How I Ate the Dog part four

Posted in How I Ate the Dog, Russian Literature, Translation with tags , , , , , on March 6, 2010 by Alec

The boat motored quietly, in the sense that it didn’t make any noise, and everyone sat silently, everyone was silent, and even those who were escorting us also were silent.  How – sh-sh-sh –the water swished.  No one turned his head, no one looked to the side, everyone froze, as it were.  Scaryyy.

But the sailors who took us were funny, they seemed that way to me then…. But then they blurred together with hundreds of the exact same, in the sense that they were dressed in exactly the same way…. But these ones I remembered… so funny.  (Here it is better to show pictures or photographs of sailors or depict what types they come in and what they do).

Imagine you wake up one morning and you’re a hussar.  That is, a real hussar.  You have that kind of special hat – a shako, with this kind of long thing.  You have this pelisse with an absurd amount of buttons and little braids, breeches, boots, spurs…, and here – a saber, and a horse.  This kind of large animal, this horse.  And moreover, you already know everything: how to ride a horse, how to cut with a saber, how everything is set up, to what regiment you’re assigned, what rank you have, and, even scarier, – you remember past battles and daring raids…. But at the same time you are surprised at all this.  Because you just woke up and there are these kinds of things going on…. And almost every morning for all three years, I thought this way, and the longer I served, the stronger I thought: “I’m a sailor!  A real one!  The kind like in the movies, and in fact even more real.  Just a sailor on a ship, just like that…”

This can’t be!  This is impossible!

Yeaaaah.. but….


Alcohol ad exaggeration

Posted in Russian media, Waxing political with tags , , , , , , , on January 21, 2010 by Alec

Vodka is, of course, a cornerstone of Russian culture. How else would you make such lovely statements as, “Let’s drink to kind ladies and other mythological heroes!” and mark the coming together of friends, etc.?

But Russia is a land of extremes, and Russians show a strong tendency to overindulge, on average.  They consume approximately 4.75 gallons of pure alcohol per person each year, over twice what the WHO considers a health danger.

The Russian government is showing signs of an impending crackdown that would ban beer sales at kiosks.  Besides ruining the beautiful culture of strolling along river banks and boulevards with a cold beer (rather than sinking ever lower under the eardrum-splitting pressure of blasting Europop at a bar filled with lipsticked, pig-faced women and bald, head-butting men), this would fail to address an alcohol problem based on vodka.

In a related example of stupidity, Russian TV is running exaggerated scare-tactic ads such as the following:

Text:  “When alcohol enters the blood, red blood cells clot.  Clots appear in the bloodstream that lethally block capillaries.  Capillaries expand and burst.  With the use of 100 grams of vodka up to 8,000 brain cells die.  For every drinking session, 10,000 brain cells flow out in your urine the next day.  Protect yourself!”

Reducing the alcohol-induced problems of premature death, reduced productivity and population decline is a matter of regulating distillers who make unregulated brand-name knock-offs and taxing vodka more heavily.  Fear-mongering TV ads are about as effective as oars on a motorcycle.

A “verbal chain” culminating in God: Mikhail Shishkin on Russian literature

Posted in Russian Literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 29, 2009 by Alec

At the end of October, I heard a lecture at UW-Madison by acclaimed Russian author Mikhail Shishkin that I have only just had time to revisit (for a full recording, see CREECA lecture archive).

His lecture was an incredibly interdisciplinary and gleefully stimulating—albeit only loosely coherent—bit of waxing philosophical on the meaning of Russian literature and its history and future. It was simultaneously a poetic take on linguistics, an allegorical take on political science, a mystical literary study, and a manically thematic and anachronous history. Nonetheless, it ended on a rather effete, New-Agey and possibly even Pentecostal note with Shishkin’s assertion that literature should be a road “to a place where all of us are loved and awaited to be saved,” a statement that was indeed meant in the religious sense these words imply.

Shishkin for the most part ruminated on three themes: the use of language, the situation of the modern Russian writer, and the religious-mystical meaning of literature.

“Words are guards that do not allow meaning and emotion to enter … and still, the verbal path is the only way to understanding.” In Shishkin’s view, language is at the root of both obstructions to divine love (no one loves as purely as mother and babe when they do so “sub-verbally”) and problems of intellectual and moral flaccidity in current literature. Thus, revamping commercially corrupted literature, and thereby alleviating the modern condition, centers on a reinvigoration of the language.

