Death of the Vazir-Mukhtar by Yuri Tynianov

Translated by Susan Causey
Translation editor Vera Tsareva-Brauner

Reviewed by Karen Langley

Recent years have seen a large number of works by Russian authors newly translated into the English language; many of these had disappeared under Soviet rule or while the authors were living abroad as émigrés, or simply because fashions in reading change. I’ve been fortunate enough to read and review a number of these, many here on Shiny New Books, and so I was intrigued to receive a copy of this freshly-published book by a Russian modernist writer of the early 20th century who was a new name to me.

Yuri Tynianov (1894-1943) is remembered as a writer, literary critic, translator, scholar and screenwriter, as well as an expert on Pushkin. Although renowned because of his literary theories, he also wrote historical novels in which he applied these theories. His Lieutenant Kijé is probably his best-known title, mostly because it inspired Prokofiev’s suite of the same name; but his other works were highly regarded during his life, and the onset of the MS which led to his untimely death unfortunately limited his later work.

The story of his book’s journey into translation is interesting in itself: no complete rendering for Anglophone readers had ever been made available, and a previous attempt from 1938 omitted certain parts. Translator Susan Causey, who was an editor and journalist and had worked on a number of Russian cultural projects, undertook the translation as a retirement project. Sadly she was killed in a road accident before it could be published; but her manuscript was rescued by her family who worked with Vera Tsareva-Brauner to create a version for publication.

So what of the book itself? Well, Death of the Vazir-Mukhtar tells the story of a fascinating character, diplomat and playwright Alexander Griboyedov. Possibly best known as the author of the play Woe from Wit, as well as being a close friend of Pushkin, Griboyedov spent much time in Persia (now Iran) on diplomatic missions, negotiating treaties and attempting to spread the Russian empire. As we know from the start of the book, he met his death at the hands of a Tehran mob, and the story covers the period of time from his return to St. Petersburg with an important treaty to his journey back to Persia and his final fate.

He asked for three comfortable rooms. He fell into bed and slept like a dead man until morning. Occasionally, he was disturbed by the design of the wallpaper and the slap of house-shoes in the corridor. The unfamiliar furniture creaked unusually loudly. It was as if he had sunk down on a heavy, soft sofa that crowded his body on all sides and fallen through the bottom: the room’s blinds, it seemed, had descended forever.

Griboyedov is an elusive character, in many ways hard to pin down. He tends to follow his own path which is not sensible or logical, but is very human. For example, his tolerance of his sassy manservant Sasha is difficult to fathom; likewise his decision to stop off for a disproportionate amount of time on his way back to Persia and spend a month doing little but to decide to marry a very young Georgian princess. This is definitely a look into the mind of a very unusual man, and I found myself fascinated with his twists and turns. Griboyedov thinks he is always in controls of events but he is not; he often misjudges situations and the delicate diplomatic games have a tendency to slip from his grasp. He is caught in the twisted and rigidly hierarchical system of Tsarist Russia’s castes, and is out-manoeuvred. This is a Russia still reeling from the Decembrist plot against the rulers, and that plot and the members of the group are constant touchstones throughout the book.

A man may sit, drink some wine or tea – and the result is happiness. But the furniture, wine and tea can be just the same – and the result is misfortune.

The story is in itself lively, entertaining and adventurous; however, much of the interest of this book is not only the story that’s told (because it is fascinating) but in the way of its telling. Death… is dense and allusive and also very funny in places. Tynianov’s writing reminded very much of Bely, so it was no surprise to find that they are bracketed in the modernist movement. There are repetitions, unusual structures, digressions, impressionistic paragraphs, and all these elements add up to make an oddly compelling narrative. Tynianov cleverly plays with his readers’ expectations by giving us events from Griboyedov’s point of view, which with a sudden twist will be revealed to be totally wrong.

Death of the Vazir-Mukhtar turned out to be an absorbing and thought-provoking journey back into the history of Russia (and, incidentally, a lovely opportunity to encounter Pushkin!) It is, perhaps, overlong – I found myself wondering at some points whether the edits in the earlier version had maybe improved things a little. Additionally, the stylistic tricks do tend to create a little distance from the characters, which again can have the effect of slowing down the reading experience.

However, I do feel that the one thing this book would have greatly benefited from is the support of some scholarly notation. I’m reasonably well-read in Russian literature and history, and so I was aware of the background and context for much of what was happening, who many of the characters were, and also of course the cultural elements of Russia at the time. I think that a more casual reader without that knowledge would perhaps struggle a bit at times, and it’s a shame that there is no real supporting material apart from a plot summary at the beginning and some limited notation (mostly restricted to translating phrases left in other languages – which is a valuable exercise!) That aside, the book has an intriguing history and it’s good to see it being made available in this new version, as it will hopefully do much to bring Tynianov’s work to a wider audience.

Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and is a bit nervous of mobs… 

Yuri Tynianov, Death of the Vazir-Mukhtar (Look MultiMedia, 2018). 978-1999981501, 406pp, paperback.

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