Rasputin’s Borrowed Time.

Now that I’m back to the twentieth century in my reading of Russian literature, I’ve reached the year 1970 (and it occurs to me that I began studying Russian right at that time, in 1969-70, which gives me an odd feeling, as if I’m retrospectively catching up to the contemporary literature of the day). That has given me the chance to experience two famous authors I’ve been looking forward to: Chingiz Aitmatov, whose 1980 novel И дольше века длится день (The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years) has fascinated me since I first read about it, and Valentin Rasputin, whose most famous work is the 1976 Прощание с Матёрой (Farewell to Matyora). They both published short novels in 1970, and I began with Aitmatov’s Белый пароход (The White Steamship). Alas, I found it almost unreadable, and gave up after fifty pages — it’s written in the sort of sing-songy, repetitious, faux-naïf style that drives me up the wall:

The boy loved to talk with himself. But this time instead of himself he talked to the schoolbag: “Don’t listen to him, Grandfather isn’t like that. He’s not clever at all, and that’s why they laugh at him. Because he’s not clever at all. He’ll take you and me to school. You don’t know where the school is yet? It’s not so far. I’ll show you. We’ll look at it with the binoculars from Karaulnaya hill. And I’ll show you my white steamship. Only first we’ll run to the shed. That’s where I hide my binoculars. I’m supposed to watch over the calf, but every time I run to look at the white steamship.”

Etcetera. I am reminded of Dorothy Parker’s immortal review of A.A. Milne: “And it is that word ‘hummy,’ my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader Fwowed up.” I will still give The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years a shot when I get to 1980, hoping that he will have developed a more adult style by then, but I no longer have that first keen anticipation.

So I moved on to Rasputin’s Последний срок, which was translated as Borrowed Time (I’ll get to the literal meaning of the title later). I was immediately drawn in; Rasputin begins with the aged Anna, the focus of his story, taking to her bed in anticipation of death and her son Mikhail (the only one of her children to have stayed in the village) sending telegrams to his brothers and sisters telling them to come, and then develops the consequences. The weepy Varvara, the standoffish city girl Lyusya, and the older brother Ilya arrive promptly, but Tanya, who lives in far-off Kiev, keeps not showing up, and this provides the main narrative tension of the novel. (Note to aspiring novelists: you don’t need ticking time bombs to provide tension.) The brothers buy a great deal of vodka in anticipation of the funeral and the need to provide food and drink for all the villagers, but when Anna doesn’t die right away, they start drinking it themselves (in the makeshift bathhouse, so as not to disturb their mother); Lyusya wanders off to get away from it all, climbs uphill to a remembered bird-cherry bush, and unexpectedly finds herself immersed in long-suppressed childhood memories from the hungry postwar period (a horse collapsed under her but her mother managed to get it back on its feet and keep it alive; a Vlasovite soldier escaped from a prison camp and tried to rape her). There is a tremendously effective account of a drunken binge (it reminded me of Malcolm Lowry’s devastating Under the Volcano), and the description of Anna’s preparations for death is poetic and convincing — at one point she moves from a memory of stepping into the river to try to keep sight of her son being taken off as a draftee to a much earlier memory of her feeling ecstatically free by the riverside as a still unmarried girl. After I finished and started looking for material about the book, I discovered that Kevin Windle, in his introduction to Money for Maria and Borrowed Time: Two Village Tales (Quartet Books, 1981), wrote:

In an interview in September 1976 Rasputin stated that his favourite writers were Dostoevsky and Ivan Bunin, a novelist and memoirist who spent most of his life in exile, but who has found favour with Soviet readers since the fifties. In a later interview, in answer to a question about the role of the writer, Rasputin quoted the words of Lev Tolstoi: “An artist is an artist only because he sees things not as he wishes to see them, but as they are.” […] Rasputin’s predilection for Dostoevsky and Bunin, however, seems to have less to do with matters of philosophy than with themes and technique. He confesses his admiration for Bunin as a stylist, and it may be that he is also drawn to Bunin as a meticulous memoirist, for Bunin, throughout his years in Paris, never forgot his youth in rural Russia, and wrote with penetrating accuracy about a way of life which was passing.

Dostoevsky and Bunin — what a great pair of influences! I’m as impressed with Rasputin as Soviet readers of the day were (the novel made him famous), and I’m very much looking forward to his later work.

Oh, and that title: it’s literally untranslatable. Russian срок [srok] is one of those maddening words which seems straightforward in its own language but which becomes slippery when you try to render it in English; my Oxford dictionary has “1. time, period, term; […] 2. date, term,” with various phrases to show you particular uses, such as крайний срок ‘closing date’ and срок аренды ‘term of lease,’ but when it comes to последний срок you’re at sea. The phrase occurs twice in the novel:

Старуха понимала, что Таньчора может приехать только сегодня, что это последний срок, который ей отпущен […]
The old woman understood that Tanchora [her nickname for Tanya] could come only today, that this was the final srok allotted to her […]

Но сегодня был последний срок: если до темноты Таньчора не приедет, значит, нечего больше и надеяться.
But today was the final srok: if Tanchora didn’t come before darkness, it meant there was no more hope.

