A Franco-Russian Christmas Tale

snowtreesPapa Panov’s Special Christmas is an endearing and heartwarming tale written by Tolstoy that captures the essence of Christmas by reminding us that being kindhearted and giving selflessly to those in need is what the holiday is all about. It’s a timeless story but particularly apt for our times when the true meaning of Christmas seems to be lost in materialistic wants and the frenzy of shopping. It’s perfect as a bedtime story for children or for the whole family to read aloud together.

A village shoemaker called Papa Panov is expecting Jesus to pay a visit to his humble home on Christmas Day. His wish is to give him the finest pair of shoes he has ever made. On the night of Christmas Eve, he was promised in a dream that his wish will come true but that he should look carefully as he may not be able to recognize his visitor. Will his much awaited guest arrive? You can read the translation of the story here:

http://classiclit.about.com/od/christmasstoriesholiday/a/aa_papachr.htm

Anyone familiar with the Bible will know that the story is an illustration of a passage in the Gospel of Matthew which is an exhortation to care for the poor and the needy:

For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
Naked and ye clothed me: I was sick and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. ( Matthew 25: 35 to 40- King James Version)

This story was written during Tolstoy’s twilight years after his return to Christianity. Tolstoy was raised in the Russian Orthodox Christian faith but he was against organized religion and rejected the authority of the State and the Church. After going through an anguishing spiritual and existential crisis, he decided to give the religion a second chance as he was touched by the faith of the simple peasants around him. He sought solace in the Bible and was particularly moved by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount about turning the other cheek and responding to evil not by resisting or retaliating but with love and forgiveness. He was a Christian anarchist (although he himself did not use the term) who felt the church had betrayed the compassionate teachings of Jesus Christ by choosing to focus instead on superstitions, miracles and rituals. He was eventually excommunicated by the Church for his apostasy.

As interesting, if not more, is the story about the story. Tolstoy’s story is a retelling of a French tale entitled Le Père Martin, originally written by Ruben Saillens, a French pastor and author, in 1883, and eventually published in his book of fables and allegories ( Récits Et Allégories).* The English translation of the fable made its way to Russia and was unintentionally plagiarized by Tolstoy who rewrote the story in Russian with just a few minor changes. The story traveled all the way to Russia only to return to France as a Russian story translated in French. Understandably, Saillens was perturbed by the discovery of his own story being passed off as a Russian one and broached the subject, not once but twice in separate letters to Tolstoy. Tolstoy did reply with apologies on both occasions. In the first letter, he explained that he came across an anonymous English translation of the story in a journal and retold the story in Russian adding a Russian setting. In the second letter, Tolstoy assured him that he had attributed the source in all the subsequent Russian editions of the story but the translated versions in the US and other parts of the world were beyond his control as he had relinquished all copyrights to his work. **

The title of my blog post credits the story to its rightful source as in my own little way I hope to clear up this widespread literary misconception. I have the utmost respect for the creator of Crime and Punishment and Anna Karenina but I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the story is a virtual copy of the French one. Imagine what a furor such an act of plagiarism would have caused in our contemporary literary milieu! In any case, this is probably a folktale with many variants transmitted down generations via oral tradition and probably penned initially by Saillens.

A Merry Christmas to all those who celebrate and whether we believe or not, may we, like Papa Panov, find moments everywhere in our everyday lives to help those who are less fortunate than us!

 

Footnotes:

* You can read the story in French and the preface to the story here:  Le Père Martin

** For more on the two letters, click on the following links:

A Wrong Attribution.

http://rubensaillens.over-blog.org/article-6134768.html

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A Russian Christmas

‘Tis the season to read Christmas stories. I recently read two short stories related to Christmas by two different giants of Russian literature: Chekhov and Dostoevsky. Both stories are distressing and unsettling and they may not be the best selection for Christmas when you want to read something cheerful, but let’s be realistic; life is full of ups and downs and Christmas is not a happy time of celebration for everyone.

At Christmas Time by Anton Chekhov is a poignant story of a poor peasant family, written in two parts. In the first part of the story, an illiterate couple hires an innkeeper’s relative during the holiday season to write a letter to their daughter Efimia whom they haven’t seen for four years since she got married and moved to St. Petersburg. They have only received two letters from her during that period and they are not even sure if they have any grandchildren or not. The mother, Vasilissa, has a deep love for her daughter and gets emotional while speaking out her affectionate Christmas message to Yegor, the scribe. He, on the other hand, is indifferent to her suffering. He is not interested in the couple or their daughter and adds nonsensical thoughts about the military in the letter which have no relevance to the mother’s sentiments. The second part of the story takes place at Efimia’s house which is a room attached to the medical establishment where her husband works as a porter and where they live with their three little children. She bursts out sobbing while reading her parents’ letter.

