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On the Waves of the Surreal

Tim Murphy

The Flying Dutchman, by Anatoly Kudryavitsky, Glagoslav Publications, 254 pp, €21.99, ISBN: 978-1911414872

Despite the influence of writers like Jonathan Swift and JM Synge on the early development of the movement, it is noticeable that few, if any, Irish writers were out-and-out surrealists. Samuel Beckett, Brian Coffey and George Reavey, for example, were modernists with strong surrealist tendencies, and other Irish writers – Flann O’Brien is the most obvious example – incorporated surreal elements on an episodic basis. But literary surrealism really came to Ireland in the second half of the twentieth century from original and translated French works by writers like David Gascoyne. The Irish tradition has recently received a new lease of life through the work of the Moscow-born and Dublin-based Russian-Irish writer, editor, translator and publisher, Anatoly Kudryavitsky.

Born in Moscow and educated at the Moscow Medical Academy, Kudryavitsky was a black-listed samizdat writer whose poetry and short stories were first published openly in Russia in 1989. He left Russia in the late 1990s and lived briefly in Germany before moving to his current Dublin location. He is best known in Ireland as a haiku poet – he has published three books of haiku in English, and is currently the editor of Shamrock, Ireland’s haiku journal. In recent years, however, his poetic attention has shifted to surrealist poetry, and in 2017 he launched the online magazine SurVision. This is currently the only international magazine devoted exclusively to surrealist poetry, and it was followed in 2018 by SurVision Books, an imprint that has already published an impressive range of titles by Irish and international surrealist poets such as Helen Ivory, George Kalamaras, Noelle Kocot, Anton G Leitner, Ciaran O’Driscoll and John W Sexton. In 2019, the American publishing house MadHat Press will bring out Kudryavitsky’s own collection of surrealist prose poems, The Two-Headed Man and the Paper Life.

The publication in English of Kudryavitsky’s third novel, The Flying Dutchman, is another significant event for the Irish surrealist tradition – even if all the events in the novel, which is set in the 1970s, take place in Russia. Konstantin Alpheyev, a well-known Russian musicologist, finds himself in trouble with the KGB, the Soviet-era secret police, after the death of his girlfriend, Beta. Gamma, an old friend of Alphaeyev and Beta, turns out to have been responsible. After Gamma reveals that he works for the KGB, he tries but fails to murder Alpheyev, who instead causes Gamma’s death in self-defence. Because the authorities are “everywhere”, Alpha reasons, he must “run away into nowhere”. He flees to a remote Russian province where he becomes “No-one”, or simply “N.”, and rents an old house on a river bank. He lives there reclusively, observing nature and working on a book about Wagner.

As Alpheyev – or N. – is drawn increasingly to Wagner’s 1843 opera The Flying Dutchman, his house undergoes surreal metamorphoses, slowly reconstructing itself as a seagoing vessel. A tree makes N.’s veranda look like a “little one-mast ship”; after he has put out his washing to dry the terrace is “festooned with sails of shirts and sheets”; and he soon notices an orange cape that is somehow atop the tree-mast: “It was spick and span, like a flag.” N.’s home, in other words, is becoming like the legendary ghost ship, but with the twist that N.’s Dutchman is very much at port whereas the ghost ship was doomed to never make port. But when the local police inform the KGB of his whereabouts and he is put under surveillance from the nearby police station, N. begins to consider the advantages of leaving port on his own Flying Dutchman. The attraction is considerable, for death is “forbidden to set foot there. Those on the ship live in another world, where there is no death. A different dimension.”

Ruptures occur frequently in this novel, as they do in general according to N., “in time, in space, and in thoughts”. The novel’s ruptures succeed each other rapidly in order to add to N.’s – and the reader’s – general sense of disorientation. The narrative is presented in a lyrical, mosaic style, where everyday events, philosophical reflections, unconscious desires and vivid dreams comingle, often in irrational and illogical fashion. Kudryavitsky is a poetic, imaginative writer, and nothing is presented in simple or banal terms. The fact of snow, for example, causes N. to wonder, in passing, “what would happen if snow were eaten and snowmen were made of bread”. The author invokes a Russian-doll trope more than once: there is rain “within the rain”, there are dreams “within dreams”, and nightmares “have nightmares of their own” – and ultimately The Flying Dutchman itself may be read as a series of novels within a novel.

