Entries from an Encyclopedia of A Life in Russia, via José Manuel Prieto

Operating under the pseudonym of Thelonius Monk, a refined but mostly aspirant Cuban witness to the final days of the Soviet imperium offers these clarificiations of several regional enigmas.

Babionki (бабионки). There are, of course, women—or mujeres as I might prefer to call them—in Muscovy, but there are babionki, as well, and these latter are superior. They wear their hair in a tight bun at the back of the neck and can generally be found in the bazaars, haggling at the top of their lungs, arms akimbo, over the price of a kilo of figs. They are very sweet albeit somewhat hardened by life in the imperium. Not every woman, I hasten to clarify, is worthy of the title. Both nerve and temperament are prerequisite. Babionki are much more commonly found among women of the people, though a number of female intellectuals, slightly derailed by the novels of Françoise Sagan, are also babionki, as if consubstantially. When, upon arriving at a rendez-vous in fine spirits and with every intention of sailing carefree through an inconsequential romantic interlude (our erudite commentary on Beardsley at the ready), we discern, behind an elegant pair of glasses, the glint of a pair of babionki eyes, it is highly advisable to retract the hand—though it may be halfway on its journey toward the skirt— indefinitely postpone this particular siege, and slip down the back stairs, giving thanks to merciful God all the while for the warning.

As a biological entity (they give suck to their offspring, which is a highly irrational mode of conduct) the babionki eluded the rigid state control exercised by the imperium. In consequence, they’ve been the victims of perfidious defamation campaigns. But the babionki, as “free men,” до одного места about that which is to say, les importa un rábano or, in other words, “they don’t give a radish” (or a “fig” or a “good goddam”).

Bogatyr (богатырь: mythic warrior). We might call him a colossus out of a medieval epic poem of heroic deeds. He represents the немереная (incomparable) force of the Russian nation. Many secretly know themselves to be bogatyr, a conviction for which no evidence whatsoever is required. One need only sprawl Continue reading »

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Kiki Dimoula is a brazen plagiarist

Kiki Dimoula, one of Greece’s preeminent poets, is just now being comprehensively translated into English for the first time thanks to the exemplary Margellos World Republic of Letters series at Yale University Press, an endowed series made possible by Cecile and Theodore Margellos to bring important works of world literature into English. They have already provided us with lovely and much discussed editions of Adonis, Gombrowicz, Saba, and Can Xue, among many others. Cecile Margellos herself, a Greek native, shepherded these translations into print.

Kiki Dimoula was born in in 1931 and published her first book of poems in 1956. She is the third woman ever to be inducted into the Academy of Athens, a nice honor.  These translations are by Cecille Inglessis Margellos and Rika Lesser.

Let’s read these poems, with their whiff of toppled marble, in a spirit of gratitude for the bounties of Greece, a country that has brought us so much and now suffers so terribly.


Lower Class (III)

Nightingales guide my hearing
through May’s wildflower mosaic.

The Temple of Hera, the Nymphaeum of Herodes, the Prytaneion.
See how much prehistory a tiny bit of the present has crushed.

Disproportion’s civilizations and tombs
are topsy-turvy in my mind.
I forget in which of their annihilations
so many illustrious dates made their camps,
when power was proclaimed the ultimate goal,
I always confuse whatever happened prior to my existence
with as-if-it-hadn’t-happened.  After we cease to exist
mark my words
my confusion will prove prophetic.

I better comprehend
the stones scattered all around
as they were, anonymous, brought to light by the excavation,
parts of some wholeness–
no one knows which lower level
of earth it went under.
To me their lost meaning is familiar.
I comfort them by inscribing them
as the branches’ faint movements inscribe
the scattered spring air:

Fragment of a fugitive slave tomb
unfinished epitaph of a beardless triumph
small lowest stair of a one-storey hetaera
window sill on which
a virtuous large-leafed home was sunning its plant
and this one here I’m sitting on—
a sidewalk for insects and shadowy conjectures.

Where would my own uninscribed defeats
lie scattered, I wonder.
Was I defeated while fighting or while passing by?

 Translated by Rika Lesser and Cecille Inglessis Margellos

“Lower Class (III)” will appear in The Brazen Plagiarist, to be published next month by the Margellos World Republic of Letters series at Yale. Watch for more Kiki Dimoula on Little Star.






