Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov

Edited by Robert Chandler

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I hate that some people may take from my recent blogs, Facebook posts, tweets etc. that I am anti-Russian. I hate what Putin has done and I hate the fact that plenty of Russians believe the propaganda of the fascism of the West, but there is really so much I love of Russia and its people and definitely its arts. I already mentioned my Belarusian friend, whom I met in Skerries when I was 14 and who took that trip to Crimea with me 10 years later. 10 years later she is living in Dublin with her Irish husband and I am godmother to one of her two sons.  She taught me the cyrillic letters and introduced me to Russian literature. I had head of War and Peace but it seemed like some huge tome that was meant to sit on a shelf and not be read. She told me they studied it in school. At the time I was studying Steinbeck’s novella ‘The Pearl’ and it didn’t seem to quite compare.

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I had always been a fan of fairy tales and enjoyed reading those from lands far away, including Russia. When choosing my college courses as a clueless 16 year old, I had selected some course relating to folk tales as my top non degree choice. That was never going to happen though, I was always going to end up doing a more ‘useful’ degree. (My practical self should thank the elders who persuaded me this way, my dreamy self regrets what might have been.) When I left Belarus, my Russian teacher and good friend was very enthusiastic, though perhaps a little over optimistic, about my progress. She wanted me to prepare for exams for teaching Russian as a foreign language. On the train to Crimea I had some books to read, a diary to write in and an exercise book for my Russian. I did continue going to classes in Dublin for a few years after I returned, but I am ashamed to say that I have forgotten most of it through lack of practice. (Like my French, like my Irish. I wish I could be one of those people who seem to be able to hold multiple languages in their head and juggle around. It is not for a lack of fantastic and generous teachers. Frau Harbison, who devoted her life to teaching German to the children of Skerries and helped me when I was going through a rough patch with my degree; Oksana, who taught me twice a week as paid for by my employers and three times a week out of the goodness of her heart and Lorena, who became a part time wedding planner and full time friend. We said ‘hasta luego’ last night and there were more than a few tears as the realisation set in.)  Oksana gave me some lovely copies of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy etc. when I left Minsk, but probably those I would be more likely to return to at this stage are the ‘skazki’, the fairy tales. Randomly I’m just remembering my attempt at translating the Children of Lir into Russian (deti Lira) back when I had my daily lessons.

One of my favourites growing up was The Firebird and I was happy to find that one here. I suppose it is probably one of the better known tales, since it has been transformed into a ballet by Stravinsky, though I haven’t managed to see that one yet, even though in my time in Minsk I tried to take in as many ballets as possible at the local, but well regarded Bolshoi theatre. Back in Dublin you see the same standards every year, The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty. It drives my ballet teacher cousin crazy.

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Speaking of fairy tales, a few months ago I discovered an enchanted forest close to Jimena de la Frontera. As we had made the decision to move home we tried to make the most of the time we had left here and visit the places we hadn’t seen. We arrived on that March night in heavy rain and there were lots of snipes at each other. The next morning I was not surprised to discover that the hike I wanted to join was cancelled. If in Ireland we always waited for dry weather we’d never go hiking at all. The owner of the posada pointed me to a short route around the edge of the town. I noticed that a longer route followed the river and decided to try for that one. (The posada by the way was ‘rustic’ but enchanting and had a huge library which must have been owned by some late expat; it seems like it was stuck at a certain point of time. I wouldn’t say this was the best place I’ve stayed at in Spain, but I liked the quirkiness.)

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According to the map at some point there was a bridge across the river but I never came across it. ‘Marked’ walks are a bit like that in Spain, you follow a few spruced up signs, begin to believe the trails are as well organised as Switzerland…… and then you’re on your own. I did pass an area where I saw some blocks under the water and I wondered if that was it. In any other season there might be less water and it could be easy to cross but it wasn’t a goer at that time. I didn’t want to get to the other side and find I was wrong.

So I continued on, following what must have been sheep’s paths, getting further from civilisation and closer to the monster’s lair or the hidden prince’s palace.

It was nice to be somewhere different and all alone. Around Casares there are so many houses blighting the landscape. I’m sure they could not all have had the proper permits. You are never this alone.

As I moved on searching for the elusive bridge I had to hope I could follow the gingerbread crumbs back. I felt like that guy in ‘My Side of the Mountain’. I could just start living in a tree and make my life here. Does anybody write children’s novels like that (or, say, ‘The House at World’s End’) any more or do they all have to be super realistic and basically child services would be called in?

So the book itself. Despite my intention to replace A Clash of Kings with The Count of Monte Cristo, this became my go to car book. As the stories are short it probably made more sense.

It’s interesting that some versions of the tales have been from the same base story and yet are so different. I used to be so angry with Disney for not sticking to the ‘real’ story, though I was comparing to the Grimm Brothers who apparently collated different versions and streamlined them into one.

There really is an emphasis on the threes. The three sisters, a common theme in Russian fairytales and literature.Three daughters, three sons, three chicks, three tsaroviches. Well in my family there are three daughters and three sons, so a perfect fit for a fairytale. Unfortunately that would never work out well for me, as I am the eldest sister.

