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The review must be at least 50 characters long. The title should be at least 4 characters long. Your display name should be at least 2 characters long. After the onset of the famine, on a spontaneous urge, Caitanello goes wandering along the beach and in a thicket of reeds stumbles upon a tableau vivant, or rather, tableau mort. The fighters of an Anti-Aircraft Defence Militia unit were gunned down from a fighter plane while having a feast at an improvised table, and, after several weeks under the scorching sun, their corpses turned into mummified statues in an allegorical composition.
In the very centre of the table, there is the grinning head of a fera , as taunting in death as it was in life, a memento mori in a cap and bells.
The sneering skull surrounded by the desiccated corpses of the fascists, who appear to be worshipping it, serves as a sinister omen to Caitanello and the whole fishing community: you have disdained and disrespected me for too long, but look now, the famine has come, and I am your only hope; I have become the centrepiece of your dinner table, and you will genuflect before my beached carrion or you will die. While more and more inhabitants of Charybdis resort to eating dolphin flesh to stave off hunger, the fere enjoy themselves, banqueting on the swordfish now inaccessible to the fishermen.
Mr Cama is the venerable authority on marine mammals in Charybdis, and his richly illustrated encyclopedia Whales, Porpoises, and Dolphins is the inexhaustible source of theoretical knowledge on the subject for the whole community. I was surprised to learn that the prototype of this fictional book is not some massive reference work, but an article in The National Geographic. Punch renders the whole scene even more carnivalesque. Marionettes from the Opera dei Pupi. She could have sworn that she was having sex not with the man, but with the vessel itself.
On August 17, the last day of the Allied Invasion of Sicily, the war violently copulates with the sun. The war is personified as a squalid and dishevelled whore, young from behind and old in front, who repeatedly gets pregnant and with lightning rapidity gives birth to deaths, dismemberments, explosions, conflagrations, and other kinds of calamities. The great assembly of the fere is the highest point of their domination, both in the Strait of Messina and in the narrative.
It all changes in a moment when the killer whale arrives. The fera , with all its symbolism, all its adventures, mishaps, and escapades, which have been inextricable from the main story so far, is instantly pushed to the background. The largest killer whale known to us is 9. The length of the apex predator emerging before the stunned crowd of the villagers is 15 metres. The inhabitants of Charybdis readily engage in a rambling exegetic exercise, trying to pin the meaning on this enormous Rorschach blot, which has stained the calm waters of the strait.
The orca is immortal. It has existed since the beginning of time and will continue terrifying the oceans until the end of the world because this creature is Death itself. The more familiar skeletal death, called here Nasomangiato The Eaten Nose , is in charge of the land, whereas the fetid spindle-shaped monster whose cuneiform teeth tear apart with the same ease the dolphin, the seal, the shark, and even the great whale, rules supreme in the sea.
The argument for the killer whale as the incarnation of Death is supported by the unbearable stench given off by the huge gangrenous wound on its left flank. The putrefying but immortal beast has come to the strait to poison the waters and spread pestilence across the whole island. However, the opinions start to tip in favour of the orca when it drives to the surface of the coastal waters myriads of baby eels, which are perceived by the famished villagers as the divine manna.
The delighted women and children rush into the water to pick up the hatchlings to fry them immediately, right there on the beach. Do they realise that this generous gift might be just a minor stratagem in the grander design of the false prophet at the end of times? Another crucial dichotomy in Horcynus Orca that gets stressed all the time is that of pellesquadre vs riatteri. Pellesquadre are the backbone of the community, and their skills, besides being the main source of the general sustenance, are also the subject of immense pride.
Riatteri are the resellers who buy fish from the pellesquadre. The riatteri are obviously more practical and cynical than the pellesquadre and less prone to metaphysical contemplation. So, when the former notice the killer whale, all they see is just a mountain of meat to make a profit from. As if in secret collusion with the fere , they bring about the downfall of the terrible orca. The same ingenuity that helped the fere to ambush the swordfish several days before, guides their diversion and attack tactics against the wounded giant.
The huge black and white hulk of the dying animal is then pushed into a kind of watery tunnel between the Tyrrhenian and Ionian seas and once there, the tailless carcass begins helplessly sliding back and forth like a loose shuttle. But this miserable turn of events does not mean the defeat of the apocalyptic beast. On the contrary, this is the beginning of its triumph as well as the augury of the end of a whole civilisation. It is more than that.
It is infuriating. It is scandalous. It is insufferable. What happened? So, what happened? I believe that the way the episode is written and the predictable reaction of the reader are all part of the greater design. Sanciolo offers the young man 1, lire, which is a substantial sum that can be used as a down payment for a new palamitara , a fishing boat that could resuscitate the old ways of the war-ravaged fishing community and lead to the renewal of their stalled trade.
