Ukraine has a starring role in our news today, so it might seem beside the point to remember when it was not the subject of so much purported expertise, when its eastern cities were engulfed by a different sort of “Ukraine pressure campaign,” its citizens in mortal danger, and speaking of the seemingly frivolous, to remember its poets, who were impeaching the misuse of language deployed by all sides in the conflict. In 2014, its prime minister, and Putin ally, Victor Yanukovych, had just been ousted, and Katherine Young, an American poet who translates Russian poetry and prose, found herself at a translators’ conference in Moscow where, though it was being “strenuously and categorically” denied, bombs were first beginning to drop on the country. She had just been awarded third place in the Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender international translation competition, but was thinking of the dissident poets of Ukraine, and beginning to wonder what terrible things might happen to one in particular, who she was working with and for whom she had once described herself as “Facebook avatar” whenever she pressed the send button to publish translations of her work.
Today a translator is no longer only in the library stacks with his or her dictionary but, in the digital age, sometimes also on the front lines, wondering if her translation can get an author killed. Literary translation in the computer age can be no more than a mechanical process, so that Young had an earlier career in diplomacy and international relations, which included postings to Russia that began in the 1980s, redounds to her art. And since she is also a poet, and her first book of poems, Day of The Border Guards, a 2014 finalist for the Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize, has been described as offering witness to the Soviet Union before its collapse, she understood, at the translators’ conference in Moscow, that further complicating matters was the inconvenient truth that her hosts were also her sponsors. While money for Russian translations before the collapse of the Soviet Union tended to come from the CIA, it was now more likely to come from the Russian government itself, or its not-so-hidden oligarchical armamentarium.
The translator’s art is practiced under constraints, at least initial ones, but when working with poems written in witness, another restriction is added, and though it is often the case, looking back, that a poet’s convictions are often, with respect to the poem that survives the conflict, at best irrelevant, at worst embarrassing, the translator still must capture the entire picture. Still, great poems survive their politics, and so do great translations. Young seemed to acknowledge this recently when she spoke of the dilemma of translating a jailed Ukrainian dissident whose poetry sometimes champions the proto-fascism of some earlier Ukrainian writers. One of the 2019 recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Peter Handke, is considered by many unworthy of that honor for his apparent sympathy for the Serbian position during the Balkan wars and for attending Slobodan Milosevic’s funeral, but the committee, presumably, thought the work needed be judged on artistic merit alone. While Handke’s work stopped being translated into most languages in the 1990s, Viking issued an English edition of Eine winterliche Reise zu den Flüssen Donau, Save, Morawa und Drina oder Gerechtigkeit fur Serbien, which it translated as A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia.
A Serbian poet, and politician, Radovan Karadzic, aka “The Butcher of Bosnia,” was found guilty of genocide for his part in that war. He has pointed out that Gavrilo Princip was a poet, too. That the Bosnian Serb nationalist shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand twice with an FN 1910 semi-automatic handgun, precipitating World War I, seems to be Karadzic’s notion of a defense—if the murderous drive and the creative drive share something in common, if the muse is a cruel master, if it despises conventional morality, if genius makes its own rules etc. etc… Whether or not the work can be separated from the author, the assassin from his muse, it’s old news, proclaimed first by Plato, in his Republic, that poets are not to be relied on for moral or political truth. Two millennia later, Conrad Aiken, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and served as the United States Poet Laureate, said, “show me a poet and I’ll show you a shit.” An ethical claim may be encoded in form and line in a poem whose laws, as has been said, stand in for other laws, but political conviction alone does not make for great art, and even if literature is not a neutral or stand-alone category, as Marxist critics insist, and social standing determines consciousness and not the other way around—the creative writing workshops’ teachers’ mantra to show and not tell was born during the Cold War, so then it, too, must be suspect—if great poets have any special form of access it is likely bardic, not moral, and therefore war, in its unleashing of subconscious, pre-conscious, and primal energies is a particularly suitable subject.