Shishkin obviously troubles himself over knowing the fundamentals of the written word, and avoiding them as such. “For me, the only way to create my own road is to write incorrectly … to say something correctly means to say nothing,” he said.

On the second theme, Shishkin laid out a history of Russian literature as the receptacle of “non-totalitarian consciousness” amid state-enforced conformity. To his mind, the totalitarian consciousness can be atomized into the state’s commands and the people’s prayers (mat swear words are the “living prayers spoken in the imprisoned country”). The “prison reality of the state gave its people a prison mentality” that “created a (Russian) language with an unprecedented power to humiliate.” When literary language arrived from the West in the 18th century, bringing along with it a respect for human dignity, Russian literature—in the hands of “colonists” like Dostoevksy and Chekhov—sought to “squeeze itself into the space between the insult and the groan.”

Russian writers never depended on the interest of readers, writing only for themselves or the Party, but were nonetheless accorded respect (see the old adage, “A poet in Russia is more than just a poet.”) After the fall, “Literature was left for those who cannot live without writing. Then the dollar came.” Shishkin, who wrote his first novel in teh 1980s, said that the new dependence on print run in the ‘90s was no better than previous dependence on the Soviet regime’s approval.

Shishkin accurately describes the current situation in which literature, its decline marked by the ascension of pop authors like Oksana Robski, is so marginal and meaningless as a product for profit, it can paradoxically exist freely in Russia for the first time. But he sounds a tad curmudgeonly and simplistic in his rote condemnation of the downsides of the market economy.

For his third theme, Shishkin totters out onto a metaphysical limb and gets all mystical: The Russian author—Shishkin suddenly adopts the guise of a parenting help guru—loves his hero unconditionally, as Gogol does Akaki Akakievich. In this he touches the sacred, since in the beginning there was only a “clump of love, or, rather, the need for it,” which prompted God to create “his own child in order to love him.”

What follows is a bit of metaphorical logic stretched to the breaking point: “If the author loves Akaki Akakievich, who does not deserve to be loved, then the reader knows that God exists and loves him.” Thus, the author’s task is to combine words into “verbal chain” that culminates in God. The additional duty of the Russian author, it would seem, is to fight the totalitarian consciousness intrinsic to the Russian nation and the humiliation reflex intrinsic to the Russian language.

Shishkin claims it is impossible to offer a universal prescription as to how to achieve this, then proceeds to do exactly that, speaking from his own experience: To create his own “Russian arc,” the Russian writer must become hermit, i.e. leave, physically or metaphorically, bringing only his own experience and “ten centuries of the Cyrillic language.”

Although by the end I was worried Shishkin was trying to surreptitiously convert the audience to Scientology, I will admit the lecture was the most inimitable and far-reaching analysis of Russian literature that I have yet heard.

A few more chestnuts:

“Russian literature suffers from high blood pressure.”

“The letters I wrote at home had a completely different density abroad.” (Shishkin lives in Switzerland).

“Not writing is part of writing.”

“If the Russian border were closed, Russian literature would never have happened.”

To be successful in the current Russian book market, writers must write a lot, appear everywhere, and “try to create as many scandals as possible.”

The Russian reader is still looking for a book “whose author does not consider him an idiot looking for entertainment.”

How I Ate the Dog part three

Posted in How I Ate the Dog, Russian Literature, Translation with tags , , , , , , , on October 2, 2009 by Alec

So why so many ellipses, random pauses, etc., in Grishkovets’s play?  Because it’s a monologue told by the author himself, and the author affects this homespun, natural style of speech to better match the material.  He assumes a self-deprecating, earnest tone, as if you’re a trusted friend to whom he’s telling his musings and half-baked childhood dreams that all the same are significant in the human sense, since we all have such musings and dreams, only we never voice them.  Plus, much of the dialogue is improvised, so Grishkovets keeps the whole thing completely free-flowing and conversational, and the written version with its many ellipses reflects this.

And just a sidenote: Russian Island is no joke.  The whole of this island, which Japan still contends is part of its territory, is given over to the Russian navy.  In 1993, four sailors starved to death there after a greedy officer hoarded food supplies.