This old man is the epitome of the traditional ways. And then it starts. Time grinds to a halt. The end-of-the-world scenario is slowly revealed through hints, innuendo, circumlocution and obsessive, even delirious, introspection. What they crave is not resurrection but transformation.
They want the orca. Seduced by the beast, they are ready to abandon their traditional vocation and embrace the ways of riatteri. They are looking forward to feasting on the meat of the giant carcass. What will be left could be sold at a good price. Then there is also the blubber and the bones. Those can be turned into profit too. The expiring foul-smelling mass of the orca can be easily towed by the British motor barge to the beach. The Maltese can arrange that with the captain of the vessel. Luigi Orioles lapses into pathetic mumbling.
First, he cannot bring himself to finish the statement suggesting the towing of the orca to the shore. If there is a boat worth considering, it is not the one used for fishing, but the one which ferries souls to the kingdom of the dead. In this vision, the fishermen pull a net with the skeleton of the orca from the bottom of the evaporated sea. The bones of the mammal are made entirely of sea salt. As the pellesquadre pull their catch closer to the coast, the killer whale regains its flesh, becoming whole again. It comes alive and starts flapping around. Wherever it moves, the sea rises again.
Its skin becomes translucent, the white skeleton clearly visible beneath, before the huge animal suddenly starts to melt and eventually becomes one with the sea. The promise of the orca is the false prophecy of the beast. Whatever gains the villagers are hoping to make by adopting the lifestyle of resellers are bound to dissolve like salt in water. The true destiny of the pellesquadre will always be connected with the sea, but, probably, it will be too late when they realise this.
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Skeleton of an Orca. Photo credit: Wagner Souza e Silva. Later, when he is departing from the Sicilian shore on the same British barge, he wistfully watches the villagers bustling around the carcass of the orcaferone. What is left for him is a fleeting reunion with some of the people he met during his homecoming and a glimpse of the ruined Messina. His last journey is about to begin. The ark, which used to be a boat, is there to take him home, to save him from the deluge of life.
His legacy is the revelation about Horcynus Orca , a fabulous animal whose name is just a little different from that of the familiar toothed whale which belongs, as we all know, to the genus Orcinus and to the family Delphinidae. Andrea Pazienza, the prodigy of Italian comics, wrote the first instalment of his psychedelic debut The Extraordinary Adventures of Pentothal when he was just twenty-one.
Pentothal is the notorious truth serum and therefore a fitting alias for Andrea, an aspiring comics artist and a student of DAMS the Italian acronym for Disciplines of Art, Music, and Performing Arts at the University of Bologna: the story is a frank testimony of his life, loves, friendships, and experiments with drugs at the end of the s, which were marked in Italy by the growing influence of extra-parliamentary groups, mass protests, street clashes with the police, occupations of university premises, self-reduction of prices, and the proliferation of independent radio stations.
With this debut, Pazienza forged his distinctive eclectic style of drawing and narration, which is likely to baffle any reader used to linear storytelling and the uniformity of representation techniques. Even after all these years, there is no agreement about what actually is happening on some of the panels, not to mention the difficulties posed by the pervasive erasure of the boundary between reality and the dream world, be it the product of sleeping or substance abuse.
The far-left organisations clash with the far-right groups. The streets are flooded by the protesting youth. Andrea Pazienza is, for the most part, an impassive observer of these events. This lack of engagement is one of the accusations that his girlfriend hurls at him before breaking their relationship. The theme of choosing between militant political activism and bourgeois conformity runs through the whole novel.
It is obvious from the very first panels, that Andrea is in favour of the third way, that of becoming an artist and dedicating his energies to the creative pursuits without looking for approval on either side of this societal divide. His everyday reality is humdrum and depressing. However, things do get serious when the first blood is spilt. The last panel of the first instalment has become the most widely-discussed scene of Pentothal , for it metafictionally comments on the ugly turn the events were taking just as Pazienza was about to have the initial episodes of his work-in-progress published in the comic magazine Alter Alter.
At the last moment, the author changed the concluding panel with a new one which referred to the murder of Francesco Lorusso, a member of the far-left organisation Lotta Continua. He was shot by a police officer on March 11, , during a street riot. The first instalment of Pentothal came out in April of the same year. We learn about this hasty replacement directly from Andrea Pazienza, who has drawn himself listening to the latest report on Radio Alice, the famous mouthpiece of the youth protest movements at the end of the s. A stark contrast to the mundane quandaries of the Bologna student is his fantastic journeys.
The dreams and hallucinations in which Andrea often appears under the alias Pentothal are usually depicted as brief self-contained vignettes created in a variety of styles: from faux-negligent sketchy cartoons to striking examples of elaborate draughtsmanship. There are dreams within dreams, and hallucinations within hallucinations, some of which might be episodes from a comic book at a lower diegetic level. Out of the blue, there appear the troops of General George Armstrong Custer riding under the pennant that reads Metro Goldwin Mayer sic!
