by Robert Mueller
Reading Evgeny Zamyatin’s A Godforsaken Hole (Na kulichkakh, 1914), what is the novel like?
First of all, it is very funny. And familiar. And yet the strange thing is that those other novels and texts that it can remind you of would seem to come after; and it would not be any particular writer or book, but merely the feeling of its being so familiar.
What is funny about this book? Here we feel in Walker Foard’s translation (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1988) the full effect of its capricious humor. The magic of caprice does in fact lead to something different, some indication of Zamyatin’s genius and personality. But the novel is known for its biting satire, and it got on people’s nerves once they noticed it, and so they burned and banned it: “By decree of the Supreme Commissariat of the Committee of Culture under Special Arrangements of His Most Esteemed the Tsar Nicholas of Russia the Second, any and all publication, illustration, distribution or infestation whatsoever of the writings purported to be unleashed under the title A Godforsaken Hole authored regrettably by the profane pen of one Evgeny Zamyatin are now and hereby placed in subjection to penalty by law and outrightly forbidden.” (official quotation mine).
What got their goat? It is hard to say. How satirical is the novel? I am not so sure the translator has succeeded in making the characters real (Neorealism). The humor, the eccentricity, the craziness and goofiness all come across but only to point at how exposure of their hypocrisies might sting, not how the moral awfulness graphically stows and swelters. In other words, they come across, but not to bring them to life, these hypocrisies and these miserable selves, these most appetizingly miserable parts of them.
Does the translator deserve credit? Yes. We get hints, pointers, the many signs and co-signs of the literariness and its urging factors. We get an idea of what sort of wicked characterizations of what sort of devious characters we just might experience were we graced with some sort of lustful troving of Zamyatin’s actual crushing words. We can at least see how we might know them to have them.
But, hold on. What if you have fun with the translator’s words? What if you make a deliberate and careful effort? What if you pay them close attention, such as, for example, the geometrical (Andrei Ivanych’s forehead) and geographical (Molochko’s warts) aspects of face and figure and body? What if you chime in? You just might get some of the genuine flair of the swords of the Zamyatin juggernaut thrusting and parrying with all the might of deep-envisioned schlopp, deep-immersioned schmattering. So. To the matter of the roundness of Captain Nechesa’s wife, to her total geometry:
The captain’s wife was lying in bed, small and completely round: a round little face, round quick eyes, and tiny round ringlets on her forehead ? in fact, all her charms were round. The captain had just given his spouse a smack on the cheek and left. And the ringing of one of the glasses on the shelf, a result of the captain’s footsteps, had not yet died down when in walked Lt. Molochko. And having said hello, he proceeded to smack the captain’s wife on the very spot that the captain had chosen.
Ok, so something obviously shocks the authorities; and though we ourselves are probably not too shocked, say, by the loud kisses and army-camp familiarities, we are closer, we are approaching knowing what it is like for the captain’s wife, either in mirth or dismay. It depends.
On most occasions Walker Foard successfully adequates the humor of this or that clever image. When Marusya (Captain Schmidt’s wife) is shown walking over icy stretches of ground that resemble “an unkempt corpse,” the description of her has nothing to do with her colorful speech or some kind of raucous display. It is simply a portrait, and so it hits home in its sweet way: “She buried her chin deeper into the soft fur: she became still more like some sort of timid, downy, precious teddy bear.” As indirectly voicing the feelings of her pie-eyed companion, the idea is lovely. Plus, there is nothing like this scene between Andrei Ivanych and his beloved for good-old traipsing through desolate tracts. It is one of the better scenes, in fact, for comprehending a character’s emotional status (Andrei’s emotions being insufficiently hearty to warrant a “state”). As beloved, Marusya on her side is unwitting. Or… Or, if anything, still more pressing unpleasantries are afoot. I invite you to find out.
Reading Zamyatin’s A Godforesaken Hole, what is it like? Take “the general oozed like a pancake in oil.” Not catchy, perhaps. It lacks that spoonlashnosing swing of dipped drivel at its mealiest. It lacks the necessary absorbing gumption. Still, we know the type. We are not surprised. The general as glutton; general as nasty bastard pig. The general as very civilized nasty bastard pig, as very civilized nasty bastard polysaturating Roman-style deeply fully gourmandeering greedy greasy lusting pig. What else is new in perimeter? We feel for the horses and their missing oats.
Did I mention that the novel is very funny? Actually it’s hilarious, as in the scene at the officers’ club. The pasty, jolly flavor of the slarmy Russian discourse does not come through in translation, the wild and drunken scene with its wild and witless and delightfully ridiculous singing. Yet you can tell that there is a flavor. And it’s hilarious.
Did I say delightfully ridiculous? I could have said depressingly ridiculous. This is pretty hilarious too, the moment of Zen for Andrei Ivanych and Marusya when their beautiful butterflies of the soul go flut-flut-fluttering:
Never to be forgotten — stowed away in a treasure chest — was one particular evening. Glorious warm weather — people went without overcoats though it was November. And then suddenly a north wind blew in, the blue sky paled, and by evening ? winter.
Andrei Ivanych and Marusya didn’t light a fire; they sat listening intently to the rustling of the twilight. The air filled with plump flakes as mounds of snow formed, blue and quiet. Quietly it sang a lullaby ? float, float, rock in the waves of the twilight, listen, lull away the sadness…
Andrei Ivanych purposely sat away from Marusya in the far corner of the couch: it was better that way.
That way there would be only what was most delicate, most white — the snow.
They whisper a few sweet nothings while the spell is about to be dissolved, thusly:
Marusya’s face with its closed eyes was so tender, slightly bluish from the blue snow outside; and what lips she had… In order not to see ? for it was better not to see ? Andrei also closed his eyes.
But when they lit the lamp, nothing was there anymore, nothing of what had been visible without the lamp.
And all those words about the bird dozing on a snow-covered tree, about the blue evening — they all seemed
so paltry, so ordinary, even a little funny.
But they were never to be forgotten.
If this passage were really good satire, and I happen to believe it is, we could not only track down the equal sentiments from the source and sources that are being delicately parodied. We could not only do that to absorb them into our literary grasp; we could also have heard their familiar lilting charm (Tolstoy?). We can never hear that music in translation, but we may somehow be able to know that we would if we could, and the knowledge that we could is in itself satisfying. Meanwhile, satire is not just poking fun but it is a full, a “sated,” and is this whole rats’ life stew, all that’s unfit to print in this godforsaken world.
Well, I won’t go on. I can’t go on. I invite you to peruse the novel. You’ll find out what happens, to . . .
New York City
Robert Mueller is a student of comparative literature, according to the indications on his advanced degree certificate. He writes for fun, and he maintains a curious and constant interest in books of all kinds. Mr. Mueller shares an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with two female cats, Rudy and Grace, a shorthair and a longhair.
Copyright ©2008, by Robert Mueller. All Rights Reserved.