Translated by Bryan Karetnyk
Reviewed by Karen Langley
Recent years have seen a wave of wonderful new translations of ‘lost’ Russian authors of the 19th and 20th century. Some have never been rendered into English before; some have simply not received the widespread readership they deserve; but all of those I’ve come across have been marvellous. One of the publishers at the vanguard of this trend is Columbia University Press with their marvellous ‘Russian Library’ imprint (a number of volumes of which I’ve reviewed before on Shiny, search for the tag ‘Russian Library’); and a recent release, “Fandango”, is one of their finest.
Author Grin’s real name was Alexander Stepanovich Grinevsky (1880-1932), and he’s often described as a Russian counterpart to Robert Louis Stevenson, Edgar Allan Poe and Alexander Dumas. Certainly, there are elements of each of these authors in Grin’s fiction, but he has a voice and a style of writing all of his own, and it’s marvellous.
“Fandango and Other Stories” collects together eight pieces of varying lengths, from short stories to works bordering on the novella. The topics are equally varied: tales of adventurous explorers, travellers in strange lands, romantic fools in search of lost loves, and surrealistic narratives set against a post-Revolutionary background. Each story is a little gem, and deserves a review in its own right, which is of course not feasible here; but I’ll try to pick out some highlights.
The first story, “Quarantine”, is from the early part of Grin’s career, and focuses on a fledgling revolutionary who’s been sent to the country to prepare for his part in what is planned to be an act of terror against the Tsarist regime. Reminiscent of Turgenev in some ways, the story delves deep into the protagonist’s thoughts and emotions, questioning the point of such a negative, destructive act.
Several of the tales are adventurous ones, set in strange tropical colonies and unspecified lands. As the introduction explains, Grin often set his works in invented locations, labelled as ‘Grinlandia’, and this backdrop lets him explore the motivations of his characters, their dreams, and desires. “The Heart of the Wilderness” is a particularly striking example of this type of story, with a group of pranksters persuading a gullible visitor to go off in search of a non-existent paradise deep in the jungle. What he finds is unexpected – but not if you believe in the power of the imagination.
“… beautiful carved balconies, a winding tangle of flowers around the windows with blue and violet awnings, a lion’s skin, a piano with a rifle propped up beside it, swarthy, carefree children with the fearless eyes of fairy tale heroes, beautiful, slender girls with revolvers in their pockets and books by their bedsides, and hunters as sharp-sighted as an eagle. What more could you ask for?”
“The Poisoned Island” is another striking story, setting the horrors of progress against an idyllic environment and making a strong case for rejecting the machine age with its brutal, destructive conflicts.
Despite many of Grin’s tales taking place against some kind of romantic backdrop, the last two stories in the collection are actually notionally located in a post-Revolutionary St. Petersburg; and they’re particularly outstanding and unforgettable. “The Rat-Catcher” tells the story of a man scratching a living, as were so many at the time, by selling off their possessions – in his case, books. After an encounter with a beautiful woman, he sets off on a surreal adventure, which takes place in the giant abandoned premises of a bank. The vivid sequence where Grin describes his exploration of the deserted building is outstanding; he paints an unforgettable picture of the structure with words. The huge central hall, the echoing chambers and the labyrinthine corridors add to the sense of strangeness in the story; and the resolution is unexpected.
The final, title, story takes this atmosphere of unreality even further. Much of the action is set in the real-life House of Scholars (rather like the house which is the headquarters of the Writers’ Union in “The Master and Margarita”), where the narrator has gone after a series of events involving the purchase of a painting. Here, visitors from another land bringing strange and exotic gifts cause havoc amongst the populace, particularly those who can only accept Soviet reality. In some ways, I couldn’t help being reminded of other scenes in “The Master and Margarita” where the Devil and cohorts are hoodwinking the Moscow citizens; but of course that book came later. “Fandango” features a wonderful sequence where reality and Grinlandia collide before things get back to some kind of normality; though it does seem that Grinlandian time has the same kind of relation to Russian time as does Narnia to our world… (And indeed Grin, writing in 1927, imagines a somehow recognisable future world for his nomadic travellers):
“I saw those same magic-eyed travelers, the kind this very city will see in the year 2021, when our progeny, decked out in India rubber and synthetic silk, will alight the cabin of his electronic airmobile onto the surface of an aluminium aerial causeway.”
I’ve only really scratched the surface of this wonderful collection, as each tale is a rich and involving experience. What needs to be mentioned, too, is the writing (and of course the translating of it into English so expertly by Bryan Karetnyk). Grin’s prose is beautiful, evocative and striking, and I can’t remember when I last read writing that was so individual, so memorable and which conjured up such a strong sense of place. His descriptions are so good that the scene is alive in front of your eyes, and at times I rather felt as if I was about to step into Grinlandia myself! This is language to savour, with vivid imagery which is almost hallucinogenic in places, and it’s really unlike the other Russian authors I’ve read.
“Fandango” is a marvellous collection of stories and Alexander Grin is obviously a writer whose works have been unjustly neglected; I’m just glad he’s found the perfect translator, and a publisher to bring his stories to us in English. This book was a joy from start to finish and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Alexander Grin, Fandango (Columbia University Press, 2020). ISBN 9780231189774, 300pp, paperback.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)