The general and his men get into an Indian ambush because their guide Buffalo Brill sic! Andrea and Luigi join this narrative after apparently dropping LSD tabs when their motor scooter gets a flat tire on a real journey to Naples. Additional micro-plots change one another before the friends are reunited: a computer selects Andrea as a secret agent to propagate philistine values among the political activists; the protagonist finds himself in a vast field dotted with catatonic riot policemen where he meets Don Quixote and Sancho Panza all the while, the police officers mumble cryptic repetitive phrases ascribed here to the famous maverick psychiatrist R.
Then the tripping companions finally set out for Naples, but not on the scooter anymore. They are driving a steampunk contraption which is miraculously larger inside than outside. The narrative gets side-tracked again, and when we get back to the journey, the scenario and scenery have already changed.
Naples in this vision is a phantasmagorical mishmash of clashing architectural styles. We never learn if Andrea and Luigi got to the real Naples, but even if this journey materialised, how could it beat their rambling across this Italian Interzone conjured up in the mind of a hallucinating artist?
Throughout the book, there are a number of vignettes, each having its own plot and each giving us a glimpse of a whole new world lurking inside as well as the inkling of the possible ramifications of the story. These brief episodes, all taking place within the dream universe of the main character, are highly tantalising because we want to learn more. And one of those trailers did become a movie, as we know.
Here are some noteworthy narratives of this kind: the adventures of a fired paratrooper cat he might be the famous Fritz! However, taken as a whole, Pentothal is more than just a collage of artistically subversive and blatantly illogical elements put together to convey the chaos and confusion of the late s in Italy. Through the jumble of incongruities runs a very distinct thread: the making of an artist. At the age of twenty-five, he firmly established himself as the leading representative of the new Italian comics scene.
The eye-popping psychedelic voyages and other interventions into the main story cannot completely obscure the steady process of maturity undergone by Andrea, which culminates in the fantastic scene, which, for once, is not a hallucination or a dream featuring yet another adventure of Pentothal, but an artistic allegory that the real-life Andrea Pazienza drew about himself.
In the shape of a coat-wearing tree, nature itself visits Andrea at his home and gives him as a gift a magic box which contains the talent of drawing. It is obvious that becoming a gangster here is a comic book shibboleth for joining any of the militant left-wing organisations operating in Italy at the time. Neither a terrorist nor a philistine, Andrea the artist is ready to go on a journey of his own, which, no matter how personal, will always be tied with the times and places he has lived in.
According to the legend, the geological formation was the place where giants laid out heaps of cotton to dry. But the problem is that although some part of the action does take place in Turkey, the place which is described is not Pamukkale, but another famous site: Nemrut Dag. Pamukkale is never even mentioned. So, why is this book titled The Cotton Fortress? He has produced lots of novels set in the future and featuring space or inter-dimensional travel.
However, the beautifully written The Cotton Fortress , which many believe to be his most significant work, is difficult to classify as a sci-fi novel, not the least because it is difficult to classify at all. It might be a science-fiction novel if we accept a certain interpretation of the befuddling events narrated in it. If this novel is about the emergence of parallel worlds, about the growing pustule in time that gradually separates one version of the protagonist from the other, then it is probably some kind of metaphysical science fiction. The Cotton Fortress is more effective in raising questions than giving answers, which might be the main secret of the fascination it keeps exercising over its readers even today.
The protagonist Blaise Canehan is a man of vivid imagination. The wealthy relative left him a house, a car, and a chest of pornographic memoirs. They have a brief but passionate encounter in Paris, and Canehan, possessed by infatuation, offers Sarah to stay in an imposing palazzo in Venice and wait for his return from a ten-month archeological expedition to Mount Nemrud, the excavation site of the mausoleum of King Antiochus I. While apart, they keep in touch through correspondence, some bits of which tell us about the origins of their game.
Salvi is seemingly out of the way. It is time for Canehan to move from his boarding house, the temporary headquarters for his new persona, to the ivy-strewn Palazzo del Sarte overlooking the Misericordia Canal, and, once his beloved is healed, to depart with her to a halcyon future. What is the cause of this splitting?
Perhaps what we witness is the separation of two universes, the one in which the impostor Julien Cholle, who has started believing that he is the real Blaise Canehan, is forever trapped in a vicious decaying Venice, festering like the unhealed wound of his lover, and the universe in which Sarah and Blaise have abandoned the game and accepted the reality as it is and all the possible challenges of their unfolding affair. It is also quite possible that the splitting of Canehan into two persons is just the resounding finale of his schizophrenic deterioration, the first alarming signs of which appeared as far back as his stint at Nemrut Dag.
