Sorokin’s Blue Lard.

A bit over a year ago I posted about Vladimir Sorokin’s 2006 novel День опричника (Day of the Oprichnik), remarking on the change in his work since the wild novels of the early ’90s; now, thanks to the generosity of New York Review Books, who sent me Max Lawton’s translations of his 1999 novel Голубое сало [Light-blue salo], called Blue Lard, and a bunch of stories collected as Red Pyramid, I have discovered the transitional element between early and late Sorokin. According to Mark Lipovetsky in Russian Literature since 1991, “Sorokin intentionally wrote Blue Lard in an attempt to expand his readership and introduce his aesthetics in a less experimental way than in his early fiction,” and it worked: published in a large print run, it was wildly controversial (protestors threw copies into a large model of a toilet bowl) and made him far more famous. It starts in Siberia in 2068 when scientists are cloning Russia’s great writers in a clandestine lab and harvesting the blue lard that forms on their bodies, and moves back in time to an alternate 1954 where Hitler and Stalin rule the world together; if you want more of a description, you can read Dustin Illingworth’s very favorable NY Times review (archived). Personally, although I enjoyed many of the delightfully perverse episodes here — and of course the parodies of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, et al. — I prefer the early books with their maximum épatage, and you can get a nice dose of that in the story collection, which ranges from 1981 to 2000 and is (of course) brilliantly translated by Lawton, who is very much on Sorokin’s wavelength (see this LH post). Here I will just point out a couple of passages to which I can add something useful.

On p. 169 of the translation is a quatrain beginning “Yi-ma-he xshat-re aur-wa-he”; thanks to my time at Yale studying Indic and Iranian languages with Stanley Insler, I immediately recognized this as Avestan, and since it cost me some effort to find where it came from, I will share here that it is from Yasnā 9:5, part of the Gathas, and is reproduced on this page:

yimahe xšaθre auruuahe
nōit aotəm åŋha, nōit garəməm
nōit zauruua åŋha, nōit mərəθiiuš
nōit araskō daēuuōdātō.

during the kingship of the lofty Yima
there was neither coldness, nor heat;
neither old age, nor death,
nor demon-created ailments.

And on pp. 249ff. there’s a long passage about AAA (i.e., Anna Akhmatova) giving birth to a black egg which represents her poetic greatness and which she is trying to find an appropriate recipient for; Robert (Rozhdestvensky), Bella (Akhmadulina), Zhenya (Yevgeny Yevtushenko), Andryukha (Andrei Voznesensky), and others approach, fall back in horror, and are rejected, but finally “a little fat boy” named Iosif (Brodsky) swallows the egg, and AAA tells him “you shall be a grand poet.” All of those names, as well as the “Borya” (Pasternak) mentioned several times, should be recoverable by anyone even casually familiar with the Russian poetry scene of the Thaw period (though I guess that’s a rapidly diminishing segment of the population), but when Zhenya and Andryukha go out to get drunk and are attacked by a group of “the sinister Lianozovsky punks who terrorized Moscow dance floors and literary cafés” the names mentioned, members of the underground Lianozovsky group of writers and artists (Russian Wikipedia), will be unfamiliar to pretty much all readers of the translation (and maybe most Russians today), so I consider it a public service to identify them here: Nettle (Крапива), the “ringleader,” is Evgeny Kropivnitsky; Henry Helicopter is Genrikh Sapgir; Kholya is Igor Kholin; Sevka-Mumbler is Vsevolod Nekrasov; and Oscar Icon-Painter is Oscar Rabin. For a couple of those names I had to link to Russian Wikipedia articles — that’s how little-known they are in the English-speaking world. (Looking at p. 256, where those names occur, I note a minor translational gaffe: в натуре does not mean ‘in nature,’ it is a slang phrase meaning ‘really, actually.’)

Once again I express my gratitude to New York Review Books for publishing these and so many other important books — long may they thrive! And I continue to look forward to Lawton’s translation of Норма (The Norm; see this LH post), which I consider Sorokin’s best and most important novel.