Western literature begins with Homer’s account of the Trojan War, an account that begins with the outrage Achilles feels for the loss of his sex slave, and since outrage, whatever side of our own culture war we are on, is now our métier, it is still the poets, if only because they are the most machine-like of human beings, sensitive registering devices, Geiger counters particularly attuned to alterations in language, who are often the first to catch wind of it. Looking back a couple of years to see how Ukrainian poets registered and interrogated the use of language in their country, where and upon which our current culture war is currently fixated, might lend insight into what we are doing in the here and now in this country, where more hell is being unleashed by people of good conscience, and in the name of “what’s right,” than by anyone else.
Years from now it will be some poet’s ability to see what our culture war looks like from the point of view of its real victim, the period itself, distill the essence of its unseriousness, or deep unseriousness—that now ever-present modifier signaling on all sides that this time you really must take us seriously—in poetry that discloses what each side hides from itself, namely, that while speaking, we are simultaneously being spoken by the algorithms we are consuming. Our blindness to the real problem is the generative zero that makes for the big bang, a reality once under extreme constraints, hiding from itself through public relations, that comes into the open in great poetry, and eventually evolves into the repetition and reiteration of rhyme, meter, assonance, anaphora—those laws that stand in for other laws. In hot wars, journalists mark the number of the dead, tyrants engage in rhetorical flourishes, but good poets mark the drowning of the language in the propaganda and public relations that the journalists, at best miss, and at worse, parrot:
for every moron there’s a diploma, photo,
certificate, paid vacation, doctor’s note,
but what he really loves: when things explode.
every fool who can, grips his gun tight,
refuses to give up, dives into the fight —
who goes there, halt – oaths crackle, flare, ignite.
whom do you want to shoot? who goes there, halt!
heartsick, knife in your brother’s back, yawn
of the pit – you don’t want to, but in you fall.
This untitled poem, by Lyudmyla Khersonska, and translated by Young, is anthologized in Words for War—New Poems From Ukraine. Published in 2017, it might just as well describe our national dialogue. With Twitter and Facebook, facta non verba no longer applies. People are actively ducking cable news, not to mention conversation itself, and in colleges, students are seeking shelter in classrooms cleansed of dangerous words while professors can be targeted, not for behavior, but for the circumstances of their birth. Predictably an age of outrage and political correctness has produced a new Middle Ages where everyone ignores their vows, while exalting a priesthood of public relations professionals to cover up the license and abuse of we latter-day Guelphs and Ghibellines. A good translator is aware that war and poetry have a peculiar affinity and is equal to the lyric task of how and to what extent another culture’s insights might shed light on her own.
An act of witness is in itself neither inherently progressive nor conservative, democratic or republican, and neither is the poem of witness. Young has said that the best literature is moral in and of itself because it leads to a greater understanding of human nature. Literature whose content is moral is merely another form of moralizing, pointing fingers, declaring something unfair, and moving on, leaving the reader to define the author’s definition of fairness. Moralizing does very little to help a reader walk in anybody’s but the author’s shoes. Indeed, most aesthetic faults are moralizing ones, and when art fails by bowing down to ideology and politics, imposing meaning rather than eliciting it, it is, like most “dialogue” these days, asking only for corroboration. Since algorithms have colonized our inner lives, it is a feature of our time that it is getting harder and harder to distinguish the journalistic and political bullies from the literary and academic ones. Today a “progressive” can be an antisemite, a “conservative” an Islamophobe. With all sides free to be racists, “fake news” can mark merely rhetorical differences when on both sides of the same question, “were it proved he lies / were neither shamed in his own / Nor in his neighbors’ eyes.” Demagogues do not create such conditions, they are made by them.
If a great poem of witness to our own time would not take a side, is not therefore also to say, in the Marxist sense, that it would be “idealist,” and therefore an apologia for oppression and inequality, because its essence would be an assertion of community in which all parties were partaking of the same behaviors. If moral uplift were to take place in such circumstances, it would take place not in editorializing, but in lyrical, mythographic disclosure in which our particular world would disclose what it was hiding from itself, and the disclosure would therefore be a place and a ground where no one could claim moral or intellectual superiority. In the following instance, another Young translation of an untitled poem by Khersonska, not even God can claim the moral high ground:
The whole soldier doesn’t suffer —
it’s just the legs, the arms,
just blowing snow,
just meager rain.