In the first sentence you could say “this was the final time allotted to her” and in the second “today was the last chance,” but I don’t see how to use the same rendition in both contexts, and I don’t think you can make it work as a title. I think Borrowed Time is a good solution, since that’s what Anna is living on and it gives a similar sense of finality. And while I’m on the topic of language, the book is full of fine Siberian dialect words and colloquial expressions; apart from its novelistic essence, powerful and moving, it was a constant pleasure to read. I’m planning to do so again, and I recommend it to all and sundry; I haven’t seen the translation, but the review I found made it sound decent. I’m glad to have found another favorite author.


  1. это последний срок, который ей отпущен

    Maybe it is possible to render as “that’s the only time that she has”. But that is also a wonderful example of anaphoric ambiguity. Who has that time until the nightfall? On the surface, it’s the daughter, but also is the mother. Actually, it’s the time limit for both of them though pronoun is in the singular.

  2. PlasticPaddy says

    Is srok also used in the sense of “slot”, i.e., where appointments or departure times are fixed? This is what the two quoted sentences could intend, although it would be necessary to read more.

  3. I read Aitmatov’s The Day Lasts More Than A Hundred Years many years ago, when it first appeared in English, and have gone back to it since. I recommend it highly. I think that Soviet science fiction is seriously underrated in the West. I shall look forward to your thoughts on the novel when you get around to it.

  4. But that is also a wonderful example of anaphoric ambiguity.

    Yes indeed; a nice analysis.

    Is srok also used in the sense of “slot”, i.e., where appointments or departure times are fixed?

    I guess you could use “slot” in some (official) contexts, but not in these.

    I think that Soviet science fiction is seriously underrated in the West.

    I definitely agree.

  5. As a matter of fact, the next novel I read will probably be the Strugatskys’ Отель «У погибшего альпиниста».

  6. Trond Engen says

    I have no Russian, but “final srok” in that context is clearly equivalent to the utterly simple and everyday phrase “siste frist“, and the usage examples are almost identical to what my Norw.-Eng. dictionary gives for frist. And now that you say it, that word has actually been difficult for me to translate without rephrasing. I might choose deadline here, both for ‘final srok‘ and for ‘srok‘ alone, but that would depend on if the added associations of ‘dead’ would be disturbing.

  7. I thought of “deadline” too, but it doesn’t work for me here; it implies a definite end-point (8:00 Tuesday morning, say), whereas what’s at issue is an unpredictable but inevitable event. That’s very interesting about the similar Norwegian word!

  8. Trond Engen says

    The definite endpoint is what is implied by siste frist. Frist alone has wider meaning of “reprieve, respite”, e,g. galgenfrist, lit. “gallows reprieve”, a brief feeling of mercy caused by a short postponement of the inevitable.

    The legal/economic phrases are quite likely calques from German.

  9. Speaking of Russian sci-fi, since you’re at 1970, did you pass by Понедельник начинается в субботу/Monday begins on Saturday by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky? I quite enjoyed that one and it was recently republished in English. I second S K Lewiski – I thought The Day Lasts More Than A Hundred Years was quite good in its English translation.

  10. Oh, I read it back in 2012, and I’ll be reading it again sooner or later now that I’ve got it in hardcopy.

  11. I just checked — I’ve read a dozen of their novels, which is more than I have by any US sf authors except maybe Heinlein.

  12. David Marjanović says

    Frist is common in German, but only with the temporal meanings, basically the time up to a deadline (die Frist endet am “the deadline is on the”). Galgenfrist means “definitely last deadline extension”.

    the sort of sing-songy, repetitious, faux-naïf style that drives me up the wall:

    Worse: the content is an “As you know” speech.

    (The link to TV Tropes is left as an exercise to the reader.)

  13. It sounds to me like “последний срок” means “eleventh hour,”* although the latter may not work idiomatically in all cases. For example, you can say, “But today was the eleventh hour,” but it does not necessarily read very well, because of the conflict between two different definite units of time.

    * It occurs to me that the idiomatic “eleventh hour” is actually the twelfth hour (or the twenty-fourth). However, I wonder whether this actually arose as a mistake in the count/measure distinction; or whether it exists because “eleventh hour” originated as a conscious Latinism. In any case, this is my preferred “Eleventh Hour” (stylistically, by far the best of the Fleischer-Famous cartoons).

  14. Well, I agree that “deadline” doesn’t quite work in context, though последний срок is precisely how my office always translated “deadline” during my Russia years. It seems to me, though, that “last chance” would be a fine, not overly-literal, translation in both of the sentences and as a title. Idiomatically, “last chance” usually implies a period of time that is soon to expire, though, of course, there are other possible meanings as well.