  1. Christopher Culver says

    I have not read Sorokin, and frankly since I deal day in and day out with the consequences of the Russian occupation on the peoples of the Volga–Kama region, I find it hard to summon up motivation to read any Russian literature. Nevertheless, I’m curious about the title: what is it that makes the сало specifically голубое and not синее?

  2. The color? (And please let’s not waste everyone’s time with ruminations about the appropriateness of reading a country’s literature in time of war, a topic I find inexpressibly tedious.)

  3. Christopher Culver says

    Obviously. But is there a reason that Sorokin ascribes a specifically light-blue hue to the сало? (And FWIW, my distaste for Russian culture due to working with peoples of the Volga–Kama region long predates the current war.)

  4. You’ll have to ask Sorokin. Why does an author describe a car as red rather than blue? Why is a character named Ivan and not Georgy? It seems an odd question.

  5. Christopher Culver says

    Well, for example, with no knowledge of the plot, but knowing that Sorokin has at least one infamous sex scene in his work, one might wonder if голубое also draws on the secondary meaning of that color term.

  6. It probably does, but Sorokin, like most good authors, is reluctant to explain his images. Lawton, in his “Extroduction” at the end of the book, says “the attentive bilingual reader will first of all have realized that I’ve jettisoned the possible second meaning of ‘blue’ as ‘gay’ in the title,” for what that’s worth.

  7. Dmitry Pruss says

    Isn’t it a nod to голубая кровь, noble blood? It’s a regular semantic instrument in Russian, to add something like “… and fat” to “blood” in order to demystify “blood as in heritage” and turn it into “blood as in slaughterhouse”.

    Besides, real fatback can hardly be literally solid-blue color in Russian because of of its opaqueness and light dispersion. Too full of white specks to be blue.

  8. Max Lawton says

    Great catch on the gaffe! Will fix that in the second printing. The fragmented dialogue can be troublesome, but you’re absolutely right. And how did you find the poem?? Wow! I’m very impressed.

  9. Heh. I’m an old hand at digging for Internet gold!

  10. J.W. Brewer says

    I fear that even that subset of Russian literati/intelligentsy with some self-awareness and unease about their nation’s record of conquest and subjugation of various other nations/peoples/tribes etc. do not necessarily have poor treatment of the non-Slavic historical residents of the Volga-Kama region ranked particularly high in salience or importance on any mental list of unfortunate historical injustices committed by or on behalf of the various Muscovite regimes.

  11. Stu Clayton says

    Will that be all, M’Lud ?

  12. The Russians are constantly reminded about the subjugation of the Volga Finnic peoples because it’s become a favorite line of taunts by other Slavic peoples, that the Russians are the impostors, the inferior, or even do not exist at all as a nation, because they are all subjugated Moksha and Merya.
    Just today there was another essay in my feed citing a 1692 treatise of Lyzlov on etymology of Moscow and claiming that Slavs could not have possibly settled a thousand years ago in Suzdal because if they did, their progeny would have become so numerous in two centuries that the Horde would stand no chance against them. This sort of “Inferior Slavs, Finno-Ugric by roots” is nonstop

  13. Голуб(-ой, -ая, -ое) doesn’t only evoke “blue blood”, but also “blue dream”, which doesn’t mean some marijuana strain, but deeply held, but probably never going to happen desire. And, of course, “blue sky”, clear sky so very uplifting for the human spirit. In general, it seems that Russian light-blue color has distinctly positive connotations. Lard, OTOH, is something distinctly down there on earth, and not very much pleasant (though tasty, for some people, as an old joke goes, when Ukrainian is asked whether he carries any drugs, his response is, “yes, lard”).

    At the risk of derailing this thread (even further), saying that Russia occupies Volga-Kama region makes as much sense as saying that the US occupies Arizona, Germany occupies Swabia, France occupies Provence, and England occupies Northumberland.

  14. Lard, OTOH, is something distinctly down there on earth, and not very much pleasant

    Lard does have a dubious reputation (though excellent for baking), but I’ve never heard a bad word about сало, which is not the same thing.

