A Russian Post-modern Classic: Венедикт Ерофеев’s «Москва-Петушки» Posted by josefina on Apr 16, 2010 in Culture, History, Russian life, Soviet Union
The post-modern pseudo-autobiographical classic «”Москва–Петушки” Венедикта Ерофеева» [“Moscow-Petushki” by Venedikt Yerofeev] has been translated into English as “Moscow to the End of the Line”, “Moscow Stations” and “Moscow Circles” (all of the above are very correct titles). But it should of course be read «в подлиннике» [in the original] – as should all other «произведения русской литературы» [works of Russian literature]… but that’s another conversation. Today: «Веничка» [Venichka]!
It was only a year ago that I heard about «Москва–Петушки» for the first time. I became instantly fascinated about it because of the way other people talked about it. For example, for the longest time did I think that «Петушки» [Petushki] wasn’t a real Russian town at all, but something made up for the purpose of mystery or simply a literary invention, like Neverland or «Скотопригоньевск» (the made-up town where the novel «Братья Карамазовы» [“The Brothers Karamazov”] is set, supposedly a vague hint at the real town «Старая Русса» [Staraya Russa] from Dostoevsky’s side, but who knows? Really, who knows?). As long as I thought that «Петушки» wasn’t a real town was just as long as it took me before I read it in March 2010 – almost a year! And to think! I could’ve have read it long before that and I could’ve have enjoyed having it in my life, in my heart, pieces of it inside of my brain for whole year longer than I now will be able to… «Ну и ладно!» [Well all right!] At least I have read this «постмодернистская поэма» [post-modern poem] in prose now and now I can share it with all of you. I have been going around in my mind as if in circles (just like the plot in the poem itself) for almost a month now trying to figure out a way to write about it here on the blog. For it must be written about! It must be told, it must be spread, it must be shared – because why does literature exist anyway?
Yes, interesting question isn’t it: «зачем читать литературу?» [why, what for; for what reason (should one) read literature?]. I don’t know the ONE and ONLY answer to this question, but I’ll tell you my own personal reason why: «через литературу мы узнаем, кто мы» [through literature we find out who we are]. And I’ll repeat this until your ears start to ache: «в книгах других мы узнаем себя» [in the books of others we get to know ourselves]. And for the purpose of getting to know ourselves through literature there’s one literary genre that does the job better than all the others: «поэма» [poem]. I’m talking here about the long epic poem [for ‘poetry’ in Russian is «стихи» and ‘a poem as in a shorter literary work written in verse’ is called «стихотворение» in Russian]. The thing about this special genre is that it doesn’t place a work within a particular time; though sometimes in the work there might be several hints at a certain point in the history of mankind. It is also a wonderful genre for that it does not – despite often having one main «герой» [hero], whom we get the pleasure of following throughout the poem – tell of a «частная судьба» [personal fate] but focuses on «всеобщая человеческая сущность» [the universal human essence]. When we read a poem (in prose) – like for example «Мёртвые души» [Dead Souls] «Гоголя» [by Gogol] – we soon come to understand that this not is not at all what it seems to be on the surface, but that it has a much deeper meaning, that the key to understanding it lies within our human souls, in our very most human existence and that the poem – «одним словом» [in a word; in one word] (Dostoevsky loved to use this as a sign that he was seemingly soon to wrap up a subject, but then went on for another ten sentences or so about it anyway) – the poem speaks not solely TO us, but also ABOUT us and FROM us at one and the same time. If you read «Москва-Петушки» without realizing that you also you are «Веничка» [Venichka] – the narrator who is both an intellectual and an alcoholic – but even more that «Веничка» [Venichka] is you, well, then you haven’t read nor got it all!
When I was in the middle of reading this book (it is only some 130 pages long in its «самое полное издание» [fullest edition] in Russian so you can easily finish it in two days like I did) I told my best friend here in Yekat about my thoughts on it and explained at length the fact that we are all «Веничка». She’s Russian and four years younger than I am and she didn’t agree with me at first: «Но, Жоня, ведь я никогда не просыпалась в чужом подъезде с похмельем?» [But, Zhonya (short for Жозефина), I have never woken up in a strange porch with a hangover?] That’s how “Moscow-Petushki” begins, by the way, with Venichka awakening on an early morning with a hangover in a strange porch somewhere in Moscow, trying to remember what it was that he drank yesterday… And already on the first page you’ll find the classic line:
«Вы, конечно, спросите: а дальше, Веничка, а дальше – что ты пил?» [You, of course, will ask: and then, Venichka, and then – what did you drink?]