How I Ate the Dog
Yevgenii Grishkovets


This is exactly like, well…. Like…. Remember, 15 to 17 years ago they were showing, with great pomp, and before that everyone was talking, saying that for the first time in the movie theatres of the country there was a real horror film, “Legend about a Dinosaur.”  Tickets were decidedly impossible to buy; they were showing the film for two weeks in movie theatres with large screens.  At the ticket offices was a crowd…  I went three days in a row, stood idle for an hour, and, having been convinced that today, alas… I went to the theatre exit and waited for the end of the showing.  From the lobby you could hear a little bit of especially loud music and something else…  Then the people came out, and I looked at their faces.  They had seen it…!  They had already experienced it!  They came out and in some way differed from everyone else, they moved, as it were, slowly, as in video clips, carrying a knowledge that was unknown to me, that I also would attain, that I feared, but that which I must…, without fail.  But they had already lived through something, they already knew….  I wanted to see this in their eyes….  I respected them and understood that I couldn’t even talk to them….  Then, on Friday, I myself watched the film….  Well, there you go, watched it…. and left… and went home…

But there it was more serious business, here it was….  It’s like, you know….  You’re walking to school, it’s dark because it’s winter.  Everything really familiar, all the noises bother you.  Well, there’s this little path through the snow, trees, snow.  In front of you loom up other wretches, some mothers pulling their torpid first-graders.  Snow, branches, cold.  You’re walking like this, so that your hands don’t touch your mittens, and through the trees and the snow on the second floor gleam three windows.  They gleam with such a venomous, peculiar light.  This is the room for Russian class.  And now there will be two periods of Russian right off the bat…….   And you’re walking, but this is worse of all, this sorrow, this is intolerable…

And of course you learned everything, your homework is done, and, in general, there’s nothing to fear.  But….  Those three windows….  And through your head passes different plans of how you might avoid this, and thoughts about how it would be awesome, if…, or about what the guys from School 48 said, how they….  But you walk….  Horror….  It’s just you also know that the teacher hates you.  No, not because you’re this way or that.  Just because she really doesn’t like you.  You still don’t even guess that people can not love you, because you’re still….  Ooooohhhh…

We traveled onward…. Past Baikal.  It took a long time to pass Baikal, then we traveled some more…  The city of Ulan-Ude.

It’s curious when some Muscovite tells some foreigner: “Yes… Baikal – our pride, this lake is the biggest, deepest, there’s such and such a percentage of the world’s freshwater, there’s fish…!”

What Baikal?  It’s farther away than Africa…. A lot farther….  And schoolkids in Khabarovsk write essays in ninth grade about “Dostoevsky’s St. Petersburg.”  What St. Petersburg?  What are you talking about?  A seven-hour time difference between these cities, and birch trees…, many…, many…, many birch trees.

Incidentally, if you pronounce the word “many” (“mnogo”) many times (“mnogo,” “mnogo,” “mnogo”…), then it will break up into sounds and lose its meaning…, and it’s that way with any word.  Names especially quickly break up….  Well, that’s how it is…

We asked the sailors about what it was like to serve, well, in the sense that….  Well, as it were… scary or not, whether strong….  Well, you understand….  But we asked, as it were, without any particular interest, kind of like….  And they said: “Noooo, now serving is alright, Boy Scout camp, totally fine, no one’s fingers will…, don’t piss yourself.  Now, when we served, that was….  Back then it was, yeah…  Seryoga, you tell them now, Boy Scout camp.  Noooo, totally fine…  Only, the main thing is, don’t wind up on Russian Island, and then it’s fine…

I somehow immediately remembered and worried: “Okay, so the main thing is, don’t wind up on Russian Island, because it’s not worth it to wind up there, and if you don’t wind up there, everything will be fine.”  But for some reason, we didn’t really believe that everything would be fine.  We arrived in Vladivostok early in the morning, it was still entirely dark, and fog hung in the air…, not even fog, but kind of little bitty rain, but so small that it doesn’t fall, but literally hangs in the air.  It was surprisingly brightly light by the floodlights of the train station and the port, which in Vladivostoke are next to each other, and tremendously cold.  But I didn’t end up seeing Vladivostok in the daytime, already three hours later they were taking me on a boat to Russian Island.


