excellent translation work. It's embarrassing to admit that I missed the Joan of Arc reference in two languages -- particularly at the expense of the stewardess song!

    Please let me know if there will be other Gelasimov translations on the way. I enjoy his writing very much and would love to be able to recommend more to people who don't read Russian.