His involvement in the game, which was designed with a view to blurring fantasy and reality in the first place, aggravated his condition and accelerated his eventual descent into madness. Or maybe the whole game has been just the invention of his fevered mind, and we cannot trust most of what is narrated since it is filtered through his consciousness. There is also a possibility that the characters with biblical names Sarah and Canehan i.
The Fortress of Cotton is a work that is unlikely to give us enough evidence to choose between these three versions. We can only speculate. Just as any attempt to explain the baffling title will be yet another speculation. Mount Nemrut. Photo credit: Zhengan. The tomb of Antiochus I, the king of Commagene, is an elaborate man-made structure, whereas the Cotton Fortress is a natural formation. One aspect of the protagonist, Julien Cholle, proceeds with the game until the end and is rewarded with the discovery of an ancient mausoleum, a beautiful but dead place.
The other aspect, Blaise Canehan, at some point refuses to dig further. He turns away from the excavation site and moves to the scintillating travertine hills of the Cotton Fortress, a place free of artifice whose undulating complexity reflects that of a lived life. Perhaps the whole point of writing The Cotton Fortress in was to ask us which alternative we preferred. Some critics were upset that this novel had not been nominated for any literary prizes.
To which I can only say: Are you even serious? Prizes imply competition, but what competition can we talk about when dealing with perhaps the greatest German-language novel of the 21st century up to now? It is uplifting to know that some other readers were prepared for this book and were able to give it the deserving attention and evaluation.
Lulled into a semi-coma by easily digestible prose and Wikipedia-researched pseudo-intellectual yarns, the reader was caught off-guard by the cacophonous onslaught of this thousand-page monster. How many have caved under its weight and had to abandon the book just after the first hundred pages?
Only a few have been stubborn enough to accept the challenge and set out on a journey that would eventually bring them a bit closer to the ideal reader of Schattenfroh. The ideal reader? We have heard this before. I will never be the ideal reader of Schattenfroh, but I will try my utmost to convey the experience of reading this extraordinary work. A couple of general observations about the novel. As we read, we come across a variety of insertions, interpolations and interruptions.
For the author, both the textual and visual aspects of material culture are equally important, which explains the abundance of ekphrases. Another pervasive feature of the book is its unapologetic metafictionality. Michael Lentz gives the lie to the notion that self-reflexive texts are a preposterous relic of the s and s and plays his textual games with a disarming bravura.
Occasionally, the characters refer to the exact number of the page on which they are located. Sometimes, the text of the main narrative gets repeated in the books situated at a lower diegetic level. The use and abuse of anagrams is another constant in the novel. The problem of re-assembling some of the scrambled names is compounded by the fact that the original names are not that well-known. A lot of pithy statements from the book invite a moment of self-reflexion and rumination.
Having read the initial pages of the novel, the reader realises that at the core of the novel is the ages-old confrontation between the artist striving for absolute freedom and the authority in all its manifestations bent on gaining absolute control over the artist. Can a writer create freely within a totalitarian repressive system? The Russian author composed the text of about 10, lines in his head and memorised it using a bread rosary as a mnemonic aid. The authorities could control his physical access to paper and writing tools, but they were helpless when it came to the workings of his mind.
If I could only see what they do in their heads! The main premise of the book is outlandish and unsettling. The narrator, called Nobody Niemand , is held captive in a dark room in complete isolation from the rest of the world. The character Schattenfroh is a complex identity-shifting creature of enormous metaphysical proportions. In narrating the story of his alter ego endowed with the Odyssean sobriquet, the author effortlessly blends minute autobiographical details with over-the-top fantastic and logic-defying elements, making Schattenfroh a two-tiered construct: it is a very personal, introspective investigation aimed at finding the ways of coping with the loss of the father whose authoritarian and often cruel nature is portrayed without any varnish, and at the same time, it is a metaphysical, centuries-spanning quest to critically examine the devastations of power struggle and violence stemming from the primary violent act: the crucifixion of Christ.
To achieve the latter, one has to have the supernatural ability to hop into different periods of history as well as to enter the signal artworks depicting the relevant places and events. There is ample evidence to suggest that Mateo is not satisfied with his subordinate position and harbours treacherous plans to overthrow Schattenfroh and take his position. An unsightly figure with incandescent eyes steps through a toad-infested archway, more a beast than a man; instead of the stomach, he has a grilled oven with red-hot embers, which is revealed in his unzipped black garment as the triangular eye of God.
On his head he is wearing a green turban whose green loose ends, which are decorated with pearls in the upper third part, are hanging down to the right and to the left. The infernal firebrand in his belly is bursting through his head. His mouth is wide open, showing four pointed fangs in the blazing maw. As the Master of Ceremonies he is carrying a four-bladed scythe with which he is going to twist the word in my mouth four times.
