August 03, 2016

5 Pearls of Wisdom from Fazil Iskander


5 Pearls of Wisdom from Fazil Iskander

July 31 marked the passing of Fazil Iskander, Russia’s answer to magical realism – a passing that likely took him to a world of singing trees, harmonious peoples of many backgrounds, and at least a few animal hybrids.

Born March 6, 1929, Iskander was born and raised in the seaside town of Sukhumi, in the southern reaches of the Soviet Empire. Half Abkhazian, half Iranian, Iskander chose to write in Russian. His writing is both simple and ingenious, apolitical and satirical; the Abkhazia he depicts is at once at odds with the menace and the mundanity of Soviet bureaucracy and brimming with the magic of a folkloric idyll.

To give you a taste of his style and a feel for his wisdom, here are five wittily profound quotations from Iskander’s fiction and nonfiction to answer questions about Abkhazia, Russia, and beyond.

1. How do you address the most powerful man in the world?

With the gesture of a knight covering his face with his visor, he jammed his turban down over his eyes, whooped a Chegem whoop, and charged straight for Comrade Stalin. [...]

In the silence, his face concealed by the turban, his arms thrown wide, Uncle Sandro flew crackling across the dance floor on his knees and came to a halt at Comrade Stalin’s feet.

Stalin frowned in surprise. The pipe he gripped in one hand jerked slightly. But Uncle Sandro’s pose, which expressed an audacious devotion – the poignant defenseless of the outflung arms, the blindness of the proudly thrown-back head, and, paradoxically, a mysterious urgent stubbornness about the whole figure, as if to tell the Leader, ‘I won’t get up until you give me your blessing” – made him smile.

Sandro of Chegem, Vintage Books, 1983

It takes more than choreography to slide right up to Comrade Stalin at the height of the purges. Especially if you’re doing it blindfolded.

Sandro plays uncle to the entirety of the Abkhazia Iskander portrays, and as a toastmaster, fighter, conniver, dancer, diplomat, and host, he brushes up against the region’s folkloric, almost-mystical past, while also facing the anxiety, petty bureaucracy, and occasional dictator-in-the-flesh that were part and parcel of living in the Soviet Union. The vibrancy of Iskander’s Abkhazia has led him to be compared to Gabriel García Márquez, Mark Twain, and William Faulkner – though the particular brand of magic, wordplay, and local tradition make it a world all his own.

2. What is true success in politics?

“Those who speak a lot about victories have either forgotten the truth or are hiding from it.”

Rabbits and Boa Constrictors, Overlook Books, 2015 (orig. Ardis, 1989)

When you’re busy dancing for Comrade Stalin it can be tough to squeeze in a dose of political commentary. That’s why you write a separate book and bring it home through allegory. Rabbits and Boa Constrictors is about – you guessed it – rabbits and boa constrictors as they struggle for power in a utopian society that starts to look increasingly dystopian.

Fun fact: though his texts written during the Soviet period critiqued the repressions and fear-mongering of that government, he saw the USSR’s breakup as “an enormous tragedy.”  He lamenting the xenophobia and violence that came to characterize what was once a multiethnic society, saying, “A real and existing human community has broken down while still alive.”

3. What do Russians think about?

“Most people in Russia think about Russia, and everyone else steals.”

—“The Thinker about Russia and the American,” 1997 (Russian only)

A story that takes the form of a chat between a Russian and an American Slavist leads to this conclusion about the Russian people. Don’t think that means that too many Russians are thieves, though, the Russian reassures his conversation partner: truly, a staggering number of people think about Russia. Given the country’s upheavals of the past century, the rise and subsequent fall of the nation as a global leader, and the range of current uncertainties, there’s a lot to think about.

Even people who think about Russia, the Russian in the story adds, steal a little bit on the side. But their conscience bothers them about it. Another sign of true Russianness.

4. What is the future of science?

To answer this question, first we must address: what is a goatibex? This is one enthusiastic journalist’s assessment of the miraculous animal.

His superiority to the common domestic goat was particularly stressed. First of all, it was pointed out that the average weight of the goatibex was twice that of the common goat – a circumstance of no little importance in light of the country’s chronic meat shortages. Secondly, the goatibex was blessed with strong legs and a hardy constitution. [...] The animal’s thick wool of white and ashen hues was in his [the journalist’s] words a real bonus for the consumer industry. It seemed that the breeding specialist’s wife had already knitted herself a sweater of goatibex wool – a garment in no way inferior to any import. ‘Our fashion-conscious ladies will be satisfied,’ he declared.

The Goatibex Constellation, Ardis, 1975

Iskander’s novella imagines the interbreeding of a goat with an ibex – with enormous propagandistic potential for Soviet society, of course. The premise parodies the genetic theories of Trofim Lysenko, which basically rejected the established genetic theories of everyone else. Like Sandro of Chegem, this short text takes place in Abkhazia, and is a celebration of the local culture as much as a satire on the forces at play within it.

5. How do you get funny?

In order to attain a genuine sense of humor, I believe one has to descend to the depths of pessimism. And only when one has peered into the murky abyss and convinced oneself that here too there is nothing, can one make one’s way haltingly back from the abyss. The traces of this return trip will be humor – genuine humor.

—Introduction, The Goatibex Constellation

Perhaps the best proof of this metaphor is a scene in The Goatibex Constellation in which the narrator is literally stuck in a ditch. Hilarity ensues.

Iskander’s ability to find humor, even magic, in difficult and sometimes dismal situations make him the sort of author who most people wouldn’t expect to have gotten away with writing during the Soviet period. And not only did he write; most of his work made it past the censors.

Iskander and the Abkhazia he depicted may be gone, but his lively texts will ensure that the idyllic subtropics of the past, and the improbable animal breeds that inhabit them, will live on.

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