Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Russian Version, Elena Fanailova, Best Translated Book, poetry

The Russian Version was recently awarded the prize for 2010 Best Translated Book Award for Poetry by Three Percent (University of Rochester), an international literary translation site (link on left sidebar). 

In most instances I avoid prologues and forewords...they usually tell me too much about the work and influence me to look at it in a often slanted light.  I tend to read more into it of another's opinion than my own reactions.  However, in this beautiful poetry collection (beautiful as in subtle and elegant), I must break from tradition and read the Introduction by Aleksandr Skidan.  It's worthwhile in that he explains some biographical details about Fanailova and also about the style of poetry that is contained herein.  It's not simply free verse or heteromorphic but a compiling of various clues from her consciousness:  random bits of pop culture, socio-political commentary, painful details of war, conflicted thoughts of family and a tiny bit of ironic humor.  It is probably the most complicated political poetry I've read, in that it isn't just commenting on Chechnya or Afghanistan but more on the Russian character as a whole:  both the stereotype and the reality.  One of her poems mentioned Gogol, and having confused him with Pushkin and Chekhov I have to look him up, so I googled Gogol (!) and the first sentence I saw was that he "says something very essential about the Russian character";  in this she seems to dispute what typifies the Russian persona.

Additionally, another key factor to most enjoy these selections is to go to the back and read her text notes on each section (and these are excerpts, portions of other books and works).  These illuminate details that may be foreign to many Western readers.  For example, in "Freud and Korczak", she explains that the Korczak was a Polish pediatrician who remained with his young Jewish patients in the Warsaw ghetto, though it cost him his life.  The poem talks about the meaningless of murder, the irony of how insignificant a single murder can seem, and yet how a magnificent tool, capable of so much fine workmanship, ends up being a tool of destruction on a massive scale.  It concludes with the question "Why War?", which Fanailova remarks is the name given to letters exchanged between Einstein and Freud, which leads to further meditation on how perplexed those great minds were by the same things that confuse us now.

One of the most revealing selections is her explanation for her one of the poems "Again they're off for their Afghanistan", where she describes a chance meeting with the couple that it is based upon, and how "the whole course and mechanism of this conversation call for a kind of opening of a window in time, and through this window the draft of the eighties begins to blow.  The details, taste, and feel of the time all had to be captured, whenever possible, without distortion....The sense of violence is the main thing that I remember about this era; this sense permeated all entertainments, pleasures, sensations and feelings, not to speak of work...They speak about monstrous things in a rather ordinary way, even with some animation, because it is their youth they are referring to."  Given that my grasp of the eighties was big hair and Duran Duran, I feel shamed for my ignorance. 

A favorite passage:
Recall:  how fine it is to embrace your beloved
Shirking all responsibility.
Love will change with age,
Become even more magnificent,
Maybe more tender, or perhaps more combustible.
Try to stick around long enough for this.

These aren't easy or pretty;  they require some meditation and perhaps further research.  This selection is not for the masses but for those willing to journey somewhere outside their realm of comfort, and who would undoubtedly return richer for the experience.  I'm not going to pretend I understand every reference, or even every poem.  Some made me laugh in places I wasn't sure was appropriate ("Black Suits").  I hope to enjoy this collection and get more out of it as I return to it.

Special thanks to Ugly Duckling Presse for the Advanced Review Copy.


  1. Very nice post, Amy. The book sounds absolutely beautiful.

  2. This soudns like a great book ;0)

  3. I like the sound of this book,so will check it out. have you heard of an East European anthology from around 1990 called Child of Europe (ed' Michael March) heres an example,

    A conversation

    One of the Cyclopes
    met me in the street and
    where was my
    where was my
    where was my
    other eye little eye

    I don't have it
    I don't have it
    I don't have it
    it never

    Novica Tadic