Life with an Idiot by Victor Erofeyev, trans Andrew Reynolds

Killing jokes with the wise fools of Russia

By Virginia Rounding
Friday 21 January 2005 01:00

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"Russia is a bag of jokes. In Russia, we do not have historic records. We do have an amazing number of historic jokes." This interview comment by Victor Erofeyev offers a helpful perspective from which to view his collection of 18 short stories, written between 1978 and 1990. The jokes proffered by Erofeyev include the marked physical similarity between the idiot of the title story, with whom the narrator is condemned to live for some unspecified crime, and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

The madman with the small neat beard, who makes passers-by tremble "as if his mug were familiar to them", eventually snips off the head of the narrator's wife with a pair of shears - but it doesn't seem to matter too much. This is Russia after all, where the holy fool is revered and life is unremittingly incomprehensible.

Erofeyev frequently writes in the voice of the average confused Russian who understands little of politics or history. All he knows is that the rules for how to get along in daily life are different from the ones he grew up with, but that by tomorrow they will have changed yet again. These stories are like rather gruesome fairy tales, written from the point of view of people for whom reality is a form of fairy tale; who believe that there's no logic to existence, no sense to be made of what happens.

Fortunately for the sometimes bewildered reader, Andrew Reynolds is a knowledgeable, sensitive and witty translator who knows when to depart from the strictly literal meaning in order to deliver its real sense (or non-sense) to a non-Russian audience. In translating a twist on a well-known Russian quotation, for instance, he replaces Gogol with Shakespeare, and so gives the English reader at least something familiar to cling on to in what can feel like a confusing sequence of time shifts and dislocations.

You often aren't sure where you are historically. "Letter to Mother", for instance, describes a period of perestroika that seems to take place simultaneously in the 1980s, 1917, and the 19th century. And everyone one has ever heard of in Russian history seems to turn up in "The Parakeet" (which has achieved cult status), "Three Meetings" and "Cotton Wool". In his useful notes, Reynolds points to the myriad puns and allusions - to Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Mandelstam, Pasternak, and a host of less familiar writers. Talking of writers, this image from "Pocket Apocalypse", which concludes the collection, is unforgettable: "One of my Polish acquaintances said that Russian letters look like small chairs. On these chairs sit the apostles of Russian literature. Some of these chairs turned out to be electric."

As Reynolds makes clear, these are not easy stories in any sense of the word, and they need to be read several times to be fully appreciated. It helps to realise their jokiness, but the jokes are desperately serious. The narrator of "Pocket Apocalypse" sums up the feelings of many of Erofeyev's sad, brave characters who do not know whether to laugh or cry: "Everyone has his or her own Moscow, Moscows swarm, like springs and stars, and suddenly he embarks upon a normal life, and everything is fine, but he worries, because so many years, so many decades have been lost so pointlessly, everything has crashed in ruins, and it has all crashed on his head."

Despite the difficulties, these stories deserve a Western audience, as part of our possibly (in Erofeyev's opinion, definitely) doomed attempt to understand Russia and Russians.

Virginia Rounding's 'Grandes Horizontales' is published by Bloomsbury

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