I had not been aware of Amazon’s translation imprint, AmazonCrossing, but that’s not surprising, since they only introduced it last year (press release). At any rate, they were kind enough to send me a copy of Thirst, Marian Schwartz’s new translation of Andrei Gelasimov’s 2002 Жажда, a prize-winning short novel (what the Russians call a повесть), and it’s certainly a good calling card for the imprint.
The story is simple: Kostya, a young man scarred by service in the war with Chechnya, holes up in his apartment drinking when he isn’t working; his war buddies show up and drag him out to look for one of their number who has disappeared; we get memories of his family and eventually encounter some of them. As always, the telling is all. It starts with a bravura passage I’ll quote in a minute, soon refers to the grenade that landed in his APC in Grozny and broke his life in half—this is the central image to which the book keeps returning—and then begins its slow spiral outward into the world Kostya is trying to avoid having to deal with; it’s told in a high-energy, slangy narrative voice that keeps the reader involved and often amused (an important consideration when dealing with potentially depressing material). The “About the Author” page compares him to Salinger; while I can understand the PR value of this, I think a better comparison is to the Bulat Okudzhava of “Будь здоров, школяр” (translated as “Good Luck, Schoolboy!”), also told from the perspective, and in the colloquial language of, a young man tossed unprepared into a hellish war—though at one point it reminded me of my favorite Okudzhava song, Молитва (YouTube), which made me choke up more than I probably should have.
But there wouldn’t be much point to my recommending a Russian novel if you couldn’t get a decent sense of it from the translation; fortunately, that’s not a problem here. Schwartz doesn’t need any encomia from me; she’s won all sorts of awards and is generally recognized as one of the best translators of our day. But this book is a tougher challenge than a more conventionally “literary” one; as I wrote in a comment to this post (still one of my favorites, if I may toot my own horn), “Russian dialog has a feel that I’ve never seen rendered successfully in translation.” Well, she does a magnificent job, which can be seen from the very first paragraphs:
All the vodka wouldn’t fit in the fridge. First I tried standing them up and then I laid them on their sides, one on top of the other. The bottles stacked up like transparent fish. Then they hunkered down and stopped clinking. But ten or so just wouldn’t fit.
I should have told my mother to take this refrigerator back a long time ago. It’s an affront to me and the little boy next door. Every night this monster cuts in full blast and he cries on the other side of the wall. And my vodka is never all going to go in. It’s too damn small.
I was nodding along to the convincing rhythm of the sentences in the first two paragraphs, and then when I got to the “Fucking pig” I laughed, relaxed, and knew I had nothing to worry about; I can’t imagine a better equivalent of “Засранец” here. She obviously spent a lot of time immersing herself in the narration and finding a voice to match its feel. I kept making marginal notes to remind myself of particularly felicitous renditions: “Thank you for the heads up,” “Cut the pity party,” “sweet wine” for портвейн (which far too many translators render “port” or “port wine,” as though it were the equivalent of Taylor Fladgate rather than Thunderbird). The potentially soppy themes of Kostya’s love for drawing and for children are handled with grace and pay off handsomely. And speaking of handsome: the book is a very nicely designed package (and with no typos that I noticed, which is an unexpected pleasure in these poorly edited times). If you have any interest in the subject of young men chewed up by war, or simply in a well-told story, you’ll probably enjoy this book.