You can read the story here:
At Christmas Time

We learn that Efimia’s husband neglected to send her letters home as he was preoccupied with important business and eventually the letters got lost. It’s obvious that the young woman is trapped in a miserable marriage to an indifferent and intimidating man. She is terrified of her husband and stops speaking when he enters the room. “ She was very much frightened of him—oh, how frightened of him! She trembled and was reduced to terror by the sound of his steps, by the look in his eyes, and dared not utter a word in his presence.” And while reading out the letter from her parents, she cries out, “Queen of Heaven, Holy Mother and Defender, take us away from here!” Chekhov reveals a lot without being explicit about details. The heightened fear of the woman points out to emotional abuse and maybe even physical abuse. Similarly, we don’t know how the old couple feels about not hearing from their daughter. They miss her immensely and are not sure if she is alive or dead. They are lonely and we wonder if they feel abandoned by her as they have no inkling about her misery.

The dark and disturbing story emphasizes the fact that Christmas is not always a happy and hopeful time for all families.The ending is typical of Chekhov who leaves a lot to the reader’s imagination. Life is not always orderly with definite and happy endings and his stories reflect the painful reality. Let’s proceed to the second succinct story which also manages to pack a punch in a few lines.

The Beggar Boy at Christ’s Christmas Tree is a powerful short story by Dostoevsky, reminiscent of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl.

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You can read the story here:
The Beggar Boy at Christ's Christmas Tree

On Christmas Eve, a poor six year old boy, freezing to death and suffering from terrible pangs of hunger, leaves the cellar where his mother is dying and steps out into town. He is fascinated by the lavish window displays of Christmas trees and fancy cakes that he comes across while strolling in the streets. Through a huge glass window, he sees a lovely Christmas tree and well dressed children laughing and playing and eating cakes of all sorts in a house, but when the boy opens the door and goes in, he is shooed out. A wicked boy on the road hits him on the head and makes off with his cap while he is peering through another glass window to admire dolls.

He betakes himself to someone’s courtyard behind a stack of wood where he has a vision of the Christ’s Christmas tree surrounded by dolls. They are the spirits of other children who have died and gone to heaven. They tell him that this is Christ’s Christmas tree for the little children who have no tree of their own. These angels were all little boys and girls like him who froze, starved or suffocated to death and they are now joyfully reunited with their respective mothers. In the morning, the porter finds the dead body of the frozen child on the woodstack and they find his mother too who had died before him. The story of the little boy is not unique to him but represents the plight of thousands of children who are starving and freezing during a time of merriment and joy. It’s a Dostoevskian world of misfortune and misery but there is a Christmas message underlying the sad story. The contrast between the affluent and the poor is startling in its injustice and it’s heart-wrenching to see that everyone in town is either oblivious or indifferent to the condition of the little boy. “A policeman walked by and turned away to avoid seeing the boy.”

Dostoevsky ends the story saying that what took place in the cellar and on the woodstack might have happened but he’s not sure about Christ’s Christmas tree. He is quite sure about the wretchedness of our existence but who knows what happens beyond the grave. A grim and sobering statement indeed!

I’ve always wondered what it is about 19th century Russian literature that moves me so profoundly? Is it the universal appeal of the works which portray the sorrow and suffering of the human condition or the fact that the writers can reach the depths of our souls with their sensitivity? My only regret is that I haven’t learnt Russian to read these gems in the original although I think we are fortunate to have access to some excellent translations. In my next blog post, I promise a more uplifting Christmas story by yet another literary giant of Russia. Meanwhile, I wish you all a very happy ‘Litmas’ season! Happy Reading!

In Other Words: A Love Affair With A Language

Rosetta Stone
The Rosetta Stone from the British Museum
By © Hans Hillewaert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Every immigrant’s story is a story of exile. Many works of fiction and non–fiction have explored the alienation of the diaspora in many forms. Along with the change in customs, cultural and religious practices, economic status and dietary habits, there is also a linguistic estrangement which inevitably accompanies spatial displacement. Jhumpa Lahiri’s memoir, In Other Words (In Altre Parole), poetically addresses the exile of language which leaves you with an inexplicable vulnerability along with a keen sense of loss. As someone who loves learning languages and who inhabits a world of multiple languages, I found the concept of the memoir captivating even before I plunged into the reading. I could relate to many aspects of the linguistic expatriation and right away Lahiri’s story became personal and my own.

The memoir is a paen to language, specifically to the Italian language. For some unexplained reason, Lahiri develops a fascination for learning Italian from the time of her first visit to Florence with her sister where with the aid of a pocket dictionary, she navigates her way through the city. It’s love at first sight with the language. On her return to the US, she learns Italian under various tutors. She later returns to Italy many times to promote her books and finally decides to move to Rome for a couple of years with her family. The memoir describes the agony and ecstasy of learning Italian and is presented in a dual language format: Italian on the left page and English on the right. The Italian is written by Lahiri who wants to find a new voice in her writing through another language and it is translated into English by Ann Goldstein, the famous translator of the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan books. Lahiri makes a conscious decision to stay away from English and to write exclusively in Italian and therefore refrains from translating the work herself. She feels a profound connection with the Italian language but at the same time is also detached from it. These ambivalent feelings make up her memoir which is essentially about writing in a language she is in the process of learning.