  15. I’ve never heard a bad word about сало

    It’s not bad. I meant it is not high-class.

  16. Is сало tallow, i.e. beef fat?

    The California town of Manteca was originally named Monteca, a name chosen by its residents. The railroads misspelled it, and Manteca remained. People make fun of it (but people make fun of all towns in the San Joaquin Valley, the Ohio of California.) Some years ago a thin-skinned mayor tried to advance the story that it really means butter, not lard (which it does, in Argentina and a few other places), but that didn’t catch on.

  17. Not really. In the broadest sense it’s animal fat, usually pig. Lard would be an appropriate translation in most cases. But bacon also can be called сало (though there are more specific designations, of course).

  18. Lard is rendered pork fat. Does сало include non-rendered fat, then?

  19. Yes, as far as I know.

  20. Calling сало “lard” is highly problematic because lard doesn’t suggest anything that is edible in and of itself to an English speaker, let alone something that can be served as a fancy appetizer on zwieback or on a charcuterie board. Call it lardo, borrowing the Italian, or “cured fatback.”

    I’ve had Голубое сало in Russian on my to-be-read bookshelf for decades now. Sigh. Perhaps, I’ll get around to it after I retire in a few more years.

  21. Christopher Culver says

    Calling сало “lard” is highly problematic because lard doesn’t suggest anything that is edible in and of itself to an English speaker

    German/Yiddish/Polish schmaltz might have been a good candidate, but it looks like its only surviving usage in American English is the secondary one of “extremely or excessively sentimental music or art”.

  22. But Schmalz is only one form of salo, and in my experience, not the most iconic. Schmalz in Germany usually is a spread, while salo is usually sold and mostly consumed as lumps or slices of a solid material – basically, bacon consisting overwhelmingly of the white parts.

  23. J.W. Brewer says

    I am indebted to X for the chance to become better informed about intra-Slavic insulting polemic. I’m not sure I follow all of the implications, not least because of course these days the median Slavic-majority country is poorer and more dysfunctional than the (admittedly small-sample-size) trio of Finland/Estonia/Hungary.

  24. Thank you for unpacking all this, LH! Here’s an old piece of mine on the head punk of the Lianozovo gang, Old Man Nettle himself.

  25. basically, bacon consisting overwhelmingly of the white parts.

    That’s the best definition I’ve seen.

  26. Here’s an old piece of mine on the head punk of the Lianozovo gang, Old Man Nettle himself.

    Thanks for that! Not only are the translations excellent, as I would expect, but I love the explications:

    The small, quaint, cozily dingy elements of this suburban scene are perfectly at home, as it were, in the short, artless, cozily singsong lines of Kropivnitsky’s poem. Potted plants, kitty cats, languid tunes—a primitive sketch, almost a child’s drawing, of domestic comfort, down to the smiling crescent and a few vivid dabs of red for the geraniums. But then, of course, there’s that other dab of red, with its admixture of black and blue. The penultimate line drifts like an ominous whisper through a shabby Arcadia. Who is this poor Mitya, third wheel to the infinite pairs of Tanyas and Vanyas? Who on earth clobbered him? And who’s delivering the news: Vanya to Tanya, vice versa? Is this their brand of pillow talk? And what brought that smile to the moon’s face?

  27. David Marjanović says

    basically, bacon consisting overwhelmingly of the white parts.

    Oh. That was sold as Zigeunerspeck when I was little. Cut off very thin slices and put them on bread…

  28. Exactly!

  29. Thank you as always, LH!

  30. basically, bacon consisting overwhelmingly of the white parts.

    I’m also agreeing that this is a great definition of сало. I first ate the stuff, absolutely unintentionally, when I picked up a piece of bread with a slab on it that looked (in poor lighting) like mozzarella cheese. The сало was pure fat, no stripe of pink at all. Quite a surprise to bite into.

  31. Dmitry Pruss says

    A quick search on Google Shopping reveals many kinds of fatback marketed as something else rather than Ukrainian or Russian salo. Online in the US, it’s mostly Southern Country / Soul or imported Mediterranean brands. The one available locally in Kroger’s stores is just run of the mill Smithfield brand.

