“And that,” I said, “is how it always happens. First they drive the man into the ground and then begin looking for his personal effects. That’s how it was with Dostoevsky, that’s how it was with Yesenin, and that’s how it’ll be with Pasternak. When they come to their senses, they’ll start looking for Solzhenitsyn’s personal effects.”
I read and thoroughly enjoyed The Suitcase from Sergei Dovlatov, and so when I saw a new release from the same author, Pushkin Hills, translated by the author’s daughter, Katherine Dovlatov, I knew I had to read it. The premise sounded excellent–this is the story of a divorced, alcoholic writer, Boris Alikhanov who takes a job as a tour guide at the rural estate of Mikhaylovskoye, the Pushkin “preserve” even as his ex-wife considers emigrating abroad. The possibilities of such a scenario were intriguing. At 116 pages, this is a slim book that at times seems more anecdotal than straight narrative, or perhaps it’s just that the characters appear and then disappear, and I frequently wanted them to return.
Pushkin Hills was first published in Russia in 1983, and the novella slips in observations and criticisms of Soviet life, so when our narrator arrives at his destination, he notices that the walls of the town square are plastered with “warped plywood billboards. The drawings promised mountains of meat, wool, eggs and various unmentionables in the not-too-distant future.” These observations are prevalent in late Soviet literature, and yes they appear in early Soviet literature and post Soviet literature too, but there’s something about that late Soviet period. I’m not a historian, and I’m not a Russian literature expert–I’m a reader, so I’ll throw a mental dart at 20th century, and say post Stalin. Yes, Soviet writers were still being exiled but Soviet culture was defanged without Stalin, and what seems to be left, in late Soviet Culture (60s, 70s, & 80s) as evidenced by Pushkin Hills is a broken society in which conformity is still valued. We hear the slow, creaky wheels of indifferent, incompetent bureaucracy at every turn, and here at Mikhaylovskoye, it’s no different except tour guides are bombarded with the question: “do you love Pushkin?” which is supposed to generate an enthusiastic, gushing response. Here’s Boris being grilled in an interview conducted by the methodologist about his devotion to Pushkin:
I explained my reason for being there. With a skeptical smile, she invited me to follow her to the office.
“Do you love Pushkin?”
I felt a muffled irritation.
At this rate, I thought, it won’t be long before I don’t.
“And may I ask why?”
I caught her ironic glance. Evidently the love of Pushkin was the most widely circulated currency in these parts. What if I were a counterfeiter, god forbid.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Why do you love Pushkin?”
“Let’s stop this idiotic test,” I burst out. “I graduated from school. And from university.” (Here I exaggerated a bit; I was expelled in my third year.) “I’ve read a few books. In short, I have a basic understanding… Besides, I’m only seeking a job as a tour guide.”
But Boris has failed to give the correct answer which is “Pushkin is our pride and joy” and “He is not only a great poet, but he is also Russia’s greatest citizen.” In spite of failing to give the standard answer, Boris is given the job of being one of the many tour guides. He rents a room from Mikhail Ivanych:
A sloping antenna shone black against the white clouds. Sections of the roof had caved in, revealing black uneven beams. The walls were carelessly covered in plywood. The cracked window panes were held together with newspaper. Filthy oakum poked out from countless gaps. The stench of rotten food hung in the owner’s room. Over the table I noticed a coloured portrait of General Mao, torn from a magazine.
Mikhail Ivanych lives alone in squalor since his wife left. The beds are covered with “putrid sheepskins,” and Boris’s new landlord charges rent calculated by how many bottles of booze he can buy.
To be honest, I was at a bit of a loss. If only I could have simply said: “I’m afraid this won’t work…” But it appears I am genteel after all. And so I said something lyrical:
“The windows face south?”
“The very, very south,” Tolik affirmed.
Through the windows I could see a dilapidated bathhouse.
“The main thing,” I said, “is that there’s a private entrance.”
“The entrance is private,” agreed Mikhail Ivanych, “only it’s nailed shut.”
“Oh that’s too bad,” I said.
“Ein moment,” said the owner, took a few steps back, and charged the door.
Mikhail Ivanych, one of the book’s more bizarre characters, is perpetually drunk, and has some extreme, distasteful views regarding the German occupation and the fact that they “did no harm.” Apparently to Mikhail Ivanych, who at one point hangs two cats with fishing line, the Germans “fix[ed] the Yids and the gypsies.” This character, repulsive as he is, seems a study in contrast to the high-minded worship of Pushkin which is fostered just a few miles away.
Boris’s life as a tour guide at Mikhaylovskoye is the best parts of the book. We see bus loads of tourists disgorge, and Boris learns which nationalities are the best-behaved, along with the sorts of questions they will ask. Boris sometimes fabricates the facts, but most people don’t notice. The tour guides are essentially a bunch of misfits: failed writer Stasik Pototsky & the brilliant Mitrofanov who suffers “a rare clinical condition … total atrophy of will.” Pototsky, who indulges in week long drinking binges, develops a lucrative sideline in showing tourists Pushkin’s secret “true grave.”
For this reader, the best parts of the book are found in the details of life at Mikhaylovskoye, and the juxtaposition of the worship of all-things Pushkin with the reality of how the tour guides are heartily sick of the manipulation of the subject. The book’s narrator finds parallels between his life and Pushkin’s. After all, they both had “an uneasy relationship with the government,” and Boris acknowledges that they both had ‘problems’ with their wives. Beneath the dark, sardonic jokes, and the twisting of the absurd into humour, the book raises questions about the writer’s life, censorship, the writer and the state, and the role of an émigré writer.
Pushkin Hills contains some colloquial language and the occasional swear word, and this brings up the issue of exactly how does one translate this sort of language?Apparently Alma Classics searched for a translator for some time, and I can guess that this book wasn’t easy to translate. The translation of colloquialism is the aspect of the novel I liked the least. I’ll add that I find it wearing to read much colloquialism in any book–not that I object to swearing. Here there’s “gimme,” “kinda,” “scrud,” “Fuck them and the horse they rode in on,” “fuckin,” “fuck, my pecker’s dripping,” “booze-up,” “wino,” “have ya heard,” “outta,” “snuff ‘er,” Well you get the point. I have no solutions for how to translate colloquialism, but for this reader, the book became less Russian when I read Americanisms. Perhaps other readers will feel differently. Yes, I could always learn Russian, but that’s not going to happen.