The figure knocks loudly with the scythe against the ground. Hieronymus Bosch, The Last Judgement , c. Detail of the right panel. Thus the ceremony, led by Schattenfroh as the Boschian Lucifer, begins, inaugurating a dizzy progression of things to come. It is important to remember that none of them are linear, and each journey can be subdivided into a series of minor ones. This carpet is more like a tapestry which depicts the panorama of the town at different periods in history. In the space-time fabric of the panorama, between years and , resides Zellen Warhol, a philosopher, an artist and a historian of the town.
The narrator will make use of this etching to find his bearings in the town in the same year. We learn from Warhol that the carpet is, in fact, a four-dimensional continuum which makes travel in space-time relatively easy. He keeps quoting some 19th-century scientist from Leipzig who is an ardent enthusiast of the 4th dimension. It is not difficult to guess that he is talking about philosopher and physicist Gustav Fechner , the author of the influential essay Space Has Four Dimensions.
Image source. The second and most extensive journey starts out as a long walk the narrator takes with his father. However, they end up at the Panorama Museum in Frankenhausen, which is some kilometres away. Surprisingly enough, the reunion does take place, but it quickly escalates into yet another ekphrastic phantasmagoria.
The omens of the forthcoming trial and execution are amply scattered along their way. Their itinerary lies through the picturesque landscapes captured by Northern Renaissance painters, and there is no way they can avoid bumping into the macabre subject matter often found on those canvases. The condemned loom grotesquely across the clear skies as a thrice-emphasised memento mori message.
The view of the wheel, perched on a high pole, on which the victim is helplessly lying exposed to clouds of ravens prompts the father to go on a lurid and long-winded tangent about the peculiarities of this type of punishment. When the father and son finally get inside the Panorama Museum after getting past the doorkeeper who tries to overwhelm them with the technical details of its construction lifted verbatim from civil engineering manuals the enormous painting engulfs them.
On the way to the castle, the convoy with the captured Nobody makes a halt in a place which seems to be the singularity of esoteric symbolism of the whole book. It is a rocky area traversed by a fissure which serves as the orchestra pit for a choir of shofar sounders. Nearby there are the ruins of a building amid which commoners are dancing, a group of nobles feasting at a table, a fire-breathing winged dragon perched on a wall and a print shop. Inside, a great mystery takes place: the book Schattenfroh gets printed before our eyes. One of the genuine surprises of this printing extravaganza is the appearance of a complete page from a Spanish edition of Don Quijote , which is faithfully reproduced in the book.
The double reads out loud the shocking passage to Nobody and Mateo.
At first, the narrator has no clue what is going to happen to the man condemned to impalement. Mateo postpones the horrific scene by interrupting the narrative to ask the protagonist leading questions about the possible outcome of the minutely described preparations. Luckily for him, if we can say this, while history can be revisited, it cannot be changed. That is the only way how this journey may end, either for Nobody or for his double. The final journey is the shortest one and the most intense. It takes place within a paradoxical space, perhaps another fourth dimension outcropping, and is invested with the calculated madness of the early Alejandro Jodorowski.
The original setting is the edge of a gorge descending to the valley below. The narrator is sitting at the edge and stares down at the shallow stream running through the valley in which a bed with a lying man is placed. The bed is approached by another man wearing a tail-coat and a top hat.
Next to the bed, there is a mysterious cone-shaped optical device with two square eyepieces. Nobody experiences this scene at least six times, and each time there are variations. The primary agent of change is the device which allows the protagonist to peer inside his own mind and consequently to observe any events in the book Schattenfroh at any point.
To mark this revelation, which alludes to paragraph of The Phenomenology of the Spirit , he dubs the mysterious device Hegel.
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The cascading perspectives unleashed by the optical apparatus lead Nobody to the moment of creation, which is also the moment when the book Schattenfroh comes into existence, but it is not a return to the beginning so that the narrative can loop back onto itself. For the protagonist, it is the moment of metaphysical triumph when he can disassociate himself from Schattenfroh and cease being Nobody.
Fratzenstuhl , 17th century. The Kabbalist practice of rearranging letters in a word or a sentence to form new words that would reveal a hidden message is amply represented throughout the book. The blue chair, which is anything but the divine throne one would expect to see upon the completion of the mystical ascent, emanates firestorm that feeds the flames of Gehenna. In Schattenfroh heaven and hell are not as disparate as the followers of traditional religions might think.
We also come across the creation of the golem, a procedure belonging to the realm of Practical Kabbalah, whose goal is to change the world by the use of magic. The doll was made from a chunk of wood that was left when the apple-shaped mouth of a baroque face chair Fratzenstuhl was carved.
