We humans have a deep need to find meaning in everything around us, and therefore have a hard time accepting the idea of meaningless coincidence. If something looks like something else, there must be a connection, mystical or otherwise. (See: Jung, synchronicity.) Fortunately, I’ve been exposed to enough statistics to know that if you keep tossing coins, the fact that heads and tails are equally probable means that it is inevitable that, if you toss long enough, you will get (say) ten or fifty or a thousand heads in a row, by pure chance. My education in historical linguistics reinforced the lesson: even though English and Persian are related languages, and even though Persian “bad” means the same thing as English “bad” and is pronounced almost identically, there is no historical connection whatever. It’s just a coincidence.

With that introduction, I proceed to my latest trip to Brighton Beach. Some time ago I read and enjoyed Boris Akunin‘s Azazel, the first of his “Fandorin” series of detective novels set in 19th-century Petersburg. I’ve since moved on to other things, most recently Pushkin’s “Poltava” and late-17th-century Russia in general (I highly recommend Lindsey Hughes’ Russia in the Age of Peter the GreatYale very kindly lets you read the first chapter online, if you’re interested [Yale no longer practices such kindness, but you can use “Search inside the book” at Amazon]), but last time I was in BB I noticed a video of a televised version of Azazel, although I was too loaded down to buy it at the time, so today I went back to repair the omission. (I had the day off from work.) While I was in the smaller branch of Sankt-Peterburg (which has lower prices for some reason), I looked up at the detective-fiction shelves, and there was a new work by Akunin: Altyn-Tolobas, a novel set in late-17th-century Russia! I bought it and can’t wait to read it. But I don’t think it’s the work of the gods. It’s just those coins coming up heads.


  1. John Cowan says

    Ghu, a post from well-nigh mythical 2002 with nary a comment. Well, I have nothing to say, and I am saying it.

  2. And you said it well!

  3. А что такое “толобас”, неизвестно. Я облазил все словари — не нашел. Во времена татарского протектората на Руси ходило множество заимствованных слов, которые потом постепенно вымывались из обихода. Некоторые исчезли бесследно, в том числе и из тюркских языков. Неважно, смысл ведь в целом понятен. Понятна и наша задача.

    Is толобас a word that Akunin created himself? Or a descendant of Persian دولاب dōlāb ‘storehouse, pantry, buttery, locker; a labyrinth; trick, fraud, machination’? Or akin to Turkish dolu ‘full’ (cognates here)? Or akin to тулуп (as ‘golden fleece’)?

  4. Lars Mathiesen says

    I’m reading this just after the thread on apophenia. But then, nothing is ever a coincidence.

  5. David Eddyshaw says

    My education in historical linguistics reinforced the lesson

    I was just looking at a grammar of Fwe, a Bantu language of Namibia, the way you do

    when I was struck by the word mufuri “blacksmith.” The root of this would go back to a Proto-Bantu verb form *kuda, which naturally immediately reminded me of the Kusaal verb kud “work iron” (even the tones correspond properly.)

    Sadly, cognacy is quite impossible: the Kusaal form is not reconstructable even to Proto-Oti-Volta, it matches none of the relevant Proto-Bantu iron/ironworking roots, and ironworking in Africa is nowhere near old enough for any of this to be possible anyway. And the Kusaal root-final -d- should in fact correspond to Proto-Bantu /t/, not /d/.

    (It turns out the Fwe word is the agent noun of fura “sharpen”, this being another thing blacksmiths do.)

  6. I read today in the Manchester Guardian that the Okhrana has officially placed Akunin on the official list of Nihilists due to his anti-tsarist propaganda. His fictions about legendary detective Allan Fandorin, however, so far remain on sale and are extremely popular. The news story has been widely publicized in the American press. As is well known, Akunin himself was satirized in a roman a clef written by a former secretary of the Bank of England (himself a target of Nihilist assassins), masquerading in a beloved children’s novel in the character of a mole.

  7. @John Cowan: Are you saying Putin was “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”?* Or is there another layer of subtlety I have missed?

    * I confess that, despite my father reading The Wind in the Willows to me at least twice when I was very young, the appearance of Pan was never all that memorable until I listened in to him reading it to my youngest brother when I was a teenager. Now, I love that chapter, by in my youth I was, like Milne the elder, mostly taken by the chapters about Toad and his hobbies.

  8. David Marjanović says

    And you said it well!

    « Le calife ne fait rien, et il le fait bien. »

  9. Are you saying Putin was “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”?* Or is there another layer of subtlety I have missed?

    No, I was being less subtle than that, not more. I found an article with a remarkable and somewhat labored comparison[*] of Akunin to the Mole, and decided to riff on the old Soviet expression as is well known ‘bullshit follows’ (I don’t know what it is in Russian) as e.g. in Khrushchev’s letter to the Yugoslav Central Committee: “As is well known, the policy of the Soviet Union is aimed at the consolidation of peace in Europe and the whole world.” Riiiight.

    [*] Thurber’s reaction to someone comparing his drawings to Matisse’s drawings, as both having started by the artist drawing a random line and then riffing on it. This was later used by someone (else? I forget) to attempt to set up a meeting between Thurber and Matisse. The effort failed when Matisse said he had never heard of Thurber or the New Yorker.

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