Excerpted from The Brazen Plagiarist , by Kiki Dimoula, in the Margellos World Republic of Letters series, published by Yale University Press. Copyright © 2012 by Kiki Dimoula. Reprinted by permission. For more information, www.margellosworldrepublicofletters.com


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In the Dasgupta Institute, Tim Parks

Beth: People are fidgeting. Kristin has arrived to my left, Marcia to my right. Even without seeing, I feel who is there. I know them, I know the space. I know the vibrations they send, the way the air changes when they sit. Someone starts to breathe very deeply, rhythmically, behind us, some new student who can’t find her breath. She’s heaving like a bellows. We are preparing for vipassana, preparing to work diligently all day long: the in-breath, the out-breath. Across the lip. For half an hour at least, nothing but the breath. In and out. Preparing. A silver stream of breath parting an ocean of deep water. A silver lifeline through the dark. Somewhere it must reach the surface. Somewhere it must connect with the future.

Silence. My chest is rising and falling. Without breathing I watch myself breathe. It’s such a gentle movement. A slight rising and falling of the chest, the diaphragm. The sea has calmed and the water is lapping ever so gently on the sand, rising and falling ever so gently, like a kiss, a caress. In the darkness the faces begin. A woman’s face, distinct in every feature, Continue reading »


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Stig Dagerman on Guilt

“What was it you felt guilty about? What have you done, what crime have you been guilty of?”

“Ah, that’s what’s so paradoxical about it all, you see. I haven’t done anything, or at least, I hadn’t done anything—not then. I was completely innocent—and yet I felt guilty. I thought I was responsible for everything that happened, it was my fault that the slum where my parents still lived even after I’d rented a little room closer to the bank, that slum was teeming with children suffering from consumption, it was my fault that so many old people died in poverty in hostels dotted all over the city, and I even felt stabs of guilt every time I saw a beggar or some poor soul with pock-marks all over his face. Of course, I tried to help, using all the means at my disposal in order to reduce my guilt, and I tried all the channels open to a citizen who wants to do something to assist the underprivileged, but I have to say I found all of them inadequate, and in some cases criminally inadequate. The charities disgusted me with their onanistic self-satisfaction, it was as if they had to look at themselves in a mirror after every good deed to check whether they’d acquired a new little wrinkle round their mouths advertizing their kindness. The political parties spent far too much energy on peripheral questions, Continue reading »

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Robert Wrigley: Allowable Error

A treasure from the AWP. Robert Wrigley reflects on the political in poetry across three wars.

Wislawa Szymborska, who died this past February 1st, at the age of 88, won the Nobel Prize in 1996. She insisted no one was more surprised by this than she was. Newspapers all over the world reported her “embarrassment” at the attention brought to her by the Prize. The humility seemed then, and still seems, genuine.

Szymborska’s poems are, as they say, “plain spoken,” and also continually charged with a sly irony that manages to be both rueful and insouciant. She was 16 when the German army invaded Poland in 1939. She came of age in the era of Auschwitz and the Warsaw uprising, and after the end of World War II, Poland, as you know, was dominated by a totalitarian government, installed by the Soviet Union, for much of the next half century. Her first book was deemed unworthy of publication by government censors in 1949. It was reported (by those censors) that the book did not live up to socialist needs and that it was “too obscure” for the people’s standards. That was probably the last time anyone ever judged Ms. Szymborska’s poems to be “too obscure.” She was a child of her age, and it was most certainly a political one. Continue reading »

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Binyavanga Wainaina, Some scenes from a Kenyan childhood

It is a Sunday. I am nine. We are sitting on a patch of some tough nylon grass next to the veranda. Mum has brought out her Ugandan mats. I am reading a new book. I am reading a new book every day now. This book is about a flamingo woman; she is a secretary, her sticklike legs improbable in cloggy high heels, her handbag in her beak.

Flying away.

The flamingo book came with a carton of books my mum bought from American missionary neighbors who were going back home. The sun is hot. I close my eyes and let the sun shine on my eyelids. Red tongues and beasts flutter, aureoles of red and burning blue. If I turn back to my book, the letters jumble for a moment, then they disappear into my head, and word-made flamingos are talking and wearing high heels, and I can run barefoot across China, and no beast can suck me in, for I can run and jump farther than they can.

On my trampoline of letters and words.

Mum is shelling peas and humming, and our bodies all hum smoothly with her. Chiqy is peeling petals off flowers; Ciru is running around with a yo-yo Continue reading »

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Tim Parks: Run, don’t walk, then sit

A heartfelt plea: Read immediately Tim Parks’s new book, Teach Us to Sit Still, published today. The book comes disguised as medical self-help or new-age how-to, but it is not: It is an original and courageous exploration of the ravages of the thinking life.

