Urmuz [Demetru Demetrescu-Buzau] - short and absurdist stories of a forerunner of Dada and Surrealism


Urmuz [Demetru Demetrescu-Buzau], Collected Works, Atlas Press, 2007.


The collected short and absurdist stories of the Romanian writer “Urmuz”, dating from the early years of the twentieth century up until their author’s death in 1923. Urmuz’s work has been claimed as a forerunner of Dada, and of Surrealism as well, and shows again the sharp sense of the vitality of the avant-garde amongst Romanian practitioners. 
Romania, all-too-easily overlooked on the edge of Eastern Europe, has produced more than its share of key modernist innovators. Tristan Tzara and Isidore Isou spring first to mind, and in the last decade's hyperrealist film movement has made them one of the biggest cultural exporters of the region. Add to these, even earlier, far back at the start of the 20th century, Urmuz. Born Demetru Dem. Demetrescu-Buzau, the writer-musicians complete written works run a scant 32 pages here (plus a 1967 translator's biographical note), an exuberant scatter of dada-absurdist inspiration (think: Daniil Kharms) and futurist/proto-surrealist abstraction of modern life and humanity (think: Alberto Savinio's capering mechanized mythologies). The dense bizzarity may take some work to extract any kind of significance from nonsense, yet these are consistently funny and oddly engaging. Not sure exactly when these would all have been composed, but Urmuz, despairing of musical success in a tedious judicial career, shot himself in 1923, so they're undoubtedly early in march of modernism.
On the movement of the galaxies:
Even admitting that they spin only for their own amusement, it is difficult to suppose that their motives are entirely disinterested, without the intention of making the slightest profit. Surely it would seem ridiculous for anyone to gyrate for ever and ever, free of charge, just to be seen by others...On dealing with tax collectors:
he was quite content to be able to produce his pauper's identity card which he just happened to have on him that day and which, among other exemptions and advantages, conferred on him the right to squat on his haunches on the branch of a tree absolutely free of charge and for as long as he liked.
 Um, something else:
Grummer is still on the watch. False-hearted, with a sideways look, first pulling out only his beak which he wiggles to and fro ostentatiously on a trough specially fitted to the edge of the counter, he finally appears in his entirety. He then resorts to all kinds of manouvres to force Algazy to leave the place, and insidiously draws the visitor into discussions of every kind -- especially on sport and literature -- until, when it pleases him, he strikes your tummy twice with his beak, so hard in fact that you rush away into the street howling with pain.
I just picked up a subscription to the latest series of Atlas Press' fantastically strange Printed Head, so expect more in this vein. - Nate D. www.goodreads.com/

The biggest influence on Tzara was a guy named Urmuz -- he blew his brains out after publishing about twenty pages of very strange little prose poems, and an essay about the universe from a Schopenhauerian viewpoint. I'm working on a book about Andrei Codrescu and hit this huge vein of Urmuz -- I think he blew his brains out about 1919, and Tzara tried to block the publication of Urmuz translations in France in the 1950s so as to not have his lack of originality widely known. Ionesco and many other Romanian greats such as Cioran and others point to Urmuz.
Urmuz is the nome-de-guerre of Demetru Demetrescu-Buzau. He was born in Romania in 1883, studied law and earned a living as a judge's assistant. His entire literary output consists of eight story/poems, (of which Fuchsiada is the longest) and one short absurdist poem. The story/poems were presumably written to entertain his nieces: Urmuz did not originally see himself as a litt�rateur. He was fortuitously found by Romanian poet Tudor Arghezi (see "The Chiming Man" in Exquisite Corpse #56 and Thus Spake the Corpse, vol. 2), who bestowed on him the Urmuz moniker, and published a volume of his complete works. Urmuz took his own life upon publication of this volume, in 1923. His fame is posthumous: the Romanian avant-garde made Urmuz their star; Eugene Ionesco credits him as his seminal source of inspiration. Tristan Tzara attempted to suppress the French publication of the Urmuz texts, according to noted critic Virgil Ierunca, "in order not to blemish his own claim at originality." - adundas.noemata.net/

