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Matvei Yankelevich, the masterful translator of the elusive Daniil Kharms, adjures the reader to approach Kharms as more than a political anti-Soviet writer. Many of Kharms’ pieces, with their disappearing characters and eliding images, evoke Stalin’s purges and the disappearances, without explanation, of “enemies of the people” in Kharms’s times.
However, to see Kharms’ writing exclusively through the prism of reaction to the Stalinist age is like reading Gogol as an antiCzarist protesting government bureaucracies. To ignore the omnipresent influence of the drab and violent Stalinist byt, with its privations and thuggery, is impossible in reading Kharms, but the author, evoking variously Gogol, Ionesco, and Khlebnikov, is as difficult to pin down as his transmogrifying characters.
Like the sartorially flamboyant Futurists, Kharms enjoyed his share of épater l’ouvrier. He affected a calabash pipe and a garb reminiscent of a dandified Sherlock Holmes, occasionally lying prone on the Nevsky Prospect until he had gathered a crowd, then rising and walking away unconcerned. The writer also had a tendency to snort loudly and often.
Arrested three times, including detention for “anti-Soviet activities in children’s literature” and dying in prison in 1942 during the siege of Stalingrad, Kharms was a political victim. And like many avant-gardists become suspicious of the Soviet regime, he obeyed Kasimir Malevich’s dictum to “Go and stop progress.”
However, when Kharms writes “My philosophy . . . is deeply hostile to the present,” he speaks of more that politics. Kharms’s artistic practice, labeled with the absurdist nonsense word OBERIU and identified with that school, depicts the author’s “present,” more truthfully than some combination of absurdism and socialist realism. Kharms writings, full of drabness and vulgarity, and populated by protagonists who often resemble a tragic version of the Three Stooges, are replete with pratfalls, bodily harm, illness, and hunger. Like his hero Knut Hamsun’s character in Hunger, Kharms protagonists spiritually chew their own fingers to alleviate the pains of starvation.
Kharms’s writing is that of a man who has known imprisonment, violence, loss, and solitary imaginings about salvation that can only be effected by a miracle. Kharms holds tightly to the miraculous, even when it fails him. The miraculous is not only a weapon against oppressive reality, but Kharm’s true domain as a writer.
Kharms desperately, and sometimes futilely, hopes for miracles. His work summons angelic appearances from Mayakovskian yellow-gloved dandies, bright green-faced apparitions, optical illusions which prove real, and transformations: a man into a Nirvana-sphere, the dead to life, and a host of caterpillars. His fictions, stories and poems are peopled with vivid flora and fauna. He brings colors into a world of Stalinist grey and effects (sometimes) an escape from his “present.”
More typically Russian than anti-Communist is Kharms’s wavering faith, hope for salvation, and forays into philosophy. Characters ranging from Pushkin and Gogol to working men and peasant women tumble and stumble constantly, sometimes to revelation, sometimes to despair. Kharms moves easily between life and death, with corpses which come to life like Gogols’ “Nose” and dead people who affirm, in the traditional Orthodox Easter greeting, that Christ has indeed arisen. In “Trunk,” the suffocating protagonist doesn’t suffocate in a trunk as he should and concludes “That means that life defeated death by a method unknown to me.”
Magic is redemption: “The miller’s happy. He’s a magician.” But in “The Old Woman,” the narrator imagines a story about a miracle worker who chooses not to work miracles. The miracle worker is evicted, but does not to turn his shed into a wonderful brick house. He dies, not having worked a single miracle in his life. The writer’s protest against wasted power to make miracles runs through Kharms’s work.
The word sluchai, used by Kharms to characterize some writings, and which Yankelevich variously translates to capture its full Russian meaning of both events and random incidents, is apt. Kharms’s world is full of appearances of color and wonder amidst shortages in goods, joy, and most importantly, imagination. The inventive poetry of this tome demonstrates the craft of the random, of new zaum-like juxtapositions. Infinite possibilities are opened up by five-legged foxes and the new language needed to describe them.
