Thursday, October 21, 2010

Killing Words?: Iuzefovich’s Kazaroza

Leonid (Yuzefovich) Iuzefovich’s "Казароза" (Kazaroza) is a pleasantly perplexing book: on the surface it’s a heady murder mystery that involves Esperanto and is set in two time tracks, with more 1920 and less 1975. Though the book wasn’t difficult to read I – that stubborn reader so partial to smooth narrative unless the book is called War and Peace or Daniel Stein – came away feeling a little jumbled after sorting through a fragmented, cubist-feeling novel that toggles between decades and presents texts for songs, articles, and even posters.

If forced to summarize in a phrase what Kazaroza is “about,” I’d probably choose something like this: fragmentation of many types and utopian ideas for bringing people together. With a setting that involves the civil war and multiple references to the Tower of Babel, Iuzefovich emphasizes cultural and political divisions. As for the underlying plot: singer Zinaida Kazaroza is shot and killed during a concert at an Esperanto club while singing an Esperanto version of Lermontov’s Сон (“The Dream”; the word also means “sleep”). Of course the poem’s words have significance in the scene, and murder is the ultimate act of division, separating life from a body.

Iuzefovich’s love for combining fact and fiction means he works in information about the history and politics of Esperanto, too. A brief historical digression that’s relevant to the novel: Esperanto originated with one Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof, a polyglot who grew up in Bialystok, (then) Russia. Of course I had no idea that the first book about Esperanto was written, by Zamenhof, in Russian, and published in 1887. Nor did I know about political and religious implications of Esperanto, or conflicts that arose within the Esperanto community when some saw Zamenhof’s Esperanto as too inflexible. Also: Iuzefovich based Kazaroza on a relative who sang under the name Zinaida Kazaroza.

Iuzefovich includes many lovely descriptions of people and habits (I particularly liked: “Врал он нередко, но всегда сухими губами” – “He lied sometimes, but always with dry lips.”), emphasizes the importance attached to labels by describing the naming and renaming of streets, and shows us how the living try to take possession of the contents of the dead Kazaroza’s purse. (You know what they say about a woman’s purse…) I suppose it’s fitting that Kazaroza, a sort-of-a-detective novel that’s wound up in the elusiveness of language and unity, seems so indescribable. And that I may read this oddly enjoyable book again – it’s grown on me – taking more time to play metaphysical detective myself and piece together the shards.

Level for non-native readers of Russian: I’m not sure… Moderate? I thought the choppy narrative was more difficult than the vocabulary.

Up next: Aleksandr Ilichevskii’s "Матисс" (Matisse), another perplexing book, though less enjoyable than Kazaroza.

P.S.: I don’t often hear about Russian-related translator events so am very happy to mention a few upcoming talks... Marian Schwartz will speak twice next week, once reading from her translation of Olga Slavnikova’s 2017, once about “The Literary Translator and U.S. Publishing.” Details are on her site, here.

On October 30, at 5.30-7.30 p.m., Crawford Doyle Booksellers, an independent bookstore at 1082 Madison Avenue in New York City, will host Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. They’ll read from their new translation of Doctor Zhivago.

Image credit: The Esperanto page on Wikipedia.


  1. Sounds right up my alley! And while I knew about the first book being written by Zamenhof in 1887, I had no idea that it was in Russian; silly me, I assumed from the title it was in Esperanto. I added the information to the Wikipedia article.

    If you're at all curious about Esperanto and other artificial languages, you should read In the Land of Invented Languages, by Arika Okrent; I wrote about it here.

  2. Languagehat, I also figured the first Esperanto book was probably written in Esperanto...

    The Invented Languages book does sound interesting. I didn't realize there were so many artificial languages.

  3. Iuzefovich has also cured the making of a serial based on his own book Kazarosa. Have you seen it? In my opinion a faithful version of the book and a good film.

  4. Candida, I'm very glad you mentioned the adaptation of Kazaroza -- I haven't seen it but meant to mention it. (I have a bad habit of forgetting adaptations so am always happy for reminders!) YouTube has the series in chunks here.