by Urmuz, translation by Julian Semilian and Sanda Agalidi

Urmuz is the nome-de-guerre of Demetru Demetrescu-Buzau. He was born in Romania in 1883, studied law and earned a living as a judge's assistant. His entire literary output consists of eight story/poems, (of which Fuchsiada is the longest) and one short absurdist poem. The story/poems were presumably written to entertain his nieces: Urmuz did not originally see himself as a littérateur. He was fortuitously found by Romanian poet Tudor Arghezi (see "The Chiming Man" in Exquisite Corpse #56 and Thus Spake the Corpse, vol. 2), who bestowed on him the Urmuz moniker, and published a volume of his complete works. Urmuz took his own life upon publication of this volume, in 1923. His fame is posthumous: the Romanian avant-garde made Urmuz their star; Eugene Ionesco credits him as his seminal source of inspiration. Tristan Tzara attempted to suppress the French publication of the Urmuz texts, according to noted critic Virgil Ierunca, "in order not to blemish his own claim at originality."
      The young and fervent Geo Bogza (long before he became a state poet):
      "Urmuz's presence among us: a whip to lash at our conscience. In the basement of our soul, bent deeply from the waist down, we follow the traces his steps have left, gashing violently the earth trivialized by the mundane.
      Virgin ears still bleed from the deflowering precipitated by his impetuous and virile sentence.
      From this moment on the word becomes a fertile spermatozoid. Urmuz too was a contributing surgeon to the operation which Voronca committed upon the stuttering and anchilozed language.
      At the century's crossroads: Urmuz swaying, a noose about his neck: semaphore signaling the disequilibrium of those leaning attentively over the clamor emanating from the soul's abyss."

Heroico-erotic poem, musical too, in prose
Fuchs was not engendered by his mother, not quite... In the beginning, when he came into being, he was not actually seen, but only heard, because Fuchs, when he was given birth opted to come out through one of his grandmother's ears, his mother being possessed not at all of a musical ear.
     Following that, Fuchs went directly to the Conservatory... There he took the form of a perfect chord and, after spending at first, out of artistic modesty, three years hidden at the bottom of a piano, without anyone's knowledge, came up to the surface and in a few minutes concluded the course in harmony and counterpoint and wound up his piano studies... Then he stepped down, but counter to all his expectations, discovered regretfully that two of the sounds from which he was composed, altered by the passage of time, had decayed: one, into a pair of mustaches with spectacles behind the ears, while the other, into an umbrella - which together with a G-sharp which was still left to him, endowed Fuchs with his precise, allegoric, and definitive form...
     Later, during puberty, it is told, Fuchs developed a kind of genital organs which were solely a young and exuberant vine leaf, as he was by nature uncommonly bashful, and would not permit, for the very life of him, anything more than a leaf or a flower...
     This leaf also serves him - it is so believed - as daily nutriment. The artist absorbs it each evening before bedtime, then crawls quietly at the bottom of his umbrella and after he locks himself in securely with two musical keys, falls asleep carried off by musical staves and swayed by wings of angelic harmonies, and seized by dreams hearkened till the following morn, when - bashful as his wont - will not surface from his umbrella until a new leaf has grown to replace the old.

During one of his days, Fuchs, having taken his umbrella to the repair shop, was forced to spend the night under the open sky.
     The mysterious charm of the night with its harmonies, with those whispers, as though from another world, bestowing dreams and melancholy wonder, moved Fuchs such, that - in ecstatic transcendence - after pedaling his piano for three hours, without playing it, for fear of disturbing the silence of the night, he wound up, by grace of this bizarre mode of locomotion, in a gloomy neighborhood, in the direction of which, obeying a will not his own, he had been drawn to mysteriously - gossipy lips so spill it it was the same illustrious street which the good emperor Trajan, after the counsel of his father, Nerva, intimated to the naive shepherd Bucur to set down as the first, when he founded the city which now bears his name...
     All at once, several terrestrial votaries of the Venerated One, humble servants at love's altar, vested in translucent alabaster, with incrimsoned lips and shadowy eyes, surrounded Fuchs from all directions. It was a splendid summer night. All about, song and glee, sweet whispers, harmony... The vestals of bliss greeted the artist with flowers, with towels artistically embroidered, with captivating kettles and bygone washbasins of brass brimming with aromatic water. Each shouted, louder than the other: "Darling Fuchs, give me your immaterial love!", "O, Fuchs, you are the only one who understands how to love us purely!"; and as though urged on by one and the same impulse, culminated in chorus: "Dear, dear Fuchs, play us a sonata!"...
     Fuchs, out of modesty, squeezed into the piano. In vain all efforts to persuade him to make an appearance. The artist acquiesced but barely, to allow his hands to be lugged out and, performed in a masterly mode close to a dozen concerts, fantasies, etudes and sonatas, and moreover for three hours straight executed scales and various exercises of legato, staccato and, Schule der Geläufigkeit...
     Since even the goddess Venus, the Venerated One herself born out of the sea's white foam, was bewitched - perhaps notably on the score of the legato studies, whose ethereal sonorities reached likewise her ears on Mount Olympus, ruffled in her goddess-like serenity, she, who had been no one's since Vulcan and Adonis - transgressed in thought, and overwhelmed by craving, powerless to fight off the temptation of an audience with Fuchs, resolved to possess him for a night...
     In pursuit of this aim she first sent Cupid to pierce Fuchs' heart with an arrow on whose tip she placed a missive bidding him up to Olympus.  