    And of course the Eastern European variety of this fatty cold cut doesn’t have to be all-white. A few stripes of red is just fine or may even be desired. Just not as many as to make it bacon.

  32. PlasticPaddy says

    Here is an example, complete with garlic to keep the upirs away!–596656650624794365/

  33. Max Lawton says
  34. “basically, bacon consisting overwhelmingly of the white parts.”

    It’s a good description, and also called “сланина” in Bulgarian. Also “a few stripes of red is just fine or may even be desired. Just not as many as to make it bacon.”

  35. My only experience eating this stuff was very much the same as Lizok’s.

  36. John Cowan says

    Germany occupies Swabia

    This is the bit that really doesn’t make sense: Swabia is one of the four tribal (stem) duchies that constituted the Kingdom of Germany, and as such predates Germany itself.

  37. Yes, but it was Celtic before it became Roman and Germanic. Now, if I remember correctly, being Celtic before becoming Germanic applies to almost all of Germany South of Hamburg.
    (My phone’s spell checker wanted to correct “Hamburg” to “Hattusa”. I’m spending too much time on Languagehat!)

  38. And the etymology of Dresden is Slavic (specificaly Lower Sorbian).

  39. Well, in that region, the sequence was Celts > Germanic people > Slavs > Germans. I assume not always as replacement of people, but language shift as well.

  40. PlasticPaddy says

    @hans, vanya
    At least in Classical times, “Germany” away from the Rhine, (maybe Danube) and the North and Baltic Seas seems to have been rather sparsely populated, i.e., large groups like the Cimbri seem to have been able to migrate across it without having to make detours (except for impassable swamps and forests). So maybe nominally Celts > nominally Germans with the later Slavs and Germans making more dense settlements.

  41. David Marjanović says

    The “forests” bit actually shows the opposite, because Eurasia west and north of the steppe is one single forest from Atlantic to shining Pacific except for the bits that people have cut down (plus high mountains, peat bogs and a few negligible other patches). An armed mob with momentum can go through fields at reasonable speeds, not so much through uninhabited old-growth forest.

    I recently read in a popular source that Germania was actually more densely settled in Classical times than in some later ones. Also, if your agriculture is less efficient, you need more area for it.

    That said, it does seem that the southward expansion of the Marcomanni and such into Celtic territory was more of a percolation at first, followed by population growth and language shift later.

  42. Trond Engen says

    Everything was more densely settled in Classical times. The relative ease and safety of transport inside the Roman Empire meant that whatever you managed to bring to the Limes was paid almost the prize it would achieve at its final destination, and also that goods from the whole empire were available for little more than production costs. The Roman demand boosted output, and the Roman supply must have greatly improved the security of provisions, also outside the empire. When the Empire fell apart internally, and infrastructure and security were allowed to decay, the economic heater cooled off, and the Barbarians who had prospered from trade in slaves and other luxury goods took their failing operations closer to the dwindling heat.

  43. Dmitry Pruss says

    Apropos the original topic, I just discovered a chunk of Hormel brand cured salt pork in my fridge. Looks like an evolved salo half way through to bacon

  44. If it’s blue, you probably shouldn’t eat it.

  45. Dmitry Pruss says

    I cured and ate blue fatback regularly in my USSR days, the blue stains being from the ink stamps on the pig carcasses.

  46. I thought of USDA stamps on sides of beef or pork when I read “blue lard.” However, in America at least, they are not ink, but black raspberry juice.