Because of the bungling nature of the whole ritual, the golem proves to be defective, and the face chair is eventually compelled to erase the first letter of the magic word, changing it to METH dead , which immediately returns the doll to the inanimate state. There is no doubt that upon further readings a text which is informed by the Kabbalistic thought to such an extent as Schattenfroh will yield many surprises both in terms of its allusions to the mystical texts and not-so-obvious spin-offs of letter manipulation. On the one hand, there is the predictable jolt of pride I get when realising that I have written the first English-language review of this landmark novel.
No matter how ridiculous it may sound, but this rambling, poorly informed review on a free blog platform will go down in history as the first critical reaction in the English language to a monument of early 21st century German literature. On the other hand, I now somewhat regret reading Schattenfroh as a reviewer, and not as a reader. The reading which resulted in this review, with a stack of secondary literature on the desk and the ever-glowing computer screen, robbed me of the continuous aesthetic experience of the novel which I would have got had I just let this mighty river of words and images take me up and bring me along its winding course wherever it flows into.
I can only make up for this lost opportunity during a second reading. The former actually could serve as a good appetizer for the sprawling smorgasbord offered by Return to Egypt. Ivanov and his masterpiece The Appearance of Christ Before the People , the Islamic ornaments of the Tash Hauli Palace, palindromes, the noosphere of Vladimir Vernadsky, agronomy, a theory of the evolution of inanimate objects.
At least a fleeting acquaintance with Russian history from the midth century and up to the s is also desirable. I can imagine an English edition of the book, published by a university press, with a good hundred pages crammed with detailed annotations. The other participants of the correspondence are his numerous relatives, the most active of those being his first and second cousins once removed, whom he prefers to call uncles.
The major obsession of the Gogols is the failure of their great ancestor to complete the poem Dead Souls. As we know, only the first part, which depicts Hell, is available in its entirety. The mystics of the Gogol clan see in this the root of all the calamities that have been besetting Russia and its people.
They believe that if Gogol had succeeded in finishing the trilogy, Russian history would have been different. Kolya is chosen as the most appropriate candidate for the task. The amateur performances happened regularly for more than a decade until the area with the estate was included in the frontline zone in and everybody had to leave. Blotsky goes even further in his interpretation, viewing the inspector as the formidable judge who has visited humanity to punish them for their sins.
Therefore, the final silent scene should be played as a live tableau of eschatological consternation. The motionless actors should convey the unspeakable horror in the face of the inevitable Last Judgement. Blotsky regards the silent scene not only the key element of the whole production, but also as the companion piece to A. Director: Igor Ilyinsky. The mythical story of the Hebrews fleeing the Egyptian captivity, crossing the Red Sea and wandering for forty years in the desert led by Prophet Moses is the master narrative for the Gogols against which they constantly compare, parse and reconceptualise the last three hundred years in the history of Russia.
Kolya never accomplishes his task, however. All he manages to do is write a short synopsis of Purgatory and Paradise before being accused of anti-Soviet propaganda and sentenced to 10 years in the Gulag. By this time his father, an NKVD officer, has already been serving time in a prison camp. The motivation of the original Gogol character for this bizarre transaction is carrying through the fraudulent scheme of taking a loan against the non-existent serfs and making off with the money.
Gogol the Second believes that, in reality, Chichikov intended to populate with his dead souls a specially designated territory within the Russian Empire so that they would build the City of God on earth. In the course of his adventure-packed peregrinations that take him to Austria, Turkey, Greece, Egypt and Palestine, Chichikov succeeds in his ambitious plan despite the imminent persecution of Tsar Nicholas I: the Old Believer bishopric is established in Belaya Krinitsa with the consent of Ferdinand I of Austria, the first bishops get ordained, and Chichikov is among them.
Thanks to his missionary activity hundreds of thousands of priestless Old Believers return to the fold of the Popovtsy , the Old Believer faction with ecclesiastical structure. Closer to the end of his life and his great mission, Chichikov accepts the Narodniks, anti-tsarist revolutionary intellectuals and activists, as the welcome addition to the chosen people marching under his guidance across the Sinai desert towards the Heavenly Jerusalem. Within the discourse of the Exodus, Chichikov regards the revolutionaries as those Egyptians who have found belief in God, rejected the tyranny of the Pharaoh and joined the Israelites in their flight from Egypt.
At the end of his spiritual and earthly journey, Chichikov realises that the socialist revolution which will overthrow the monarchy associated with the Antichrist is that long-awaited event which will inaugurate the emergence of Paradise on earth. Not only does he fail to do that, for he never writes the complete book, but judging by the summary of the plot in the Synopsis we can see that even in the complete form his work would be laughably naive and, at best, would just reflect the delusions of 19th-century Russian socialist thinkers.
