Saturday, January 7, 2017

Russian Absurd


Daniil Kharms
Alex Cigale (Translation)
Northwestern University Press 2017
  • ISBN-10: 0810134578

Grotesque deaths in miniature are a hallmark of the work of Daniil Kharms”1

What is absurdism?  In short, it’s the belief that human beings exist in a purposeless, chaotic universe. Certainly, this applied to the environment in which this work was written.
Daniil Kharms was one of the founding members of a group of Russian Absurdist creators called Oberiu. Translated it means ‘the Union for Real Art. It was an avant-garde collection of musicians, writers, and artists who found themselves in the chaotic universe of Stalin’s Soviet Union.
‘Russian Absurd’ is taken from the notebooks that were found in the bombed out room that Daniil Kharms left behind whilst he was starving to death in an insane asylum during the siege of Leningrad. It includes correspondence, poems, short stories, flash fiction, and a copy of his signed confession that was used to condemn Kharms and his fellows to the NKVD.

“I am altogether some sort of special unfortunate”

Silly and whimsical this is not, jarring and disturbing is more of an apt description. Did I mention that Kharms was a children’s author who hated children? I took my time reading this. It did not lend itself to a straight-through reading. You really need to read each entry then digest them separately. Indeed, they are written at different points in the author's life and are presented chronologically.

I was shocked and drawn to this collection at the same time. I would recommend this book to someone who is interested in Absurdism, the weird and authors like Gogol, Pushkin and Bulgakov.
Of special note was the short story ‘The Infinite; that is the answer to all questions...' for its beautiful blend of prose and mathematical theory from which I lifted the following quote;

“One cannot pry under an infinite line; we cannot grasp it with our thoughts. It doesn’t intersect with us anywhere; for anything to be intersected, its end, which does not exist, must be discovered.”
If you do seek this out, I would recommend the print copy. I received a digital copy from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. I felt that I lost quite a bit of the aesthetics by reading it in that format. I have already added it to my wishlist. I found an interesting binding of Kharm’s work at Ugly Duckling Press, but it appears to be out of print.
Well done to the translator of the notebooks, Alex Cigale. I can only speculate how hard it is to translate from a foreign language into English, let alone translating absurdist literature.

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