  47. Dmitry Pruss says

    At least back in the day, Soviet veterinary authorities used 4% methyl violet in formalin-ether mix to stamp meat. The dye is a known mutagen which earned it a US ban.
    I see some indications that the industry might have shifted to imported meat-stamping dyes from Raidex which are also synthetic chemical but EU-compliant (E 129 Allura red, AC
    E 133 Brilliant blue FCF )

  48. Dmitry Pruss says

    BTW the USDA does use plant based dyes for meat stamps, but not really from raspberries:

    The natural coloring agents alkanet, annatto, carotene, cochineal, green chlorophyll, saffron, and tumeric may be used for marking or branding ink on meat products only

    (Apologies for all the non-linguistic technical details, you just tapped into my alter ego of a chemist researching cancer, and forever fascinated by the crazy tale of Buttergelb in Nazi Germany)

  49. No apologies needed, I find these details quite interesting!

  50. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    on meat products only — do we infer that there are other natural coloring agents that may be used on non-meat products, but not on meat, or that these agents may only be used on meat? It may be clear in context, but maybe only could usefully have been put in another position. Also, doesn’t cochineal come from beetles?

  51. David Marjanović says

    Scale insects, which are (TIL) true bugs.

  52. For a long time, it was a Spanish trade secret that cochineal was insect based. They encouraged the misperception that it was a vegetable dye.

  53. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    I’ve seen warnings to vegetarians about cochineal, a.k.a. carmine, and I’m pretty sure they called the insects beetles. They do look like beetles. (Danish doesn’t have a colloquial word for E bug, at least not sensu stricto. Entomologists call them næbmunde, TIL that aphids (bladlus) and grasshoppers (græshopper) are more closely related to each other than to other insects. And that both lac and cochineal come from close relations to the aphids).

  54. For a long time, it was a Spanish trade secret that cochineal was insect based.

    When did prickly pear cactus become common in the Old World?

  55. Stu Clayton says

    TIL that aphids (bladlus) and grasshoppers (græshopper) are more closely related to each other than to other insects.

    What the hey ? In what respects “more closely related” ? In the imagination of the ignorant, the shape, size and modus vivendi of a bladlus (here affectionately known als Blattlaus) are worlds away from those of a Heuschrecke.

  56. You do know there’s such a thing as biology, right?

  57. When did prickly pear cactus become common in the Old World?

    part of that story, if i’m remembering what i was told at the amazing Ethnobotanical Garden in oaxaca fifteen or so years ago, was a ottoman attempt to establish cochineal production in bilad ash-shams in the 16th or 17th century. it failed as a dye industry, but opuntia/nopal cacti became well-established there in another of their traditional uses: as livestock enclosures and boundary fences. this was especially true in palestine, where one of the definitive signs of the location of a village destroyed by the israeli state (or the pre-1948 zionist para-state) is the surviving clusters of opuntia/ṣabbār, which have never had a similar use in zionist settlements (despite settlers’ rather creepy* use of “sabra” to describe themselves).

    * and quite common in settler colonial states, as illustrated in north america over the years by Tammany Hall and the (lily-white) Improved Order of Red Men on down to current professional sports monikers in atlanta, chicago, kansas city, and elsewhere.

  58. Dmitry Pruss says

    Prickly pear opuntia was already introduced all over the Mediterranean, originally mostly for hedges, in the 1500s – Spain, Sicily, North Africa. By the mid-1600s it was also in the Eastern Mediterranean. Evliya Çelebi travelogues described it as “Frankish (Westerners) fig” in the Aegean and in Syria. It was long before first documented smuggling of the insects (way later in the 1700s).

    Creepiness of “sabra” is about a century outdated, if it ever existed at all. Sure, it’s sometimes said to have started as a derogatory term for the native Jewish population of the British Mandate, but it was embraced by the entire Jewish community long before WWII. Generally, what is creepy is the attempts to subject peoples’ autonyms to rules and restrictions based on their etymology generations ago.

  59. it’s a hellofalot creepier once you’ve seen the genocide sites that can only be recognized by the cacti, let me tell you. and that’s an experience that’s been available for 76 years now, for the price of a plane ticket and tourist visa.

    but if contemporary romans called themselves by the name of a plant that was central to carthaginian life and one of the few things remaining after the burning and salting of the city, i’d still find that creepy without having to go to tunisia about it. i find it similarly creepy that contemporary christian amsterdammers sentimentally call their town “mokum”, after their grandparents’ general collaboration in the genocide of the jewish community that called it מקום. and that i can eat “jewish fish” at a restaurant in tykocin, while the jewish cemetery there is a grazing field full of cowshit, studded with decaying tombstones. and yes, i think you should find all these things creepy too.

    not because of etymology, but because of genocide, which uses language in specific ways that are fully woven into its practice, before, during, and after the more theatrical moments of violence. these examples are some of the ones that illustrate why “every accusation [in this case “replacement”, Great or otherwise] is a confession” is an anti-fascist truism.

