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The Fire Horse - Review by James Antoniou

9th June 2017


The Fire Horse by Vladimir Mayakovsky, Osip Mandelstam and Daniil Kharms with illustrations by Lidia Popova, Boris Ender and Vladimir Konashevich, translated by Eugene Ostashevsky, New York Review Books, 2017

Children’s literature, with its demand for any ideological messages to be overt, has the power to illuminate its era’s zeitgeist in a way not always afforded by poetry and prose for adults, with all its nuances and equivocations. However, in The Fire Horse, which brings together six poets and illustrators from 1920s Soviet Russia, beautifully packaged by New York Review Books, it is not the ideology that excites, but the artistic craftsmanship, and the reflection of everyday life at the time.

It begins with Vladimir Mayakovsky’s titular poem (1928), illustrated by Lidia Popova, which concerns a boy’s desire for a rideable toy horse, and the collaboration which follows in making it. Although he is known as ‘the loudest of Russian Futurists’, Mayakovsky’s poem is not the most forward-looking in the collection, but it is the most didactic; he said that ‘The Fire Horse’ ‘is how the child is introduced to the social nature of labour.’

The initially disordered syntax and rhyme scheme may lead readers to question the quality of Ostashevky’s translation; lines like, ‘They go to see the carpenter. Of course he’s glad to encounter them,’ might appear stilted. But it soon becomes clear that this effect is not just deliberate but meticulous; as the construction progresses, the text tightens, with Popova’s coloured boxes, in which men purposefully march in one direction, presenting an infectious collectivism. This leads to the climactic final stanzas, which describe the finished product with continual rhyme, nine exclamation marks, and in which the poem truly comes together along with the horse.

With propagandistic illustrations, militaristic overtones and a more authoritative voice, ‘The Fire Horse’ is perhaps the least lovable of the three poems. But whether or not attached to its context, its lesson is valuable, and its imagery and structural novelty make it the most memorable and, arguably, the most impressive.

Osip Mandelstam, part of the Acmeist school, collaborates with illustrator Boris Ender for ‘Two Trams’ (1925), a playful and frenetic embrace of modernity, imbued with Soviet ideals. It relates the story of two anthropomorphic trams, Zam and Click, the latter of whom is a ‘sleepyhead’, dilapidated and ineffectual (afflicted with ‘platform-ache’), but must still be cared for and included in society. The ‘trams, clumsy as geese’ appear to have replaced nature, and yet the benignity of the two protagonists suggests this is an exciting rather than ominous change. Zam ‘scatter[s] fireworks!’ as he ‘spirk-sparks’ – the heavy onomatopoeia reinforces the Futurist message, and Ender’s illustration of ‘horses [treading] all over … with their hooves’ – an older lifestyle – seems grey when contrasted with the dizzying new one. But this age of trams is not chaotic, their tracks pointing to order, vitality, and again collectivism.

We read of ‘two lines go[ing] round a plate’ that is the ‘round and aglow’ clock, and the ‘seven-story house with eyes set in stone… look[ing] out with all [its] windows.’ Children’s literature lends itself to this era, as these endearingly juvenile, fresh descriptions of the modern world likely represent not only children’s but adults’ perspectives, as they adjust to immense technological changes.

This idea is continued in ‘Play’ (1930), by Daniil Kharms and illustrated by Vladimir Konashevich, in which three children – Peter, Vasco and Mikey – pretend, in an agrarian setting, to be a car, steamboat and Soviet aeroplane. This piece is best read aloud, with its rhythm and repetition, and the adrenaline-fueled children racing through the country seem symbolic of industrialisation; indeed, a ‘milky-mooky’ cow gets in the way of their play, then kindly moves aside. But the poem is most effective when taken at face value, conveying the excitement and imagination of childhood, captured perfectly by Konashevich’s soft and warm illustrations. While ‘Play’ is the most lyrically engaging piece in the collection, it is ‘Two Trams’, redolent of twenty-first century cartoons, which will likely fascinate contemporary child readers the most.

So arrestingly ahead of its time, The Fire Horse is testament to the necessity of translation and intercultural exposure; writers cannot possibly guess at the future of their field without discovering these hidden revolutions and inventions which have shaped and will continue to shape it. 

We have a duty to read any literature bequeathed by past cultures or political systems, in part to debunk any simplistic narratives of that culture or system which might prevail in our own. Ostashevsky, who was born in Leningrad but migrated to New York in 1979, understands this, and has approached these poems with both respect and a view to making them very accessible; The Fire Horse is, to put it simply, another world, alive.

- James Antoniou

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