The whole soldier shrugs off hurt—
it’s just missile systems “Hail and Beech,”
just bullets on the wing,
just happiness ahead.
Just meteorological pogroms,
just the girl with the pointer
poking the map in the stomach.
Just thunder, lightning,
just dreadful losses,
just the day with a dented helmet,
just God, who doesn’t protect.
These words for war that also touch on theodicy seem an almost authorless text, a kind of pastiche to denote the helplessness of the war victim who is authorless over her own fate. And with a question about God’s authorship of that fate thrown in at the end, the weapons systems that are invoked in the name of the common good align with the end of the poem, where the highest good is invoked, a highest good who nevertheless “doesn’t protect.” Like all consumers, the consumer of war is not an “I,” but a subject, doesn’t act, but is acted upon.
Young has said that she thinks differently when she’s thinking in Russian. In one of her own poems, “Speaking Russian,” she writes, “The antechamber of learning is the knowledge of languages.” Another italicized line in that poem, “Russian poetry died of self-consciousness in 1840,” comes from Prince D.S. Mirsky, the author of A History of Russian Literature, a nobleman who hung around the Soviet Union after the revolution and died while imprisoned. Nadezhda Mandelstam mentions him in Hope Against Hope, but Pushkin died in 1837 and Lermontov in 1841. “The cliché that history does not repeat itself, but rhymes, finds no greater example than Russian history,” Young has said. “It is even a literary trope, and like nested Russian dolls, it is hard to tell the reality from its fictional representation.” “Speaking Russian” appears in Day of the Border Guards, which begins with “Old Maps:” “and the cathedral’s / ancient head has been fitted / with a new cold cap.”
Referring to the “new” Russia of billionaires and all the rest: “clumsy metal fins /still weighing down /
it’s gilt star.”
The new Russia, the old Russia, the same human condition. The next poem, “Reading Mr. Lincoln’s Army,” begins:
Tonight I’m reading Mr. Lincoln’s Army
in a holding cell near Sheremetyevo.
McClellan’s writing to his Ellen of
the “original Gorilla” (he means Lincoln)—
Mac’s been called upon to save the nation.
My watch shows 10 p.m., but I’ve flown
across the ocean, I’m in some nether hour.
Right now, it seems just as likely that I
could be that self-same Ellen—tight-corseted,
hooped, done up in sprigged muslin, reading
my lover’s letter in the drawing room—
as myself, arriving late, without a visa.
Whether Young is attending a translators’ conference in Moscow as bombs are beginning to fall on the Ukraine, or, in 1981, is writing a poem about reading in a holding cell in an Russian airport, if Russian history rhymes most of all, than Rozanov, the poet in D.M. Thomas’ Ararat, who also cannot sleep, is awake because he knows that that very night the Solidarity Movement is about to be crushed. And if, more generally, literary history rhymes, today poets are writing in Hong Kong in a language used in China, so poets once again are writing from the peripheries of a dominant language, itself a kind of translation, and its own kind of nested doll, with translation of that language yet another level of exile.
Young doesn’t use the word witness until the last poem in Part 1, the eponymous poem, where she implies she is more a witness to hope than any particular situation, even though the particular situation she witnesses is a well-known and extraordinary one. The principle of hope (its Latin root similar to the word for foot) implies a journey like the one taken by Mathias Rust:
Day of the Border Guards
May 29, 1987: German Teen Lands Plane in Red Square
As I’m calculating the fatal dose,
a silvery object darts from the western sky:
I watch it circle, descend, buzz Red Square.
Someone shouts, He’s landing! People start
pushing, running to get out of the way—
the airplane noses down at the edge of
Red Square. The young pilot—he can’t be more
than seventeen—climbs out, extends his hand.
The flight of Mathias Rust, who had evaded Soviet air defenses in his Cessna, gave Gorbachev the opportunity he was looking for to get rid of his hardline defense minister. News of the nuclear fallout in Ukraine, contemporaneous with news of how poorly the war in Afghanistan was going, made Gorbachev’s reforms, who was himself of mixed Ukrainian and Russian heritage, possible. From Young:
Perhaps I shouldn’t touch the tree’s bole,
the long grass; perhaps then it will pass me by,
as in a fairy tale whose heroine wears
an invisible ring to wander unscathed
through Death’s portal and back.