To complicate matters, there is a third language in the picture which incidentally happens to be the first language she spoke, raised in the US to immigrant parents from Calcutta, India. Bengali is her mother tongue but she feels distanced from it as she doesn’t know the language perfectly. She bemoans the fact that her mother tongue is “paradoxically, a foreign language, too.” I can relate to the estrangement from the mother tongue. My mother tongue is Tamil but as I spent my entire childhood in northern India, I was more fluent in Hindi than I ever was in Tamil. People would marvel at my impeccable Hindi but I was still the outsider defined by my name. I never learned Tamil formally. I could understand and speak the Tamil spoken by my parents but I could not read and write in it. I was more comfortable with Hindi but it was English, the language of colonial imposition that became by default the language I became most proficient in. As Lahiri laments, what relationship can you establish with a language that is not part of your blood and bones? She makes a distinction between inherited and adopted languages. Bengali is the mother who died and English is the stepmother who has arrived.

Lahiri uses a lot of metaphors to describe the painstaking endeavor of learning a new language. . Learning a language is like learning to swim across the shore, it’s like climbing a mountain, it’s like pulling weeds in a garden. It indicates a perpetual state of growth and possibility. It’s almost a Sisyphean task. Italian is the newborn demanding full attention and English is the older sibling left to his own devices. The Italian verb ‘sondare’ meaning to explore or to examine encapsulates her project. She is researching something that will forever remain out of reach. She compares writing in Italian to a bridge in Venice; it’s fragile and on the verge of collapsing but it also serves as a passage into another world. She also compares her writing to Daphne’s flight and transformation in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Her journey of learning a foreign language is imperfect as the imperfect tense she confuses with the simple past. “ I write on the margins, just as I’ve always lived on the margins of countries, of cultures.”, she declares. I found the memoir tedious and repetitive in parts drilling the same point with countless metaphors. Lahiri comes across as a perfectionist who holds herself up to an unattainable ideal instead of just experiencing with abandon the joy of learning a new language. And somewhere between all the metaphors, she has squeezed in two short stories. Lahiri seems to take no more than a pedantic interest in learning Italian. I would have enjoyed reading stories about her family life in Rome, about her interactions with neighbors and friends, about the food, the culture and the people of the glorious city of Rome. Language is after all about connecting with others and is inextricably linked with culture. She also tends to take herself a little too seriously. The memoir could have benefited from some humor. Learning a language lends itself to humorous situations. One has to just think of the faux pas, the double entendre, the malapropos remarks and the miscommunications that can leave any student or teacher in splits.

One interesting point Lahiri makes is that her physical appearance often comes in the way of her immersion. How much ever she masters a language, she is, and will always be viewed as a foreigner. She speaks fluently in Italian to a saleswoman in Salerno but the lady assumes, solely based on looks, that her husband who barely knows a few lines is the one who is Italian and speaks perfectly.  On a trip to Quebec, I recall speaking in perfect French to a shopkeeper, but to my surprise he replied in English. It’s hard for people to shed the stereotypical image they have in their minds of a nation or its people. Many people in the United States are surprised by how well I speak English and I have to constantly explain that India was a former colony of the British and that I went to a school where English was the main medium of instruction. In fact, I speak English better than any other language. I could venture to say that English is my first language but would anyone believe it based on my appearance or my name? People are even more shocked when they find out that I’m fluent in French. There is a French word called’ dépaysement’ which has no English equivalent but literally means ‘uncountried’. Lahiri lyrically evokes this feeling of being stripped off your country :

Those who don’t belong to any specific place can’t, in fact, return anywhere. The concepts of exile and return imply a point of origin, a homeland. Without a homeland and without a true mother tongue, I wander the world, even at my desk. In the end I realize that it wasn’t a true exile: far from it. I am exiled even from the definition of exile.

I understand her exhilaration. I understand her frustration. It’s a love affair but a one- sided one. It’s unrequited. She needs the language but the language does not need her. I belong to Hindi. I belong to Tamil. I belong to English. I belong to French. But they do not belong to me. I know her pain and I can relate to the sense of alienation she experiences but I don’t despair and I don’t share her pessimism. I also know that my life is richer and more expansive because I know so many languages. Gaining proficiency in a language opens up a window or rather many windows into different worlds. Instead of feeling excluded from many cultures, you could revel in the rich plurality of your experiences. In Other Words, is, in other words, a love affair with no passion. Though this book struck a chord with me, I don’t see it appealing to anyone who has not learned a foreign language. As I’m proficient in French, it was exciting for me to try and decipher the Italian, a fellow Romance language, on the left side of the page.

I respect the fact that Lahiri seeks the literary freedom to write in a language of her choice. The memoir is about being vulnerable as a writer and looking at your work from a fresh angle. Every writer deserves a room of her own. Heck, she deserves a country of her own. But I hope Lahiri will return to English and that this self-imposed linguistic exile will remain temporary. Nabokov, whom Lahiri brings up in the memoir as an example of a writer writing in a different language, himself said that a writer’s nationality is of secondary importance and a writer’s art is his real passport. Indeed, writing, like any other art, transcends all languages and barriers.