Illarion and the Dwarf.

The Untranslated does it again — calls my attention to a work that I’d never heard of but that I now very much want to read. The review starts “Vladimir Gubin has remained in the history of Russian literature as the author of one work, which he kept reworking and polishing for 15 years, from 1981 to 1996,” describes the wacky plot (involving the brutal dictator Illarion and his nemesis the Dwarf, who works in a Tower whose function is to generate ideas for state legislation and who gets imprisoned for trying to help Illarion’s sister Pomezana, who never wears any clothes and “has recently taken to flying in the sky like a character in a Marc Chagall painting”), then continues with this passage on the style, which is what grabbed me:

Of course, the way this novel is written is more important than what it is written about. This becomes evident from the very first paragraphs, which describe the swarms of blood-thirsty fleas causing mayhem among the citizens of Sycophantia. We do not know this yet, but the sporadic attacks of these uncannily trained insects are Illarion’s doing. From time to time, he orders his servants to release the fleas into public places as the indispensable “scourge of the masses”. The whooshing of the nasty swarms is conveyed by the repeated sibilants, something that a good English translator would be able to recreate after some time of concentrated effort. […]

Gubin’s rhythmic prose deserves a separate article, perhaps even a monograph, so I will just lightly touch upon it, giving you a couple of examples. Some of his sentences are likely to spark an acute sensation of déjà-vu in any reader who has been exposed to the Russian canonical translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey. It is a peculiar feeling when you realise that a scene or a description in the novel suddenly bursts into a dactylic hexameter or at least into its truncated version. […] There are more likewise ingeniously metered sentences and phrases scattered throughout the text, and I cannot stress enough how important this rhythmic ornamentation is to the overall aesthetic experience of reading the novel.

Apart from the rhythm of Gubin’s sentences, there are also striking images to catch us unawares, to give us pause, and to make us wonder. Gubin’s strings of metaphors and similes are also often rhythmic and frequently sport alliteration or consonance. The facial expression of the plumber Entik (a minor character), who comes to visit a psychiatrist is described as “подвижная гамма гримас” (nimble gamut of grimaces). The Tower is periphrastically called “институт-инкубатор оракульских истин” (institute-incubator of oracular truths). The scalp of the Dwarf itches “as if dogs had sprinkled the crown of his head with lightning bolts” (как если бы псы на макушку насыпали молний). This sentence fragment is yet another amphibrachic pentameter, by the way. The idle yammering of bus passengers becomes “the tentacles of the sticky and wobbly noodles of verbiage” (щупальцы липкой дрожащей лапши словоблудия). In his bombastic address to the residents of the Shoelaces village, Illarion wants to demonstrate the superiority of the technocratic society that he represents, so he comes up with an alliterative abomination that could have been spewed by any of the garbled proletarian rhetoricians in Andrei Platonov’s works: “Наука накаркала цивилизацию, предусмотрела паяльник и поезд.” My translation will be very imperfect for this: “Science predicted civilisation; it foresaw the soldering iron and the train.” (As you can see, the alliteration is lost and the hilarious use of the verb накаркать, which is derived from the verb “to caw” and means to call into being something evil, hasn’t been conveyed. That would have required more than one sleepless night, I’m afraid!) Illarion prefers to spend his leisure time at the fireplace with the state flag next to him because in its presence “the muzzle of wrinkles grows dim” (тускнеет намордник морщинок). I could go on, but even these few examples should be enough for either winning you over or completely putting you off Illarion and the Dwarf, depending on your idea of what good literature is. I will finish by noting that the title itself is bathed in consonance and the interplay of the l’s and r’s is luxurious to the ear: Illarion i Karlik.

He compares Gubin’s style to Andrei Bely, Nabokov, and Sokolov; how can I resist? Besides the plot description, I’ve left out most of the examples, one quite lengthy; go to the link for those, and don’t miss the interesting exchange in the comments.


  1. Incidentally, though the physical book seems to be unfindable, the e-book is available at Flibusta as part of an anthology.

Speak Your Mind