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.


  1. по-свойски = among friends

  2. Thanks very much—I’ve emended the translation accordingly.

  3. From “svoi” => “the insiders”, kind of “our own circle” (literally it does mean “our own”).
    The informal use of “truncated patronimic” instead of a personal name is so common in Russia, particularly between the well-acquainted grownups of comparable social status, that I’m surprised that it can surprise anybody.
    I remember the Moroccan Oranges very fondly for its then-aura of breath of fresh air. Of course we knew nothing about Evgeniya Ginzburg at the time, but looking back now, I can’t help feeling that the two shared similar optimistic overtones. Her Kolyma memoirs are surprisingly full of hopefulness and human-goodness, a true antithesis to Shalamov’s devastating Tales.
    The “protagonist” oranges, the real fruit from Morocco, with the tiny deep-red streaks of color across their regular-color segments, remain a cherished and elusive memory of the epoch. Does anybody know if they still exist? Do they still grow them in Morocco? When I first saw blood-oranges in the West, I hoped that they were “it”, but alas, no similarity.

  4. This game is usually called word ladders in English, though its inventor, none other than Lewis Carroll, originally referred to it in print as doublets. Two of Carroll’s original examples are head > heal > teal > tell > tall > tail and ape > are > ere > err > ear > mar > man (though ape > apt > opt > oat > mat > man is shorter).
    Apparently it was Dimitri Borgmann who introduced the current name: he said that the ideal word ladder involved changing each letter once and only once. Carroll, however, proposed a loosening of the rules in which steps that permuted the letters were permitted, thus permitting the chain iron > icon *> coin > corn > cord > lord > load > lead, where “*>” signifies the rearrangement step. (These notations are mine: traditionally word ladders are written vertically with commentary on the right, like chess notation.)
    Donald Knuth, he of The Art of Computer Programming and TeX, researched five-letter word ladders. He found that while almost all of his 5757 common words could be reached from one another, there were 671 “aloof” words which were not reachable from any other, including aloof itself as well as earth, ocean, below, sugar, laugh, first, third, ninth. Several others existed in pairs only reachable from each other, as odium <> opium and monad <> gonad. This result is typical of what are now called small world networks.
    Finally, Nabokov discussed the game under the name of word golf in Pale Fire, and propounded lass > ???? > ???? > ???? > male.

  5. The name of the ‘fly’ game comes from the popular idiom to make an elephant out of a fly which corresponds to English to make a mountaion out of a molehill. In Dutch it is the same as in Russian, but I am not sure where it originates: van een mug een olifant maken.
    I spent about two hours yesterday trying to get from муха to слон, going onwards from mukha and backwards from slon. Replacing vowels with consonants is the main stumbling block. I managed to do it in nine words in between. Not publishing here in case any of the Russian speakers want to try.
    John Cowan, thanks for the word ladders information. I was sure there’s a similar game in English, but couldn’t remember the name.
    There is another popular one where you have to make as many words as possible out of the letters of the given word. Who gets most wins.

  6. My Collegiate says a laser can lase but not that a maser can mase. Phooey. Wiktionary is more accommodating.

  7. Mockba, we still get them here in France, with the same tiny diamond-shape black stickers with the golden word ‘Moroc’, which we used to stick everywhere – on books, pads, satchels, shoes, on school uniforms.

  8. Valera Fooksman says:

    “Царь Иван Грозный, прозванный за свою жестокость Васильевичем”.

  9. Why would someone be called by his patronymic because of his cruelty? If that’s a joke (and I see it’s a well-known one) it escapes me entirely.

  10. It is a joke indeed, a nonsensical one at that, and the way I understand it, the funny part is that someone gets called a “cosy”, “among one’s friends” name – for the sake of his cruelty.

  11. P.S. A better explanation would be: Грозный means stern, whereas Васильевич is just the patronymic. So calling someone already known as Stern by his patronymic as a sign of cruelty is a nonsensical inversion (which is supposed to be funny – and it is).

  12. Silly Billy who was known as William IV for his foolishness.

  13. Silly Billy who was known as William IV for his foolishness
    Nice shot although IMHO it misses one important angle. The Vasil’evich line was originally a swipe at the foreign gurus making their living peeling the enigma wrapper from Russia’s riddle. Akin to the more classic line about развесистая клюква.
    Of course since Ivan IV is probably the only Russian czar widely known by his patronymic to the wide populace (and that’s at at all because if the history classes they took ;) ), the silly line caught on.
    Hmm, would I ever visit France in late fall or winter for the oranges? Not the usual leisure travel time… In the US, they used to import clementines from Morocco, but with the enhanced border security it just doesn’t work anymore. Californian citrus rules…

  14. “I imagine I’ll wind up reading just about everything Aksyonov wrote.”
    I like everything of Aksyonov I’ve read up to Ostrov Krym, and Ozhog (The Burn) is really a masterpiece.

  15. Остров Крым may be more than mildly irritating to many of the fans of Languagehat, because of Aksyonov’s outlandish lingustics theories advanced to explain his invented island-talk? Or, on a second thought, this might possibly even make the book alluring?

  16. Valera Fooksman says:

    John Cowan: compare with “Царь Иван Васильевич, прозванный за свою жестокость Грозным”.

  17. Well, nobody has tackled the Nabokov example, so I did: lass > lads > lade > made > male.
    That insufferable Kinbote claims (in his commentary on line 819) to have solved two other ladders, hate > ???? > ???? > ???? > love and live > ???? > ???? > lend > ???? > ???? > dead, but I don’t believe him. The only solution for the first I can find (without computer assistance) is hate > late > lave > love, and for the second the best I can do is live > line > lind > lend > lead > dead, both too short. And at that I have to use lind, an archaic form of linden last recorded by the OED in 1796.

  18. hate > mate > mote > move > love
    But if you can get from X to Y, which differ in N letters, in N steps, then it’s not much of a puzzle, and why should anyone encourage solutions in N+1 steps?
    lend > bend > bead > dead
    Same complaint again, but with N=2 rather than 3.

  19. It’s worse than that: a solution in N steps can be trivially extended to N+2 steps, but not to N+1 steps. That’s why I think Kinbote is lying.

  20. An opposing opinion about the “fly” game:
    A friend of mine who is a writer and was a friend/colleague of Aksyonov says that the game the drivers were playing was this: One person would turn around and hold out his hand, palm up. Unseen by him, another person would slap his hand, and he’d have to guess who did it.
    In favor of this reading is that the letter-ladder game is pretty sophisticated for a bunch of drivers.
    The other game they play with a jar is essentially “courtyard soccer.”
    Our two cents from Moscow.

  21. Huh. Any Russians want to weigh in on that idea? Sounds plausible to me.

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