For there’s enchantment aplenty here:
the cold wheeling of comets, breath
of the sun howling down on the rump
of a woman peeing by a tree in Ukraine.
I carry the dust of the universe on my shoes.
In 1990, Solzhenitsyn argued that all Soviet republics be set loose, except for Ukraine and Belarus. Gorbachev was in Crimea in August 1991, when the plot to overthrow him was activated. He would survive the coup d’état but resign on Christmas day a few months later, the day the Soviet Union disappeared. Two years later, his successor, Boris Yeltsin, would barely survive an impeachment inquiry. Under the spell of western materialism, poets and writers didn’t seem to matter so much anymore and his replacement, Vladimir Putin, after presiding over a war in Chechnya, would, in 2014, invade Eastern Ukraine and annex Crimea, bringing back the Cold War. From Young:
No Dog in this Fight
In the video passed from hand to hand,
we see what’s coming: thugs in boots
shoot off their Uzis, dance the dhikr
before Dudayev, who applauds
from the palace roof in his uniform
of azure blue. Women chant
the ninety-nine names of God
in ululating circles now
coalescing, now dissolving
in the earthen square beneath. Who
can read these people, fathom their ways?
How can a Samaritan give aid?
The weak will die, they always do:
at Samashki, Russians get high,
take turns at raping Chechen women
and kids before they shoot them dead;
in Grozny, starving Russian grannies
prowl the ruins in search of rats.
Refugees back the border towns,
shoving among lone women seeking
* * *
In Day of the Border Guards, Young also captures the new Russia in “Lady Macbeth in the Caucasus,” a poem depicting the indifference of “some modern-day Lady Macbeth checking voicemail.” Now Young has returned to the part of the world that allowed the Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam, to recover his voice. Her translation of the Azerbaijani author Akram Aylisli’s, Stone Dreams, which was first published in a Russian literary journal, is now, no small thanks to Young, a piece of literary fiction that has also become a human rights document. Stone Dreams was the first Azeri work to acknowledge state complicity in the Armenian Genocide, and when two copies of it made it into Azerbaijan, all of Aylisli’s books were burned, and a politician offered $13,000 for Aylisli’s ear, a bizarre if not apt historical rhyme of Carolyn Forché’s, The Colonel, the most famous prose poem of the late 20th century, in which a military officer pours human ears on the dinner table. Today, 82 years old and in poor health, Aylisli is living under virtual house arrest. In addition to translating his work, Young has written letters and articles on his behalf, trying to draw attention to his plight, but as she said recently, with a catch in her voice (confirming Mark Strand’s remark that there is no closer reader than a translator), “the Azeri government has many more resources.”
Aylisli wrote Stone Dreams, Young said, when he became “infuriated” that his own countrymen tried “to erase signs of culture,” bulldozing Armenian churches and graveyards in his hometown of Aylis, the city from which he takes his nom de plume. Aylisli was arrested for “hooliganism” at the age of 78, when he tried to leave the country in 2016. Azerbaijan is rated in the bottom of nations for political freedom, along with countries such as Cuba, China, and Iran, and there are estimated to be at least 120 political prisoners in the country. Young’s translation of Stone Dreams sits inside Farewell, Aylis, published by Academic Studies Press, along with two other Aylisli novellas that she has translated, Yemen and A Fantastical Traffic Jam.
Before publication of Stone Dreams, Aylisli was one of Azerbaijan’s most celebrated writers. His work had sold over a million copies, and he had been a member of Azerbaijan’s national assembly, the Milli Mejlis. When Young took up the project, she was not only taking on a Russian translation that required some knowledge of Azeri and Armenian, but also the traditions of those three countries as they presented themselves both before and after Soviet domination and control. Azeris, for example, mourn a massacre by Soviet troops on January 19-20, 1990, which they call “Black January,” and say it was provoked by Armenian claims on Nagorno-Karabakh. Human Rights Watch found that Soviet soldiers used bayonets to stab civilians and shot at ambulances. The same report states that a week before Azeris had carried out pogroms against Armenians. While the Armenian Genocide was formally recognized by the United States Congress only in 2019, and the Holodomor, the Soviet Union’s intentional starvation of millions of Ukrainians in 1932-33, is now considered a genocide by 16 countries, the same cannot be said for recognition of events surrounding incidents in the late 80s and early 90s in the Caucuses, and in a bizarre example of history’s rhyme, just last December, Ukraine deported Elvin Isayev, an Azerbaijani opposition blogger who criticized the Azerbaijani president, to Baku.