  60. I immediately recognized this as Avestan, and since it cost me some effort to find where it came from, I will share here that it is from Yasnā 9:5, part of the Gathas

    This won’t be useful to anyone, but in case someone finds it interesting: a couple of years ago I spent some time converting some of the texts at into Unicode Avestan. I ran into some formatting problems and eventually lost interest in the project, but here is the verse in the original script:

    ‏𐬫𐬌𐬨𐬀𐬵𐬈⸱ 𐬑𐬴𐬀𐬚𐬭𐬈⸱ 𐬀𐬎𐬭𐬎𐬎𐬀𐬵𐬈⸱‏
    𐬥𐬋𐬌𐬝⸱ 𐬀𐬊𐬙𐬆𐬨⸱ 𐬃𐬢𐬵𐬀⸱ 𐬥𐬋𐬌𐬝⸱ 𐬔𐬀𐬭𐬆𐬨𐬆𐬨⸱‏
    𐬥𐬋𐬌𐬝⸱ 𐬰𐬀𐬎𐬭𐬎𐬎𐬀⸱ 𐬃𐬢𐬵𐬀⸱ 𐬥𐬋𐬌𐬝⸱ 𐬨𐬆𐬭𐬆𐬚𐬌𐬌𐬎𐬱⸱‏
    𐬥𐬋𐬌𐬝⸱ 𐬀𐬭𐬀𐬯𐬐𐬋⸱ 𐬛𐬀𐬉𐬎𐬎𐬋-𐬛𐬁𐬙𐬋⸱𐬻‏

    (Punctuation may or may not not be ordered correctly, depending on how well various unicode characters and HTML tags make it through WordPress. And of course if you don’t have an Avestan font installed, you won’t see much.)

  61. i didn’t know i even had an Avestan font at all!
    but i apparently do (and i think the punctuation is doing what it should) – thanks, Tim!

  62. Yeah, the punctuation turned out OK. (It should really be right-aligned, of course, but that’s a comparatively minor issue.)

  63. J.W. Brewer says

    For an example of how committed Tammany Hall was to the bit, check out the tipi/wigwam on the monument at Gettysburg to the Tammany-affiliated 42nd New York Infantry.*

    *Cultural appropriation aside, wikipedia notes elsewhere “Regiment lost during service 11 Officers and 141 Enlisted men killed and mortally wounded and 1 Officer and 103 Enlisted men by disease. Total 256.”

  64. There were some egregious examples of the kind of cultural appropriation rozele talks about; for example, the adoption of Arabic noms de guerre and slang by pre-Israeli and Israeli soldiers during the 1948 war. But I can’t tell if the prickly pear was an example of such appropriation. I’m guessing that the European-born Jewish immigrants of the 1920s and 1930s, the ones who used sabre to put down the earlier immigrants, saw prickly pears as a nuisance plant, an illustration of the backwardness of the place they were to civilize. They certainly viewed the rural Palestinians that way, too. But I don’t know if they thought of the cactus as a symbol of the people.

    Also, I don’t know at what point the Jewish population began to associate the cactus with its sweet fruit, which would become part of the self-image of “prickly but sweet”.

    I read a bit about prickly pears. There are records of the cactus as early as the 1600s, as a medicinal plant. Then, says Wikipedia, the plant was cultivated for cochineal until the mid-19th century, when that business collapsed as synthetic dyes came along, and the abundant cactuses were repurposed for borders. I’m not sure about that strict chronology. Surely people figured out early on that the fruit were tasty, that the plants made good borders, and that donkeys could eat them?

