Monday, March 21, 2016

Lazy Snow Day Special: Grigorenko’s Mebet

I’m not quite sure why I feel so surprised about how much I enjoyed Aleksandr Grigorenko’s Мэбэт (Mebet, watch for spoilers!), a novel Grigorenko apparently used to describe as, simply, “about the taiga.” Despite lots of great reviews and recommendations, I’d been passing over Mebet on my shelf for almost four years, always thinking, I suppose, that a book about a taiga warrior sounded too frozen, anthropological, ethnographic, folkloric, frozen (did I mention that already?), and, thus, uninteresting to pick up. Obviously, I was wrong.

Mebet is anything but uninteresting, probably because Grigorenko so successfully channels what is frozen, anthropological, ethnographic, folkloric, and (again) frozen into the story of one man’s successes (mostly in hunting, often done in others’ territory, and in battle with neighboring peoples, sometimes using tricks) and failures (mostly in dealing with other human beings). What struck me most was Grigorenko’s portrayal of Mebet’s, hmm, rigid character. Don’t get me wrong: a man who can catch flying arrows deserves some big-time praise, but I jotted down “a hardass with no friends.” Mebet, a Nenets who’s a darling of the gods, sees no reason to back down from anything because he sees people as being either weak or strong and he believes there’s no reason to deny one’s category. I’m sure it’s clear which category he inhabits. Mebet even tells his son, Khadko, that there’s just one area where he’s incapable: regretting past deeds or repenting. (That sets up the second half of the book; more on that below.)

Mebet and Khadko have a strained relationship, thanks to differences in their worldviews: Khadko may be a fantastic hunter but, unlike his father, he wants to observe the rules of the taiga that humans have set. In a key disagreement, Khadko follows those rules and proposes marriage properly to a woman from another tribe; he’s refused and told, in part, that it’s because his father doesn’t honor gods or guidelines, and wants only for others to fear him. Khadko marries a different woman; Mebet chooses her and kidnaps her for Khadko. She is Khadne (her name means Woman of the Blizzard) and she turns out to be very helpful in battle against her own people.

What I’ve outlined is only a portion of the story, to show some of the factors that lead to further confrontations in the book, after Mebet goes to take revenge on a bear and loses, which forces him to, well, face his mortality, his wrongdoing, and those he has wronged. Those people range from his battle victims to a one-eyed witch who made mushroom potions that Khadko tried. During a hellish eleven-stage quest, Mebet runs into the spirits of many of those people and is aided by his very wise talking dog. Like Mebet’s prideful character, many of the realizations that come—about immortality, being manipulated, and how scary it is to be a human (or even a dog?)—feel universal rather than unique to the taiga, despite belonging so solidly in Mebet.

For this reader, the biggest miracle of Mebet isn’t what happens in the end but that the novel works so beautifully, making a 239-page book feels like the epic literature that reviews promised. The matter-of-fact storytelling, the timeless characters speaking everyday-sounding Russian (they even say “oy”), the narrator’s occasional contextualizing, and the many familiar tropes Grigorenko folds into the text all make Mebet read easily, but the more I go back to look at my notes and reread individual pages, the more I appreciate—as I always do—how much depth an author can work into such a seemingly simple text. Mebet made for particularly good company during a particularly busy time: it’s not easy to find books that read this smoothly, pleasantly, and smartly on multiple levels.

Up next: Boris Akunin’s The Black City, set in Baku; fun in spots but dragging a bit. Eugene Vodolazkin’s The Aviator, which I’m reading slowly and enjoying very much.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

2015 Compass Award Results

I don’t read nearly as much Russian poetry as I should so the Compass Award, an annual translation contest, is a welcome way to get me thinking about poetry, one poet at a time. Boris Slutsky was the poet to translate for the 2015 contest year; winners were announced in early January. I somehow missed that, most likely thanks to my working-through-the-holidays haze, but announcements about yesterday’s ceremony and reading in New York City woke me up. I wish I could have gone! The winners are:

First prize: Peter Oram for “Poetic Proof.” I remembered Oram’s name from last year’s Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender Prize, where Oram won second place with a very striking translation. (Previous post)
Second prize: Robin Kallsen for “Twentieth Century”
Third prize: Robin Kallsen for “There is a God”
Honorable Mention: Lawrence Bogoslaw for “People Fall Into 2 Camps”

The winning translations will be published in Cardinal Points Journal (vol. 6, March 2016) and the Storony sveta literary annual, in February 2017.

For more on Slutsky, I’ll turn things over to Jamie Olson, who’s posted twice about him. Click here for Jamie’s “Holding a Gaze,” which translates “О прямом взгляде,” and here for some thoughts on how Slutsky’s poetry reflects the times he lived in. Writes Jamie, “Throughout his work, Slutsky seems haunted by Soviet history and therefore intent upon revisiting it so as to comprehend it. By candidly examining his own past and thoughts, he emerges as both judge and interlocutor, providing an ethical context in which author and reader can interpret events together.”

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Compass chose Bella Akhmadulina as the poet for the 2016 award. Just for fun, to get you ready, let’s reprise this piece by Alexander Anichkin from Cardinal Points, about Akhmadulina’s “По улице моей” (“Along this street of mine”).

Up Next: Aleksandr Grigorenko’s Mebet then Boris Akunin’s Black City, a Fandorin novel that takes place in Baku (one of my favorite places to visit for work when I lived in Moscow). After the adrenaline rush of meeting three deadlines in two weeks—and a lovely bouquet it was, with a novel, a short story, and an article—it’s nice to hang out with Erast Petrovich for a little while and enjoy a different kind of adrenaline rush. I’ve got a nice pile of books to choose from after that…

Disclaimers: Irina Mashinski editor-in-chief of StoSvet, which runs this award, is a wonderful colleague.