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The Bookshelf: Studying Maps

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The Bookshelf: Studying Maps

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On arriving in Moscow I obtained a detailed map of the Caspian Sea land for a long time roamed (in my imagination, of course) over its arid eastern shores.

Maps had fascinated me since my childhood and I would pore over them for long hours as if they were the most thrilling books. I studied the direction of rivers, and the curiously indented coastlines, the taiga where trading centres were marked by tiny circles, and repeated as one repeats lines of poetry such fine-sounding geographical names as the Hebrides, Guadarrama Mountains, Inverness, Lake Onega and the Cordilleras.

Gradually I came to have such a vivid picture of these places in my mind that I could easily have composed traveller's notes on many parts of the globe.

Even my romantically-minded father did not approve of my excessive interest in geography, saying that it held many disappointments for me.

"If in later life you get the opportunity to travel, you are bound to be disillusioned," he said. "You will find the countries you visit quite different from what you imagined them to be. Mexico, for example, may turn out to be dusty and poverty-stricken, and the equatorial skies grey and dull."

I did not believe him. The sky above the equator I knew could never be grey. To me it was a deep blue so that even the snows of Kilimanjaro took on an indigo hue.

In any case my interest in geography did not flag. Later, when I had occasion to travel, my conviction that Father's view was far from right was corroborated.

There was the Crimea. True, when I paid my first visit there (and before that I had studied every bit of it on the map) it was different from the land of my imagination. Yet the fact that I had already formed a picture of the country in my mind made me a much keener observer than if I had had no previous idea of it at all. Everywhere I found features which my imagination had missed and those features impressed themselves most strongly on my memory.

The same holds good for the impression produced by people. All of us, for example, have some idea of what Gogol was like. But could we get a glimpse of Gogol in the flesh, we would notice many traits which did not tally with the Gogol of our imagination. And these traits, I think, would strike us most. On the other hand, if we did not have a preconceived idea of the writer, we would probably miss a great deal that was worthy of our attention. Most of us imagine Gogol glum, high-strung, and phlegmatic. Hence features that contradict this mental picture of Gogol would stand out all the more—that is when we found him to be unexpectedly bright-eyed, vivacious, even somewhat fidgety, with an inclination to laugh, elegantly dressed and speaking with a strong Ukrainian accent.

Evasive as these thoughts may be I am nevertheless convinced of their correctness.

Thus, studying a land on the map and travelling through it in our imagination, colours it with a certain romance, and if we later come to visit it we are not likely ever to find it dull.

When I arrived in Moscow I was already roaming in my imagination on the bleak shores of the Caspian. At the same time I read everything I could lay my hands on in the Lenin Library about the desert—fiction, travel stories, treatises and even Arabian poems. I read Przhevalsky, Anuchin, Sven Hedin, Vambery, MacGaham, Grum-Grzhimailo, Shevchenko's diaries on Mangyshlak peninsula, the history of Khiva and Bukhara, Butakov's reports, the works of the explorer Karelin, and various geological surveys. And what I read—the fruit of man's stubborn probings—opened up a wonderful world to me.

Finally the time came for me to go and see the Caspian and Kara-Bogaz for myself, but I had no money.

I went to one of the publishing houses and spoke to the manager, telling him I was writing a novel about Kara-Bogaz Bay. I hoped for a contract but his reaction was far from enthusiastic.

"You must have completely lost touch with Soviet reality to suggest anything so preposterous," he said.

"Why?"

"Because the only interesting thing about Kara-Bogaz Bay is that it has Glauber salt deposits. You don't seriously propose to write a novel about a purgative, do you? If you're not making fun of me and are in earnest, get that crazy idea out of your head. You won't find a single publisher that'll advance you a kopek on it."

With great difficulty I managed to procure some money from other sources.

I went to Saratov and from there down the Volga to Astrakhan. Here I got stranded, having spent the little sum of money I had. By writing a few stories for an Astrakhan newspaper and for Thirty Days, a Moscow magazine, I scraped together the fare for further travels.

To write the stories I took a trip up the Emba River and to the Astrakhan steppes which proved very helpful in my work on the novel. To reach the Emba I sailed on the Caspian past shores thickly overgrown with reeds. The old boat had a strange name—Heliotrope. Like on most old vessels there was much brass in evidence everywhere—brass hand-rails, compasses, binoculars, ship's instruments and even the cabin thresholds were of brass.