Says Coetzee, Teach Us to Sit Still is a “quest for relief from chronic pain that begins with learning how to breathe and ends in something close to spiritual transformation.”

Read sections from it here on Little Star:

Paradoxical Relaxation
The Skeptic Meditates

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2028. A trusted member of the security services embarks on a royal errand.

Vladimir Sorokin, translated by Jamey Gambrell


We first drive along the highway, then turn onto a narrow road. The road stretches through woodlands, then crawls into the taiga. We ride silently. Pines, firs, and deciduous trees surround us, heavy with snow. But the sun is already heading toward sunset. Another hour or so and it will be dark. We drive about ten versts. Our Zhu-Ba-Ze turns onto a snow-covered country road. My city Mercedov would get stuck right away. But the Boar couldn’t care less—the one-and-a-half-arshin tires chew up the snow like a meat grinder. The Chinese boar barges through the Russian snow. We continue on for a verst, then another, and a third. And the age-old taiga suddenly opens. We’ve arrived! A fantastical tower rises over a wide clearing; it’s built of ancient pines, has fanciful turrets, latticework windows, carved window casings, a copper-tiled roof, and is topped with a weather cock. The tower is surrounded by a ten-arshin pike fence made of incredibly thick logs sharpened at the top. Neither man nor beast could crawl over those pikes. Perhaps the stone Yermak Timofeevich might try, but even he would scrape his granite balls.

We drive up to the plank gates coated in forged iron. The Zhu-Ba-Ze sends an invisible, inaudible signal. The bolts slide back. We drive into the courtyard of Praskovia’s estate. Guards in Chinese attire surround the car with swords and cudgels. All the clairvoyant’s inner guards are Chinese, masters of kung fu. I get out of the Boar and climb the steps of the carved entrance, decorated with Siberian animals carved out of wood. All the beasts here exist in loving harmony. It’s not a portico, but a wonder of wonders! Here you have a lynx licking a roe deer’s forehead, wolves playing with a boar, hares kissing foxes, and grouse sitting on an ermine. Two bears support the pillars of the doorway.

I enter.

Inside everything is totally different. Here there’s nothing carved, Russian. Smooth, bare walls of marble, a granite floor illuminated green from below, a ceiling of black wood. Lamps burn, incense smokes. A waterfall streams down a marble wall, white lilies float in a pool.

The clairvoyant’s servants approach me silently. Like shadows from the afterlife, Continue reading »

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Three soldiers leave camp on a mission, from “To Hell With Cronjé,” by Ingrid Winterbach

(Cape Colony, South Africa, 1902) It is a clear day, with few clouds. They have not been on horseback for a long time. The cool morning air is pleasant on Reitz’s cheeks. He is grateful for a chance to get out of camp at last, even for a day or two. The plan is to move in a northwesterly direction for an hour or three before turning sharp west and continuing in that direction until they reach the koppie where they are to wait for Davenport.

They dismount at a clump of trees behind a small stream. They water the horses, rest in the shade. Ben looks around with interest. He points out the kaffir copper butterfly and the scavenger beetle, the sand beetle, the red-breasted jackal buzzard. Somewhere in the distance they hear a quail’s protracted cry: keeoo-keeoo. Gert Smal speaks little. He seems nervous. He chews at his thumbnail and studies the map.

During the course of the day they dismount a few more times, in the vicinity of a spring or a stream, if possible, to water the horses. Preferably in the shade, for the day is growing progressively hotter.

Reitz and Ben show a keen interest in their surroundings. Gert Smal sits on his own, studies the map, scarcely speaks to them. The dog with the yellow eyes lies beside Continue reading »

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“The Grand Lady of My Soul,” by Goli Taraghi

In front of me, in the middle of the desert, in that silent wasteland, there is a secluded garden sheltered by white walls. A half-open door summons me. I peek in. There is no sign of a human being. There are two rows of tall poplars flanking the surrounding walls and four aged cypress trees in the middle of four flower beds thick with wild red poppies and desert flowers. In the middle of the garden there is a pool brimming with crystalline water and the blue of the sky. The cobblestone walkways are coated with a thin layer of dust. No footprints, no signs of disturbance, no remnants of an intrusion. On the north side of the garden, at the top of a stone staircase, there is a sprawling veranda. Above it sits a white, celestial house. It is so dazzling, so pure. Perhaps it is a vision. Perhaps a dream.

Slowly, with cautious steps, I move forward. I am afraid the house might disappear if I take my eyes off of it, or it may crumble if I breathe too hard.

