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Translations of Fazil Iskander - - Selected short fiction (tr.R.Daglish)

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Fazil Iskander. Selected short fiction (tr.R.Daglish


     Translated by Robert Daglish

     Lyrical and humorous, deeply national but concerned with the human condition at large, often about children but mainly for adults, Fazil' Iskander's writing abounds, like his native Abkhazia, in colour and contrasts.

     It is merriment and toil that make the earth beautiful, Iskander writes in one of his stories. These qualities are also typical of his characters, most of them drawn from his fellow countrymen, ever a mixture of gallantry and guile, humour and hard work.
-------- Something about myself

     Let's just talk. Let's talk about things we don't have to talk about, pleasant things. Let's talk about some of the amusing sides of human nature, as embodied in people we know. There is nothing more enjoyable than discussing certain odd habits of our acquaintances. Because, you see, talking about them makes us aware of our own healthy normality. It implies that we, too, could indulge in such idiosyncrasies if we liked, but we don't like because we have no use for them. Or have we?

     One of the rather amusing features of human nature is that each of us tries to live up to an image imposed upon him by other people.

     Now here is an example from my own experience.

     When I was at school the whole class was one day given the task of turning a patch of seaside wasteland into a place of cultured rest and recreation. Strange though it may seem, we actually succeeded.

     We planted out the patch with eucalyptus seedlings, using the cluster method, which was an advanced method for those times. Admittedly, when there were not many seedlings and too much wasteland left, we began to put only one seedling in each hole, thus giving the new, progressive method and the old method the chance to show their worth in free competition.

     In a few years a beautiful grove of eucalyptus trees grew up on that wasteland and it was quite impossible to tell where the clusters and where the single seedlings had been. Then it was said that the single seedlings, being in direct proximity to the clusters and envying them with a thoroughly good sort of envy, had made an effort and caught up.

     Be that as it may, when I come back to my hometown nowadays, I sometimes take it easy in the shade of those now enormous trees and feel like a sentimental patriarch. Eucalyptus grows very fast, so anyone who wants to feel like a sentimental patriarch can plant a eucalyptus tree and live to see its crown towering high above him, its leaves tinkling in the breeze like the toys on a New Year tree.

     But that's not the point. The point is that on that far-off day when we were reclaiming the wasteland one of the boys drew attention to the way I held the hand barrow we were using for carrying soil. The P. T. instructor in charge of us also noticed the way I held the stretcher. Everyone noticed the way I held the stretcher. Some pretext for amusement had to be found and found it was. It turned out that I was holding the stretcher like an Inveterate Idler.

     This was the first crystal to form and it started a vigourous process of crystallisation which I did all I could to assist, so as to become finally crystallised in the preordained direction.

     Now everything contributed to the building of my image. If I sat through a mathematics test not troubling anyone and calmly waiting for my neighbour to solve the problem everyone attributed this not to my stupidity but to sheer idleness. Naturally I made no attempt to disillusion them. When for Russian composition I would write something straight out of my head without looking anything up in textbooks and cribs, this was taken as even more convincing proof of my incorrigible idleness.

     In order to preserve my image I deliberately neglected my duties as monitor. Everyone soon became so used to this that when any other member of the form forgot to perform his monitorial duties, the teacher, with the whole form voicing its approval in the background, would make me wipe the blackboard or carry the physics apparatus into the room.

     Further development of my image compelled me to give up homework. But to maintain the suspense of the situation I had to show reasonable results in my schoolwork. So every day, as soon as instruction in the humanitarian subjects began, I would lean forward on my desk and pretend to be dozing. If the teacher protested, I would say I was ill but did not want to miss the lesson, so as not to get left behind. In this reclining attitude I would listen attentively to what the teacher was saying without being diverted by any of the usual pranks, and try to remember everything he told us. After a lesson on any new material, if there was still some time left, I would volunteer to answer questions in advance for the next lesson.

     The teachers liked this because it flattered their pedagogical vanity. It meant that they could explain their subject so well and so clearly that the pupils were able to take it all in without even referring to the textbooks.