It all made the Heliotrope look like a polished, smoking samovar tossing about on the small waves of a shallow sea.

Seals floated on their backs in the warm water, now and then sluggishly flapping their fins. Young girls in navy blue sailor suits, with fish scales sticking to their faces, came on rafts and followed the Heliotrope with their laughter and whistling.

Reflections of the creamy clouds overhead and the white sandy islands around us mingled indistinguishably in the shimmering water. The little town of Guryev rose in a pall of smoke. I boarded a brand-new train, making its first trip, and rode to the Emba through steppe country. Oil pumps wheezed in the town of Dossor on the Emba amidst lakes with pink glossy water. There was a pungent odour of brine. In place of window-panes the town's houses had metal nets so thickly covered with midges that no light could penetrate.

When I reached the Emba I became wholly absorbed in oil-extraction, learning all I could about oil derricks, oil-prospecting in the desert, heavy oil and light oil, the famous oil-fields of Maracaibo in Venezuela, where oil engineers from the Emba went for additional experience. I saw a solpugid bite one of the oil engineers. The next day he died.

This was Central Asia. It was sweltering hot. The stars twinkled through a haze of dust. Old Kazakhs walked about the streets in flowing calico trousers with gaudy patterns of black peonies and green leaves against a pink background.

After each trip I returned to Astrakhan. I lived in a little wooden house belonging to a journalist who worked for the Astrakhan daily paper. On my arrival in the city he had made me come and stay with him. I felt very much at ease in his house which stood on the bank of a canal in a little garden full of blooming nasturtiums. It was in this garden, in a tiny bower with no more room than for one person, that I wrote my stories for the paper. And there I slept, too.

The journalist's wife, a kind, sickly-looking young woman, spent a good deal of the day in the kitchen quietly weeping over the garments of her baby which had died two months before.

After my stories were written in Astrakhan, my journalist's work took me to other towns—Makhach-Kala, Baku and Krasnovodsk. Some of my later experiences are described in Kara-Bogaz. I returned to Moscow, but a few days afterwards was travelling again as a correspondent in the North Urals—in the towns of Berezniki and Solikamsk. After the unbelievable heat of Asia, I found myself in a land of dark pine-woods, bogs, hills covered with lichen and of early winter.

In Solikamsk, in a monastery converted into a hotel, I began to write Kara-Bogaz. Wartime-fashion, I shared my dreary cold vaulted room with three other occupants. They were chemical engineers—two women and a man—employed at the potassium mines in Solikamsk. There was a 17th-century air about the hotel'—a smell of incense, bread, and animal hides. Night watchmen in sheepskin coats struck the hour on iron plates, and alabaster cathedrals, built at the time of the wealthy Stroganovs, loomed white in the dismal light of falling snow. There was nothing here to remind me of Central Asia. And that for some reason made it easier for me to write.

That is a brief, hasty sketch of how I came to write my novel Kara-Bogaz. In it, of course, I have omitted many of the encounters, the trips, the conversations and incidents which have been woven into the fabric of my story. On the other hand, not all of the material I accumulated was incorporated in the book, which is not to be regretted, for it may well come in handy for some future novel.

While writing Kara-Bogaz I made use of what I had seen during my trips along the shores of the Caspian with little regard to plan or structure. When the novel appeared my critics spoke of it as having a "spiral composition" and seemed quite happy about it. I must admit that when I wrote it I did not give much thought to the composition.

What I did think about a great deal was that I should not miss the romance and heroic spirit that lend a glow to the commonplace and must be expressed vividly and faithfully—be it a novel about Glauber salt or about the construction of a paper-mill in the forests of the North.

If he wishes to move human hearts the writer 'must worship truth, must have deep faith in man's reason and a keen love of life.

The other day I read a poem by Pavel Antokolsky. In it are two verses which well express the state of one who is in love with life. I quote them here:

The distant sighs of violins
Proclaiming sway of
Spring that's nigh,
And silence, ringing crystalline
With countless drops, the call replying.

And all these melodies of nature,
Which time is helpless to destroy,
Will live untainted through the ages,
To fill the hearts of men with joy.


1955

Translated by Susanna Rosenberg


The Odessa Journal
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