Column of Matías Rivas: A walk through Russian literature – La Tercera

The war between Russia and Ukraine has sparked curiosity to read about these countries. The interest lies in better understanding the conflict, going to its sources and ramifications. One possibility is to peek into the enormous volume The Russian Revolution: the tragedy of a people by historian Orlando Figes. An erudite investigation, which narrates in an explanatory way, with style and solvency. He’s been reading it for a while. Figes’s subtlety consists in weaving information with ideas. Whoever wishes to devour it runs the risk, yes, of being overwhelmed.

Others have moved into literature. A friend tells me how much he has enjoyed The death of Ivan Ilyich, one of Tolstoy’s final works. On the surface, it is the life of an ambitious bureaucrat struck by a fatal blow of chance that sends him into a fatal decline. At heart, it is a treatise on death and loneliness. He has been obsessed for some time with deciphering the Russian plot through certain short books. With Morphine, the novella by Mikhail Bulgakov, was dazzled. Difficult not to be seduced by evasion through a drug. The plot of him: a guy who suffers from insomnia gives himself to morphine to fall asleep and thus see the intrinsic cruelty of him. The theme of the double is raised masterfully. I have warned you, in any case, that it is a road with endless twists and turns. It is only possible to approach that culture partially. His scaffolding is remote; the dramas hatched in the Middle Ages still throb on a moral level in Moscow. What is happening in the conflict is directly connected to that fiber. You have to go back to Kievan Rus, a federation of Slavic tribes that dominated much of the European steppe between the 9th and 13th centuries. The Rurika dynasty exchanged Slavic paganism for Orthodox Christianity in the year 987. This common culture withstood successive invasions and was maintained for centuries, regardless of whether the domain was Lithuanian, Polish or the Russian Empire.

Luis Buñuel, in his memoirs, points out that there is a hidden link between the Spanish and the Russians. He would extend it to Latin Americans. Perhaps what binds us is a cult of the irrational and the tragic. I recently read My Pushkin by Marina Tsvetaeva. It deals with the secret readings of this poet. He talks about her childhood and, by the way, about the author who gives the book its title. Written in rapturous prose, its intimate tone is impossible to forget. The ferocity and sophistication of the world he had to inhabit.

During my years at university, my passion for linguistics led me to spend hours studying Roman Jackobson, Vladimir Propp, Viktor Shklovsky, who opened my mind. Formalism was a discipline to analyze that allowed me to know, among other things, the unusual strength of rhymes and what estrangement is. I learned about folk tales and traditional Russian mythology. And I was able to discern the functions of language clearly. They are matters that sound strange, but that are verifiable in reality, that serve to avoid falling into the traps of speeches and the tricks of rhetoric. It is a theory that allows one to distance oneself from words. And that commits special attention to the musicality of the poems. It helped me discover Osip Mandelshtam and Anna Akhmatova. They had a vision of how to deal with their language: they opted for the clear with the desire to move.

A few days ago I saw Shklovsky’s non-love letters or Zoo showcase. It was out of circulation and has just been reissued. It is a love story based on the relationship he had with Elsa Triolet, an exiled intellectual in Paris, who was a muse of surrealism and a myth. In him the wit and the sentimental are mixed. He is armed by a series of letters with an express prohibition: not to refer to her love, since he was not reciprocated by her. He then dedicates himself to telling his addressee what he sees, thinks and happens. His life in Berlin and that of others who live in the same conditions. The eluded, the desire, is present on every page. Shklovsky is an observer capable of portraying an era through details and incidents. He just speculates and captures with the visual descriptions of him. One sees what he expresses.

The Russian character, its legends, religions and close links with the East are of unfathomable complexity. Trying to track them down is a task as tempting as it is endless. It used to be required reading. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. It produces a disturbance that over time becomes a metaphysical sensation. Then my relations with Dostoevsky were clouded by the influence of Vladimir Nabokov, who despised him. I returned to Crime and Punishment already as an adult, after going through underground memories, The playerY The idiot. I got fed up with The Karamazov brothers. My true discovery of youth, strictly speaking, was Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov. His protagonist practices doubt and procrastination, she does not leave his room. It is a great fiction, about the scruples seen with a philosophical and humorous perspective.

The westernmost of the Russian classical writers is Ivan Turgenev. He was a friend of Henry James and Gustave Flaubert. Parents and children is a pertinent work for these times. It addresses the generational issue, the ideological differences and the political positions found. His prose is terse and exact. Delineate the characters until they become unforgettable. Bolaño says, in a chronicle, that Turguénev’s novel Rudin obsessed him. He read it when he was eighteen. And he couldn’t get her out of his head. “Without a doubt it is one of the saddest novels I have ever read,” he notes.

I return to the essays of Joseph Brodsky often. Susan Sontag celebrates her ability to place herself in two empires at once: the American and the Russian. She underlines her cosmopolitan temperament. She could read it to him in two languages. Brodsky insisted that the job of poetry was to revise language’s willingness to travel farther and faster. In his essay How to Read a Book he argues that the only “way to achieve good literary taste is to read poetry.” Well, “it constitutes the most concise, most synthetic way of expressing vital experience, but also allows the greatest creativity in a linguistic act. The more poetry we read, the more abhorrent we find any kind of verbiage, whether in political or philosophical discourse, in historical and social studies, or in the art of fiction. Good prose style is always hostage to the precision, speed and laconic intensity of poetic diction.

The Russian is in the gear of the Chilean tradition. There are translations of poetry made by Nicanor Parra and Jorge Teillier. Neither of them knew the language, however, they managed to get their versions out. The first one made a memorable anthology and the second, together with Gabriel Barra, brought out The Confessions of a Rogue by Sergei Esenin. The influence of Máximo Gorky on authors such as Gabriela Mistral is central. The generation of the fifties had a particular predilection for Chekhov and Gogol. To the latter, Claudio Giaconi, in his best period, after publishing Difficult Youth, dedicated a monograph entitled A Man in the Trap.

The echoes of the Russian tradition do not stop, they just stir. The success of Emmanuel Carrère’s Limonov made his protagonist gain relevance. The Nobel Prize to the chronicler Svetlana Alexievich was a revelation. War has no woman’s face collects the memories of those who were in the Second War. She showed an unknown spectrum of that conflict. She is currently in exile in Germany. “I had to run out of my country, leave Belarus, and the book I was writing about love stayed in my apartment in Minks,” she says in a recent interview. She confesses that she wanted to write two more books: finish the pending and make another one about the meaning of time, old age and death. However, in these circumstances, she is dedicated to collecting material from witnesses to humanitarian crimes in Bucha, Ukraine.

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Column of Matías Rivas: A walk through Russian literature – La Tercera