     The teacher would put down a good mark for me in the register, the bell would ring and everyone would be satisfied. And nobody but I ever realised that the information I had just memorised was about to romp out of my head just as the bar romps out of the hands of the weight lifter the moment he hears the umpire's approving "Up!"

     To be perfectly accurate, I had better add that sometimes, when reclining on my desk pretending to doze, I would actually fall into a doze, though I could still hear the voice of the teacher. Much later on I discovered that some people use the same, or almost the same, method for learning languages. I believe it would not appear too immodest if I were to say that I am the inventor of this method. I make no mention of the occasions when I actually fell asleep because they were rare.

     After a while rumours concerning this Inveterate Idler reached the ears of our headmaster and for some reason he decided that it was I who had taken the telescope that had disappeared six months ago from the geography room. I don't know why he drew this conclusion. Possibly he reasoned that the very idea of even a visual reduction of distance would appeal most of all to a victim of sloth. I cannot think of any other explanation. Luckily, the telescope was recovered soon afterwards, but from then on people kept an eye on me, as if I might get up to some trick at any moment.

     It soon turned out, however, that I had no such intentions, and that, on the contrary, I was a very obedient and conscientious slacker. What was more, slacker though I was, I seemed to be getting quite decent results.

     Then they decided to apply to me a method of concentrated education that was fashionable in those years. The essence of this method was that all the teachers in the school would suddenly concentrate on one backward pupil and, taking advantage of his confusion, turn him into a shining example of scholastic attainment.

     It was assumed that other backward pupils, envying him with a thoroughly Good Envy, would make an effort to rise to his level. Just like the singly planted eucalyptus seedlings.

     The effect of the method depended on the suddenness of the mass attack. Otherwise the pupil might succeed in slipping out of range or actually discredit the method itself.

     As a rule the experiment achieved its purpose. Before the hurly-burly caused by the mass attack could disperse, the reformed pupil would take his place with the best in the class, impudently wearing the smile of a despoiled virgin.

     When this happened, the teachers, envying one another with perhaps not quite such a Good Envy, would zealously follow his progress in their markbook, and, of course, each teacher would try to ensure that the victorious upward curve of scholastic attainment was not broken within the limits of his subject.

     Well, either they piled into me too enthusiastically, or else they forgot what my own fairly respectable level had been before they started but when they began to analyse the results of their experiment it turned out that they had trained me up to the level of a potential medal-winner.

     "You could pull off a silver," my class-mistress announced rather dazedly.

     The potential medal-winners were a small ambitious caste of untouchables. Even the teachers were somewhat afraid of them. It would be their duty to defend the honour of the school, and to damage the reputation of a potential medal-winner was equivalent to threatening the honour of the school. Every potential medal-winner had at some time by his own efforts achieved distinction in one of the basic subjects and had then been coached to the necessary degree of perfection in all the rest.

     So, with my school diploma sewn into my jacket pocket together with my money I got into a train and set off for Moscow. At that time the train journey from Abkhazia to Moscow took three days. I had plenty of time to think things over, and of all the possible variants for my future education I chose the philosophical faculty of the university. My choice may have been decided by the following circumstance.

     About two years before this I had exchanged some books with a friend of mine. I had given him Conan Doyle's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and he had given me an odd volume of Hegel's Lectures on Aesthetics. I had already been told that Hegel was simultaneously both a philosopher and a genius and that, in those far-off years, was a strong enough recommendation for me.

     Since I had not yet heard that Hegel was a difficult author to read, I understood nearly everything I read. If I came across a paragraph with long, incomprehensible words, I simply skipped it because the meaning was clear enough without it. Later on, when studying at the institute, I learned that besides their rational kernel the works of Hegel contained quite a lot of idealistic husk. I guessed that just those paragraphs I had skipped were the husk. My way of reading him had been to open the book at some verse quotation from Schiller or Goethe, and then read round it, trying to keep as near to the quotation as possible, like a camel on the edge of an oasis. Some of Hegel's thoughts surprised me by their high probability of truth. For instance, he called the fable a servile genre, which sounded true enough, and I made a point of remembering this so as to avoid that genre in the future.

