Having read and enjoyed Viktor Astafyev’s 1964 story “Конь с розовой гривой” [Horse with a pink mane] (about a kid who longs for the titular gingerbread horse but gets into trouble with his grandmother, who has promised to buy one in the nearby river town where she sells berries), I decided to read his 1959 story “Перевал” [The passage], about a boy of around ten who flees an impossible living situation in a tiny village and joins a crew of rafters shepherding logs down the Yenisei River. Touchy and standoffish at first, he works hard, is accepted as one of the gang, and earns his first money and true self-respect after helping them get the wood past a difficult set of rapids (this is the “passage” of the title, which I have seen mistranslated “The Pass”); while it clearly fits into what we think of as kid’s lit, it’s very effectively written, taught me a lot of Siberian words and technical logging terms, and made me want to read more Astafyev, so I turned to his 1960 story “Стародуб” [The windflower].
It turned out to be set in a tiny Siberian village on a river, cut off from the rest of the world by dense forests and difficult rapids, a scene almost identical to that of the previous story. This village is inhabited by Old Believers (for whom I learned a new word, кержак) who have chosen the inaccessible spot to avoid contamination from the sinners around them; the plot is kicked off when a raft comes to grief in the rapids and only a young boy survives, cast up on shore with a badly mangled arm and barely conscious. What to do with him? The villagers gather in council and vote to get rid of him, since if they allow him to stay people may come looking for him and spoil their pure existence. They put together a tiny raft and force him onto it despite his wounds, explaining that they are not committing any sin, merely returning him where God put him, and it is God’s decision whether to rescue him or let him drown. At this point I decided that the story was a little grimmer than I felt up to, so I set it aside and moved on to another 1960 story, Vladimir Tendryakov’s “Тройка, семерка, туз” [Three, seven, ace—an allusion to Pushkin’s “Queen of Spades”].
Imagine my surprise when it began by describing a stretch of river along which logs were sent, held up by shoals, backwaters, and other traps, notably the occasional rapids; alongside a pair of particularly bad rapids is a tiny village… I was starting to feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, especially since I was encountering many of the same specialized vocabulary. But instead of a small boy, the stranger fished out of the river is a tattooed former Gulag inmate, to whom the head of the work crew offers a job if he wants to stay. Unfortunately, the stranger has a deck of cards and introduces his fellow workers to the vice of gambling. The story is tautly plotted and dense with moral conundrums, and I am still thinking it over a day later. (It’s apparently been translated into English: Three, Seven, Ace and Other Stories.) But I think I’ll avoid logging camps and rapids for a while.