Back in 2009 I posted a translation of a Bunin short story, Книга [Book], because I loved it and there were no English versions online; now I’m doing the same for another Bunin story, Пингвины [Penguins]. I sometimes pick up my fat Bunin collection and flip through to find a story I haven’t read when I don’t feel like tackling a new novel yet; a couple of weeks ago my eye fell on the odd title Пингвины at the top of p. 1114 in the table of contents and I thought I’d give it a try. It was so unusual and gripping it wouldn’t let go of me, and I finally had to translate it (and wound up memorizing a good chunk of it in the process). It’s perhaps a slight spoiler to say it’s an account of a dream, but that quickly becomes apparent; the thing about dreams in fiction is that they’re usually either tediously Freudian or pointless echoes of something in the main narrative — if your hero is being beset by enemies, I don’t need to wade through a dream about a bear attacked by hounds, thank you very much. But this has nothing in common with such fictional dreams; it’s self-contained, and its purpose seems to be to give as vivid a picture as possible of what dreaming is actually like, at which it succeeds brilliantly. The sudden changes of locale and of mood, the uncertainty, the intrusions of the inexplicable: it’s all there. (Gurzuf and Bakhchisarai are towns in the Crimea; Pushkin wrote poems about both.) And the ending is very funny.

The Russian text is here, or if you prefer the old spelling (as it was published in his 1931 collection Божье древо [Southern wormwood]) here. Obviously I had to make a lot of difficult translation choices; I’ll just mention that I rendered карагач [karagach] etymologically as “black elm” (I don’t think there is such a term in English) because, as my wife pointed out, if I had “karagach” it would just be a meaningless lump in the English text, whereas the Russian reader at least knows it’s a tree. For general context on these short plotless stories, I’ll quote a perhaps relevant bit from the note on Книга [Book] here: “Бунин всю жизнь был убежден, что художник должен все им виденное и пережитое записывать” [Bunin all his life was convinced that an artist should write down everything seen and experienced by him]. And I’ll also quote something vitalir wrote on flibusta: “Люблю Бунина. Может быть Россия Бунина для меня и есть град Китеж, не знаю. […] Блядь, народ, как можно не прочитать Бунина?” [I love Bunin. Maybe Bunin’s Russia is the city of Kitezh for me, I don’t know. … Fuck, people, how can you not read Bunin?]


It started with my being once again thirty years old — I saw and felt myself in exactly that happy period; I was again in the Russia of that time and in everything that characterized that time, and I was sitting in a train, going for some reason to Gurzuf… Then I felt that something was bothering me. It would seem that everything was fine — going south, sitting comfortably and at my ease in a small first-class compartment of an express train… But Pushkin died long ago, and in Gurzuf now it’s dead, empty, I suddenly told myself — and I saw, I understood, that not only in Gurzuf but everywhere it was frighteningly dead and empty. A kind of especially melancholy autumn — here in the south it was still autumn — and an astonishingly quiet, noiseless day. The train was traveling fast and full, but somehow full of inanimate people. And those unusually even steppes through which it was traveling were also lifeless and boring, as though their existence no longer had even the slightest meaning. That happens even in waking life: everything in the world sometimes seems frighteningly lifeless, insignificant.

“No,” I thought, “something isn’t right. I’ll have to abandon the train.”

I suddenly remembered that I was very fond of Bakhchisarai — after all, Pushkin once lived there as well, he was even a khan there in the fifteenth century — and I decided to get out in Bakhchisarai and continue on horseback, over the mountains, and I immediately did so. But I had somehow failed to notice Bakhchisarai, and in the mountains it was ghastly — wilderness, desert — and it was already getting dark. It was all stony ravines and crevasses, and all forest, forest, gnarled, stunted, already nearly bare, strewn with little yellow leaves: “It’s all black elm,” I thought, investing those words with a kind of secret and ill-omened meaning. And the horses are running somehow too evenly, and the coachman in his seat is so immobile and impersonal that I can hardly even see him — I only sense him and am afraid, because God knows what’s on his mind… The only hope is dinner in Yalta, I thought. I’ll ask for boiled mullet and white Abrau…

And then I saw Yalta, its dachas graveyard white among the cypresses, its shoreline promenade and the greenish seawater of the bay. But now it became completely terrifying. What had happened to Yalta? It was twilight, it was getting dark, but for some reason there wasn’t a single light anywhere, there was no one walking on the promenade, once again there was quiet, silence everywhere… I sat down in the empty and nearly dark restaurant and waited for service. But no one came; everything was empty and astonishingly quiet. In the depths of the room it was completely dark, and beyond the glass of the large window by which I was sitting a wind was coming up, low rain clouds were billowing, and time and again, thundering like cannon shots against the promenade and rising high into the air with their long foamy tails, came the waves. All this was so strange and frightening that I made an effort of will and leaped out of bed: it turned out I had fallen asleep without undressing or putting out the candle, which had nearly gone out and was now illuminating the room with a dark flickering light, and it was after one in the morning. And I leaped down, terrified: what was I going to do now? I had slept soundly and I could foresee no end to the night, and beyond the windows was the din of a downpour, and I was utterly alone in the whole world, where the only person not asleep was Davydka! I hurried to Davydka’s wineshop on Vinogradnaya. The night was so impenetrable and the rain was coming down so violently in its darkness that the wineshop seemed the only place alive not only in all of Poti — now I was in Poti — but on the whole coast of the Caucasus, even in the whole world. But when I finally reached him after running along some narrow, dirty, and lonely side streets, Davydka had already come out to close the shutters on his wretched little window and was about to put out the light and lock the door.