While the publication of Stone Dreams caused the author’s books to be burned and banned in his own country, Young, who was the keynote speaker at the 2019 Confluence Translation Conference, sponsored by Montgomery College, claimed that “political and ethical concerns are present” not only in translations such as Aylisli’s, but in every translation. When Barbara Goldberg, series editor of the Word Works’ international editions, introduced Young, with great admiration, as “the kind of person who likes to get herself in cold water,” Young began by proving the point, demonstrating that even Silver Spring, Maryland, the location of the conference, where 46 percent of residents speak a language other than English, bears tracing and testimony of war.
If as the most diverse community college in the continental United States, Montgomery College, and the community in which it thrives, hosts people from all over the world, pushing the boundaries of diversity and inclusion, translation, too, pushes the boundaries of the host language, expands its horizons, and welcomes the stranger. If the Confluence translation conference has joined the discussion concerning the principles that govern the art and science of translation, doing so under the banner of free expression, and if the panelists for 2019 included Will Schutt, the 2012 Yale Series of Younger Poets prize winner, and Nancy Naomi Carlson, whose translations of Congolese poet Alain Mabanckou appeared in the Paris Review last year, as well as a delegation from the State Department, it perhaps reflects that the multiple missions implicit in an academic environment, devotion to discourse and disagreement while at the same time advancing equity and inclusion in a time and place of rapid demographic change and challenge, must include, in all of its forms, translation, a phenomenon prior to all others, and by virtue of which all others exist.
Aylisli was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. There is little contemporaneous literature of genocide because its victims are too busy being killed to write it, and for the next generation it is not a matter of appropriating the past in whatever manner one chooses, but of having to escape it, and escape it repeatedly, again and again, and if writing, re-enacting that escape in sentence after sentence, so the task often falls on the second generation, or even strangers. Stone Dreams takes place in 1991, which also marks Young’s coming of age as a translator, a time when Salman Rushdie’s Japanese and Italian translators were stabbed, and perhaps another reason she began her talk at Confluence by saying that she believes that political and ethical concerns are present in every translation. Some realities from that period come back in Aylisli’s circumstances. In 1989, a government pronounced a fatwa on a novel and soon there were book burnings, just as another government condemned the author of Stone Dreams, imprisoned him, and set about the burning of his books. Neither author, of course, set about to offend—after all, one always chooses whether or not to be offended. Rushdie’s novel was, among other things, about migration, and Aylisli’s novella was about, to some extent, reconciliation, but both are about, as most great art is, the complexities of the human condition, which seems to include, if 9/11 is any indication, that, as Heine said, those that begin with burning books end with burning people.
Today there are many writers and translators who, whether or not they are offered police protection, labor under such burdens. The spirit of censorship flares in the unlikeliest of places. CNN Turk, a journalistic enterprise, chose, during the Gezi Park protests, to air a documentary on penguins rather than offer coverage of government police violently putting down a rally of tens of thousands of protestors. When Glasnost began in the Soviet Union, allowing for the serialization of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago in Novy Mir, the literary journal sold out. But in Stone Dreams:
They don’t recognize artists or poets or writers. Just call someone an Armenian—and that’s it! Then they slam him to the ground and trample him like wild animals….
In the metro, where it’s always full of people, a few Azerbaijani women had attacked her and, watched by hundreds of people, inflicted savage punishment….
He says it’s not the Armenians but we ourselves who are bad. And he isn’t afraid. He says it everywhere, all the time, in the theater and in the tearooms.
