Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Epigram Against Stalin

In the most recent issue of The New York Review of Books, there's an article by Jose Manuel Prieto about a translation he made in the nineties of Osip Mandelstam's poem, "Epigram Against Stalin."  Prieto was commissioned to translate the poem into Spanish from Russian, which he did, but he says that he was not really satisfied with the translation, that it never quite seemed to convey the power of the poem in Russian.

I had never heard of this poem, even though I studied Russian in college in the seventies.  I think surely my teachers knew of it; they were Russian emigrees.  This article would be a wonderful teaching tool for people learning Russian, as Prieto goes line by line through the poem, analyzing all the nuances and allusions in it that only Russians would understand.  The poem turns out to be a microcosm of Russian society in the Stalin era, a history lesson in sixteen lines, and as Prieto says, a sixteen-line death sentence for Mandelstam.

Here it is translated into English:


We live without feeling the country beneath our feet,
our words are inaudible from ten steps away.
Any conversation, however brief,
gravitates, gratingly, toward the Kremlin’s mountain man.
His greasy fingers are thick as worms,
his words weighty hammers slamming their target.
His cockroach moustache seems to snicker,
and the shafts of his high-topped boots gleam.
Amid a rabble of scrawny-necked chieftains,
he toys with the favors of such homunculi.
One hisses, the other mewls, one groans, the other weeps;
he prowls thunderously among them, showering them with scorn.
Forging decree after decree, like horseshoes,
he pitches one to the belly, another to the forehead,
a third to the eyebrow, a fourth in the eye.
Every execution is a carnival
that fills his broad Ossetian chest with delight.
—Translated by Esther Allen from José Manuel Prieto’s Spanish version

The poem was written in 1934; by 1938, Mandelstam was dead in the camps.  Prieto describes the poem as "an act of incredible recklessness, bravery, or artistic integrity."  Why did Mandelstam do it?  Apparently he spent days composing his poems in his head; only when he was satisfied with them would he commit them to paper.  After he finished the Epigram in his way, he recited it to Pasternak.  Pasternak was appalled and apparently said, "You have not recited anything to me and I did not hear anything and I bet you not to recite this to anyone else ever."  But Mandelstam did, and eventually word got back to Stalin.

 I can understand the irresistible appeal of being able to shock so thoroughly using the power of words, even if the result was almost certain death.  It would be hard, if not impossible,  for a poet like Mandelstam to keep his poem to himself.  People make art so that their work can be seen and heard.  Mandelstam himself said, "Only in Russia is poetry respected--it gets people killed.  Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?"

 I read somewhere else, long ago, that only in Russia are poets like rock stars.  Regular people in Russia care about poetry and literature in ways that are hard to imagine in the West.  In Sergei Dovlatov's story, "The Colonel  Says I Love You," the narrator is stopped by a policeman, who, it turns out, only wants to know if he remembers when Akhmatova's book Rosary was published!  If a cop ever asks me a question about when Faulkner published Absalom, Absalom!... well, I won't know the answer.  Maybe I'll end up in Huntsville.

 Prieto's line by line "explication de texte"  shows why Russians care so much about their  poetry:  if much of it is like the Epigram, it's satisfying in ways that poetry in English rarely is.  I can still pronounce the Cyrillic alphabet, even though I took Russian over thirty years ago, and so I read the words of the poem in Russian aloud to myself.  Even if you don't understand the meaning, the sounds are wonderful:  hard and then soft, lots of assonance and alliteration, repetition and rhythm.

 But Prieto also gives you a feeling for what Russians hear and understand in this poem.  Perhaps the most striking example is his explanation of this line:

 "His cockroach mustache seems to  snicker,"

In Russian this line is just three words, literally, "cockroach mustache laughs."  Apparently there's a famous children's poem in Russian involving a huge cockroach with a mustache.  Ok, I've seen those feelers on the front of a cockroach; they do look sort of like a mustache.  In the children's poem, the cockroach terrorizes the animals in a forest until a bird eats him with one bite.  So when Russians read the Epigram, they hear the allusion to this poem, and in their minds, a bird appears to eat...Stalin!  Maybe the bird is Mandelstam?  After all, both he and Stalin are dead, but the poem is still here.

 According to  Prieto, Mandelstam  had probably thought all this through:  he knew that composing and reciting the poem was suicidal, but he also knew that it would out-last him and Stalin:

 "Mandelstam knew that the epigram would never be published and was trying to leave it imprinted on as many minds as possible, to keep it from disappearing with his death."

This strategy worked.   Mandelstam  was made to write down the  epigram at his trial.   This copy ended up in the KGB archives.  Later, the researcher Vitaly Shentalinsky found it, and compared this version to the version that had been circulated in samizdat in Russia.  The samizdat versions were identical to Mandelstam's original.  As Prieto writes, "The poem had etched itself faithfully in the memories of those who heard it recited in the distant year of 1934."