“But listen,” I said to him, feeling a terror that had already become deadly, “if you lock up and put out the light, what am I going to do? Where can I go? Even steamships don’t come here in winter!”

But Davydka only clicked his tongue and implacably, with that quiet imbecility of which only a Caucasian is capable, shook his dark close-cropped head.

“You can walk on the pier,” he said. “The main lighthouse will shine there all night.”

And here I am on some fearful precipice, humped and craggy, where you can hold on only by flattening yourself against the unusually tall and round white tower and pressing your feet on the cliff. Above, in the slowly revolving light, smoky from rain, with frenzied squeals and shrieks, fighting like seagulls, whirl innumerable funereal penguins. Below is a pitch-black abyss where something immeasurable howls and roars, hummocky, swirling, like some antediluvian octopus, moving heavily, with a sharp tang of oyster freshness, and at times rising in whole waterfalls of spray and foam… And above — penguins, penguins!


  1. cuchuflete says

    There is a black elm, otherwise known as a cork elm. (Ulmus alata)
    Fine story. Thanks for the translation.

  2. Dmitry Pruss says

    Wasn’t Pushkin himself a khan down in Bakhchisarai back in the 1400s

  3. Good story and a good translation. One nit (just to keep me in form)

    it even had a khan in the fifteenth century
    he was even a khan in the fifteenth century

    EDIT: Dmitry Pruss beat me to it.

  4. Fixed — thanks to both of you! (Of course I missed it because it didn’t make any sense, and it didn’t make any sense because it’s a dream…)

  5. SFReader says

    Only true Russian patriot can have nostalgia for Crimea while living on the French Riviera.

  6. Ulmus karagatch is a kind of elm tree.

  7. Карагач is a tough case. On the one hand, it’s a legit Russian word, although a Turkic loan, obviously. On the other, it sounds regional, probably typical of the steppe regions – in central Russia, I’ve only heard вяз for elm. For Russians unaware of its meaning, it would probably bring up thoughts of the arid steppes to the South and Southeast of Moscow, including Crimea (“Seventy-five percent of the remaining area of Crimea consists of semiarid prairie lands, a southward continuation of the Pontic-Caspian steppe” – Wikipedia).

    Карагач refers to more than one species of the elm, including the Chinese elm (Ulmus parvifolia) and the dwarf elm (Ulmus pumila), which (I imagine) grow well in dry climates thanks to their small leaves. The Turkic etymology is simple, going back to the most ancient vocabulary: black + tree or black + wood. Karaağaç in Turkish, qarağaç in Crimean Tatar. There’s also a village in Crimea called Qarağaç.

  8. For Russians unaware of its meaning, it would probably bring up thoughts of the arid steppes to the South and Southeast of Moscow, including Crimea

    That was my impression, and of course it’s impossible to convey that in English. (A similar regional word in English might be “saguaro.”)

  9. January First-of-May says

    For Russians unaware of its meaning, it would probably bring up thoughts of the arid steppes to the South and Southeast of Moscow

    Yeah, pretty much. I knew that карагач was a kind of steppe tree, but I associated it with Central Asia (rather than Crimea), and I had no idea which kind of tree it was (and, in particular, I suspected it was its own separate species and/or genus; would probably never have guessed it was an elm).

  10. delightful translation!

    By the way, there isn’t and it looks like there wasn’t a Vinogradnaya Street in Poti. There is one in Yalta now, but not in the same place as the old Vinogradnaya, which is now called Chekhova (Chekhov) Street, and it does go from the city park to the sea, near the piers with the lighthouse at the end of it. That’s where Gurov and the Lady with the Dog kissed for the first time. The British-built lighthouse in Poti (1862) is not on a piers but on a mound at the mouth of the river Rioni. What a flight!

    I may be imagining it, but there may be some writer-to-writer jabbing there. In Gorky’s Song of the Stormy Petrel (1901), where the brave Petrel hails the coming storm-revolution, while the Seagulls flap about in panic ‘with frenzied squeals and shrieks’, almost word for word as in Bunin’s story. And the Penguin! The Penguin in Gorky’s poem is ‘hiding its fat body among the cliffs’. If you start reading into Gorky’s imagery, Seagulls could be seen as the panicky, confused intelligentsia, and the Penguin as the bourgeoisie, its plumage resembling the ‘penguin’ suit. In fact, it’s been a long tradition in Soviet art to portray the exploiting bourgeois class in tails, tophat and a fat cigar.

    Gorky’s seagulls may have been a jab at Chekhov and his Seagull (1896). Chekhov, on his part, mocks Gorky’s revolutionary ‘burning heart’ from another story in The House with a Mezzanine (also 1896). Gorky would have known it well. In fact, 1901 is the year when both spent a lot of time together in the Crimea.

    So, is this image of flickering penguins and whirling squeaking seagulls, a Bunin’s image of Soviet Russia?
    Oh yes, and the Great Light from a Georgian lighthouse, the only light in town, surely, that would be Stalin? Hehe!
    By 1929 Trotsky was exiled from Russia, and Gorky, back in the USSR, was firmly established as the chief of Soviet literature with the proud nickname Burevestnik Revolyutsii (the Storm Petrel of the Revolution).

    No-no, it’s a wonderful story as it is.

  11. Excellent comparison with the Song of the Stormy Petrel, thanks for that!

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