Voices of the Post-Soviet Intellectual: Maxim Osipov’s “Rock, Paper, Scissors,” Translated from Russian by Boris Dralyuk, Alex Fleming, and Anne Marie Jackson

By Jonathan Stone

osipov.1_2048x2048The Grannies took the most practice. There were three of them, and as I prepared to read out loud Alex Fleming’s translation of Osipov’s essay “The Cry of The Domestic Fowl,” I kept vacillating between voices.

The one who’s in the worst health hears and sees things: “Yuri, is that you?” she’ll ask the patient next to her.
“Nope, not me,” she’ll reply.
“So who are you?”
“Then who is this – Yuri?” she’ll ask the patient on her other side.
“No,” Granny Three will reply, “I’m Granny, too.” (5)

There’s a definite air of comedy to this exchange, and the timing and intonation of reading it should replicate the staccato look of the words on the page. There’s a sweetness and innocence to the interaction, as the narrator wants us to see, and so a note of tenderness isn’t out of place.  But the experience and gravitas of these women mustn’t be overlooked either. As best I could muster, I settled on giving the Grannies a veneer of naïveté that also alluded to the lifetime of work and the burden of history attached to the Russian Granny, the admiration earned by the бабка. As I read in my mind was the wolf impersonating Little Red Riding Hood’s Granny, a figure not out of place in the hospital wards that nurture some of Osipov’s most memorable voices.

That evening in September at the Penn Book Center in Philadelphia, sitting next to Osipov as he read the Russian and then trying myself to impersonate some of his characters as I read excerpts from the Rock, Paper, Scissors collection, I came to grasp more fully the depth and nuance of the voices populating his stories. The fluidity with which his writing moves between characters, the way he can pack a room with different layers of Russian society, is founded on the comfortable and casual nature of the worlds he creates. Boris Dralyuk captures this polyphony in his translation of a crowded scene in “Good People.” The aging protagonist, the actor Bella, is surrounded by her friends from the theater. There are caring, maternal voices: “What do you mean, Bellochka? These are your friends – your and Lev’s friends. Don’t you worry, dear – just have a seat, have a seat.” (264) There is the coarse masculine voice of the lighting technician Petya: “And our Bella Yuryevna, well, her head’s gone soft. Like Lenin’s […] It’s a lucky thing, I tell ya – she’s as good as brain-dead.” (264-5) And the scene ends with the uplifting and angelic presence of Lina: “Doing good for others, Bella Yuryevna, is the greatest pleasure of all […] What a marvelous picture of Lev Grigorievich!” (265)

The challenge for the translator is in conveying this onslaught of characters and personalities to a reader unaccustomed to the subtle shifts in register and diction that differentiate the educated from the uneducated, the urbane from the provincial. Dralyuk, Fleming, and Jackson are all mindful of the complex and cacophonous nature of these stories and strike a balance among the characters’ many voices that sidesteps disruptive shifts between tones while still demonstrating the diversity of these worlds. The interactions in Bella’s apartment show how these personalities can be rendered as both radically different and part of the same cultural space. The translators of this volume sense the importance of preserving the stories’ outward fluidity without compromising the core messiness of their world. For them, as for Osipov, the key to this is in the figure of the narrator.

A narrator who speaks and thinks like a classic Russian intellectual is the thread that holds Osipov’s stories together and the quality that has led critics to liken his mastery of Russian prose to that of the great realists of the nineteenth century. It is one of the most consistent elements of his work running through his stories, essays, interviews, and casual conversation. The success of the translation hinges on Dralyuk, Fleming, and Jackson nailing this voice. It can come in the form of the exhausted flow of thoughts going through a Russian doctor’s mind as he rests between flights in an airport terminal,

He thinks: I’m engaged in a meaningless activity while eternity exists – father was right – eternity exists, and the only things that count are those that are projected into eternity, that occupy some part of it. Providing medical treatment to people – no matter which people – is an act projected into eternity, even though his patients don’t live forever, and sometimes not for very long at all. (41)

Dralyuk’s translation enters into this mind, that of the protagonist of “The Gypsy,” by conveying the blend of angst, idealism, and delirium that, for Osipov, here embody the post-Soviet intellectual. Osipov’s is a narrator who finds a wealth of descriptive detail and historical significance in such places as a Petrozavodsk police station.

The occupant of the office has only just gotten up and is still in somewhat lethargic state. He’s sitting on a bare couch, without a pillow or blanket, and dressed in a T-shirt and track pants. Semyon Isaakovich stuffed one of his feet into a boot, but not the other. He’s a man of some seventy years, short and completely bald, without mustache or beard, but with hair springing abundantly from his ears and nose – in fact, from everywhere that hair shouldn’t be growing from. His hands, his shoulders, his chest are carpeted with salt-and-pepper wool. I think, “A hairy man – like Esau.” (18)

Anne Marie Jackson pulls this jumble of images from “Moscow-Petrozavodsk” together with a pitter-patter that captures the original and shows the narrator’s eye scanning the room. The final thought cements the narrator’s voice. It nods towards the alienation of the intellectual, the otherness of the Jew, and the malleability of language. Packed into a single consciousness, a voice that gives this scene a sense of cohesiveness, this moment (and Osipov’s stories in general) offers a modicum of relief from the chaos of the world. Such a balm is as needed by non-Russian readers as it is by Russian readers.

Rock, Paper, Scissors is a transportive collection. It can literally bring readers to places they did not fathom had existed and situate them among people they knew of only from a great distance, if at all. This is emphatically the case for readers who encounter Ospiov’s stories in translation, possibly as another surprise installment in the New York Review Books monthly book club. While Osipov masterfully traffics in types – of voices, characters, narratives – that resonate for readers of the original texts, his translators must compensate for this vague familiarity with language and tone. They must establish the ease and geniality of Osipov’s prose without sacrificing its intellectual heft or erasing its debts to literary traditions. They must allow doctors, police officers, teachers, bureaucrats, and Grannies to mix company effortlessly on the page. And they must do so while echoing Osipov’s writing, some of the most elegant prose out there today. Dralyuk, Fleming, and Jackson do these things remarkably well. Osipov has indeed found “the kind of translator you want, if you happen to need one,” to paraphrase Dralyuk’s translation of the opening line of “The Gypsy.”

Osipov, Maxim. Rock, Paper, Scissors And Other Stories. Translated by Boris Dralyuk, Alex Fleming, and Anne Marie Jackson. New York: New York Review Books, 2019.

Jonathan Stone is Associate Professor of Russian and Russian Studies at Franklin & Marshall College (USA). His translations of the poetry of Joseph Brodsky have appeared in a fine press edition published by Nikodim Press. He is currently completing a translation of Andrey Bely’s Symphonies.

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