In war, as in all forms of trauma, the world comes in without mediation, and to look back, to be possessed by an image of an event, is the stuff of poetry and literature. Longfellow’s translation of Dante’s, a retro a rimirar lo passo, re-behold the pass, speaks to the reverberations of the events Young translates, in which the writer is possessed by images but also by history:
One morning when it had just turned light, noise rose from the courtyard: they said, “Listen, people, some Armenian woman threw herself off a balcony.” The tiny, old woman’s body of Greta Sarkisovna was just expiring in a large pool of blood, but the strange news was already going around the city that the Armenian woman who’d thrown herself off the balcony had left a letter of repentance before her death: “I hate myself for the crimes Armenians have committed. I despise my own people and therefore don’t want to live in the world anymore. Karabakh belongs to Azerbaijan. Long live Azerbaijan!
Neither then nor now did Nuvarish have any doubt that the “suicide” was the handiwork of the Shusha hulk. It was fully possible that Shakhgajar Armaganov had thrown Greta Sarkisovna off the balcony. The times were like that now. Go ahead, throw even a hundred Armenians a day off a balcony! And Muslims along with them. It’s possible to easily erase any person from the face of the earth if there’s no one standing behind him. And with each day, the artist became more afraid of the man from Shusha. There weren’t any laws, now, no courts—one fine day he could easily take Nuvarish himself and throw him off a balcony and call it suicide. Who’d find it worthwhile to investigate his crime, who’d prove that the cold-blooded, ungodly, and ruthless Baksovet functionary was also a real-life criminal?
Aylisli was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his attempts to reconcile the peoples of Armenia and Azerbaijan, and just as Young is able to see deeply into how the situation in Ukraine mirrors, in some respects, our own, she is alive to the diminishment of the humanity of characters on either side of the divide in Stone Dreams. In America, Lowell, Bishop, and Plath created poetry out of the re-building of the shattered self, and just as the Muse arises out of the failure to mediate an event not completely assimilated, which returns again and again in consciousness, with the repetition, parallelism, and anaphora as well as other figures of speech mirroring and enacting, in the work, the haunting reality of the mind’s ability only to interrogate, not integrate the experience, poetry functions the same way in the face of historical violence. A bomb drops and the trauma is ingested, to use Peter Balakian’s term, and without a protective shield, Freud’s characterization for what he called the chief role of consciousness. Poetry of witness, yes, but the unusual depth of such poems come from the need to rebuild, which bestows a generative vitality to the poem, what Plath called a synthesizing spirit in a coming together of psychic material that can pull from the exhausted, the inexhaustible that lays latent, subconscious, as the preverbal is made verbal. The Australian poet, Les Murray, who died last year, 100 years after the end of the war he depicts in his epic novel-in-verse, “Freddy Neptune,” describes the birth of the young sailor-narrator’s mysterious disability/ability when he witnesses mobs torching Armenians in Turkey:
They were huddling, terrified, crying,
crossing themselves, in the middle of men all yelling.
Their big loose dresses were sopping. Kerosene, you could smell it.
The men were prancing, feeling them, poking at them to dance—
then pouf! they were alight, the women, dark wicks to great orange flames,
whopping and shrieking. If we’d had rifles there
we’d have massacred those bastards. We had only fists and boots.
One woman did cuddle a man: he went up screaming too.
The outside comes inside without a protective shield, and Freddy loses his sense of touch from witnessing this eruption of communal atrocity. In the next stanza:
We would have been killed but for a patrol from the ship.
Back on board, within days I found out I had leprosy.
I just curled up in my hammock, like a burnt thing myself,
and turned my back. The POs couldn’t scream me to work:
Sow-fellow, all you’ve got’s Infaulenza! Acute lazyitis.
When the watch officer saw my white numb places, he
got very serious. And discovered I was a stray.
The Chief lost his rank over it. I was put ashore quick.
Freddy’s voice, like Dante’s Odysseus’, is a tongue coming out of the flame, a literary response to war and genocide, but also eyewitness testimony, of a kind. When Vladimir Putin ordered Russian forces into the Ukraine, he was carrying on a conflict begun centuries earlier that was not only fought over land but also over language.
