Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Senya Malina Tells It Like It Was by Stepan Pisakhov

Baron Munchausen... Paul Bunyan... SENYA MALINA!

An impish Russian peasant spins tale after tale tall about himself and the remote northern world that he calls home. Brimming with humour (much of it satirical), outrageous plots, vibrant language and clever allusion, and accompanied by masterful illustrations, this finely crafted creative translation of Pisakhov’s classic stories is for children and adults alike to cherish.

Goodreads description

I have an image in my head of a small boy lying in his bed chuckling as his father reads one of Senya Malina's tall tales. His father is laughing too, but not necessarily at the same things. After the boy has gone to sleep, his father goes downstairs and continues reading. 

This book of short stories/tall tales is an absolute delight. I am a sucker for folktales and this book falls within a tradition of tall-story folktales that you will find the world over. In the English-speaking world, especially in the UK and US, folktales are seen as suited only for children, but that is not the case elsewhere. I am writing this in the Czech Republic, where Czech adults still enjoy fairytales; their Slav cousins the Russians share this view. Stepan Pisakhov came from a family with a tradition of professional storytelling in the North of  Russia and wordplay and oral tales were part of his childhood. Born in 1879, Pisakhov grew up in Tsarist Russia, but he lived until 1960. Nevertheless the subject matter of his tales remains the lives of peasants who live close to the earth, struggling against the bureaucrats of both Tsar and the Communist party. Many of Malina's tales (Malina means raspberry) show the clever peasant putting one over on figures of authority. The divide between the rural and urban population is very obvious.  And as I read Blackwell Boyce's brilliant translation I could hear the dry rural humour and was reminded of listening to my farmworker uncle spinning his tales with a straight face and a twinkle in the eye.

There are three targets for Malina's tricks - the bureaucrats:
Bureaucrats as a species have such weak spines they need their uniforms to prop them up. It’s always puzzled me where they found the strength to laugh at us peasants and common folk,
the merchants from the town and the main representative of authority in the village - the local priest.

In the tale about the Russian/Japanese War (1904-1905) Pisakhov satirizes the way the Russion government, in order to gain support for an imperialist venture, claimed it was a religious war. The women of the village fool the army into taking felt versions of their menfolk instead, but Malina's wife is bad with the needle and he gets conscripted. The war is fought with religious symbols - crosses and incense bombs on the Russian side - and Malina narrowly escapes death when a large Buddha scores a direct hit on a warehouse he is guarding. Of course this story highlights what we have seen elsewhere in this blog, that magic realism is the literary device of the underdog, allowing in this case the Russian peasant to fight back. The truth of the campaign was that 40,000 to 70,000 Russian soldiers died in a war that was presaged the warfare of 1914-1918.

The magic realism in the tales works in several ways. In some tales Malina has extra skills - like the ability to skip on water or stretch his legs so far to block the merchants' way. In others it is whimsical such as the lovely tale of how Malina, unable to find somewhere to sleep, lies down on the seashore and draws the sea over him as blanket. In others it is beautifully poetic such as in the story Frozen Songs, in which the cold winters of the Russian north turn words into ice, so that words aren't heard but seen. Young women weave together frozen songs into lace sheets and mothers create gentle ice-words for their young children to play with. Of course when the merchants and the kings try to take advantage of these treasures, the people of the area have the last laugh. In many tales the story starts with a logic and then takes it in a surreal direction - such as the woman whose voice is so piercing that it can literally cut.

The people's closeness to nature runs through the stories and it results in some lovely pieces of magic realist humour: a bear is recruited to frighten off priests who are picking all the wildberries, specially trained polar bears sell milk and a brown bear tries to muscle in on the act by rolling himself in flour, fish catch themselves, gut themselves, salt themselves and leap all by themselves into barrels, Malina lassoes a flock of ducks and uses them as an umbrella.  

There is nothing I would fault in this book. The translation is, according to the translator, very much a liberal, creative one, but I get the impression that it is still true to the spirit of the original work. The illustrations by Dmitry Trubin (see cover above) are great fun and likewise in the spirit of the book. 

My one qualm with this book is its marketing and branding. The illustrations make it look like a children's book to my Western eyes and yet I note that Senya Malina Tells It Like It Was is not listed as in the children's category on Amazon. The pricing of the ebook however at $12 (£7) is high for a children's title and even in the current climate for an adult ebook. It is also a big book for children with a lot of stories. The publisher could have divided it into three parts and sold them at $2.99 each and I suspect got a lot more readers and made more money. It's a shame because this book deserves to be read widely.

I received this book free from the translator in return for a fair review.

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