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“Something at once ‘Lermontov’ and ‘not Lermontov’”

May 27, 2020

Thanks to an article by Peter Orte, I just read Lermontov’s “Ashik-Kerib” (Ашик-Кериб, written 1837, unfinished, published posthumously in 1846) for the first time. It’s a short prose piece about a poor musician in love with a rich young woman, who leaves for seven years to seek his fortune so he can marry her as an equal. His rival plays a trick that convinces everyone but his beloved that he’s dead; he, the musician, almost misses the seven-year time limit before she marries the rival; with magical help, he arrives just in time. He can now finally marry his beloved, and he invites his rival for her hand (if not her affection; she was ready to kill herself at the wedding to avoid marrying the man she didn’t love) to marry his, the musician’s, sister.

Everything in it seemed to remind me of something I’d just read. One thing was parallels to the Odyssey (547), just like with Griboedov’s Woe from Wit (Горе от ума, 1823–25), but there was also this:

В это время жил в Халафе паша, большой охотник до песельников; многих к нему приводили — ни один ему не понравился; его чауши измучились, бегая по городу; вдруг, проходя мимо кофейного дома, слышат удивительный голос; они туда. “Иди с нами к великому паше, — закричали они, — или ты отвечаешь нам головою”. — “Я человек вольный, странник из города Тифлиза, — говорит Ашик-Кериб, — хочу пойду, хочу нет; пою когда придется, и ваш паша мне не начальник”. Однако, несмотря на то, его схватили и привели к паше. “Пой”, — сказал паша, и он запел. (179)

At that time there lived in Halaf a pasha, a great lover of singers; many were brought to him, but not one pleased him; his chiauses were worn out from running around the city; suddenly, while passing by a coffeehouse, they hear a remarkable voice; they go there. “Come with us to the great pasha,” they exclaimed, “or you will answer for it with your head.” ”I am a free man, a wayfarer from the city of Tiflis,” says Ashik-Kerib, “If I want to go, I will; if I don’t, I won’t; I sing when the time is right, and your pasha is not in charge of me.” However, despite this, they grabbed him and took him to the pasha. “Sing,” said the pasha, and he began to sing.

As Orte explains, Halaf is Aleppo, and Tiflis is Tbilisi. But why did this passage feel familiar? I think it was that I’d just been reminded of Stenka Razin and his coat in Pushkin. The rebel verbally refusing to obey but backing down right away in the face obviously irresistible force was apparently something of a theme in the post-Decembrist years.

Kurshud-Bek, Ashik-Kerib’s rival, tricks him by stealing his clothes and taking them back as evidence he has drowned (from a 2014 animated version of the story drawn by schoolchildren in Rostov-on-Don)

The story of Ashik-Kerib is not original to Lermontov: his prose piece “has generally been assumed to represent a transcription or translation of Azerbaijani folklore, namely, the dastan Aşiq Qərib” (543). A dastan is an “‘epic’ poem containing both narrative and lyric elements” (543n1). But “Azerbaijani” may be too narrow. Orte is inclined to see the source text as “of mixed, or shattered, origin,” coming out of a place and time where Azerbaijani and Armenian and Georgian and other cultures were intermingled (543–44 and 544n4). Even the work of selecting and adapting parts of the story from a pre-existing oral tradition was probably not just Lermontov’s, but was him collaborating with an unknown local translator while in the Caucasus (559).

We don’t know exactly what Lermontov and his co-author left out of their selection, since the posthumous publication of “Ashik-Kerib” is the earliest known written version of the dastan it came from. But a lot was left out. The original dastan is a “massive oral epic” that Lermontov converted into a Russian literary fairy tale (547). A later transcription of the dastan from 1892 included “229 lyric songs,” but Lermontov kept only three or four as songs, incorporating others into the narrative (546–47, 555n34); he left out all the songs sung by the musician’s beloved (547n15). The text we have feels unfinished or incomplete. A key plot point involves a platter (блюдо) that we seem to be expected to recognize, but had not been mentioned before (547n17).

Orte wants to add to this account by looking at “Ashik-Kerib” in the context of Lermontov’s works. The main character is a poet-wanderer figure who was not only congenial to the exiled Lermontov on biographical grounds, but also fit with Lermontov’s ideas about the archetypical poet, seen, for example, in “The Death of the Poet” (Смерть поэта, 1837), the poem that got him exiled (550–55).

An important character in “Ashik-Kerib” is Khidr-Ilyas. The main character, about to miss the seven-year deadline to return to his beloved, is impossibly far away and ready to kill himself in despair; a mysterious stranger transports him to three different cities (for unclear reasons, he keeps naming the wrong city, though he’s specifically warned to tell the truth about where he wants to go) in a single day. In Lermontov’s text this stranger turns out to be “none other than Khaderiliaz (St. George).” By looking at other versions of the dastan, Orte is able to flesh out a part of the story that’s reduced to traces in Lermontov: that Khidr-Ilyas is a prophet who gave the musician character “the gift of song¨ (553). Those three songs from the dastan that Lermontov kept all “reveal [Ashik-Kerib’s] becoming a true ‘lyric hero’ through the encounter with Khidr-Ilyas, momentarily transcending space, time, and human comprehension” (555).

Quoting Nietzsche on “imperial translation,” Orte concludes by considering “Ashik-Kerib” as “poetic conquest” and orientalism (557–59), noting, however, that

just as Lermontov’s creation constitutes an exception within post-Decembrist Russian literature, questioning the value of imperial war and the orientalist histrionics of a Bestuzhev-Marlinskii, for example, “Ashik-Kerib” constitutes an exception within his works adapting Caucasian folklore. First, it is noteworthy that “Ashik-Kerib” was left unfinished […] More importantly, as nearly all scholars of the tale affirm, “Ashik-Kerib” owes part of its existence to an unidentifiable local translator, with whom Lermontov must have worked. […] it may be interesting to approach “Ashik-Kerib as something not simply accidentally, but essentially unfinished, as something at once “Lermontov” and “not Lermontov,” which speaks to the problems and unfulfilled possibilities of translation. (558–59)

See Peter Orte, “Lermontov’s ‘Ashik-Kerib’ and the Lyric Hero,” Slavic and East European Journal 63.4 (2019): 543–61 (no link).

2 Comments leave one →
  1. languagehat permalink
    May 27, 2020 8:11 am

    A great post packed with fascinating stuff! A couple of additional tidbits: Khidr is a major figure in Islam, particularly Islamic mysticism (Sufism), and Sergei Parajanov made a wild and woolly film based on the Lermontov story (to quote that Wikipedia article: “The director included intentional anachronisms such as the use of submachine guns and a movie camera”).

    • May 28, 2020 10:56 am

      Thanks for this, Hat! I started reading up on Khidr and Khidr-Ilyas (=Khidr + Elijah) and Hidrellez while writing the post, but it was getting long already and I was out of my depth.

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