But back to Aylisli. His novella turns to Aylis when the doctor treating a beaten man, an “artist” whose name is Sadai Sadygly, is carrying on a conversation with the person who brought the artist in, Nuvarish Karabakhly, a man who the doctor notes appears both in form and bearing like Sancho Panza in “the very saddest pages of the story.” Of this Don Quixote, Sadai Sadygly, lying on the stretcher, Karabakhly says:
He’s a genius, Doctor, I swear to God! This is a great artist on the level of Abbas Mirza and Ulvi Rajab. And well educated, exactly like a scholar. What books he’s read! But stubborn as the devil in his character. Indeed, he sorely loves to dig in his heels. He could’ve received the title People’s Artist ten or twenty years ago. But to this day he remains, like me, an Honored Artist. Because he can’t hold his tongue. In ‘seventy-nine he and two other of our artists were recommended for the rank of People’s Artist. The day before everyone was congratulating him. But in the newspapers the next day they printed only the names of the other two, and there was nothing about him. It turns out that the night before he’d been drinking heavily with someone and again let his tongue run loose: says he, “I don’t need any rank of the kind that your generous Master gives out left and right—let me earn my rank in the eyes of the people….”
“For some reason, he hated the Soviet authorities from the very beginning. Believe me, he couldn’t bear them. I think it was in ‘sixty-eight. One of our shows was in the running for State Prize. Five performers received it, but Sadai Sadygly was left out again. But you know, he played the lead role. Then, too, he simply couldn’t reign in his tongue. He blurted out to one of the members of the Central Committee, right to his face, he says, ‘That thing you’ve got in your pocket, it’s not a Communist Party membership card, it’s a pistol. You frighten people with your pistol—you control them with fear so you yourselves can live without fear.”
After an operation, the doctor (his name is Dr. Farzani) learns from Karabakhly that his patient is also the son-in-law of one Dr. Abasasliev, a psychiatrist that Farzani admires:
“They’re from the same village, both from Aylis. And both of them love their village like crazy people. No matter when or where they get together, they only talk about Aylis. Once, they say, there were many Armenians there. And it turns out they—meaning the Armenians—lived with our Muslims in great friendship. Dr. Abasaliev praises those Armenians very highly. He says that kind of cultured, honest, hard-working people can’t be found anywhere else in the world. I’ve often heard their conversations. When father-in-law and son-in-law start talking about Aylis, you want to move and spend the rest of your days there.”
Dr. Abasaliev described Aylis this way:
“…do you know what Aylis represents for an Armenian? Why did they have to construct that heavenly corner among mountains overflowing with jackals and snakes, where there are a million times more stones than water and earth? Were there really so few places on earth for Armenians? I can’t say why Echmiadzin is so widely renowned. In fact I was there three or four times. However, now, in my old age, I understand that the true house of God is Aylis. In comparison with Aylis, that Echmiadzin is simply a sniveling youth.”
Dr. Farzani is a Muslim. Sadai Sadygly, an equal opportunity mocker, had once blurted out an insult to the teachings of the Prophet and upon doing so was beaten so badly that he could not appear on stage for three months:
If, just three years ago in Moscow, someone had told him that the artist now lying unconscious in his hospital room had once slandered the Prophet, it would have required a great deal of strength for the doctor to listen to that. However, what he’d seen during three tears in Baku had sharply changed his attitude towards religion and towards his motherland and towards the Prophet himself. The doctor had been especially struck by the brutality of the Muslim population of the city towards Armenians, possibly because he personally had never seen similar brutality on the part of the Armenians.
