Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Prieto on Mandelshtam (and Pasternak)

José Manuel Prieto, a Cuban writer who studied in Russia and wrote at least one novel that deals with contemporary Russians (I've heard him read a few months ago at a Lit&Lunch event hosted by the Center for the Art of Translation), wrote an essay on Osip Mandelshtam's famous poem about Stalin. The essay was translated from Spanish by Esther Allen and published on June 10th in The New York Review of Books (it's available online). In his line-by-line reading of the poem, he summarizes the entire complicated history of the dictator's relationship with the Soviet-Era writers, from Mandelshtam to Akhmatova, Pasternak, Bulgakov--mentioning a few others in passing. I am not a huge fan of the idea: in the brief space of the article, he has time to recite only the most famous incidents, the best publicized already, without really going in-depth on any of it, including Mandelshtam's own fate. It's unclear, for example, from this article, that Mandelshtam was arrested not once, but twice: in 1934 and, after a brief reprieve, again, in 1938.

Altogether it's not a bad piece -- although I am convinced The New York Book Review could do a better job of reproducing original Russian without typos and transliterating it in a more coherent way (their version of "Мы живём под собою не чуя страны" goes My zbibiom pod saboyu nie zbuya strani, which is very close to gibberish). What's upsetting me the most about this piece is that Prieto allows himself several backhanded gestures against Boris Pasternak. Prieto writes: "Mandelshtam had recited the poem in private to Pasternak, always the more cautions and astute of the two (Pasternak would die in his bed, in the privileged writers' villa of Peredelkino)" -- essentially comparing the suffering of one man, Mandelshtam, to a good fortune of another, Pasternak. This is done in bad taste. What's worse, this is a bad habit inherited from generations of Soviet commentators on Pasternak, acknowledged in verse (and performed as a song) by a 1960s underground singer-songwriter Aleksandr Galich. "До чего ж мы гордимся, сволочи, / что он умер в своей постели," writes Galich on Pasternak's death: "How proud we, the scum, are / that he died in his own bed." Maybe I should translate this poem in its entirety, it's a good one. Nobody should ever be reproached for the luxury of dying at home, and least of all Pasternak.


  1. I'd love to read Galich's whole poem! Nice article, Olga.

  2. Thanks, Ian. Here's my attempt to translate the entire poem:
    If you have time, let me know what remains unclear. Yelabuga and Suchan are a town and a river in Siberia, where, according to the legend, died Marina Tsevtaeva and Osip Mandelshtam.