Sharov’s Holy Children.

I’ve now read another novel by Vladimir Sharov, Будьте как дети (translated by Oliver Ready as Be as Children), and I’m feeling much as I did after finishing his Репетиции (The Rehearsals; see this post): “I’m not clear what he’s doing here or why he’s doing it, or (which is perhaps another way of putting it) what kind of a novel it is.” Now, of course, having read two of them, I have more of an idea of what he’s up to, but I’m still (like so many of his characters) wandering through the wilderness toward an uncertain destination. Fortunately, I don’t have to try to describe the plot (such as it is), because the detailed review by M.A. Orthofer at the complete review does that for me; this paragraph will give you an idea:

There are three main strands to [the narrator] Dmitry’s compilation. One involves his godmother, Dusya, the woman who gave him his name. She is the dominant figure in the novel, and played a significant role in Dmitry’s own life and path, as do some of the important characters close to her, her spiritual father, Nikodim, and her son, Seryozha. Another strand involves Lenin, and the story of the last years of his life, when he suffered repeated strokes. And, finally, there are the Enets, a Samoyedic group whose history Dmitry — who becomes an ethnographer — takes an interest in.

The basis of the novel, as well as its title, comes from Jesus’ words at Matthew 18:3: “Verily I say unto you, except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” Everything in the book revolves around the idea that we are pure and innocent and holy as children, but as soon as we start growing up (adolescence seems to be the turning point) we become sinners, and pretty much worthless. This idea is repugnant to me, but I’m willing to accept it as the framework for a work of fiction; the trouble is that this is not so much a work of fiction as a dramatization of the theological idea, with characters I find it impossible to care about (or, in some cases, to keep straight without flipping back and forth). Furthermore, as with the earlier novel, I fear Sharov expects me to take the theology seriously and to care as intensely as the characters do about (say) the alleged murder of the four-year-old girl Sashenka by Dusya, who prayed to God for her death (this occurs only a few pages into the novel, so is not a spoiler). I’m sorry, but you can’t kill someone by praying, so all the angst related to that plot line is wasted on me; it wouldn’t be if, as in Dostoevsky, the characters were so real to me that their concerns became mine, but Sharov (like Shishkin) apparently doesn’t believe in lifelike characters — they would distract from the grand points he wants to make. He once described Russian history as a commentary on Scripture, and that’s certainly what his books read like. But if I wanted a commentary on Scripture, I’d read a commentary on Scripture.

I was intrigued by the plot line about Lenin sending children to the Holy Land (which was one of the few things I knew about it going in), but that fizzles out: after an endless description of Lenin’s alleged ruminations on the subject (presented as a series of lectures), the children are summarily disposed of (spoiler: they die long before getting to Palestine). The novel ends with a description of lines of people, including most of the characters, making their way to the invisible city of Kitezh (which is one of my favorite bits of Russian culture); this reminded me of the end of Fellini’s , where all the characters hold hands and dance, but there we’ve come to care about them, and it’s a moving scene. Here it’s just (for me) a clever way to tie the end to the beginning (where a post-WWI performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh includes a scene with the city walls being approached by a column of officers who died in the war).

Mind you, as with the Shishkin book, I’m the odd one out: both Russians and readers of Ready’s (apparently excellent) translation loved it — besides the complete review piece I linked to above (“it’s a rewardingly rich text — a good story, even”), see the enthusiastic review at The Modern Novel: “this is another absolutely brilliant book by Sharov, a thoroughly enjoyable read, a book you can really get your teeth into and one that will keep you going for some time.” I’m simply not the target audience; not everything is for everyone, and I’m afraid Sharov is not for me.

But here’s an interesting (if crackpot) passage of linguistic interest; Father Nikodim is discussing считалки (counting rhymes) of the sort I posted about here (“Ene, bene, res, / Kvinter, finter, zhes…”):

«Пойми, Евдокия, пойми, – говорит отец Никодим, когда она переходит к последнему ряду, – я тут прикинул, что чуть ли не пятая часть считалок происходят от молитв на арамейском и древнееврейском. Ты хоть понимаешь, что это значит?» Дуся качает головой. «Это значит, – торжественно повторяет Никодим, – что в считалках, которые перед тобой, сохранилось, со времен Синая ни разу не прервавшись, дошло до наших дней молитвенное служение, то есть ты не читаешь, а молишься. Вот, например, смотри, одна из самых обычных, ты наверняка тоже когда-то так считалась:

Энэ бэнэ рэс,
Квэнтэр мэнтэр жэс,
Энэ бэнэ рабо
Квэнтэр мэнтэр жаба.

