Monday, February 10, 2014

He Who Wanted to Do Good, But Did Not Have Time

One of the most serendipitous gifts I have ever received was a paperback containing the writing of Fazil Iskander. When it came into my hands, it dissuaded me from the idea of leaping off a balcony from the seventh floor. Such a thought, you see, would never have appeared in Uncle Sandro's head.

Fazil Iskander, through his whimsical characters, including Uncle Sandro, managed to elude not only generations of censors, but the entire blame game for the tragedies following in the wake of various personality cults associated with communism, in his magical-realistic satirical commentaries on 20th century realities.

Although Iskander wrote in Russian and lived in the most Soviet-Russian of cities, Moscow, he was born in Sukhumi, Abkhazia, and deferred to the traditions of a fictitious Abkhazian village (Chegem) as a vehicle for the expression of his own point of view, in classics including Sandro of Chegem, The Goatibex Constellation, or via such lofty concepts as "Mother-in-Law Isolation by Shock."

Poor Lenin, mused Iskander's Chegemians, for example. When will they finally bury him, and put him to rest, with the proper rituals, they wondered? Chegem's villagers, at one point in imaginary history, began to feel sorry for Lenin, and therefore bestowed on him the generous nickname, "He Who Wanted to Do Good, But Did Not Have Time."

Apparently, Lenin returned the Abkhazians' regard and wrote a lost testament before his departure that expressed his appreciation:

The first thing he wrote there, was drive the Big Mustache from power because he is a vampire. The second thing was: do not collect the peasants into kolkhozes. The third thing was, if you absolutely can't get along without the kolkhozes, don't touch the Abkhazians, because when an Abkhazian looks at a kolkhoz, he wants to lie down and die quietly.........

In this revision of history, when the Big Mustache (Stalin, of course) discovered the existence of the testament, he decided to begin purging Lenin's friends and relatives in revenge. The residents of Chegem saw through this, even if Khruschev subsequently did not:

"Good job, Khruschit! But he should have spoken out more strongly about the vampirism of the Big Mustache." And once again the inhabitants of Chegem were surprised by the Russians. "What's with the Russians," they said. "We here, in Chegem, knew about the testament Lenin wrote and all about the vampirism of the Big Mustache. How is it they didn't know about these things?"

Chegem's Uncle Sandro does admit to being fallible, in his encounter with Stalin in the tale, Belshazzar's Feast:

Performing his solo act as a dancer, Sandro slid on his knees all the way up to Stalin, his eyes covered by a turban. Then, as Stalin removed the turban and looked into his eyes, wondering where he could have seen him, Sandro, sensing danger, ventured a guess: perhaps in a documentary about the ensemble.  In fact, as he realized later, they had met some thirty years ago, when the little boy Sandro was a witness to Stalin’s murderous activity, but was scared by his withering gaze into not telling the police.

Even democracy has not failed to escape Chegem's perceptive gaze. Iskander, in a 2012 interview subtitled, “Illusions about democracy have vanished without a trace,” was quoted as saying:

"I reject evil. I understand that evil is embedded in the human soul; so, we can’t cast it out from social life, we just can’t do it.... man’s always an unfinished project. He always thinks that if he just has a strong enough desire, he can take on anything and change it for the better. However, this is the business of many generations. We must have patience..... To write… it’s editing life so that one could live. That’s what I’m doing."

Lenin, when contacted by Uncle Sandro, indicated he refuses to be depicted in this blog post, until such time as he has been properly interred.

"Quoting eyewitnesses, this is what history books say about this; but eyewitnesses also confirm this, in part quoting the history books." 

For anyone who would like to sample some Iskander in PDF online, I am providing a link to Forbidden Fruit and Other Stories, translated by Robert Daglish.

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