I enjoyed Звёздный билет (A Starry Ticket; see this post) so much that I decided Aksyonov’s follow-up novel, Апельсины из Марокко (“Oranges from Morocco”—there seems to be a translation in The Steel Bird and Other Stories), would make a good palate-cleanser after Ivan Denisovich, and so it did; I liked it even better, and I imagine I’ll wind up reading just about everything Aksyonov wrote. His combination of stylish, colloquial writing and knowing, sometimes slily subversive cultural references is intoxicating. The book’s plot is basically silly: several young men variously in love with two women, one of the two married to the boss of one of the men. But it’s just a skeleton on which to hang the important things, the language and the setting, the (imaginary) fishing town Taly on the Sea of Okhotsk in Russia’s Far East and the surrounding territory, with its сопки (hills) and распадки (narrow valleys, in which one of the protagonists is drilling for oil with a survey team). The MacGuffin (to use Hitchcock’s term) is a shipment of oranges that has just come into port, a rare and exotic commodity that has everyone for miles around rushing to Taly to stand in line and/or get into trouble. Aksyonov gives a hint of what he’s up to when he has one of the characters look down on Taly from a hill and say it reminds him of Liss, Zurbagan, or Gel-Gyu, three of the invented towns in which Alexander Grin set his adventure stories; like them, this has a combination of apparent insubstantiality and mysterious power. But he also has a character point out that the town is built on the site of a former Gulag camp, a detail with even more resonance when you know that Aksyonov’s parents spent eighteen years each in the Gulag, and as a teenager he joined his mother, Yevgenia Ginzburg, in Magadan, the entrance port to the hideous Kolyma camps.
At any rate, here’s a linguistically interesting passage; one of the characters calls another Vasilich (short for Vasilievich, ‘son of Vasily’), whereupon we get the following paragraph (Russian after the cut):
That’s how they call him on the Zyuid [a fishing boat; the name, from Dutch zuid, is the nautical word for 'south'], because of his age. “Comrade Captain” is awkward; Vladimir Vasilievich is too young for it. You can’t call him Volodya because of his rank, but Vasilich is just right, it’s friendly and you can say it with respect.
(Thanks for the translation help, Dmitry!)
Oh, and the invaluable Sashura cleared up a mystery; a group of men among the crowd waiting for the magical oranges are playing a game called муха [mukha] ‘fly’; I could find no information about it, but he came up with an explanation from an online site: it’s a game that was popular in the ’60s and ’70s in which you’d start with муха and try to reach the word слон [slon] ‘elephant’ by changing one letter at a time. Sashura says “It fits because it is a perfect time-killing exercise, and Aksyonov opens the phrase with ‘понятно’, which indicates that it was something you would naturally do while waiting.”
The Russian quote:
Так на “Зюйде” его зовут из-за возраста. “Товарищ капитан” неудобно, для Владимира Васильевича молод. Володей звать по чину нельзя, а вот Васильич – в самый раз, по-свойски, вроде и с уважением.