Why publish a translation?

Viktor Likhonosov has been, perhaps unfairly, largely overlooked in the West. Although David Gillespie (1986, p. 6) names him as one of the writers who endowed the Village Prose school with “not only value as a social chronicle but also genuine artistic merit”, it seems to have been the case that other writers have been understood to better epitomise that literary movement, and he was relegated to the sidelines as Western scholars concentrated on the authors they perceived to be more representative. For example, somewhat unfortunately for Likhonosov, Kathleen Parthé (1992, p. 34, p. 96) makes only two references to him in her overview of Village Prose, neither of which cast him in a positive light (however, only one of these concerns his literary merits). Be this as it may, while his master work Nash Malen’kii Parizh does indeed explore themes of memory and loss that are familiar to us from Village Prose, my contention is that it shakes off that genre’s narrow confines and focus to do so against a much more expansive background in a way that merits much wider attention, and that it should accordingly be made accessible to an Anglophone readership.

The work itself is curiously and cleverly structured. It is comprised of five parts, among which are distributed some 88 chapters. Some are lengthy, some no more than half a page. It is polyphonic – Likhonosov himself appears in the prologue and epilogue, but in the main body of the novel he adopts the conceit of a fictional colleague whose widow entrusted the manuscript to Likhonosov for editing. Further, there is a narrator who seems more contemporaneous with the events of the early 20th century which are chronicled in the first parts of the novel. My selection of extracts was informed by this variety of voices. I will leave the quality of writing (and, indeed, translation) to speak for itself, and concentrate here on thematic issues.

The initial chapters themselves tend to concentrate on a handful of characters among a supporting cast of hundreds, recounting their experiences at the very beginning of the 20th century, and moving through into the years of the revolution and the civil war – an important point to note in terms of probable increased interest among Anglophone readers as we approach the centenary of the events of 1917. Some chapters are presented as spoken recollections transcribed and edited by Likhonosov’s alter-ego, some as diary extracts or letters, and some as straightforward narrative. The cumulative effect is to create an immersive portrayal of life in a provincial town; a portrayal that takes in both the beau monde and the less exalted layers of society at a time when revolution was, firstly, in ferment, and then in full flow.

It should be noted that Ekaterinodar – the little Paris of the title – was the home town of the Kuban Cossack Host. Likhonosov brings to vivid life the peacetime and wartime activities both of the Cossack officers and the other ranks. The Cossack has received varying treatments in Russian literature (Kornblatt, 1992), becoming, if not entirely monstrous, then certainly overblown in the hands of both Gogol’ and, in more interesting ways, Babel’. Likhonosov makes allusions to both authors, but is perhaps closest in approach to Sholokhov, in that he restores a considerable element of humanity and reality to the archetype, and treats both sides of the ideological divide with great empathy. While Sholokhov concentrates on the Cossack’s military prowess, however, Likhonosov devotes a good deal of attention to the place of the Cossack in society as a whole. It is not always a comfortable fit, perhaps, especially when their duties as soldiers in the Tsar’s Lifeguard place them in intimate proximity to the royal family in Petrograd. Other pressures arise from the complaints of the non-Cossack population in and around Ekaterinodar, who do not benefit from the same privileges as the Cossacks, (whilst not being subject to the same military requirements).

The other major difference with Sholokhov is that, when – spoiler alert! – Grigorii Melekhov finally surrenders himself to the Soviet authorities, the reader understands it as the end of the Cossack era. Likhonosov, on the other hand, follows his Cossacks into exile, showing us the devastating effect this has on people whose identity and sense of purpose were predicated on fighting for a country that suddenly no longer existed either in reality (at least for them, in exile) or conceptually (the Empire of the Romanovs). As if that were not enough, he then follows a few of them back to Russia when exile becomes too much to bear; they attempt to make their peace with the new reality and live out their days in once-familiar surroundings. This novel is a significant extension, then, to the Cossack canon in its pursuit of the Cossack experience into the mid-20th century.

Were this all the novel had to offer, these detailed vignettes which bring both mundane and dramatic events so vividly to life – the fruit of the long years spent by LIkhonosov in seeking out and conversing with the older residents of the town, and trawling through the city’s archives – would in themselves justify bringing the work to an Anglophone audience. But something even more interesting is at work in the novel: an early chapter describes an encounter between a veteran Cossack – a throwback, all the way up to his cherished toplock of hair, to the Zaporozhian Cossacks from whom the Kuban Cossacks traced their descent – and the regional governor, in which both old men wonder how, if at all, they will be remembered, and, indeed, whether they remember their own antecedents sufficiently well. The narrator increasingly interpolates doubts from his interlocutors as to how well they were able to recall events, while by the time we reach the fifth part, set mainly in post-war Krasnodar, Likhonosov’s alter-ego describes the process of obtaining the raw material for the novel, and shows how the events of the earlier parts are misremembered both by those who simply heard the stories and by those stories’ protagonists themselves. Major characters take on a dual (at least) existence: their own, and that (those) ascribed to them by faulty memory and rumour. The novel thus becomes a very moving meditation on the role and power of memory. Although the novel is set in a very specific temporal and geographic location, which are themselves of interest, these are transcended by the universal nature of questions around what it means to remember, and to be remembered.

References

Gillespie, D.C., 1986. Valentin Rasputin and Soviet Russian Village Prose, MHRA.
Kornblatt, J.D., 1992. The Cossack Hero in Russian Literature – A Study in Cultural Mythology, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press.
Parthé, K.F., 1992. Russian Village Prose: The Radiant Past, Princeton: Princeton University Press.