It is also a book with multiple soundtracks. Musical references and motifs abound, and the four-part novel is sub-titled A Tone Poem. In the first part, “Andante”, N. is in the house-barge as it begins to transform into the ghost ship, the process that continues in Parts 3 (“Adagio”) and 4 (“Grave”); Part 2 (“Allegro. Adagio, Allegro”) is an extended flashback explaining how the narrator came to be on the boat, including the events surrounding the death of Beta. The “Adagio” movement of Part 3 compounds the existing sense of surreality by including a flashback to the 1960s, as N. reads the diary of Irina, a dead musician friend of Beta’s.

Kudryavitsky’s approach plays freely with André Breton’s ideas about “the marvellous”, particularly the idea of opposites being “communicating vessels”. For Breton, the excessive rationalism and logic of modernity blocked access to the original, marvellous sense of wonder and transcendence located in the unconscious. In the first Manifesto of Surrealism (1924), Breton proclaimed Surrealist faith “in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought”. Regarding the assumed contrast of dream and waking reality, for example, Breton expressed “amazement” at the way people “lend so much more credence” to waking events than to those occurring in dreams; he spoke of the “future resolution” of these two states, dream and reality, into a kind of “absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak”. In The Flying Dutchman, N.’s dreams of Beta and Wagner are integrated into developments in N.’s waking reality and thereby into the novel’s plot, as are his dreams of stone sphinxes, “the river of dignity”, and a talking cat and a talking fox.

The Flying Dutchman also displays the surrealist preoccupation with myth and fairytale, especially as windows into the relationship between the intellect and the unconscious. Alpheyev and Beta, for example, discuss the mythological Minotaur, a classic Surrealist reference. At one point on the house-boat N. writes a fairytale, “The Kingdom of Starry Eyes”, a fairytale of an Astronomer King, a Transparent Princess, and the Wind that sets the tone for the ongoing transformation of the river house into a seafaring vessel. While hanging the broad-brimmed hat that N. finds himself suddenly wearing on a wall-antler, N. has visions of the Celtic deer-god of nature, life and fertility, Cernunos. And in a dream, to give a final, fantastical example, N. reads the mysterious Book of Meros, a papyrus scroll discovered in the “Desert of the Unthinkable”.

These tropes – of dreams and of fairytale and myth – are of course not the exclusive preserve of surrealism; they are both connected also with other traditions, most obviously the magic realist narrative tradition, in which the “ordinary” is interwoven with elements of magic, fable, and the supernatural. There is a strong connection between magic realism (sometimes formally known as “marvellous realism”) and surrealism, which allows the two to be blended easily. Indeed, Kudryavitsky’s fiction has to date been predominantly magical realist, but in The Flying Dutchman this combines with surrealist elements in a similar way to Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, and with a similar satirical target in mind: namely the power structures and the power holders in Soviet Russia.

Given his background as a samizdat poet, it is no surprise that one of Kudryavitsky’s central themes is Russian politics. Sometimes his treatment of this subject is extremely subtle – for example, in the reference to Alpheyev’s wasted potential (and by extension that of so many Russians) in the salute to Senancour’s 1804 novel of frustrated genius, Obermann – but Kudryavitsky’s Swiftian satire is typically directed pointedly at the tendency of power to corrupt. The novel is replete with stinging political commentaries: Lenin and Stalin are each said to be “more alive than the living”, with the living being “deader than the dead”; one character doubts if Russia will have a humanitarian regime “in the foreseeable future” and suggests that, anyway, such a regime would probably last no more than nine months, “the gap between the two revolutions in 1917”; it is also suggested that those who want to give power “to the People” invariably want the power for themselves: “What does a revolution boil down to? Swapping one elite for another, sometimes less barefaced or less greedy, which may justify the revolution and similar acts.”

