I’ve been reading Osip Senkovsky’s “The fantastic journeys of Baron Brambeus” all month (see here and here), and I have to admit that since that last enthusiastic report it’s been something of a slog. The problem is that in the second section he goes to Siberia, joins a scientific expedition to the mouth of the Lena, and winds up exploring the nearby Медвежий остров [Medvezhii ostrov], ‘Bear Island,’ which is presumably invented—it certainly has nothing to do with the Norwegian Bear Island, and probably nothing to do with the Medvezhyi Islands, which are much further east. There he and his companion find a cave with what appears to be a long hieroglyphic inscription covering all four walls; fired with enthusiasm, they spend a week laboriously translating it using the “Champollion method”: “every hieroglyph is either a letter, or a metaphorical figure, or neither a letter nor a figure but a simple flourish of the handwriting” [всякий иероглиф есть или буква, или метафорическая фигура, или ни фигура, ни буква, а простое украшение почерка]. So far, so funny, but the problem is that Senkovsky then provides the complete “translation,” a very long novella about the last days before the meteor strike that caused the Flood and ended the antediluvian civilization from which hieroglyphics were passed down to the Egyptians, featuring a tiresome account of a jealous husband and his flirtatious, society-loving wife whose arguments and reconciliations are occasionally interrupted by catastrophic events and the comic relief of the astronomer Shimshik, who keeps running in to bore everyone with disquisitions on how this comet proves that he is right and his archrival is wrong. (The account is purportedly written by the husband with his last energy as he starves to death after eating his wife; the line Я съел кокетку! “I ate the coquette!” didn’t redeem the story, but it did make me laugh.) But now that section is over, the baron has gone to Sicily to view Etna, and the book is back on track, a soufflé again rather than a fruitcake, and I’d like to share a passage in which the baron is trying to convince the lovely Giulietta, whose current boyfriend is a Swede from Finland, that she shouldn’t be so impressed with him (Russian below the cut):
“But surely at least you’ll agree,” she went on, “that the Swedish language is very nice and pleasant to listen to?”
“And do you, signora, believe,” I answered heatedly, “that there is such a thing as the Swedish language? The Swedes are exceedingly proud, and they’re afraid that Europeans will call them Finns, so they employ every means to convince other peoples that they are of a completely different origin and even have their own special language. But I, having lived a long time in Petersburg, have satisfied myself that the so-called Swedish language is nothing but a hoax. When foreigners are around, Swedes deliberately pronounce random sounds in a sing-song fashion, accompanying them with gestures, to make people think that they are conversing among themselves in their native tongue, and that their language is sweet and melodious; but after babbling a while in that way, they are forced to leave you, go over by the window, and explain in Finnish whatever they wanted to tell each other.
Giulietta is convinced that the Swedes are deceivers, and resolves never to believe a thing they say.
The Russian original:
— Но вы, по крайней мере, согласитесь, — примолвила она, — что шведский язык очень мил и приятен для слуха?..
— И вы, сударыня, верите, — отвечал я с жаром, — что на свете есть шведский язык?.. Шведы чрезвычайно самолюбивы, боятся, чтобы в Европе не называли их чухонцами, и всеми мерами стараются дать уразуметь другим народам, будто они совсем другого происхождения и даже имеют особый язык. Но я, долго живя в Петербурге, убедился, что так называемый шведский язык есть только мистификация. В присутствии иностранца шведы нарочно произносят нараспев разные произвольные звуки, сопровождая их жестами, чтоб заставить его подумать, что они разговаривают между собою на своем отечественном языке, и признать, что их язык очень сладок и благозвучен; но, полепетав таким образом несколько времени, они принуждены удалиться от вас к окошку и там объяснить по-чухонски, что такое хотели сказать друг другу.
Update. See this post for Senkovsky’s real-life inspiration for the cave hieroglyphs.