     Eventually, for some unknown reason I gave up reading that volume. Perhaps I had used up all the quotations or perhaps it was something else. I decided that I had far too much time ahead of me and that one day I would read all the volumes in their proper order. But I still haven't started on them.

     It may well be that this random reading of mine and also a certain lack of clarity in the actions of mankind on the road to a bright future were responsible for my choice of the philosophical faculty.

     In Moscow, after certain adventures that I shall not relate because I need them as plots for my stories, I entered not the university but the Library Institute. When I had been studying there for three years, it dawned on me that it would be more interesting and more profitable to write one's own books than deal with other people's, and so I moved to the Literary Institute, where they teach you how to write.

     Since then I have been writing, although, as I now realise, my true vocation is inventing. In recent years I have felt that people are beginning to impose on me the role of humourist and involuntarily somehow I am trying to live up to this imposed image.

     No sooner do I make a start on something serious than I see before me the disappointed face of a reader waiting for me to have done with the official part, so to speak, and get on with something funny. This means that I have to change horses in midstream and pretend that I only started by talking seriously to make it seem all the funnier later on.

     Every day, except for the days when I do something else, I shut myself up in my room, put a sheet of paper into my voracious little "Kolibri" and write, or pretend to be writing.

     Usually my typewriter gives a few desultory taps and then lapses into a long silence. My family try to look as if they are creating conditions for my work and I try to look as if I am working. As a matter of fact, while sitting over my typewriter I am actually inventing something and at the same time listening for the telephone in the next room so that I can be the first to run and answer it.

     The reason for this is that my daughter is also listening for the telephone to ring and, if she gets there first, she will cut off the caller with a blow of her little fist. She thinks this is a kind of game, and she is not altogether wrong.

     Of all my numerous inventions I will mention here only two. An instrument for stimulating spiritual activity (a kind of electromassage for the soul), and also the method of "Mother-in-Law Isolation by Shock", based entirely on Pavlov's doctrine of conditioned and unconditioned reflexes.

     The instrument for stimulating spiritual activity outwardly resembles the conventional electric shaver. The difficulty of using it lies in determining the exact location of a given person's soul. Apparently the whereabouts of a man's soul in the organism depends on his character and inclinations. It may be located in the stomach, in the gall bladder, in the blind gut and, of course, in the heel. This last fact was known to the ancient Greeks. Hence the expression "heel of Achilles". The heel being the part of the body furthest removed from the brain makes communication very difficult between these two vital internal organs of the human body, that is, between the soul and the brain, and this in the course of time leads to an intellectual disease known as Chronic Mental Flatfootedness.

     Regrettably, my instrument has not been widely adopted because the voltages of the systems in general use are not suitable for it.

     The method of "Mother-in Law Isolation by Shock" has, on the contrary, become perhaps a little too widespread thanks to its exceptional simplicity and practical effectiveness.

     To apply this method you must, of course, have a mother-in-law and also a child. If you have both, there can be no doubt that the upbringing and particularly the feeding of the child will be in the hands of your mother-in-law. And since she will put all the overflowing energy of her love into the process, your child will quickly develop a firm dislike of food.

     So, one morning when your mother-in-law seats herself formidably beside your child and starts plying him (or her) with rice pudding or something of the kind, you quietly sit down on the other side of the table and watch. From time to time, in an apparent fit of absent-mindedness you imitate the actions of your child, opening your mouth when he does and swallowing in such a way as to emphasise the futility of the whole operation.

     Your child will soon begin to notice this. Though unable to grasp their full meaning, he will feel that your actions are directed against the common tyrant. He (or she) will look now at you, now at the tyrant. And if your mother-in-law keeps a stiff upper lip and pretends not to notice anything, he will call her attention to your behaviour in no uncertain manner.

