Tuesday, February 17, 2015

(RNL #59) "The Malachite Box" by Pavel Bazhov (Russia)



Rating: 2 out of 3

Pavel Petrovich Bazhov (1879-1950) was the son of a Ural mountain craftsman. He spent his childhood in Siserty, was one of the best students at his school, and eventually ended up going to a religious school in Ekaterinburg from 10 to 14 years of age. In 1899, he graduated from a seminary in Perm.

Bazhov later worked as a Russian teacher in religious schools in Ekaterinburg and Kamyshlov. During his holidays, he travelled around alot; familiarizing himself with pretty much all of the nooks and crannies of his native region. Whereever he stopped, Bazhov made sure to collect the folk stories of the interesting (mountain) people that he met. In total, Bazhov wrote 56 stories. (His compilation of stories, "The Malachite Box", received the Stalin Prize in 1943.)

In subsequent years, Bazhov supported the up and coming Communist revolutionaries in their rise to power. He later worked for the party, but due to poor health, returned to his native Ural region from 1921 onwards. In the Urals, Bazhov continued writing and collecting folk stories and also worked for the local paper. His first Ural story was published in 1936. "The Malachite Box" was first published in 1939, and was supplemented with new stories in later editions.

The version of the "Malachite Box" that I was able to get my hands on contained 32 of Bazhov's stories. Many of the stories in this collection are 'secret stories'- old tales of Ural mountain workers passed down orally from generation to generation. Many of the stories Bazhov heard as a little boy from V.A. Khmelinin of the Polevskiy Factory.

And so...the stories themselves are mostly set in the pre-20th century, primarily during serfdom. I did not know this prior to reading this book, but a lot of the mining work in Tsarist Russia was in fact done by serfs!! The stories go into some detail about how these serfs were frequently mistreated and exploited by their aristocratic owners, Germans brought in to assist in the running of factories, and of course all manner of 'whip-happy' foremen and stewards.

The stories cover a pretty large cross-section of mountain occupations and peoples. There are stories about miners, gold prospectors, various craftsmen, foremen, the aristocracy, etc. There are some stories that, a la Leskov's "Lefty" go into how Russian craftsmen were mistreated and not acknowledged for their significant skill and innovation. There are also many stories about the "Mistress of the Malachite Mountain" (a beautiful, legendary mountain Queen who showered the Russian mining communities with either blessings or great misfortune). Other stories cover the Snake King (the master of gold), and various other mythical mountainous beings.

To me, this book itself was a 'real find'. I had never previously heard of Bazhov or "The Malachite Box", and it was a real delight to read these stories about a very different place and time that is rarely documented in literature. The language that the book is written in, is as well, cute and chatty. It is written in old-fashioned, everyday language with lots of intentional and very cute mis-spellings (my favourite is "Sam-Peterburkh) as well as colloquial words/word endings. All in all, I found this book a very charming and enjoyable read.

2 out of 3

(RNL #57) "Odessa Tales" by Isaak Babel (Ukraine)

Benya Krik, the Gangster and Other Stories

Rating: 1.5 out of 3

Next on the RNL list is perhaps Ukrainian writer Isaak Babel's most famous work, "Odessa Tales". The short stories that comprise this book were originally published in 1923-1924, then later compiled into a book in 1931. 

(NOTE: I was willing to give this one another try given the glowing reviews for this book in the West, despite my intense lack of desire to re-read the infamous 'pigeon smashing' short story that I studied in university!!!!)

Now this compilation of short stories (all set in Odessa!) started out in a very promising manner. The first few short stories were about a Ukrainian Jewish gangster named Benya Krik and his many 'feats'. These are recounted by people who knew the gangster in over-the-top dramatic terms, in a sort of American 'Wild West' style that's really fun and really drew me into the tale telling (ie an old man starts ranting: 'hey, you wanna know why Benya Krik's the king? I'll tell ya why he's the king!) There were also several allusions to the subsequent downfall of Benya Krik which I was really interested in getting to learn more about. Now, had the book simply just focused on Benya Krik and on those around him, I would have probably enjoyed the book a lot more. However, Babel seems to like to jump from one character to another (as was the case in "Red Cavalry"), and takes the reader on what I thought was an unfortunate detour into the lives of other, less interesting Odessites (such as the little boy/aspiring pigeon collector of the said pigeon smashing story). As such, I never really got back to Benya in the way that I felt the book should have!!!

1.5 out of 3 for me.