Энэ (из арамейского – ано, Ани) – я; бэн – сын; рэс (айрайсо) – Пятикнижье Моисеево, Тора; квэнтэр (к вэн тойр) – сын своего времени; мэнтэр (мэнтар) – пощади; жэс (эс) – меня; рабо – Бог; жаба (або) – отец. В вольном переводе получается: “Я – сын закона и сын своего времени, пощади меня, Господь, Отец мой”.


Энэ бэнэ
Торба сорба
Энце звака
Тэус эус

Про энэ и бэнэ я уже говорил; торба (тойр бо) – нынешнее время; сорба – сопротивляюсь, борюсь, пытаюсь не поддаться; энце звака (нойц з око) – пошлость; тэус (тоус) – ошибка; косматэус (кесэм) – мираж, фантазия, туман. Перевод этой считалки: “Я, сын своего времени, пытаюсь не поддаться окружающей пошлости и лжи, не увлечься фантазиями и миражами”. Мы, взрослые, как потомки Ноя, отступали от Бога, снова делались язычниками, идолопоклонниками, а дети, спасая мир, молились и за себя, и за нас. Потому Господь их и возлюбил, что, боясь греха, они день-деньской молитвой очищались от всякой скверны.

И еще одна вещь: вспомни, как яростно обновленцы клянут нас за старославянский, – продолжал Никодим, – говорят, что прихожане не понимают литургию. Целый год и я колебался, думал: а может, они правы, но после считалок сомнений во мне не осталось. Дело в том, что для разума Господь недоступен, наши умствования пусты и ненужны, они никого не могут ни удовлетворить, ни спасти. Точно так же относятся к рациональному и дети в своих считалках.

Если посмотреть чужим глазом, со стороны, в словах прилюдов совсем нет смысла, только напряжение, музыка самих звуков, но за этим напряжением главное – Господь, к которому ты обращаешься. И еще: считаясь и одновременно молясь, дети, которых мы привыкли ругать за своеволие, непослушание, каждым произнесенным слогом твердят одно: “На всё воля Божия – как выпадет, на кого падет жребий, тот и будет водить”. Тут ни расчета, ни шулерства, ни лжи – ничего, кроме доверия к промыслу Божию.

I don’t have the energy to translate all that, but the basic idea is that the rhymes preserve ancient prayers in Aramaic: ene is Aramaic ano ‘I,’ ben is ‘son,’ res is the Five Books of Moses, and so on, so that the first rhyme means ‘I am a son of the law and a son of my time, have mercy on me, Lord, my Father.’ And this shows that we are mistaken when we think children are merely playing; they are really reciting prayers and celebrating the will of God in everything. Whee!

Incidentally, I can’t find “прилюд” except as an error for прелюд ‘prelude’ (googling it gets lots of ads for the Honda Prelude); does anybody know if it’s an actual, if rare, word for such rhymes?

Addendum. I just discovered this in Oliver Ready’s article “How Sharov’s Novels Are Made: The Rehearsals and Before & During” (linked in Lizok’s latest post, about writers whose names begin with the letter Ш [Sh]):

In the novel that cites this verse [Matt. 18.3] in its title (Sharov, Bud’te kak deti), this theme is fully elaborated as a commentary on a culture and country that refuses to grow out of its holy simplicity, being wedded to the association of adulthood with complexity and sin; and as a parallel to the history of the Bolshevik and all other revolutions, which are described as “the attempt once again to make a clean break between good and evil, to make the world as simple and clear as it was before the Fall” (Bud’te kak deti, 264). Across Sharov’s oeuvre, Christ, in his significance for Russian culture, serves as the fundamental symbol, even typographically, of the delusion that such a break is possible.

So I guess he’s deprecating the idea rather than promulgating it. Belated apologies to the late author!


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    Everything in the book revolves around the idea that we are pure and innocent and holy as children, but as soon as we start growing up (adolescence seems to be the turning point) we become sinners

    You wouldn’t’ve though that this notion would survive any contact whatsoever with actual children (or, indeed, an instant’s reflection about one’s own childhood.)

    I suppose (to be charitable) it may reflect the fact (if it is a fact) that Sharov found children very lovable: as has been remarked now and again, love makes you blind. (I recommend the bravura exposition of this point to be found in the last part of the fourth book of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura: the locus, so to speak, classicus. L also goes a bit into the evergreen question of the best positions for having sex, but I would expect Hatters to be above such things.)

    [EDIT on seeing your addendum: ah, so Sharov was not such a dunce after all.]

  2. PlasticPaddy says

    Would something like “public” (pri+ ljud) chant/ recitation be meant?

  3. You wouldn’t’ve though that this notion would survive any contact whatsoever with actual children

    That occurred to me as well, but it turns out Sharov had two kids, Arseny (born 1978) and Anna (born 1991), so it’s based on pure theology without regard to actual children. (Of course, if he didn’t share the notion, as my appendical quote seems to suggest, he was expecting the reader to react that way.)