I sit on the edge of the pool and wash my face. What pleasure! The reflection of the house shimmers deep in the water and the green of the trees floats on its marble-like surface.

The water’s cool scent is tempting. I take off my clothes and slide deep into the pool. I open my eyes. The blue sky has spread in the depths of the water. I feel as though I am floating among the galaxies. The water’s breath blows away the thousand-year-old dust from my soul. My spirit quivers with pleasure. It is as if invisible hands are giving me ablution in the spring of eternal life. I lie floating on the surface. The sun has climbed halfway down the wall and in the fading light the cypress trees have grown taller. Again, I turn my eyes toward the house. How simple and unassuming, how noble and immaculate. It reminds me of someone close but forgotten, someone at the tip of ancient memories. At the edge of a sweet dream.

I climb out of the pool. I shiver. Dusk in the desert is cool and refreshing. I get dressed. I pick up my shoes and set off barefoot. I count twelve stairs. Someone had been praying on the veranda and has left behind a prayer stone. I step onto the veranda. It is an empty space with plain, unadorned walls. The windows are framed with modest cut-mirror designs. On either side of the veranda there are two half-open doors that lead into a room that is adjacent to a hidden alcove. Dim, labyrinthine hallways and spiral staircases draw me to themselves.

I am breathless by the time I reach the top floor. From here, I can see the four corners of the world. The sky is only a step away and the desert stretches as far as the horizon. I sit. For a long time. What point in time is this? Where am I? A sweet slumber hovers behind my eyelids, but it doesn’t reach my brain. The stars have one by one appeared. My gaze floats in space and my thoughts, like runaway ripples on water, have no constant or defined shape.

I cannot feel my arms and legs. My body has lost its physical bounds and boundaries. I feel like I am an extension of the house, of the garden, of the desert, and that my eyes are suspended from the stars. I float in space. Weightless. Empty. How removed I feel from everyone and everything, from the geometric relationship of objects and the logical symmetry of things, from the tyranny of time and the exactitude of numbers, from the massive slate of law and the heavy tome of ethics. How far away I am from the validity of matter and the authenticity of history, from the invariable legitimacy of ideas and the conflict between the haves and have-nots, from the rituals of purification and the ceremonies of shrouding and burial.

I wake up. It is dawn. Bewildered, I look around. I get up. I am hungry, yet I feel well. I feel light and rested. There is a pleasant breeze. A rooster is crowing in the distance. A small village, down there, at the foot of the mountain, is awake. I put on my shoes. I hear footsteps. I climb down the stairs. An old man is sitting on the edge of the pool, performing his morning ablutions. His long, bushy beard is white. I say hello. He nods. He is praying.

When I reach the garden door, I stop and look back. In the half-light of dawn, the house looks like a vision, a luminous manifestation of a divine presence. It says something to me, something unspoken. I understand, and a sense of calm and confidence settles under my skin.

The way back is no longer unknown to me. The desert is quiet and still and void of daunting temptations. When I reach the green meadow, I take a shortcut and walk through the fields. Back on the road, a truck stops and the driver offers me a ride. He is a young man with a black beard and sunburnt skin.

There are dozens of pictures of ayatollahs taped to the windshield. I get out at a teahouse near town. Only now I realize how hungry I am.

Read more over the next three issues of Little Star Weekly!

Translated from the Persian by Sara Khalili

Goli Taraghi’s beautiful stories, shortly to be published by Norton in a selection entitled The Pomegranate Lady and her Sons: Selected Stories, manage to combine sensitive and compassionate observation of contemporary life in Iran, icy political rigor, and the potent irony of a critical woman’s vision on a world set up for men. She was one of the first women writers to be published and achieve recognition in modern Iran. We first published “Grand Lady of My Soul” as the first installment of our Cultural Center of Our Own series, attempting to respond to the defeat of the downtown Islamic Cultural Center with our own renewed attention to Muslim literary life.  We found the story in Reza Aslan’s then-new anthology Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East, published in cooperation with Words Without Borders.

Read a Bookslut interview with Goli Taraghi here

Goli Taraghi was born in Tehran in 1939. She has been honored as a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in France. Sarah Khalili has translated a number of works of Iranian literature, most recently Kissing the Sword: A Prison Memoir, by Shahrnush Parsipur.









Reprinted from The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons: Selected Stories by Goli Taraghi. Copyright © 2013 by Goli Taraghi. Translation copyright © 2013 by Sara Khalili. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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