     Your mother-in-law then becomes nervous and starts giving you looks in which a Freudian hatred is as yet disguised under a mask of pedagogical reproach. To this you respond with a sad glance and an expression of complete submission, and also a shrug of the shoulders as if to indicate that you are not asking for anything, you are just looking, that's all. The atmosphere becomes tense.

     Eventually, after the usual mythological threats or open blackmail, when the most hated spoonful of all is being thrust down the child's throat, you will say in a very quiet, uncertain voice:

     "If she (or he) doesn't want it, can I finish it?"

     Petrified with indignation, your mother-in-law glares at you with the expression of Tsar Peter looking at his traitor son in the famous painting by N. N. Ghe. But there is still time for her to stage a come-back, and you must be ready to prevent this.

     "No, only if she doesn't want it," you say, thus explaining that there is no need for wrath. "She can eat it if she wants it."

     At this point your mother-in-law faints. You pick her up quickly, and carefully--I stress the carefully because some people are rather rough--carry her to bed. Now you may calmly go about your own affairs until dinner time.

     I must admit that lately I have begun to repent of discovering and popularising this method. Starkly before me rises the problem of moral responsibility for letting loose an immature idea among the masses. The indiscriminate repudiation of mothers-in-law can be attributed only to a non-historical approach to the whole problem. For do not mothers in-law in the present period of history play a most progressive role in family life?

     As a matter of fact, our mother-in-law is our real wife. It is she who cooks our meals, she who looks after the house, she who brings up our children and simultaneously teaches us how to live our lives. And as if this were not enough, she gives us her own daughter to provide us with all the honey-sweet pleasures of love. Who is more noble or more self-sacrificing than she? She is surely our true wife or, at least, the senior wife in our small but close-knit harem.

     Of my other minor discoveries I feel I can mention one. It concerns humour. I have a number of valuable observations on this subject. I believe that to possess a good sense of humour one must reach a state of extreme pessimism, look down into those awful depths, convince oneself that there is nothing there either, and make one's way quietly back again. Real humour is the trail we leave on the way back from the abyss.
-------- A time of lucky finds

     It was a summer evening and my uncle had guests. When they ran out of wine, I was sent to the nearest shop for some more, which, as I now realise, was not altogether the best thing for my upbringing. The errand, it is true, had first been offered to my brother but he had stubbornly refused knowing that no one in the next few hours would be likely to punish him for refusing, and that before tomorrow came he would surely get up to some trick which he would have to answer for anyway.

     So off I went, running barefoot down the warm, unpaved street, bottle in one hand, money in the other. I clearly remember the quite unusual feeling of elation that came over me. It could not have been inspired by anticipation of my forthcoming purchase because in those days I showed no particular interest in such matters. Even now my interest is moderate enough.

     After all, what is the beauty of wine? Only its power to take the edge out of our personal worries when we drink with friends, and fortify what we already have in common. And even if the only thing we have in common is some worry or trouble, then wine, like art, transforming grief, soothes us and gives us the strength to go on living and hoping. We experience a renewed joy in discovering one another, we feel we are all human beings and together.

     To drink with any other aim in view is simply illiterate. Solitary boozing I would compare with smuggling or some kind of perversion. He who drinks alone clinks glasses with the devil.

     Well, as I was saying, on my way to the shop I was seized by a strange feeling of excitement. All the time, as I ran, I kept my eyes on the ground, and now and then I seemed to see a wad of banknotes lying there. It would pop up in front of me and I would actually stop to make sure whether it was there or not. I realised I was imagining things but the vision was so real that I could not help stopping. Having made sure there was no money on the ground, I only became even more elatedly convinced that I was just about to find some, and on I flew.

     I bounded up the wooden steps of the shop, which stood on a kind of platform, and thrust the money and the bottle into the shopkeeper's hands. While he was fetching the wine, I took one last look down, and there I actually did see a wad of paper money wrapped in a pre-war thirty-ruble note.

     I picked it up, grabbed the bottle and dashed off home, half-dead with fear and joy.

     "I've found some money!" I shouted, running into the room. Our guests jumped nervously, some of them even resentfully, to their feet. A hubbub arose. There turned out to be more than a hundred rubles in the packet.

