Translating Contemporary Russian Literature: Marian Schwartz on Olga Slavnikova and Leonid Yuzefovich
Green Apple Books on the Park | 1231 9th Avenue | San Francisco, CA
Marian Schwartz joins Sabrina Jaszi to talk about translating contemporary Russian literature and her latest translations of Leonid Yuzefovich’s Horsemen of the Sands and Olga Slavnikova’s The Man Who Couldn’t Die.
Horsemen of the Sands (Archipelago Books) contains two novellas by Leonid Yuzefovich: The Storm, which takes place in a Soviet elementary school, and Horsemen of the Sands, a mystical tale about the real-life warlord R.F. Ungern-Shternberg, who fought both the Chinese and the Bolsheviks for control of Mongolia during the Russian Civil War, which lasted six years after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution.
In The Storm, a bombastic teacher lectures his young students on traffic accidents and family separation, unwittingly stirring an emotional crisis. A lost wallet, an office fling, an upset stomach—the minutiae of life unveil the private tragedies at the heart of a school community.
Horsemen of the Sands takes place a world away. An old herdsman entrances a young tank commander with the legend of Baron Ungern, the real-life White Russian officer who conquered Mongolia. A foggy epic unfolds, a tale of faith and revenge centering on a mysterious amulet, said to make the wearer invincible. From the dim of the classroom to the vast Mongolian steppe, Leonid Yuzefovich’s masterful novellas The Storm and Horsemen of the Sands drill straight to the core of human emotion. These Russian parables illuminate the fears, passions, and ambitions beneath the grandest acts and the tiniest gestures.
Olga Slavnikova’s The Man Who Couldn’t Die (Columbia University Press) tells the story of how two women try to prolong a life—and the means and meaning of their own lives—by creating a world that doesn’t change, a Soviet Union that never crumbled.In the chaos of early-1990s Russia, the wife and stepdaughter of a paralyzed veteran conceal the Soviet Union’s collapse from him in order to keep him—and his pension—alive until it turns out the tough old man has other plans.
After her stepfather’s stroke, Marina hangs Brezhnev’s portrait on the wall, edits the Pravda articles read to him, and uses her media connections to cobble together entire newscasts of events that never happened. Meanwhile, her mother, Nina Alexandrovna, can barely navigate the bewildering new world outside, especially in comparison to the blunt reality of her uncommunicative husband. As Marina is caught up in a local election campaign that gets out of hand, Nina discovers that her husband is conspiring as well—to kill himself and put an end to the charade. Masterfully translated by Marian Schwartz, The Man Who Couldn’t Die is a darkly playful vision of the lost Soviet past and the madness of the post-Soviet world that uses Russia’s modern history as a backdrop for an inquiry into larger metaphysical questions.