How I Ate the Dog part two

Posted in How I Ate the Dog, Russian Literature, Translation with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 28, 2009 by Alec

If you’ve ever been on a Russian train, you’ll know that Grishkovets gets it exactly right, from the wood-burning tea urn by the wagon conductor’s cabin to the sleepy Russian who without fail remarks on the monotonous beauty of continental Russia and its birches.  The train is still the most important form of transportation in Russia, even though it takes over a week to cross the country this way.  I’ve spent at most two-and-a-half days on a Russian train in one stretch, but I can picture what an eternity seven would be … so you really have to note how strong the dread of the unknown that pervades the author’s imminent entry into naval service is, that he would rejoice in each little stop …

How I Ate the Dog
Yevgenii Grishkovets


I remember how we traveled seven days from the “Taiga” station to the Vladivostok station on a passenger/mail train.  We traveled slowly, stood at each crossing, and I was grateful to the railroad workers for these tiny delays….  We were going…, and interestingly, you could be going anywhere, to the east, to the south, to the north, and the whole time it would be the exact same scenery, in the sense that, it changes, of course, but the feeling remains that it’s the exact same: This means not very thickly growing birch trees, those uniformly spaced white-black trees, everywhere….  Well, in general, the kind of scenery, looking at which a Russian is obligated to say: “My God… what beauty!”  It happens like this: The Russian has woken up, comes out from the sleeping compartment into the corridor of the wagon, on his shoulders hangs a towel, like so, in his hand a toothbrush with toothpaste already on it, he’s a bit blinded by the morning light (in the compartment it had been very dark), he stops at the window, like so, holding onto the handrail.  In the corridor the rattle of the train is stronger.  Someone draws water from the tea urn.  The train: tuduk-tuk-tuk, tuduk-tuk-tuk.  The person who has just woken up: “Ssssoooo, where are we by now?”  The person with hot water in his mug, swaying with concentration, slowly walking and because of this swaying even more, says: “Who knows…”

The person who has just woken up: “Yeah?! Well, all the same, what beauty…!” Tuduk-tuk-tuk, tuduk-tuk-tuk…

Two sailors took us, they wore white dress uniforms and really looked after their appearance.  Both were short, one had a moustache that he really loved and obviously was very proud of, you couldn’t make it out immediately, but if you so desired, it wasn’t hard to count all the tiny hairs he had on his upper lip, and the other was, I for some reason recall, from Tambov, he was bowlegged and right about here he wore a medal “For faraway deployment.”  They got out at every station and walked around the platform with an old cassette player, glancing to the sides, meaning – Are they looking at us or not?  Aha…they’re looking!  Very good!  I was surprised at the time by how their sailor hats stayed on the back of their heads, it was obvious that they should have fallen off, but they stayed on, all the same…. Without any sense of idiotic metaphor, they hung like haloes….  I only found out later, how they stayed on… sailor hats.  And that there’s no secret, they simply stay on, and that’s it.

The sailors were entertaining….  We came up to them with questions about how it is, and they gladly told us how…: “Well, we went through La Pérouse Strait, then we went to Cam Ranh, we stopped there…, then we went to New Zealand and they didn’t let us come ashore, but in Australia they let us come ashore, but only the officers went and…”

And I was thinking: “Geeeeee whiz… After all I studied English in school…  Why?”  Well, there were countries where they speak this language, there was Europe, well somewhere there… Paris, London, you know, Amsterdam, there were those, and leave it at all that.  What’s it to me?  They sometimes vaguely disturbed you in that they nevertheless kind of existed…, but they didn’t draw out any concrete desire.  The world was huge, like in a book….

And these sailors had been, my God, in Australia, New Zealand….  And the same awaits me, just put me in that same uniform….  And little by little, already quickly, the train takes us to Vladivostok, and there is still a little left – and some sort of sea, some sort of countries….  Reluctance!!!!  Because even though I didn’t know anything concrete, I suspected that, well, of course, it wasn’t quite that simple, Australia, New Zealand, and still some other place like that, the essential of what I didn’t want to know, of what I was afraid, of what I was very afraid  and what would very soon come up… without fail….

How I Ate the Dog part one

Posted in How I Ate the Dog, Russian Literature, Translation with tags , , , , , , , on September 20, 2009 by Alec

How I Ate the Dog

A monodrama


Narrator – A young man between 30 and 40 years, dressed in a sailor’s uniform, more often holds his sailor’s hat in hand, sometimes wears it on his head.