The 20th-century communist era turned out to be anything but Paradise on earth. By embracing the ephemerous and unrealistic ideals of the revolution, Chichikov leads his followers back to the Egyptian slavery. A prominent representative of the association of poets-palindromists, Isakiev gained notoriety for composing a page play-palindrome about the Great Flood titled, appropriately enough, Potop The Flood.
The play was about to be staged in a theatre of his hometown Gomel when he was arrested and sentenced to 10 years of labour camps. The emancipation of serfs by Alexander II and the October Revolution constitute a historical palindrome in which the former corresponds to the Exodus and the latter to the return to Egypt. Needless to say, Egypt and the Promised Land also make up a palindrome along which Russian people keep shuttling back and forth.
Tash Hauli Palace, Khiva. Quite often the mystical leanings of the Gogol clan and its immediate circle find confirmation and even elaboration in visual arts. When paintings or drawings are described in the novel, it is not done for mere ekphrastic embellishment, but as another means of revealing the arcane dimension hidden from the eyes of the uninitiated. The image is never what it seems; it persistently baulks at surrendering its true meaning to a cursory glance. You really have to take your time and zoom in to see what lies beneath the superficial details.
The case in point is the graphic works of Valentin Stanitsin, or Uncle Valya as Kolya refers to him in the letters. His fascination with the Islamic non-figurative patterns gives rise to a powerful allegory on how interpretation turns historical events into subjective, ideologically charged narratives. In fulfilment of a commission, Valentin prepares graphic sketches for the columns of the new city council building using the Tash Hauli ornaments as his inspiration. He manages to complete the ornaments for two columns before the whole project is suspended.
When seen from a distance, the patterns in these drawings do not much differ from the Islamic floral ornaments; however, if one takes a magnifying glass and looks closely, they will see that the fancy curlicues are made up of tiny human figures ascending through space and time: on one column those are the forebears, participants and inheritors of the French Revolution, and on the other, obviously, of the October Revolution in Russia.
Thus the neutral non-figurative patterns are transformed into ideological statements. Each gatepost is associated with either of the two sepulchral orders: the Khodynka and Trubnaya Brotherhoods. These secret societies were born out of two mystically related tragedies: the stampedes which resulted in many deaths among the participants of the festivities following the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II in on Khodynka Field, and, fifty-seven years later, among the mourners who were pushing through Trubnaya Square to pay last respects to the body of Stalin lying in state in the House of the Unions in the centre of Moscow.
The Khodynka Brotherhood maintains that the hundreds of deaths during the coronation festivities were the prediction of the tragic fate of the whole Empire, while the Trubnaya brothers believe that the people trampled in Moscow in March of , in blatantly pharaonic fashion, were claimed by the dead Soviet leader as his retinue in the afterlife.
Many also believe that the tragedies symbolise for the Russians two stops during their journey away from the Promised Land and back to Egypt. After about three days, Uncle Valya brings a couple of new drawings. They are adorned from top to bottom with a fancy floral ornament. The lianas thick as a hand, which gird the tree, and other stems with buds and half-blown flowers tangle with the clusters of ripe grapes, the fresh sprouts twist and twist making up a spiral.
Only when looking through a magnifying glass, it becomes clear that these are not meticulously drawn vignettes. Streets of Moscow on March 9, What is more, sometimes well-known real pieces of art prove to harbour equally astonishing secrets. While copying A. This anecdote is hilarious and horrible at the same time, for in all its grotesquerie it perfectly encapsulates the mundanity of the bloodthirsty paranoia in whose thrall the Soviet regime indulged in imprisoning, torturing and executing thousands of its innocent victims.
Uncle Valya writes that when the famous artist Kazimir Malevich, who taught him and Kolodezev in Vkhutemas, was arrested in , he testified during the interrogation that his paintings sold to the West over the last six years — from to — were in fact coded messages. In the works one way or another related to figurative painting, the information about the Soviet Army and the industrial capabilities of the state was encoded in the colour, individual details and their relative placement on the canvas.
Kazimir Malevich, Black Suprematist Square , As Kolya gets exposed to more of the various philosophical and religious ideas bandied about by the host of his learned correspondents, he comes to the realisation that there is only one schismatic denomination in Russia whose principles and practices promise true salvation in the face of the repeated victories of the Antichrist and the never-ending cycles of the Egyptian enslavement.
Confident in this belief he moves to Kazakhstan, where his ill father has already settled in the house of a member of the mysterious Beguny sect.
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Later, having buried his father and having been joined by his erstwhile sweetheart and distant relative Sonya, Kolya will decide to spend the rest of his life there, more than twenty-five years. The Beguny or Stranniki Wanderers are the branch of the priestless Old Believers who decided to sever all ties with the official authorities of the Russian Empire, considering them to be the incarnation of the Antichrist.