When Karabakhly finally leaves his hospital watch it is “night, a cold December night in 1989” and he is “very much afraid to go home.” That 1989 has been described as an annus mirabilis in world events is to forget that it was also the birth of a return to the spirit of book burning. While the playwright Václav Havel would be installed as President of Czechoslovakia and the Berlin Wall would fall, an army would also invade its own capitol at Tiananmen Square and the Ayatollah Khomeini would issue his fatwa. Today aesthetics are no longer separable from ideology, and intrusions on religious sensibilities can invalidate. The urge to censor is hidden under expressions of empathy and a certain self-muzzling in the “free world” has made it impossible to speak of anything. That Aylisli’s book is burned in the public squares of Azerbaijan calls back to the book burnings described in the book itself in 1989. Sadai Sadygly, lying in coma “[v]ery far away from the doctor, his wife, the room in which he lay,” but thinking, not only of Aylis—”Yes, yes, undoubtedly, he was in Aylis”—but also thinking of his meeting with the well-known director of theater on the “next-to-last Saturday in 1989”, who, to have achieved such a status, was of course a political hack:
“Yes, we were meeting,” answered Sadai Sadygly, screwing up his eyes in suffering, eyes that were red from excitement. “But I had more than enough in those two to three months to clearly imagine where all this perestroika yapping and all this political stirring are leading the country. I’m convinced that only supremely untalented people could so talentlessly ruin the country. Do you really not see that there’s no clear thinking in any one of their actions? And all their perestroika is nothing more than a new weapon in the struggle for power. The people are in complete confusion, and no one believes he’s master of his own fate. Everything’s going to pieces and being ruined…”
On the fourth day of Sadgly’s stay at the hospital, Dr. Farzani notices the omnipresence of a certain figure on the television, “talking about something heatedly and waving his hands.” The television is turned down so he cannot hear the speaker:
As a matter of fact, it was the poet formerly known as Khalilullakh Khalilov who, thanks to his verses about the Party and Lenin, had occupied a place in school readers for more than thirty years. However, in a single year those verses had been erased from people’s memories along with the name of their author. Today the poet was called Ulurukh Turanmekan, and hundreds of thousands of people—not only in rallies on Lenin Square but at weddings and funeral feasts in the remotest villages—inspiredly recited his poem “Karabakh—you’re my chyrakh” from memory….And two lines addressed to Armenians nudged him…two lines that the poet pronounced loudly and with special pathos in concluding his performance:
Don’t you covet my homeland, hai,
We don’t share land like a piece of pie.
As a kind of rejoinder to such provocations, “Artsakh,” by the pseudonymous Armenian-American poet, Zareh, composed for the 75th anniversary of the founding of the first Republic of Armenia, was written during the height of the Nagorno-Karabakh War, and uses the ancient term for Armenian as well:
Land-locked island, stye.
You always turn up
in the same idiot’s
eye. The same idiots
who don’t get the most
about you: You were once
Armenian, you are
that is, wherever
you are cut off,
wherever you are disenfranchised,
you do and you do not die. You stay put,
and by staying put
—in your mountains,
as in your mass graves—
you are re-
and you multiply.
Just as the etymological meaning of the Greek from which the word metaphor is derived suggests bearing across, so does the etymological meaning of translation, from the Latin, suggest the same. Young has not met the needs of the marketplace but, as the best translators do, the needs of her own time. In a time of outrage and mutual contempt, she has born across works from two places that bear the same insight—that sides denying sympathy to each other pervert their own humanity. The reader can see the tidal recurrence in language where the sympathetic contact of all members of the commons is seen, because evil is always assumed, as quaint and naïve, so private morality stands in for public morality and public relations stands in for poetry. Wherever language is stained by ideology, and where deviations are purged from within, wars exist.
We may not burn books here, but it is because we don’t need to. The humanities are scorned in a time of mutual contempt, so more insidious measures are adopted. We exhibit little need for the exploration of shared values, so we have eliminated their study. Great translations catch how great writers, confronted by their own environments, can be seen as confronting the translator’s as well. What struck Aylisli most, according to Joshua Kucera, whose essay introduces the three novellas, was “the artificial fueling of hatred between Armenians and Azerbaijanis.”
Aylisli writes in his afterword: “I don’t need honor or glory in a country where they burn books and a killer with an ax is elevated to the rank of hero.” Kucera points out that Aylisli has said “that he hoped Armenian writers would write about the crimes committed on their side of the conflict.” Stone Dreams was a best seller in Armenia, but as Young’s mission incudes the bearing across of human value, translating it, as it were, from one place to another, what she finds in the Caucasus she finds here: peaceful coexistence extolled, but not practiced. Or as in another untitled work by the Ukrainian poet Lyudmyla Kheronska, as translated by Young:
One night, a humanitarian convoy arrived in her dream.
Legs drawn to her chest, head under the sheet,
she sleeps on her right side, back braced by the wall,
the way people sleep during humanitarian wars.
The same exact way all tribes sleep at all times,
waking only because of silence, that awful silence,
during that silence, don’t open the gates—
behind them, little humanitarians, heads facing the wrong way.