Venichka will, of course, at length tell us about everything he drank the day before – using a lot of brand names of alcohol produced in the Soviet Union and not available in the Russian Federation today – while drinking more: «необходимо похмелиться» [it is necessary to perf. drink some more alcohol to cure (or lessen) one’s hangover], as he himself expresses the situation. Venichka has recently been fired from his job as a «бригадир» [brigadier; overman] for making detailed diagrams over how much his «подчинённые» [here: people] drank before, during and after the work day. These meticulous diagrams can be found in the book – «разумеется!» [needless to say!] We follow him on his journey traveling from Moscow on the «электричка» [suburban electrical train] to the small town of «Петушки» where his beloved is waiting for him as well as his three year old son (there is, however, no apparent blood relation between his woman and his child). While on the train Venichka continues to drink and has monologues with himself on philosophy, literature and history… Beautiful monologues! He also strikes up conversations with fellow passengers and in between manages to give many recipes for different (and rather complicated) cocktails. Unfortunately, today it is impossible for us to make these cocktails; Venichka is speaking from the context of the USSR in the late 1960’s and many of the ingredients he mentions are – sadly – unavailable to us now. He does give us a couple of explanations on how to make several versions of the (still today in Russia) popular drink «первый поцелуй» [the first kiss]: equal parts «водка» [vodka] and «красное вино» [red wine]. When he’s not drinking – or after he has drunk – he expresses wonderful thoughts about the Russian people, like for example:
«Зато у моего народа – какие глаза! Они постоянно навыкате, но – никакого напряжения в них. Полное отсутствие всякого смысла – но зато какая мощь! (Какая духовная мощь!)» [But my people have such eyes! These are always protruding eyes – but there’s no tension in them! Complete absence of any kind of sense – but then again there’s such might! (Such spiritual might!)]
In the beginning of the poem you’ll be laughing. Constantly laughing. Because Venichka is funny and because Venichka is true and because somewhere in the depths of our souls we understand that even if we haven’t EXACTLY been where he is, there is always the POSSIBILITY of ending up there. And who hasn’t been misunderstood in this lifetime? Who hasn’t longed for the utopian city of Petushki, where the birds always sing and the flowers are always in bloom? Who hasn’t wanted to escape, who hasn’t had strange dreams of declaring war on Norway? (There’s a hilarious chapter where Venichka and his friends declare war on Norway from Petushki and then are very offended that Norway doesn’t take their declaration seriously). But there’s also a part where Venichka and his fellow passengers decide «рассказать о любви, как у Тургенева» [to perf. tell about love like in a novel by Turgenev], that is «о первой любви» [about the first love] to each other. For Turgenev has a famous novella called «Первая любовь» [First Love], with which of course everyone who knows Russian literature is familiar. But as always with Russians things don’t go exactly the way it was planned from the beginning. One of them – the oldest man present among them – tells the story of he how once felt pity for someone that had been given a terribly offensive nickname. But Venichka thinks this is alright for as he concludes:
«Первая любовь или последняя жалость – какая разница? Бог, умирая на кресте, заповедовал нам жалость, а зубоскальства Он нам не заповедовал» [The first love or the last pity – what’s the difference? God, while dying on the cross, commanded us to pity, but He did not command us to mock].
After a while you begin to understand that this isn’t going to end well. No matter how funny it seems and how many brilliant one-liners Venichka and the other passengers deliver – for there are too dazzling one-liners to mention even a small part of them here! The comedy starts slowly to transform into a tragedy as a sneaking sense of the fact that Venichka is never going to get to Petushki arrives in your heart and at this point you will be unable to put the poem down… In the end you will cry just as hard as you laughed in the beginning. And you will know, you will come to understand, you will comprehend that «все мы – Веничка» [we are all Venichka]. There are some books that remain with you for a long time after you’ve finished them, after you’re done with the last page, even sometimes years after you last looked at the book – when it is collecting dust somewhere on you shelf… But all you have to do to relive the book is to travel back to it in your mind – or why not pick it up and read a chapter from it randomly? «Москва-Петушки» is such a book. It is a true piece of art because it contains everything from our human culture and everything about what it means to be human. Some might argue that they don’t want to have anything in common with such a low-life drunk and intellectual loser as Venichka. One of my other Russian friends even told me that she can’t read it – though she’s tried many times – for always being too disgusted with the whole thing. Of course that is a valid opinion. And some parts are really disgusting. And Venichka swears a lot. But the truth! Oh, the truth! I must repeat it: the truth! We are only the most human when we are at our outmost weakest; when we travel deep within ourselves – knowing for sure long before that we’ll never reach Petushki, and yet we travel – to find that also we can – just like Venichka often does – hear angels speaking to us, have long discussions on philosophy and literature and wake up with a terrible hangover in a strange porch without exactly knowing how we got there or what we drank the night before… This is the main strength – it is universal and it is honest.
It was not published in the Soviet Union upon its completion by Венедикт Ерофеев [Venedikt Yerofeev]. Maybe because it was too honest; but then again – a lot of the best works of Russian literature in the 20th century was not published in the Soviet Union. But today we can enjoy it without censorship and today we can be honest with each other. And agree that in order to stand up on our two feet we must first fall… Some fall deeper than others but what we all have in common is that we all do fall – once in a while. For to be human is not to be without fault, but to have a heart capable of «сострадание» [mercy; compassion]. Maybe this is a very Russian idea. So be it! Who says we can’t all be a little bit Russian – at heart?
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