The Beguny who maintained such a peripatetic lifestyle were called mirootrechentsi those who have renounced the world. However, there emerged among the Wanderers a large faction that actually stayed in one place. The houses of the so-called strannopiimtsy the hospitable ones were offered as temporary shelters to those Beguny who followed the practice of wandering.
Quite often the latter were concealed in specially designed hiding places. The last name of the helmsman who welcomes the two descendants of Gogol in his solitary abode lost amid the sun-scorched takyr the Central Asian equivalent of the salt flat somewhere in Kazakhstan is Kapralov. He has inherited the last name from the previous owner of the house who also received it through the hereditary chain stretching all the way back to the original house owner.
Kapralov believes that the wandering Beguny weave with their footsteps the giant net that God will use shortly before the Last Judgement to catch the pure and the repentant part of humanity. He will deposit the saved ones into the new arc, which will come to a stop at Mount Moriah where the One and Only Temple of One and Only God will be built. It will be the earthly prototype of the Heavenly Jerusalem. In a letter to Uncle Peter, Kolya recounts how one day a mini-version of the Great Flood hits the steppe in which the house is located and in order to survive the deluge, Kapralov, Kolya and Sonya quickly transform the adobe hut into a navigable ship.
The helmsman is sure that the hour of the final battle between the forces of good and evil is near, explaining to his tenants that their ship is going to join the fleet of similar floating houses of the Beguny somewhere near Chelyabinsk. The next day, however, the waters recede and the crew of the newly-minted arc find themselves not on a mountain, but in the same steppe just a couple of kilometres away from their original location.
What he chooses instead is the individual salvation sought through pious living and regular animal sacrifice harking back to the biblical times. The poor beast is led down the terraced slopes of the caldera to the sulphur lake at the bottom signifying the waters of the Cocytus, and is left to die from starvation and exhaustion as the heavy burden prevents it from climbing back to the surface. The path descends to the Cocytus, — the last road of the scapegoats.
Caldera of Gorely Volcano in the southern part of Kamchatka Peninsula. The Abyss of Hell s by Sandro Botticelli. The image of the drawing is used as part of the cover art of the first edition of Return to Egypt. While living in Kazakhstan, Kolya continues correspondence with the other Gogols.
The excerpts from the letters appearing closer to the end of the book reveal a particular agitation among the Gogol clan with regard to the meaning of the Soviet period in Russian history within the Exodus narrative. There is unanimous agreement that the Soviet project proved to be a return to Egypt for the Russian nation. However, the opinions on the true nature of Egypt as well as on the aftermath of the journey back across the Red Sea vary.
He views it as a man-made paradise that sprang up in the middle of the desert thanks to the collective labour of workers, and Lenin, the architect of the Soviet version of Egypt, is comparable if not superior to Jesus Christ. Lenin for them is just another cruel pharaoh, which is corroborated by the fact that his body was turned into a mummy after death.
As Artemy succinctly puts it:. The Plagues of Egypt — locusts, droughts, rivers of blood — were beyond count. We built hundreds of Pithoms and Ramseses, learnt again to deify the pharaoh, to erect tombs, and, when he departed to the world of eternal rest, to mummify his body. The latter proved to be the toughest of all. The brief excerpts of the letters merge into a continuous but dissonant chorus, each voice trying to come up with the persuasive explanation of the dire straits of the chosen people, splitting hairs over the symbolic meaning of historical personages and major events, mostly tragic, within the whole theological model pieced together from sacred and secular texts, pseudo-science, philosophy and superstition, which increasingly begins to resemble a drawn-out round of some kind of Glass Bead Game, a virtuosic but utterly useless juggling with ready-made concepts that does not necessarily yield anything new.
Perhaps the greatest revelation for Kolya comes from the allegorical anecdote told him by a certain Yevtikheyev who used to serve time in the same labour camp as his father and Kapralov. Herein lies a valuable if bitter lesson for Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol the Second as well as his relatives: if they had become reconciled with the fact that regaining the Promised Land was a chimaera and stopped their futile hermeneutic speculation that had been consuming too much of their time and effort, they would have regained at least peace and serenity, which in earthly Egypt might be the next best thing to the eternal repose in the Heavenly Jerusalem.
There is even something soothing in the sound made by the River Nile at night. Yevtikheyev and his mother learnt how to listen to it, so the others could have too. William Blake, Christian reading in his book. Five years ago on this day, I posted my first review here. Since I have managed to keep my few but faithful readers interested thus far, I believe that time has come to tell the story of The Untranslated. At the time, at my university knowing English well was cool. Being able to read an English-language book or a book translated into English without a dictionary was extraordinary.
We always adored professors with rich English vocabulary and the most native-sounding pronunciation. Those were the signs of great mastery achieved through perseverance and determination by people who spent most of their lives behind the Iron Curtain. So, there was this professor speaking fluent English who was going to talk about literature not originally written in English, which he must have read in translation.