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While out walking near Gaucin in April I had an idea for a children’s book following on from my quest near Jimena. Well, another for the backburner. Someday I’d better start writing, not just talking or blogging about it. Spring is a beautiful time of year. The rain seems to have stopped (though, it always keeps sneaking back…well into June). The sky is blue but everything is still green or verdant, is it? Is that the word you use when green just will not do? Ah Gaucin, the hiding place of Carmen, that most famous of gypsies.

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On the way back we slowed down yet again to glance at the monstrosity of a palace that seems to have got past all planning laws. I wonder what fairy tale character is most likely to be hiding there. We stopped at the Genal river and dipped our feet. It wasn’t quite swimming weather yet.

The book’s introduction explains some of the influences of the magic tales on Russian traditions, such as Mishka the bear and Myshka the mouse, where a girl has to play blind man’s buff with a bear but a mouse helps her by taking her place. Even in today’s weddings the groom often has to search for his bride. By the way, I love the tradition of games at Russian (maybe all Slavic?) weddings. I thought about having some at ours, but it would have been too complicated to organise when guests aren’t used to it. Though I have to say, at this stage so many Irish people have been to Polish weddings and everybody seems to have a good time, maybe it might take off in the future?

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Mayday brought us a fairytale fog. A few years back the government in Gibraltar decided to break the tradition of the UK where you got the first Monday and give us the 1st instead. That’s great, I love bank holidays and all, but when it’s a Thursday and you just have so much to do at work you feel like maybe you aren’t going to enjoy it.

There was some walk going from Casares that I thought I might join. Sometimes when I’m, not sure if I want to do something I leave it to the last minute, maybe even beyond and if it’s still possible I feel like that’s a sign. Sometimes this works perfectly, sometimes I realise too late that I really wanted to do that thing (see Devotchka concert Dublin 2008….. what do you mean it’s sold out?)

So the way our house is built you can easily have no idea what the weather is like outside. It stays cold and dark until summer when you realise it isn’t cold anymore. I was dithering over breakfast, wondering what do, then I caught a glimpse of the fog outside, raced upstairs and saw that once again the fog was everywhere. I was so worried I’d miss it that I grabbed my camera (finally replaced the one stolen last year, yay!) and my bag and headed out. After taking a few around the town I realised I had missed the opportunity of going on the walk and didn’t mind too much, I was thinking of heading to the edge of town to try and get some good shots and then I realised there was only one place for it, so hiked up to the refugio and the amazing mirador.

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While I can tolerate insects as well as most (they’re obviously a very important part of the biosphere etc. etc. ) I just hate cockroaches and there were some humongous looking cockroach type creatures up there. I suppose In fairytale world the cockroach would offer me a wish in order to save his life and then would turn out to be a prince in disguise..

So I was back at the refugio to write. It is a very fairytale like setting itself, if more the woodcutter’s abode than the palace. I just had to stop every 5 minutes of so and take some more photos of the fog.

If you are kind and brave people (or various animals) will come together to help you. Look, we all know life isn’t like a fairytale, but sometimes there are lessons you can learn and if you are good to people I truly believe that they will mostly be good back.Of course in fairytales you will always get your just rewards, whereas in real life you may not be so lucky.

One of the tales is called ‘The Frog Princess’ We are well aware of the Frog Prince and as far as I knew the frog princess was just a fantastic Divine Comedy song. This was one of the many examples of a prince or princess trapped in the body of an animal until their true love sets them free.

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As enjoyable as the stories were sometimes the stories of the writers/collectors were more interesting. From Ivan Aleksandrovich Khudyakov, who was convicted of complicity in a plot to assassinate Tsar Alexander II and while in exile in Siberia complied a Yakut-Russian dictionary to Nadezhda Teffi, the Russian émigré in Paris.

While I enjoyed reading the fairytales a few at a time, there is no denying that they can get quite samey and that you can become immune to people getting killed at the drop of a hat (a bit like Game of Thrones, eh?) and also falling in love at first sight with little or no emotional resonance.

So the stories of Teffi came as some respite, in particular ‘The Dog’. It is only in the very vaguest sense a fairytale and has emotional resonance in spades.

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Coincidentally while writing this I came across a review of a newly published book on the works of Teffi (Subtly Worded, and Other Stories). Once I get home I’m going to seek it out. I’m beginning to realise that this ‘no book-buying lark’ is not going to work very well. On the one hand I feel I should be reading a larger portion of the books I already own, but on the other hand I know that whether I end up reading them or not my buying interesting oddball books will result in publishers continuing to publish interesting oddball books. And if I buy them in a bookshop as opposed to online I am, in my small way, keeping bookshops afloat. Sometimes independent, sometimes chains. I like independent bookshops but I like some chains too and I don’t think it’s evil to give business to a well-run bookshop like Waterstones (also have I mentioned Hodges Figgis is my favourite bookshop? Maybe once? Oh ok then…..) or Easons. Also I feel it’s payback for all the books I read for free in those shops while I was in college. Anyway loads of people are talking about unread books at the moment. Apparently it’s perfectly normal to have half of your books unread. There’s no shame in it.

I know I wasn’t finished on the subject of this book, but I think I will finish up anyway. Teffi was a high point. Russia/Ukraine has hit the headlines again and probably if you google Russian fairytales at the moment you will be more likely to read some wildly outrageous accusations about the perpetrators of MH17 than classic bedtime stories. I don’t feel like burying myself in the more traditional ones right now.

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