The difficulties of reading Russian novels in Ernesto Sabato’s The Tunnel

I’ve long since overcome my reluctance to read Russian novels, but I’ll admit that there was a time when they seemed impenetrable. At best, I’d have to draw up a list of characters in order to keep all the names straight–no easy task with those patronymics. Now I seem to have overcome these early difficulties. Was it just practice? The main point is that I identified and laughed at a section of Ernesto Sabato’s novel The Tunnel in which a few characters discuss this same issue. Since the narrator of The Tunnel reminds me of the narrator from Notes from Underground, it’s no coincidence the Russian novel mentioned was written by Dostoevsky.

In The Tunnel, the main character, painter Juan is in pursuit of Maria, the woman he’s obsessed with, and he travels to the country home of her cousin Hunter to find her. Here’s Hunter and Mimi Allende (“a skinny woman with a ridiculously long cigarette holder”) discussing art which leads to the subject of Russian novels. We start with Mimi and Hunter talking while the narrator listens:

After all to claim that one is original is really like pointing one’s fingers at the mediocrity of others–which to me seems in very doubtful taste. I am sure that if I painted or wrote, my art would never attract attention.

“I don’t doubt that,” Hunter said maliciously. “Then you would not want to write, let us say, The Brothers Karamazov.

“Quelle horreur!” Mimi exclaimed. She rolled her eyes heavenward, then completed her thought:

“To me, they are the nouveaux riches of the consciousness. Can you bear Russian novels?”

The last question, unexpectedly, was directed at me, but the woman did not wait for an answer; she rushed on, again speaking to Hunter:

“My dear, I have never been able to finish a Russian novel. They are so tiresome. I think there are thousands of characters, and in the end it turns out there are only four of five. Isn’t it maddening just when you begin to recognize a man called Alexandre, he’s called Sacha, and then Satchka, and later Sachenka, and suddenly something pretentious like Alexandre Alexandrovitch Bunine, and later simply Alexandre Alexandrovitch. The minute you get your bearings, they throw you off the track again. There’s no end to it; each character is a whole family in himself. Even you will agree that it is exhausting, even for you!”

Later there’s a discussion of mystery novels….



Filed under Fiction, Sabato Ernesto

12 responses to “The difficulties of reading Russian novels in Ernesto Sabato’s The Tunnel

  1. Yes, this can be a problem. I’ve just bought my first Kindle and one of the thing I thought it might help with was unravelling the casts of Russian novels, but that only works if they always use the same name for each character, which, as Sabato, points out, isn’t, alas, the case.

  2. leroyhunter

    I read Life & Fate in December, and as luck would have it Vintage helpfully provide a list of characters at the back, which I did refer to quite often. The derviations of names – almost nicknames – can be a little tricky but I found I got the hang of them quickly.

    • I tackled The Demons a few years back and I drew up a cast list early on and eventually was glad I did. Now after watching endless Russian films I see more comfortable with the whole Russian name thing.

  3. It’s interesting that one element that people find difficult in Henry Green’s novels are the names. Only does he choose to gve more than one charcater the same name but refers to his characters as Max, Max Allen, Mr Allen. …
    With Western names it shouldn’t be so difficult but with Russian names it can be challenging.

  4. More editions of Russian novels should begin with a brief intro on Russian naming. It would make life a lot simpler for Western readers, who are used to last names being a big deal and not using patronymics. Nicknames reveal a lot that might not carry over well in translation–the difference between using “sacha” and “sachenka” as nicknames is that “sacha” is more of a general nickname that anyone could use, whereas “sachenka” is affectionate, diminutive, and a bit cutesy. So many shades of meaning get lost in translations…

  5. I had the same problem when I read Russian novels, the names are difficult to remember.

    With the blog, I now have an additional problem: names and especially writers names aren’t spelled the same way in French and in English.

    Can’t wait the post about the discussion on crime novels.

    • This is one of the funnier sections of the novel as Mimi is shallow and Hunter is bitchy, but Mimi is so dense she doesn’t catch on. Juan loathes them both but then he’s crazy and in no position to judge.

  6. This is a very funny except from The Tunnel. I encountered a similar problem in keeping tabs on the names when reading Dostoevsky’s The Double. Grace’s suggestion is a good one, I think.

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