Eugene Ostashevsky, Oberiu: An Anthology of Russian Absurdism (Northwestern University Press, 2006)
It’s about time (and then not at all about time) the Oberiu, also known as Russia’s last avant-garde, became a household name like the Surrealists, Dadaists, and all the rest. It’s no accident that we haven’t heard of many of these writers until recently. As a collective, they were active in St. Petersburg in the 1920s and ’30s, but much of the group’s work fell victim to hard-line Soviet censorship that in some cases lasted until as late as 1989. Their work is a marriage of Romanticism and crudity, as well as theatrical, sometimes slapstick, combinations and mysticism.
Oberiu stands for Ob’edinenie real’nogo iskusstva, or the “Union of Real Art” and is a problematic moniker for a group of name-shifters. Nonetheless, it is the most commonly used term encompassing three writers Daniil Kharms, Alexander Vvedensky, and Nikolai Zabolotski; two philosophers, Yakov Druskin and Leonard Lipavsky; and Nikolai Oleinikov, the editor of the children’s magazine for which Kharms, Vvedensky, and Lipavsky wrote children’s verse to win their bread. Kharms’s work for children has been consistently and widely read in Russia since its initial publication, while his work for adults was censored until recently.
Their obsessions during their meetings included the total integration of neologisms (integration as opposed to segregation being where they diverged from zaum poetics—though ultimately zaum was one of the crimes of which they were accused.) The poem/play “Frother” prods the meaning of that word and concept through something resembling both a game of 20 questions and the elusive unraveling of a Zen parable. All the “definitions” point towards a dying father and the froth of death, but ultimately show the inadequacies of even the most poignant word at prodding the incommunicable.
The attack of formalism and championing of alogism are well suited to the Oberiu’s general distrust of time. Their use of unexpected analogies and the juxtaposition of terms or disparate syntactical elements brings seemingly unrelated objects into the same plane. In one of the most sentimental poems in this volume, Rug/Hydrangea, Vvedensky writes, “I’m frightened by the fact that when my glance / falls upon two of the same thing / I don’t see how hard they are trying / to resemble each other,” while in The Story of Sdygr Appr Kharms writes, “quietly the ocean splashes / the looming cliffs cry doo doo doo / quietly the ocean flashes / a man is singing through a flute.”
In his introduction and throughout his amusing and informative footnotes and endnotes, the editor, Eugene Ostashevsky, writes of his reluctance to regard the work as topical. Perhaps in fear that the Stalinist aura will succeed once again in blotting out the writing in itself, he has generally included the most metaphysical pieces of each author. In this selection, the link is to be found in a complicated relationship to a death daily at the writers’ heels. In a meditation entitled “Death” Druskin attempts to nullify the notion of time running out: “Yet if God sees my whole life, he sees it all at once, that is to say not in time. God does not see time, whereas I experience time as a certain defect.”
Zabolotsky’s play “The Triumph of Agriculture,” shows the nuances of the group’s relationship with the strangely optimistic views of the day. It is set on a kolkhoz where the humans promise animals equality on all levels with humans, including giving them responsibilities such as bookkeeping. The piece shows how the Oberiu dreamed of much more than a political protest—they intended to restructure the way we think about reality at its very origin and to point out the hyper-reality that authority puts in place in order to make it theirs to mold. A horse exclaims about a soldier, “This fellow has more lies than a library!” This is a running theme wherein authority is just whoever happens to possess an inkpot—simultaneously a self-conscious allusion to the Oberiu’s own “author-ity.”
Rhyming, a dying art in English, was a crucial feature of the Oberiu writer’s palette; they thought of words as existing in their own realm, only ever approaching the physical like the limit of a function, and so often let rhyme dictate the progression of a poem. The original text demands some serious ingenuity on the part of the translators—five poets in their own rite—Ostashevsky, Matvei Yankelevich, Ilya Bernstein, Genya Turkovskaya ,and Thomas Epstein, all with various involvements in the petite Brooklyn-based Ugly Duckling Presse. They are excellent excavators of slang equivalents—crucial to capturing the Menippean satire—and they rhyme with bravado—a real derring-do—using false, slant, eye, and exact rhyme, making the English language break a few rules of its own.
Especially at a time when our own president constantly challenges our capacity to understand the world through language, the collection is a good reminder of that which Zabolotsky says best, “Syntax builds houses totally dotty/the world stands in awkward beauty.”
Simona Schneider is a contributing translator of Daniil Kharms: Selected Works, edited by Matvei Yankelevich.