     "I'll go as well!" my brother cried, fired belatedly by my success.

     "Get going then!" Uncle Yura, a lorry-driver, shouted. "I was the one who suggested a drink. I'm always lucky over picking things up."

     "Particularly your elbow," our imperturbable Auntie Sonya put in slyly.

     "Back in the old days, in Labinsk..." Uncle Pasha began. He was always telling us about his ulcer or about the wonderful life they used to lead in the Kuban country in the old days. Either he would start off about life on the Kuban and finish with his ulcer, or the other way round. But Uncle Yura shouted him down.

     "It was my suggestion! I ought to get a cut!" he clamoured. Once he started there was no stopping him.

     "If it was, I didn't hear it," Uncle Pasha retorted gruffly.

     "You said yourself a White Cossack slashed your ear with his sabre!"

     "That was my left ear and you're sitting on my right," said Uncle Pasha, delighted to have outwitted Uncle Yura, and with a well-practised movement of his huge, workman's hand folded his left ear forward. Just above it there was a cleft large enough to hold a walnut. Everyone respectfully examined the scar left by the Cossack sabre.

     "Yes, it seems only yesterday. We was stationed at Tikhoretsky..." Uncle Pasha resumed, trying to profit by the general attention, but Uncle Yura again interrupted him.

     "If you don't believe me, let the boy say it himself." Whereupon everyone looked at me.

     In those days I was fond of Uncle Yura, and of everyone else at the table. I wanted them all to enjoy my success, to feel they had all had a part in it without any advantage for anyone.

     "It was everybody's suggestion," I proclaimed spiritedly.

     "I'm not saying it wasn't everybody's suggestion, but who suggested it first?" Uncle Yura bawled, but his voice was drowned in a joyful burst of clapping, by which everyone sought to show that Uncle Yura was much too fond of stealing the limelight.

     "Oh, Allah," said Uncle Alikhan, who was the mildest and most peaceable of men because his job was selling honey-coated almonds, "the boy has found money and they make all this noise. Wouldn't it be better to drink his health?"

     This caused an even greater hubbub because all the menfolk got up and wanted to drink my health at once.

     "I always knew he'd make a man...."

     "May this little glass...."

     "Our young people have an open road before them...."

     "Here's wishing him a happy childhood...."

     "And what a road it is! A first-class highway!"

     "For this life," Uncle Fima was the last to proclaim, "we fought like lions, and the lion's share of us was left lying on the battlefield."

     "He'll be a learned man, like you," my aunt interposed, to calm him down.

     "Even more learned," Uncle Fima cried and, having elevated me to this unprecedented height, he drained his glass. Uncle Fima was the most educated man in our street and therefore always the first to feel the effect of drink.

     I was jubilant. I wanted to show how fond I was of everyone I wanted to give them my word of honour as a Young Pioneer that I would find for them, one and all, everything they had ever lost in life. I may not have thought in exactly those words, but that was the gist of it. However, I had no time to voice my thoughts, because mother came in and, deliberately ignoring the general merriment, plucked me out of the room like a radish out of a vegetable bed.

     She didn't like my attending these festive gatherings at the best of times, added to which she was offended that I should have run past my own home with the money I had found.

     "You'll be like your father, always doing your best for other people," she said as we went down the steps.

     "I'll do my best for everyone," I replied.

     "It doesn't work out like that," she said sadly, taken up with some thought of her own.

     At that moment we met my brother returning from his search. His face showed that you can't draw the winning ticket twice over.

     "Did you let them see all the money?" he asked as he went by.

     "Yes," I replied proudly.

     "More fool you," he snapped, and ran away.

     None of these minor setbacks, however, could damp the new flame that burned within me. Already I had decided that nothing would ever go wrong or get lost in our house any more. If I could find so much money without even trying, what should I find when I was really on the look-out? The world was full of treasures, above and below ground; all you had to do was keep your eyes open and not be too lazy to pick them up.