  65. @Y, is the idea that “sabra” was used as a put-down documented? the “prickly outside/sweet inside” thing has always sounded like fakelore/folk etymology to me, and culturally/linguistically it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me as a source for the term (immigrants being new to ivrit, and the New Men of the yishuv being the movement’s positive models).

    but i’ve never understood the gesture as adopting the word because it was previously used to refer to people, just as using the cactus as signifier for authentic local-ness, specifically local-ness as an achievement of the colonialists’ first locally born generation (as opposed to the longstanding palestinian jewish communities). the irony in using an introduced plant for that seems to have escaped the folks who started using it (and shows the thinness of the version of “knowing the land” that they (and many others of many different political orientations) adopted from european nationalist scouting movements*).

  66. @rozele, to the question, yes. A 1931 article (in Hebrew) by the journalist Uri Kesari, entitled אנחנו… עלי הצבר anakhnu… alei hatsabar! ‘We… the leaves of the tsabar!’ is a call to reclaim the term from the new immigrants who look down on less recent immigrants and their children, including the Old Yishuv:

    the student of the University in Jerusalem, the Galizianer clerk in Jaffa, the laborer in Ramat-Gan and the girl dedicated to lectures at the Peoples’ Hall in Tel-Aviv — don’t you disdain anymore the one born in Jerusalem, in Petah-Tikva or in Safed, with a betraying motion of the hand, saying:
    [that one], that’s a “tsabra”!

    Evidently ‘leaves of the tsabar’ is a Hebrewization of the Yiddishized Arabic sabre(s). It highlights all that the sabras are to be proud of, etc. Relevant to this discussion:

    Why, to get the the bottom of it, tsabar leaves? Why in particular tsabar leaves?
    Why not oranges? Grapes, pomegranates?
    Our mockers would appear to call us by the name of this heavy, obscure[?] fruit. They would name us after the green hedges, the hedges of thorny, spiny leaves about the orchards and gardens.
    They thought that would come to us as an insult.
    An insult? How? Why?
    On the contrary, the fruit of the tsabar leaves is good, it refreshes. And the thorns, and the spines? The hedges around the fields?
    Yes. We the native-born of this land, we the tsabar leaves, make with our bodies and our spirit a hedge which shields and protects the fields.
    Indeed, those who call us by this name are not wrong. We, we are the tsabar leaves!

    The cultural historian Oz Almog wrote a book on the evolution of the term alongside other early Zionist self-myths, translated to English as The Sabra: The Creation of the New Jew. It looks well–thought out and well-written but I probably won’t read it. The topic does not spark joy within me.

  67. Among the Russian aliyah, “cactus” is still used in a (mild) derogatory way today, kind of “these unpolished children of the desert” (but occasionally with grudging admiration too).

  68. thanks, Y and X!

    and now i’m wondering what the connotations of “laborer in ramat-gan” were in 1931 – the student, the left-oriented politicized woman, and the galitsianer all make sense to me as objects of zionist hostility in the period. all wikipedia offers is the possibility that ramat gan was seen as a place with commitments to diasporic jewish culture: its yiddish printing press was apparently blown up in the 1940s by the enforcers of shlilat hagalut.

  69. I’m afraid my messy translation confused the matter. That list was not of “objects of zionist hostility” — those are the new immigrants, who mocked the older inhabitants (some of them Zionists just the same). The student at the Hebrew University might be an immigrant from Germany. The Ramat-Gan laborer and the Tel-Aviv intellectual — I am not sure if those are associated with any national stereotype, or are just given to show the variety of mockers. In any case, as I read it, the older Jewish community grew up in or immigrated to Palestine when Jews were still a small minority there, and many of them were more assimilated to the local culture (the natives of Safed and Jerusalem), or were farmers (Petah-Tikva) and hence the disdain toward them from the new urban European arrivals. Later the situation reversed, as the local Jewish community grew in numbers and confidence.

  70. o, i entirely understood that! i was just interested in how closely the specific examples chosen track with the perennial targets of nationalist ire – students, uppity women, [insert specific region], [insert specific subset of workers] – and was trying to understand why those specific workers would be the ones listed.

