Translator's notes

Best take the tram...

By Boris Ryzhy

I first heard of Boris Ryzhy from another Ekaterinburg writer, the playwright Vassily Sigarev. Vassily was in London working on a rehearsed reading of his play Plasticine at the Royal Court. He was excited because he was going to be introduced to the poet Ryzhy on his return to the Urals. Ryzhy, at 26, was slightly older than the prodigal Sigarev, but both writers shared a similar background. Ryzhy’s father was a mining engineer and Ryzhy himself trained as a geologist. They lived in a workers’ area in Ekaterinburg. Sigarev’s family came from a small town built around a metal works. Both writers focused on contemporary urban Russia in their work, but underpinned the grime and dysfunctionality with a mystic symbolism and idealism. It seemed almost odd that they had not met before, gone on one of Sigarev’s legendary week-long benders together or discussed matters of the soul as the sun rose over the polluted capital of the Urals. But Sigarev arrived back in Ekaterinburg to learn that Ryzhy had committed suicide the day before, 7 May 2001.

It took me a while to find poems by Boris Ryzhy. Although he won the Anti-Booker Prize in 2000, one of Russia’s most prestigious literary awards (set up in opposition to the Booker Prize which also existed in Russia for a short while), and he had a short collection published, most of his poetry remains unpublished and only a sixth of his poetic output is printed, mainly in various literary periodicals. Recently I found a selection on the Internet, taken from the periodical Urbi and the poems here are from this selection (www.vavilon.ru) and from an anthology of Russian poets in their thirties, edited by Gleb Shulpiakov and published by MK-Periodika in 2000. Some Russians consider Ryzhy to be the finest poet of the age and it seems shameful that there are so few publications of his work.

The generation to which Ryzhy and Sigarev belong is also my generation. I am a few months older than Ryzhy. Like him I was a teenager when Perestroika began and I came of age into a new post-Cold War world. But there the likeness ends. Their generation in Russia saw active service in Afghanistan and Chechnya; the collapse of a functioning society and economic depression; and the destruction of industry in such areas as the Urals, which led to banditry, lawlessness and extreme poverty. They grew up straddling the great divide between the past and the present. The children after them have no memory of a Socialist Russia and the ones before belong entirely to it. But this generation’s childhood was spent in the fading, corrupt USSR and their adult lives in a Wild East. They faced a world without values and learnt a cynical world-weariness. Around them the figures and voices of authority were discredited and decent people humiliated and left destitute. If, as many Russians say, Russia is better now than it was ten years ago then they have seen the bones upon which this ‘better’ Russia was built. It often occurred to me in Russia that the best of this generation is as good as it gets: severely tried, exposed to such seismic changes and fractures in the very material of the world we inhabit, their decency and generosity was and is a constant miracle. 

They have also been forced to adulthood and maturity: by twenty many have children and other dependants, several jobs, and the knowledge that their survival depends solely on their wits, talent – and luck. I recently read a short story by a writer of the same age. It described an incident at school in the eighties, a good friend’s crush on a teacher, and ended with the casual comment that this friend was gunned down  by the Mujahedin as he parachuted over Afghanistan. 

Both Ryzhy and Sigarev describe the horrors of living in the poorer areas of provincial Russian towns. They gain inspiration from the men collecting rubbish from bins, the drunkards and drug abusers, all night wanderers, prostitutes, traders. Call-up is the fate of many of their heroes, as those with the means to bribe now avoid conscription. Both writers use slang, street speech and obscenities (one of Ryzhy’s other poems, not translated here, opens with a string of expletives on the subject of being asked to give a poetry reading). In Russia, where literary tastes are conservative, this is frowned upon, even by the cultured intelligentsia. The writer Larissa Miller, a correspondent of Ryzhy’s, writes in an interview published on the Internet that she was initially put off by his swearing, mouthy urban style. My friend explains it to me: ‘we have so much of this chernukha (lit. “black stuff”) in our lives, why would we want it on the stage and in our poetry as well?’ And I understand, of course, that the need for art to provide escapism and fantasy is strong in Russia. But for the writer, contemporary Russia in all its seedy glory is an imperative. A million voiceless people pass by every day on the street and real speech is as potent and characterful as a language can be. This imperative is clear in another of Ryzhy’s poems ‘To the Muse’, in which, dressed as a contemporary of Pushkin in a frockcoat and carrying a cane, he walks the town, looking for beggars, grabbers and madmen, the rubbishy places, the bazaars and cafés. In those places the rhythm of the cane tapping becomes stronger.  

Ryzhy and Sigarev are far from being the hardened streetwise writers they are feared to be. If anything, their depiction of character and scene, the melodrama of Sigarev’s plays and the melodrama of Ryzhy’s internal turmoil, strike me as Dostoyevskian. Their barren urban landscapes are peopled with pitiful tramps with great philosophical souls, ideal women, existential anguish and a sentimentality that is almost choking. It seems extraordinary that these writers are seen as radical in Russia. They are simply trying to make sense of the return to an old world, a world of poverty and division which is probably closer to Dostoyevsky’s than ours.

In one other respect both writers are traditionalists. They use traditional formal structures in their work. For Sigarev this increasingly means adhering to classical notions of dramatic unity and allowing genre to structure the play. Ryzhy’s poetry has an almost Pushkinian classical metre and he uses rhyme in all the poems I have read, favouring a regular metre and alternating rhyme. The formal strictness of Ryzhy’s work counterbalances the introspection and the sentimentality, and the Russian has a robustness and a technical brilliance.

These translations are dedicated to the memory of Boris Ryzhy.

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