The parallels to Gogol are abundant, down to the eccentric nature of the two writers and the creation of an alternate reality that captures the essence of their oppressive “present.” A man transformed into a Gogolian nose (“Pakin and Rakukin”), “croaks” and looks angrily back at his life, almost happily following an angel of death. As in Gogol, ideas seamlessly reify, and follow the logic of a reductio ad absurdem Homeric simile, as with corpses who, like the anthropomorphized Nose, live primarily to discomfit a hapless narrator. A purple, “or maybe, damn it all, polka dot” overcoat appears on the Nevsky Prospect. Kharms calls Pushkin “greater than Napoleon,” but his praise for Gogol, which is beyond mere words, is, by extension, much greater.
Kharms’s dilemma is that of any writer. In “Four Illustrations of How a New Idea Dumbfounds a Person Who Is Not Prepared for It”, Kharms, perhaps reader and writer both, mugs:
WRITER I am a writer.
READER: I think you are s — t.
(The writer stands still for a few minutes, shocked by the new idea,
and falls deathly unconscious.)
Kharms ends pieces with the coda, “Enough,” almost self-censoring. Rabbits drink the writer’s ink. Poems with beautiful word choices and illogical imagery, end like daydreams by the author’s command, “That’s all.” Or everything goes up in flames or simply disappears in a “poof.” But when a poet writes a new poem, it is an “event which could not go unnoticed” (“Holiday”). Even the philistine “draughtmen disappear, ashamed of their ignorance.”
The philosophically inclined Kharms comments on the nature of reality, memory (usually painful) and equilibrium (“there’s no fight in it”) by bending events and ideas. In “NotNow” he writes:
This is that...this is not that...This, that, here, there, be, I, We, God.
Kharms also bends language to his ends, as in the zaum story of the “crichen”.
Would you like me to tell you a story about a crichen? No, not a crichen but a chickrichen. Or no, not a chickrichen, but a ... chuchroochen.. No, that’s not it! Chickycraten? No, no! Coocheekoockitchen? No, wrong again!
So I’ve forgotten what this bird’s called. But if I hadn’t forgotten, I would tell you the story about this choockoochurookochen.
Kharms, sometimes playfully, sometimes painfully, lives in the crepuscular realm of what can be told, what can be created, what is saved and what is lost, and the lacunae between them. Redemption can occur. “Black water” can become light in a person’s soul. It can also fail. The anguished Kharms cries out: “Daydreams will be the end of you.” And:
We’ve died on the fields of the everyday
No hope is left to lead the way.
Our dreams of happiness are naught-
Now poverty is all we’ve got.
But faith and the will to create return, persistent and often unbidden. In “Prayer Before Sleep March 28, 1931 at 7 O’Clock in the Evening,” Kharms prays his poet’s prayer:
Only You can enlighten me, Lord,
By way of my poems.
Wake me up strong for the battle of meanings...
The constancy of dirt and joy, as Kharms titles a seminal poem, endures. The selections in Today I Wrote Nothing, with their range, power, and originality, have artistic meaning beyond mere reaction. They defy labels, but encourage instead a close exploration, the basis of which is provided in Matvei Yankelevich’s translation and scholarship.
Larissa Shmailo’s new chapbook is A Cure for Suicide (Cervena Barva Press 2008), and new poetry CD is Exorcism (SongCrew 2008). Larissa has been published in Fulcrum, Rattapallax, Drunken Boat, MiPoesias, and other publications. Larissa translated the Russian Futurist opera Victory over the Sun by A. Kruchenych; a DVD of the original English-language production is part of the collection of the New York Museum of Modern Art. She also contributed translations to the anthology Contemporary Russian Poetry published by Dalkey Archive Press. Visit Larissa at http://www.myspace.com/larissashmailoexorcism/