Kudryavitsky began writing The Flying Dutchman in Russia in the mid-1990s but it was not published until 2013 (by Text Publications of Moscow). This year, the 2013 printing is to be superseded by a new edition from the biggest Russian commercial publishing house, Eksmo Books. The novel appears in Russian as a single-novel volume, but for the English edition Glagoslav have added stories to create a larger book – and two of the five short stories that are included incorporate surrealist and magic realist elements.

“A Symphony’s Farewell” is based on the story of the German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, whose tenure at the Berlin Philharmonic coincided with the Nazi era. Kudryavitsky presents the controversy surrounding Furtwängler’s alleged collaboration with the Nazis in the form of a surreal Q&A session in which the conductor fails to volunteer a direct answer in response to most of the questions. Furtwängler does respond to some queries – when asked whether Germany “will be possible in the future”, for example, his answer distinguishes between humans, who approach death, and countries, which are approached by death – but questions about his feelings when he heard the fanfares at Nazi parades and whether he ever dreamt he died, along with several other questions, go without any rational or logical answer. All this is set against reflections on Mahler, Mendelssohn, Hindemith, Brahms – and Wagner.

The other story that blends surrealist and magic realist elements is “The Red Canals of Mars, The Amber Spokes of Venus”, set in San Marino. The narrator is on holidays and at his hotel he befriends a professor, “a philosopher and a naturalist”. In order to assist the professor’s project of mapping the canals on Mars, together they climb Monte Titano to view the planet telescopically. Carol Ermakova, who translated this volume as well as previous work by Kudryavitsky, has remarked that the author’s lyricism often includes the personification of Nature, and in this story the full moon is a character on a par with the two astronomers – at one point, for example, it “glances” at the lake before “preening herself in its mirror” and then “hiding herself” behind a cloud. Rather than with the red planet’s famous canals, it is with the not dissimilar amber spokes of Venus – that planet’s “spider-like web of lines” – that Kudryavitsky frames some reflections on scientific objectivity and psychological projection: the sense that no matter how or where we look, we are always looking at ourselves.

“Brothers in Pens” and “Russian Nightmare” are conventional narratives in which Kudryavitsky features again the character of Swidersky, the émigré Russian writer who appears in his previous novel Shadowplay on a Sunless Day, the English translation of which appeared in disUNITY (published by Glagoslav Publications in 2013 and reviewed in the Dublin Review of Books by Alex Bramwell in December 2015).

These two further explorations of the Swidersky character each locate their protagonist in Germany, where Kudryavitsky himself lived, although Swidersky is less an alter ego than an imaginative creation. “Brothers in Pens” recounts the adventures of Swidersky when he travels to a writer’s retreat in Switzerland, particularly his conflict with Berkutova, a fellow visiting writer from Prague. The tension between the two ratchets up steadily against the backdrop of the European Football Championship of 2004, won by Greece. Berkutova’s brusque and eccentric manner leads Swidersky to think of her as an “ignorant cantankerous fishwife”. In the end, however, it is he who is asked to leave the retreat early. His response is at first stoic: he watches the moon lighting up “the surreally green waters of Lake Geneva” and congratulates himself on at least writing two poems while dealing with the challenges he faced there. But at the same time he bemoans his spinelessness in dealing with the situation as he considers the lack of “morals and conscience” in typical western Europeans: “They don’t even know those words. Learnt them in school and then happily forgot them.”

In line with Kudryavitsky’s perspectives on Soviet Russian politics, his characters also take aim at aspects of Russian society. Beyond Europe’s eastern border, Swidersky reflects in “Russian Nightmare”, there is “only barbarism, a heated, swearing boldness alternating with disembowelment”. During his journey from Germany to Moscow by Eurolines bus, Swidersky is “surrounded by Russian biddies who had successfully married their daughters off to Germans and were now returning to Russia after yet another visit”. He stays with a former student, who not only demands he work for his keep but also turns out to have links with the KGB. Swidersky is constantly at the mercy of the brutal informal economy: after a reading outside the city he is forced to pay an exorbitant amount for a taxi back and then intimidated by gang of thuggish neighbours; and after his student later tries to blackmail him, Swidersky’s despair is directed finally toward the community of Russian writers, a “pond of jellyfish” with whom he also runs into problems. His ex-wife is the only person who treats him in a respectful and non-exploitative way and Swidersky comforts himself with the notion, “you have to be a really good person for your ex-wife to help you!”

