Sunday, November 16, 2014

(RNL #51) "Queen-Fish" - Viktor Astaf'yev (Russia)



Rating: 2.5 out of 3

Е-кэ-лэ-мэ-нэ!!!! (the signature expression of one of "Queen Fish's most endearing characters, Akim)

"Queen-Fish" (which can be more literally translated as "Tsar-Fish") is a short story cycle that was written by Viktor Astafyev in the 70s about life in the Siberian Taiga. What makes Astaf'yev such a brilliant author is the fact that in "Queen-Fish", he takes a seemingly uninteresting subject, i.e. fishing and hunting in the Siberian North, and makes it interesting and engaging for the average, main-stream reader. Yep, that's right- all of the short stories in the series are wholly about fishing and hunting. But please, don't let that turn you off, as this book is definitely worth reading: Through the stories we follow the intertwining lives of the author, his relatives and friends in the harsh, but beautiful, Siberian taiga:

Boie - the first short story in the cycle is named in honor of an extremely loyal Siberian dog. The story also recounts a very interesting and bordering-on-mystical hunting trip taken by the author's brother up in the far north. Now, I am not a hunting person by any means, but the descriptions of the hunting procedures and conditions up north were fascinating to me. 

Drop (of water) - In this story, the author goes on a fishing trip with his son, brother and my favourite character from the book, Akim (Е-кэ-лэ-мэ-нэ!!!!). Akim is an utterly adorable Taiga native who has the cutest, most adorable Russian accent (I'm interested to know how translators reproduced it in English!). Akim's most endearing character traits are his innate sense of goodness and humanity. He is a man who selflessly takes care of people, but often himself gets the short end of the stick (as the book's later stories reveal). Digression aside, in this particular story, the focus is on nature and Siberian fishing. Be prepared for copious descriptions of nature (more-or-less a hallmark of Astaf'yev fiction). The copious descriptions of nature can be a bit much for those not so interested in nature, but Astaf'yev is worth it. Keep reading!!

Damka - A nice little character study of a Siberian villager nicknamed 'Damka'. An interesting feature in this story is that it makes a passing, almost unnoticeable reference to characters that we will meet in later stories (i.e. the librarian Lyuda, Gertsev and Elya). The most interesting part of this story was the description of the usage of the infamous 'samolov'(self-fishing tool, perhaps in English); an ecologically devastating piece of illegal fishing equipment used by Siberian fisherman to increase their haul. 

By the Golden Karga - another well-written character study of a Siberian villager nicknamed 'Komandor'. We learn more about illegal fishing operations in the far North. 

Grokhotalo the Fisherman - a third character study. This time the author introduces us to Grokhotalo, a Ukrainian immigrant, famous for his tasty 'salo' and aloofness. 

Queen-Fish - Perhaps, the most famous story of the book. We follow yet another fisherman, Ignat'ich, who manages to hook a 'Queen Fish', that is, an enormous fish of epic proportions (really a once-in-a-lifetime event for a far-North fisherman). Local superstition, however, maintains that once a fisherman has found his 'Queen-Fish', he needs to let it go or face grave consequences. Our brave fisherman decides not to heed superstition, and risks everything in a life-and-death battle with the fish...

Ukha (Fish Soup) at Boganida - The narrative returns to the life of my favourite Akim (Е-кэ-лэ-мэ-нэ!!!!). In this story, we learn about Akim's childhood; about his childishly eccentric mother, and the fish soup that nourished Akim and all of his siblings.

Funeral - Another story about Akim. This time we learn of a tragic hunting accident that befalls Akim and his colleague, Petrunya. We also are re-introduced to Gertsev, a character that plays a key role in Akim's life in a later story.

The Turkhansk Lily - I don't recall much about what this story was about. Nature, I believe, and about this remarkable lily that the author was surprised to see in the harsh northern climate.

Dream of the White Mountains - My favourite story in the book and the story that inspired the famous "Taiga Story" movie. (Remember that famous line repeated again and again at the end of the movie - "Akimaaaaa!!! Akimaaaaa!!!" This is a remarkably touching story about humanity, embodied by the gentle caring Akim, and raw egoism (as represented by the two other main characters in the story, Gertsev and Elya). These three characters, who had previously crossed paths in earlier stories, meet up again under harsh and unforgiving circumstances. In life and death circumstances, when each person is forced to show their true colors, who truly is wise, civilized and compassionate? The worldy Gertsev? The cosmopolitain Muscuvite Elya? Or the lone Siberian hunter, Akim?

There's no Answer- On a flight home from Siberia, the author reflects on his life and on his birthplace. He reflects on how much everything has changed, and how everything will likely continue to do so.

Now this is a very unique set of short stories that I really recommend. My only complaint? I wish there was more about Akim! Would it be too much to ask for Akim to have a happy ending?? 2.5 out of 3.

I hope that this post and the ones preceding it have inspired you to discover a new Russian author (i.e. not one of the big three, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov). Astaf'yev is part of the Russian school reading list to this day, and rightfully so. Happy reading!