  71. The “girl who goes to lectures at People’s Hall” was neither necessarily a feminist nor ‘uppity’. People’s Hall, בֵּית הָעָם beit haʼam, was a public institution in the early days of Tel Aviv. It provided space for plays and concerts, as well as public lectures, all of which were immensely popular. The lectures were cheap to attend, and were given on a variety of topics by experts, including famous scholars and writers. They provided a source for informal but good-quality higher education to the public.

    At the time Kesari wrote this he was living in Tel Aviv. It seems that he attempts to describe a cross section of the younger people among the recent immigrants, with three of the four from Tel Aviv and its neighbors. Ramat Gan, an agricultural community getting built up, is represented by a laborer; Jaffa, the center of officialdom, represented by a clerk; and the new lively Tel Aviv represented by one enjoying its cultural offerings. I don’t know why he had to specify the Galizianer, but no other geographical/ethnic origin. In any case, he criticizes the new immigrants for mocking the native-born, but doesn’t put them down in return. He offers peace and brotherhood to all, later in the article.

    I learned a bit about Uri Kesari (né Shmuel Kaiserman) from reading his memoirs. His family came from Odessa. His maternal grandfather, Abraham Dov Kruglyakov, was of Hovevei Tsiyon, the proto-Zionist movement which came to be at the beginning of the pogrom era. Kesari’s uncle is mentioned in Trotsky’s autobiography, a sickly boy who Trotsky took a liking to when they played in amateur theater when they were about 8, but who died shortly thereafter. The young, impoverished Bialik stayed with the Kruglyakovs a while, and in return taught Hebrew to Kesari’s mother-to-be; her fiancé, Kesari’s future father, taught Bialik German.

    Kesari describes his upbringing as middle-class. His father was educated, tried his hand at farming, but was unsuccessful. His mother was a pianist. Kesari grew up in Tel Aviv and Haifa, spoke Russian at home, and read the Russian classics there. He lived for a few years in Paris in the 1920s, when already a dedicated journalist, and reported from there; he was a lifelong Francophile and continued writing about contemporary French culture until the 1970s. With all that, I don’t see why newer immigrants would ridicule him as a crude bumpkin or whatever they imagined the “sabras” to be. Maybe he was just rising up to protect others who encountered this mockery?

    (I am sure my mother knew him and could add some insights, but she is no longer with us. My aunt didn’t know him much, and remembers only that he rode a motorcycle. In any case, I guess that makes me five steps removed from Trotsky by acquaintanceship.)

  72. Fascinating, thanks for that background!

  73. Joy Williams reviews the two books (enthusiastically) for Bookforum:

    Slowly, slowly Sorokin has been introduced to us. At first he was suspected to be too “esoteric” for American tastes. Jamey Gambrell, who knew him via the literary and artistic underground of ’80s Moscow, was his first English translator. It was not until 2007 that a novel, Ice, centerpiece of a trilogy, appeared in the United States. In an interview with the Paris Review, Gambrell recalled that her early efforts troubled her because they made the work sound so odd. “It’s like, This is going to sound so weird. But then I stopped . . . and reread the whole thing in Russian and realized, Well, yeah, it’s extremely strange in Russian. And so there’s nothing else to do with it. You have to go with that weirdness.”

    She also translated Day of the Oprichnik and The Blizzard before her death in 2020 at the age of sixty-five.

    Gambrell was calm. She found balance, a path. She was on a long date with a wild man but could be trusted to bring us all home by midnight. Max Lawton, Sorokin’s new indefatigable translator, is willing to hang out much later, eager to push further toward an ever-receding dawn.

    There are brief discussions of quite a few of the stories.

  74. I don’t like “centerpiece of a trilogy.” I don’t know whether it means the best of the three novels or the middle novel. I’m guessing it’s actually both, like The Black Mountains.

  75. Here, I’m pretty sure it means the middle novel; I would think it would require a clear context to be read as the best.

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