     The next morning, with the money I had found my family bought me a fine sailor's jacket with an anchor on the sleeve, which I was to wear for many years to come, and before the day was out the news of my find had spread round our yard and far beyond its borders. People dropped in to congratulate us and learn the details of this joyful event. The women eyed me with a housewife's curiosity, and their glances showed that they would not have minded adopting me as their own son or, at least, borrowing me for a while.

     I told the story of my discovery dozens of times, not forgetting to mention the sense of anticipation that had preceded it.

     "I felt it was going to happen," I would say. "I kept looking at the ground and saw money lying there."

     "Do you feel that now?"

     "No, not now," I confessed honestly.

     It really was a minor miracle. Now my theory is that the money had been dropped by some profiteering driver, one of the kind who often stopped at that shop for a quick drink. When he got on the road again, he must have realised his loss, and his anxious signals had been correctly decoded by my excited brain.

     That very same day a woman came round from next door and congratulated my mother, then said she had lost one of her hens.

     "Well, what do you expect me to do?" my mother asked severely.

     "Ask your son to look for it," said the woman.

     "Oh, go along, for goodness sake," mother replied. "The boy found some money for once and now we shall never have any peace."

     They were talking in the corridor and I could hear them through the door. Overcome by impatience, I opened it.

     "I'll find your hen," I said, peeping out cheerfully from behind mother's back. A day or two before this my ball had rolled into our neighbour's cellar. When I went to fetch it I had noticed a hen there and, since no one in our yard had complained of losing a hen, I now realised that this must be hers. "I feel it's in the cellar next door," I said after a moment's thought.

     "There's no hen down there," came the unexpected retort from the owner of the cellar. She had been listening to our conversation while hanging out her washing in the yard.

     "It must be," I said.

     "No need to go rummaging in there, knocking down the firewood. You'll only start a fire or something," she blustered.

     I took a box of matches and dashed over to the cellar. The door was locked but there was a hole in the wall on the other side, through which I crawled.

     It was dark inside except for a faint glimmer of light from the hole, and I had to bend down all the time.

     "What's he doing in there?" came a voice from outside.

     "Looking for treasure," Sonka, my scatter-brained girlfriend of those days, replied. "He's found a million."

     Striking matches carefully and peering round, I reached the spot where I had seen the hen before, and there she was again. She had half risen and was craning her neck, blinking dazedly in my direction. I realised she must be sitting on some eggs. Townbred fowls usually find a hidden nook to lay their eggs. It was not difficult to catch her in the darkness. I groped in the nest she had made for herself with a few wisps of hay, and put the warm eggs into my pockets. Then I made my way back, not lighting any more matches because I was now heading for the daylight.

     At the sight of the hen, its mistress started clucking with joy, just like her bird.

     "That's not all," I said as I handed it over.

     "What else is there?" she asked.


... ... ...
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Армейское-неповторимое: 1. Представьте, что вон те две коровы - это танки, а вон тот мужик с косой - истребитель на бреющем.. 2. Пусть вон тот желтый кубик будет для наглядности синим шариком. 3. Самолеты поражают цель ракетами, пушками и снарядами от пушек. 4. Товарищ курсант, вы хотите что-то сказать? Встаньте! Закройте рот! Садитесь! 5. В стране должно быть тихо, чисто и спокойно - как на кладбище! 6. Товарищ капитан! Учебный нарушитель задержан 3-мя выстрелами в упор! 7. Солдат должен смеяться громко и четко: "Ха-ха!" 8. Тут у нас тихо - ни трамваев, ни метро. Разве что аэропорт рядом, да самолеты летают. 9. Товарищи курсанты, вы скоро станете офицерами - это же страшное дело! 10. Вы почему зашли в спортивный зал в сапогах? Вы что, совсем смысл жизни потеряли? 11. Ты че матом ругаешься, ни хуя себе. 12. Я бы хотел, чтобы у вас на занятиях было жизней по тридцать, а у меня - пистолет. Тогда бы я вас расстреливал, а вы бы регенирировались. 13. Индейцы и ковбойцы – коренные жители Америки.

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