Joseph Cassara on Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky's Memories of the Future

Much of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky's fiction was written in Soviet Moscow in the 1920's, when it was considered too subversive for its time and buried somewhere in the Soviet State Archives, gathering dust until it was discovered in the 1980's. His work relies on exalting illusions steeped in absurd surrealism, a style that his predecessor, Alexander Pushkin, would have considered "dearer than ten-thousand truths." The spinning, sepulchral, maddening view of Moscow that is provided within the pages of Memories of the Future, a New York Review Books Original, exposes English readers to seven untimely stories nearly a century after they were penned. Due to the masterful translation by Joanne Turnbull, readers are presented with a world that is horrifyingly original—reality with a twist of insanity—a world where cramped apartments grow infinitely, where characters escape from their authors, where the Eiffel Tower walks around Paris, where trains outrun logic. Krzhizhanovsky's surrealism is so poignant because it knows precisely where the laws that govern reality begin and end. His words test the limit of those laws, and the task required the hands of a deft translator, which Turnbull has thankfully proven herself to be.

"One must learn," Krzhizhanovsky said, "how to be truthful with the help of absurd fantasy." It is of no surprise that a writer making that claim would rely on the tropes of absurdism, and what makes Turnbull's translation so impressive is her ability to properly and subtly limn the barriers between the internal and the external absurdities of Krzhizhanovsky's fictional worlds. In "The Bookmark," one of the characters thinks about one of his stories that was rejected by publishers: "I remember finding the penciled comment: Psychologizing." In a moment of meta-critical clarity, we understand why Krzhizhanovsky may not have seen success in his day: the complexities of his psychological prose would not be popular in the literary world until the post-modern boom of the later half of the 20th century. He was too ahead of his time. That sentence also captures the heart of Turnbull's strengths as a translator. She manages to convey what is most easily lost in translation: Krzhizhanovsky's imaginatively coined words, black humor, and sharp irony. She does this without indulging herself and without confusing readers, a task that is not easy to achieve when appropriating words and themes from Russian into English.

As a result, the words of Turnbull's translation cast eery shadows into the mind of the reader, a quality that is unsettling, but seemingly true to the original intent of the work. As a boy, Krzhizhanovsky secretly read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, an experience that he found both distressing and liberating. "Before it had all seemed so simple," he said. "Things cast shadows. But now it turns out that shadows cast things, or perhaps things didn't exist at all." The anxiety of Kant's influence is omnipresent in the text due to Turnbull's careful precision. In the hands of a weaker translator, the shadows cast between the lines would not be as disconcerting or sharp. Turnbull introduces us to protagonists that appear much like Krzhizhanovsky himself: male writers with pale nervous faces and a pince-nez, cramped into small dark corners, writing by candlelight. In these works, confusion is part of the reading experience and we are expected to suspend disbelief. As one of the characters in "The Branch Line" reasons, "Understanding is strictly forbidden." Thanks to Turnbull, we can be confused without being lost. We can suspend disbelief knowing that we have a hand to guide us through the darkness.

The title of the first story in the collection—"Quadraturin"—is a marvel. The title brilliantly evokes the English word "quadrature"—the process of constructing a square—while still relying on the Russian -in suffix. The result is a title that is not quite English, and not quite Russian. Turnbull's command of the translation is evident because the word stands alone, yet allows the English reader to feel the traces of the Russian original.

Turnbull allows for her translation to act as a translucent veil—one that slightly masks the original and allows for a simple, English "turn of the phrase" to appear anew, fresh. On a micro level, one way she does this is by playing with the consciousness of verbs. Toes "thread through doors," apartments "ready themselves for bed," things are "wafered between pages," and ears are "caulked with cotton." What is striking is Turnbull's choice of pairings. By juxtaposing two words that normally wouldn't signify each other, she forces her translation to breathe new light into words that English speakers are already familiar with. Rugs are "abbreviated," corners are "latticed with cobwebs," a poem's couplet is referred to as "idyllic peas," which implicitly evokes the English phrase "two peas in a pod." Such tacit implications require the English reader to draw connections, to fill in the blanks, to sense the shadow that Krzhizhanovsky must have placed there. It forces the reader to feel the new pairings, to feel the new work that Turnbull's verbs are doing. This allows for the text to play with—in a Bakhtinian sense—the consciousness of words, to shock the English reader's expectations, resulting in a translation that occupies a third linguistic dimension, one that tangos between the sharpness of the Russian prose with its resulting English rendering. Turnbull does not simply translate word for word, but sews together a narrative that stands separate and is breathtakingly shocking.

Turnbull's maneuvering of hackneyed English phrases is probably the greatest strength of the translation. In "Quadraturin," one of the characters notes that the protagonist's apartment is incredibly small. Without explicitly referring to the English aphorism that compares small apartments to closets, Turnbull writes, "Your room, I say: it's a matchbox. How many square feet?" The phrase extends a leitmotif that continues throughout the story, until the denouement, when the owner of the apartment is elevated to the caveman archetype, lights a match, and has a sudden epiphany. The word "matchbox" allows the translation to work on multiple levels: the "box" evokes the geometrical language of the title, extends the "closet" parallel, and playfully engages with the fire leitmotif. Turnbell allows the phrase to work within the tripartite, systematic language of the story while dually allowing readers access to a new lens for viewing the vernacular English phrase.

The translation goes to great lengths to search for the perfect word, a task that seems difficult considering the world that Krzhizhanovsky paints is one which requires new words to form. Some of Turnbull's coined words are: mental viscosity, other-eyedness, pathosizers, piteosity, heartivism. All are words rooted in words that already exist in English, but by adding a new spin to them, the translation allows the word to contain an element of foreignness. Turnbull is not only required to translate from the original Russian, but to convey the same sense of absurdity in the original text. We are still aware that the work we are reading is a work in translation, not because we feel the burden of dense transliterations, but because the new words are puzzling in an exciting way.

In "The Bookmark," a story concerned with editors who remove lines and passages from submitted stories, there is a reference made to a medical procedure called a "dactyloscopy." A dactyl is, of course, a metrical foot of poetry that contains one long syllable followed by two short syllables. In the context of the story, the procedure is performed on a man who "feels that something has been pulled out of the ends of his fingers." The coined word also plays on the original Greek root of the word, daktulos, which means finger, and thus, we see the man's fingers are pulled off his body. Turnbull's originality illuminates the shadow that Krzhizhanovsky has created between the removal of fingers and the removal of words, which is inherently a startling connection between a man's body of work and a man's physical body. The translation remains dark and playful simultaneously, which is true to the original essence of the work. In this translation, Turnbull reaffirms why she won the Rossica Translation Prize in 2007.

It is unfortunate that much of Krzhizhanovsky's work was deemed too "untimely" by the publishers of his era, but contemporary readers now have an excellent lens from which to view this disturbing, yet hilarious, new world. Krzhizhanovsky's prose may have been influenced by the rhythms of Pushkin's poems—what Russian writer wasn't influenced by Pushkin in some way?—but his style operates in a completely different mode, one that may remind English readers of Barthelme or Pynchon. With sentences that could carve ice sculptures, Memories of the Future has a dream-like quality that, again, brings up Pushkin's idyllic peas: "Upon the brink of the wild stream / He stood, and dreamt a mighty dream." In the hands of Joanne Turnbull, this dream becomes a kind of comic nightmare, and rightly so.