  15. why, it is deadline, or time is up. Nothing metaphoric or dialect in it, it’s just regular Russian. Apropos the many uses of srok, here is is a Vysotsky snippet for you:

    И скажу вам, строго не судите
    Лишь дайте срок, но не давайте срок…

    ~~ give me some time, but not time to serve?

  16. “Your time is going to come”, “His time is up”, etc. demonstrate the flexibility of the word “time” in English. Perhaps it would be better to think of a better adjective? Time Postponed? Suspended Time? Receding Time? Ok, none sound right…

  17. LH, I forget – why did you skip straight to the 1960s? Are you going to get to the exiles like Gazdanov and Nabokov later?

  18. @Brett. “11th hour” probably comes from Matthew 20 (parable of the workers) and indeed it is somewhat illogical because other times mentioned are morning, 6th, and 9th. Presumably, then 11th hour wasn’t midday or midnight, but early evening. I don’t know how precisely the Greeks of the time kept hours within the day and am not going to speculate.

  19. John Kearey says

    I suggest: “time was running out.”

  20. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Then there’s the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, so either you count hours as they end, or the ‘hour’ in this sense is not the expanse of time, but the bell (or other marker) which signals it.

    The modren* translation of Matthew 20 which google gave me said ‘at five o’clock in the afternoon’, which fits both as a time of day and with the system which counted twelve daylight hours from six to six and twelve dark hours from six to six again (stretching hours to fit as necessary).

    (*I understand the reasoning behind writing the Bible out in clearer language, but it does cut you off from all the cultural references)

  21. I thought the Roman system had twelve horae (hours) for the day and four vigilia (watches) for the night.

  22. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Very possibly, I didn’t look it up 🙂

  23. LH, I forget – why did you skip straight to the 1960s?

    Because that’s where I had gotten up to when I decided to make my swerve back to the beginning. Don’t worry, it’s not exclusive; every once in a while I drop back to read some Chekhov or late Tolstoy or dash ahead to read some recent stuff. I’ve read most of Nabokov’s Russian novels (though I’ll reread many of them now that my Russian is better); the only Gazdanov I’ve read is Вечер у Клэр (An Evening with Claire), but I intend to read more of him sooner rather than later — I really like him. I’m dogged but distractable.

  24. David Marjanović says

    “Random books from my library” happens to be showing me:

    “Farewell Gulsary! = Proshchai Gul’sary! by Chingiz Aitmatov”

    A colleague’s last name is Sarıgül, “yellow rose” – I’m surprised to find the components in the other order.

  25. John Cowan says

    I would say that Russian sf is not so much underrated as ignored. Those who have read it (in translation) and rated it, starting with Theodore Sturgeon, generally rate it very highly.

    As for the eleventh hour, it is indeed the last hour of daylight. The point of the parable is that those who toiled the whole day from sunrise, from the third hour (9 AM), the sixth hour (noon), the ninth hour (3 PM), and those who came in only at the last minute (another construction of the same idea) all get paid the same; metaphorically, you can be saved and go to heaven no matter when you repent.

    The Roman terminology is preserved in the canonical hours of Tierce, Sext, and Nones. These however are now of fixed length, whereas the Greco-Roman system reckoned them from sunrise to sunset, so that the length of an hour varied throughout the year.

    I was wondering if srok might have something to do with kronos (durational time) vs. kairos (punctuational time). The first few comments make it look durational, but the later ones look more punctuational.

    The etymology given in Wikt.en is Proto-Slavic sъrokъ ‘agreement’.

  26. Yes, it’s related to рок [rok] ‘fate’ and речь [rech’] ‘speech’ (Old Slavic рѣчь), a basic and widespread root (see Proto-Slavic reťi).

  27. Срок, as German Frist, designates a period of time. They can be defined either by setting a duration (“you have five days to pay”) or a deadline (“you have to pay until Monday noon”).

  28. David Marjanović says

    Any connection to Peter Strzok?

  29. Like laowai, I think “last chance” could work in both places. The first occurrence could be “The old woman realized that this was the only day Tanchora still might come, that this was her last chance,” which I think would keep the ambiguity D.O. mentions.

    I’m mildly surprised that Rasputin mentioned Dostoevsky as a key influence. I’ve liked what little of his I’ve read, but this post makes me want to read more of him.

  30. Like laowai, I think “last chance” could work in both places.

    The more I think about it, the more I agree. I still don’t think it would work as a title, though.

  31. I recommend Paustovsky’s story Телеграмма (“The Telegram”) as a powerful distillation of the main theme of Rasputin’s novel. (It so overwhelmed Marlene Dietrich that she demanded to see the author and threw herself at his feet when she visited Moscow.)

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