  4. Would something like “public” (pri+ ljud) chant/ recitation be meant?

    Ah, very likely. Maybe it was Sharov’s own creation; it’s odd that it’s used in dialogue in the text as though it were a normal word.

  5. J.W. Brewer says

    For some reason this puts me in mind of one of the more hilarious exchanges (historicity not guaranteed!) in 20th-century British politics.

    The Rt Hon James (“Sunny Jim”) Callaghan, who was either Home Secretary or PM at the time, and trying to deal with a contentious situation in Belfast: “Come, come, Mr. Paisley. Are we not all the children of God?”

    The Rev’d Mr (or perhaps Dr, depending on the year) Paisley: “No, sir. We are the children of wrath.”

  6. Прилюд – I haven’t encountered this wird before, but to me it feels related to приплод

  7. Well, the meaning ‘litter, offspring’ doesn’t really work here.

  8. Isn’t it used as a synonym of дети (children) from the previous sentence?

  9. No, it’s a synonym of считалка. Here are the further occurrences in the text:

    В детдом ее поначалу взяли преподавать немецкий, но, кроме языка, она, помня послушание Никодима, скоро стала собирать, записывать, что и как говорят воспитанники – их обычаи, правила, которым они следуют в коммуне и на воле, их феню и частушки, заговоры, прилюды и игры – получалась весьма любопытная этнографическая работа; после Никодима она и смотрела на беспризорников как на особый народ.

    Всего среди шпаны Дусей было записано около дюжины языков и примерно с полсотни молитв (прилюдов и считалок).

    Потом постепенно их оттесняют ребята постарше: став полукругом, они дружно скандируют считалки, прилюды, зачины, которые в Хабаровске Дуся не успела записать.

    Sorry about the confusion — I didn’t realize the context was ambiguous here.

  10. (Not that it matters, but the Дуся in the later quotes is the same person as the Евдокия of the first quote.)

  11. Oh, Piter Pan.
    One of the most mysterious charactes in my childhood.
    I never read books about him, but he was so often mentioned in other books…

  12. Googling for прилюд brought this still-Soviet rant:

    Если А. Блоку претила «религиозная мода», если А. Кушнер о том же говорит в одном из стихотворений последнего года, то многие нынешние молодые и не очень молодые поэты, свободно обращаясь к высшей силе, творят « прилюд- ную » молитву. В их стихах ирония и религиозный экстаз, а также разного рода «семантические игры» вытесняют свет простой человечности. Более Деликатно и сдержанно ведут себя женщины— поэты, будь то Т. Бек или М. Аввакумова, Н. Константинова или И. Кобыш.


    If Blok was disgusted by the “religious fashion,” if Kushner says the same thing in one of his poems of the last year, many of today’s young and not so young poets, freely referring to a higher power, create a “public” prayer. In their poems irony and religious ecstasy as well as all kinds of “semantic games” supplant the light of simple humanity. Women poets, be they T. Beck or M. Avvakumova, N. Konstantinova or I. Kobysh behave more delicately and reservedly.

    Yes, young poeple of today only know how to pray and ironise (and that’s why our opinion of the literary criticism as a genre was so low)

  13. It seems that прилюд is indeed Sharov’s coinage or something he new from a very narrow circle. From context, it is probably a scientific word formed on the при-люд = pre-lude = before play (ludo) model and probably to distinguish from normal musical sense with пре- changed to при-. Though, in musical sense прелюдия is more common.

    The only thing from my childhood that may fit the bill are some nonsensical lines used to begin a game, which give some time for a everyone to get into initial position. For example, when playing hide-and-seek, a seeker will say “One-two-three-four-five I am going to search, who didn’t hide, is not my fault” (раз, два, три, четыре, пять, я иду искать, кто не спрятался – я не виноват) with countless variations. Another example is “stopkalikalo” (стопкаликало) which began with everyone but one kid shouting “стопкаликало точка запятая точка на месте стой”. The first “word” is a phrase mashed together by repeated attempts to say it as fast as possible, likely impossible to unscramble. The rest is some trivial filler (point comma point stay in place). The one nonshouting participant meanwhile runs as fast as possible and stops when the “prelude” stops. Then the other participants try to guess how many steps there are to reach the runner and then walk those steps and the winner is the one who can touch the runaway person. Obviously, every neighborhood had their own rules.

  14. Examples in google look like misspellings of прелюд which is a variant of прелюдия…

  15. Foreplay is a calque of prelude?! Ёптыть…

  16. Ha!

  17. The first OED citation for “foreplay”:

    1929 J. B. Eggen in Calverton & Schmalhausen Sex in Civilization 594 The difference between perversion and fore-play.

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