Thursday, February 13, 2014

Volja - Romany - Aleko & Zamfira

The subway car swayed and creaked. With one hand gripping a metal pole, I took stock of my fellow passengers, a group of bristle-browed women, busy chatting. Tattered, gaudy clothing, bulging canvas sacks, babies tied with rags to their backs, and gaudy head scarves proclaimed: we are Romany.

Glancing up at me and seeing only a young girl, they shifted in their seats and resumed their conversation. I listened intently, wondering if they were en route to some encampment outside the city--where did they live? I'd seen Gypsies before, dancing, begging, acting as professional caricatures of themselves, but these women had put down their masks, were gossiping and laughing. My ears strained towards the curious sounds--with my entire body I desired to discern more than even an understanding of the Romany language could have conveyed.

A short, plump woman with a red and gold-striped scarf tied around her head, turned towards me and peppered me with words I could not comprehend.

"I'm sorry," I stammered in Russian, "I don't know your language." The Roma leaned over me and switched languages. "But I thought you could understand us!" She frowned in disappointment. For a moment, I thought she wanted to grab and shake me.

We stared at each other in silence, drinking in one another's presence. I felt a wave of warmth: fierce, alien, proud, hungry, calculating. When it was time for me to leave, I smiled at the Roma, and she nodded briefly in recognition, then turned back to her friends while the subway doors slid shut before my face.

Rachmaninoff's opera, Aleko, is based on Pushkin's poem, The Gypsies.
Here is a translation of the opening lines of The Gypsies:

A noisy multitudinous throng 
The crowd of gypsies streams along 
The plains of Bessarabia.  
Their camp by the riverside today
Is pitched and set for their nighttime stay.
In ragged tents spread far and wide
Like freedom is their sojourn there, 
Under the skies in the midnight air.  
Between the wheels of the drawn up carts, 
Half covered with carpets thrown across  
The bonfire glimmers.  The family starts 
To prepare a meal.  On the steppe nearby 
The horses pasture; behind the tents  
The tame bear sleeps with an open eye.  
In the vaste steppes all is noisy and lively: 
The gypsy family's anxiety 
Since the early morn on their short planned journey, 
The children's cries and the women's singing, 
And the sound of the travelling anvil's ringing.  
But now upon their nomadic camp 
Descends a sleepy silent hush 
And the only sounds in the steppe's quietness 
Are the barking of dogs and the horses' neighs.  
The fires everywhere are all put out, 
All is at peace,  the solitary moon 
Shines from the summit of the skies 
And brightens the encampment with its rays.

In one of the tents an old man is awake, 
He sits in front of the dying fire 
Warmed by the heat that the ashes make 
And in the distant fields he looks afar
Where the nighttime mists have strewed them over.  
He awaits the return of his young daughter 
Who in the empty steppes has gone to wander, 
She is used to having her freedom there, 
And she will return, but it's already dark 
And from  the distant clouds the moon 
Its station will abandon soon, - 
But of Zemfira no trace, no sound, 
And the old man's supper is growing cold.

--A.S. Pushkin

Aleko and Zamfira, Marc Chagall.

Fans of Bizet's Carmen may not realize that its story-line was also based on Pushkin's poem, The Gypsies, as an article in The New Yorker explains.

Both operas, Aleko and Carmen, end in a tragedy--the death (and demonization) of a Gypsy girl. That irks me.

A source indicates Pushkin's poem was based on his time of exile to Moldova, where he fell in love with the real Zamfira, the daughter of a Gypsy chief. Zamfira's fate after Pushkin left was, apparently, not a happy one. Devalued after her contact with Pushkin, she was given away to a more restrictive tribe, where she would have, literally, been forced to walk two steps behind her mate--in his shadow. Pushkin, through his poem, was able to conveniently kill off/forget Zamfira, while he shared the joy he had in her with generations to come. A thought: if Pushkin had known in his own skin what it was to be Zamfira, how might it have affected his writing?

I have often wondered: where or how does one encounter Volja/Воля -- the mystery of wild freedom?

Could we seek and find it through music, dance, art, or in poetry, or might all of these serve to sing to us of a space unnamed and untamed?


bluestorm said...

gosh, the questions you ask, Iulia. could there be a simple straight answer? perhaps each of us finds bits and pieces in their heart, in their own realm of genetics, language, people, ancestral values, home?

how fascinating the multitude of meaning in the word воля in Russian - will and freedom at the same time, but also desire, pleasure, purpose. how wondrous?

your writing being wonderful, as always. thank you.

Iulia Flame said...

bluestorm...of course there is no simple answer to the question. I am so glad you noticed the shades of meaning for воля-- the word could be used, referring to the difference between slavery or freedom, or to the process of releasing some wild bird into the wild, or it could be determination, as you say--desire, pleasure, purpose.

The image of the (of course, tragic) Gypsy Queen Rada brings to mind a living embodiment of воля--

Here she is to salute you in song:

...and thank you.

(for erin) when i ask, where have the redpolls gone, and why the silence at my seed station your eyes, unbidden twin candles startle ...

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