One may add personal stories and observations to the text.  Those moments that one especially doesn’t like may be skipped.  It is advisable to recount this story in more than an hour, but less than an hour-and-a-half.

On the stage is a lot of tackle, various maritime affects, a bucket of water and a rag.  In the center sits a chair.


There occur such moments in life, well, for example, you arrive home a little later than you promised, meaning you promised to come at nine, but you came at 11: You didn’t call, didn’t warn in advance, and, well, you come in, start to apologize, well, it’s no use…. And they tell you, “Oh, and of course you went drinking, you’re drunk.”  But you weren’t drinking, that is, not at all!  And you say, “No way, mom (or anyone else), God be with you, I didn’t have anything to drink…” and something to this effect.  And suddenly you have a thought, you clearly understand that you’re behaving yourself like you’re drunk, that is, the more you explain yourself, the more you become indignant, the more you appear to be drunk, moreover you already understand this, but all the same you can never do anything about it.  “Well, admit that you were drinking and  go to bed, why get worked up,” they say.  “But I wasn’t drinking, I wasn’t…” you grumble through your teeth, wave your hand and actually go to bed, and there’s nothing else to do about it.  And no one to get mad at, since it’s exactly as if you’re drunk…

I say this so that it will be understood that I myself don’t understand the reasons why I’m going to tell all of this now; it seems that there are many reasons, but as soon as you name one of them, you understand that it’s not the right reason, or it’s not a fundamental reason, or whatever…. That is, we’ll consider that everything that I recount, I’m recounting without a reason, well, and you… you’re listening for the reason that you came to listen, or simply because there already isn’t anywhere else to go, or for some other reason of your own.  I don’t know….

I’ll talk about a person who is no more now, who already doesn’t exist, in the sense that he existed before, but now he ceased to exist, but besides me no one noticed this.  And when I reminisce about him or talk about him, I say, “I thought… or I said”….  And I remember all this in detail, what he did, how he lived, what he thought, I remember why he did this or that, well, good thing, or, more often, bad thing….  I even become embarrassed for him, even though I distinctly understand that it wasn’t me.  No, not me.  In the sense that for everyone who knows me and knew me it was me, but actually that “I” who’s now saying this is a different person, and that one is no more and has no chance of appearing again….  In short, I ended up having to serve three years in the Pacific fleet….  That’s what kind of person this was.


Come learn how he ate the dog

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 19, 2009 by Alec

I’m back to deliver on my promise to start posting translations of Russian authors who are hard to find in English, and our first likely lad is Yevgenii Grishkovets (also transliterated “Yevgeni Grishkovetz”). This contemporary writer has basically made a career of selling memoirs, in many of his works drawing extensively on his experiences growing up in the heart of Siberia, serving in the navy and returning to Russia after traveling the world.

I first read his memoir “Reki” because it’s relatively doable Russian for a non-native, and I’ve just finished reading the equally autobiographical “How I Ate the Dog,” a monologue performed by Grishkovets himself that enjoyed a near-perpetual tour of Russian theatres in the early aughts. It’s been said that this work divided Russian theatre into two eras: before Grishkovets and after Grishkovets. While I wouldn’t go that far, it certainly is unique, a kind of novel-meets-theatre bit that features extensive improvisation and add-ins by the author during live performance. Here we get Grishkovets at his finest; the experiences of his navy service and childhood recounted in the monologue are not unusual or even eventful, but the way Grishkovets tells them, they take on the thoughtful yet folksy tone of an armchair philosopher’s musings, only the result is  spellbinding rather than pretentious.

The next couple of posts will feature a translation of this seminal work, which remains relatively unknown in the non-Russian speaking West, as far as I can tell. Conveying the author’s idiosyncratic humor and semantic wit will be difficult; even the title can be contentious and has been translated alternately as “How I Ate A Dog” (there are no articles in Russian). I have chosen to translate it “How I Ate the Dog” because the title references a Russian expression meaning to acquire or demonstrate mastery of a skill, which becomes  a play on words at one point in the monologue.

Depicting Grishkovets’s talent as a performer will of course be impossible. For those interested in also seeing the onstage dynamic, plenty of clips can be found online.