In “British Agent” the Irish protagonist, Patrick Joseph Kitt or “PJ” – who is in Moscow because of his communist convictions, “happy to help the world along just so long as the world helped him along, too” – did not understand or realise, the narrator reports, that in Russia things “never quite work out”. The story begins with the small group of Irish expats in Moscow in 1938 who drink regularly in “The Lazy Bar”. These drinking sessions are very well-drawn, including the mock-delusional reification of the old country: “We are a great nation, it’s just that no-one knows it. Such is the huge secret.” There are other humorous reflections, such as those on the intelligentsia, who will, it seems to PJ, put up with anything: “if you spit on them, they’ll wipe their faces; if you walk all over them, they’ll get up and dust themselves off, and they might even apologise”. But this is a true story and the Kitt character is in fact based on Kudryavitsky’s maternal grandfather from Co Mayo who was for thirteen years imprisoned in one of Stalin’s labour camps on the absurd charge of being a British secret agent. This story is a tender reimagining of what must constitute painful family memory: in prison, Kitt need not be afraid because he “could just stay there, loving his memories and letting his memories love him, attaining reciprocity at last”.

At one point in The Flying Dutchman, N. notes wryly the similarities between surrealism and Soviet Union-style socialist realist art, which brings to mind similar observations in Ireland (heard even long before the surreality of 1982’s series of “GUBU” incidents) along the lines of, “the way things are here is surreal enough!” It would be interesting were Kudryavitsky, who has now lived in Ireland for close on twenty years, to portray Ireland with his blend of surrealism, magic realism and satire. Because Irish culture is rich in legend, mythology, and superstition, it is fertile ground for magic realist narratives, and although naturalism and realism have dominated Irish literature over the past century, recent work by writers like Jan Carson, Oisín Fagan and Roisín O’Donnell is re-establishing the Irish magic realist tradition in a modern context. This is to some extent overdue, given that the typical Latin American magical realist text, for example, narrates actual social relations in post-colonial culture – and as Oisín Fagan has remarked, “the form has always been twinned with nations engaged in telling and retelling their own history”, which is a favoured Irish pastime.

There are shades of this type of magic realism in some of Kudryavitsky’s observations about Ireland. In “British Agent”, for example, the narrator remarks that the spiral is “the Celtic symbol of life force and inspiration, but where are they, that life force and inspiration? At the other end of the spiral, especially since the Celtic spiral is endless.” A similar wry pessimism is found in a poem on Irish neutrality in the recent Irish issue of the UK poetry magazine The North: “Surrounded by money,” Kudryavitsky writes in “Neutral?”, “we surrender.”

Kudryavitsky’s skill and experience as a writer are evident in the different ways each of the narratives in this volume benefits from the strength of a central narrator; in the novel this is absolutely necessary in order to hold its mosaic narrative together, but it is also a device that gives each of the short stories considerable force. “In the realm of literature,” Breton wrote in the 1924 surrealist manifesto, only the marvellous is capable of enriching works “which belong to an inferior category such as the novel, and generally speaking, anything that involves storytelling.” Kudryavitsky’s fictional style combines surrealism and magic realism to successfully eschew rationalism and to offer an authentic sense of wonder and transcendence. Haruki Murakami, whose work also combines surrealism and magic realism, rejects the notion that his work is not realistic. “It’s my realism,” Murakami recently told The Guardian. “I like Gabriel García Márquez very much, but I don’t think he thought of what he wrote as magic realism. It was just his realism. My style is like my eyeglasses: through those lenses, the world makes sense to me.” One gets the sense from this impressive book that this is also the case with Kudryavitsky.

1/4/2019

Tim Murphy is an Irish academic and writer based in Madrid. His poetry has appeared in several journals, including Frogpond, Frontera, Otata, Sonic Boom and SurVision. He is also the author of Rethinking the War on Drugs in Ireland (Cork University Press, 1996) and co-author, with Garrett Barden, of Law and Justice in Community (Oxford University Press, 2010).

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