When I return to Russia, my birthplace, I cannot sleep for days. The Russian language swaddles me. The trilling r’s tickle the underside of my feet. Every old woman cooing to her grandson is my dead grandmother. Every glum and purposeful man picking up his wife from work in a dusty Volga sedan is my father. Every young man cursing the West with his friends over a late morning beer in the Summer Garden is me. I have fallen off the edges of the known universe, with its Palm Pilots, obnoxious vintage shops, and sleek French-Caribbean Brooklyn bistros, and have returned into a kind of elemental Shteyngart-land, a nightmare where every consonant resonates like a punch against the liver, every rare vowel makes my flanks quiver as if I’m in love…
That was great, right? The man can tell a story. I
would have posted the piece for its own sake posted the piece a year ago, but I also want to go on for a bit about this:
Ann Mason’s Bungalow Colony sits on the slope of a hill, beneath which lies a small but very prodigious brook, from which my father and I extract enormous catfish and an even larger fish whose English name I have never learned (in Russian it’s called a sig; the Oxford-Russian dictionary tells me, rather obliquely, that it is a “freshwater fish of the salmon family”).
He’s being disingenuous here, since the Oxford definition is actually “white fish (freshwater fish of salmon family),” but I can understand his ignoring the “white fish” part—written as two words like that, it looks like a description rather than a name. Now, it turns out the English equivalent of сиг (sig) is indeed whitefish, but it took me a while to realize that. First I checked my Russian-French dictionary, which defined it as “lavaret.” Then I found lavaret in my Collins Robert dictionary (something of a miracle, as the much larger Larousse French-English doesn’t have it), where it was defined as “pollan.” This word is not in any of my medium-sized dictionaries, but it is of course in the OED: “A species of fresh-water fish, Coregonus pollan, found in the inland loughs of Ireland.” What on earth is a lexicographer doing using an obscure word almost guaranteed to be unknown to the reader, and moreover referring to an entirely different species, to define the French word? Then I determined that the species was Coregonus lavaretus and googled that, and the first hit confirmed that this was indeed the “common whitefish.” So why did the Oxford Russian-English choose to confuse everyone by separating “white” and “fish”? Ah well, the question was answered. But fish names are confusing. The OED has the following terms whose definitions include the genus Coregonus: ferra, gizzard fish, gwyniad, freshwater herring, lake herring, mountain herring (described in a quote as Coregonus williamsoni but in the OED’s definition as Prosopium williamsoni), houting (Coregonus oxyrhynchus, a name redolent of papyrus), kilch, lavaret (“The houting, Coregonus lavaretus, as it occurs in some European lakes”—now wait a minute, you just said the houting was Coregonus oxyrhynchus!), moon-eye (“a whitefish of the genus Coregonus; a cisco”—but “cisco is “The popular name of several species of North American whitefish belonging to the genus Leucichthys“), omul (“The Arctic cisco, Coregonus autumnalis“), Otsego bass (“The lake whitefish, Coregonus clupeaformis“), pilot-fish, pollan, powan (“It belongs to the same genus as the Vendace and the Pollan, with which it was formerly identified, and is still often confused, under the name Freshwater Herring”), round-fish, shad-salmon (“the whitefish or freshwater herring, Coregonus clupeiformis of Lakes Erie and Ontario”), shad-waiter (“the Menomonee whitefish, Coregonus quadrilateralis“), skelly (“The gwyniad, the fresh-water herring, Coregonus clupeoides“), tittymeg (“A whitefish of Canadian and North American lakes, Coregonus clupeiformis“), tullibee, vendace (“a. A species of small freshwater fish, Coregonus vandesius, belonging to the same genus as the pollan and powan or gwyniad, found in the lake of Lochmaben in Scotland. b. A closely-allied species, Coregonus gracilior, found in Derwentwater, formerly identified with the preceding”), and of course whitefish: “A common name for the fishes of the genus Coregonus, of the family Salmonidæ, found in the lakes of North America, and valued as food.” The combined effect of a plethora of local names, changing standards of Linnean nomenclature, and probably a certain disconnect between lexicography and biology produces a mess that makes me pity anyone who tries to match names from one language to another. But I do very much like the word “tittymeg.”
Getting back to the Shteyngart piece, for those who are interested, here’s the original of the “old Soviet anthem from my youth” (I can’t find an audio file, but here‘s the scanned sheet music—change the 24 in the URL to 25 and 26 for the rest):
Чайка крыльями машет,
За собой нас зовет.
Пионеры, друзья и товарищи наши
Собираются в новый поход.
Плывут, плывут, плывут
Над нами облака.
Зовут, зовут, зовут
Леса, поля и горы.
And the “old Russian childhood ditty” (mp3):
Пусть всегда будет солнце,
Пусть всегда будет небо,
Пусть всегда будет мама,
Пусть всегда буду я.
(Via wood s lot.)
Addendum. My wife thought she remembered hearing the “old Russian childhood ditty” in English, so I did some googling and discovered that it’s not so old—by Arkady Ostrovsky, it won a song festival in Poland in 1963. And finding that page enables me to share with you a fine resource for Russian music, the Russian Musical Highlights of the 20th Century, with year-by-year accounts of musical events.
I also disovered that Shteyngart had used the “childhood ditty” in his 2002 story Shylock on the Neva. Time to move on, Gary!