At the appointed hour, the Three Graces appeared...
     They fetched Fuchs and ferried him lightly upon soft and voluptuous limbs, to the start of a silken ladder, made of musical staves, ladder which had been fastened to the Olympus balcony, where The Venerated One awaited...
     Chance would have it however that Vulcan-Hephaistos should get wind of this, and sizzling with jealousy, caused a powerful rain to unleash, as vengeance, through the offices of Zeus...
     Fuchs, though with umbrella in the shop, did not give in to defeat, being agile in ambling effortlessly with his staves, and, aided by the vigorous wings of musical inspiration, hoisted himself higher and higher, braving nature's elements. At last, drenched in rain, he reached Olympus. Aphrodite welcomed him as a hero. She embraced him, kissed him with passion, and then sent him off to an automated prune drier.
     At night Fuchs was ushered into the alcove. All around, nothing but song and flowers. The Graces and the other olympian servants of the Venerated One, dancing before him, covered him with flowers and sprinkled him with intoxicating fragrances, while off in the distance innumerable unseen wooers, guided by the miraculous bow of Orpheus, intoned songs in exaltation of amorousness...
     Before long, the nine muses appeared. By means of the melodious tongue of Euterpe they conveyed their greeting to Fuchs thus: "Be welcomed, o chosen mortal, you who through your divine art draws humans closer to the gods! Venus awaits you! May Jupiter will it that your art and your love's caress be worthy of the Goddess - our mistress - and may he will it that a new and superior race will spring out of the amorous play which will join you, race which will populate from now on not only the earth, which is incapable of aspiring beyond Olympus, but Olympus itself - like the earth - subject, woe, to decadence!! Thus they spoke, and the chorus of unseen wooers intoned anew in exaltation of amorousness, while the Olympian bards, tuning their lyres, extolled in verse the immortal moment.
     But before long, silence ruled again... All at once, there was no one about... A bluish semiobscurity invaded the alcove. Venus was disrobed. White, hands twined behind her head under the loosened golden tresses, with a gesture of delicious abandonment and supreme voluptuousness, she stretched her superb milky figure on the bed of soft pillows and flowers. In the air, warmth and arousing aromas. Fuchs, from bashfulness and fright, longed to hide inside a crack. But as something like that does not exist in Olympus, he saw it necessary to give himself courage with no aid from anyone.
     It was as though he wanted first run around the room a little, but Aphrodite with her silken hand, with her fingers of perfumed roses, helped him out of his difficulty... She picked him off the floor gingerly, she caressed him, she hoisted him two-three times to the ceiling and, gazing at him long, she kissed him with craving. Then she caressed him anew, kissed him again a thousand times and then seated him softly between her breasts...
     Fuchs began to quiver from joy and from fright would have liked to leap off somewhere like a flea. But since those warm and perfumed breasts made him dizzy and crazy, he began hopping like a tadpole gone out of his head all over the place, bolted in a zig-zag across the flesh of the goddess, quick and fidgety, grazing like a loon over the rosy tips of her breasts, over the silky hips, squeezing through her plump and flaming thighs...
     Fuchs was beyond recognition. His spectacles cast perverse glimmers, the strands of his mustache became wet and libidinous. A goodly length of time lingered in this manner, but the artist did not know, in essence, what exactly was left to be done, and neither was the goddess one to wait much longer.
     Somewhere he had heard, that "in love, as opposed to music, everything ends with an opening. Well, fine then, but Fuchs could not find it, no... could not hear it anywhere.
     Suddenly, an idea occurred to him. He told himself that, just as the opening, as music, can be conjoined with by ear only and the ear being the body's most noble opening (of those which Fuchs had known) - the divine music's organ and through which, looming up into the world, he had gazed first upon the light of day - it follows then the joy supreme must be sought nowhere else but in the ear...
     Fuchs, now invigorated, collected himself, wound himself up and, from the goddess's toe tips, with untold frenzy, charged forward with a sforzando and penetrated the eyelet in the goddess's right ear lobe, through which she customarily inserted her ear rings, vanishing inside entirely.
     Once anew the choruses of unseen wooers and muses intoned in the distance songs in praise of amorousness and once anew the Olympian bards, tuning their lyres extolled in verse the immortal moment.
     After close to an hour of repose, during which time he verified his vine leaf and sketched a romance for the piano, Fuchs presented himself upon the ear lobe, vested in tails and white tie, radiant and gratified, tossing thank-yous and compliments right and left to the gathered throng which had been awaiting him feverishly, in the manner he had learned on earth when he happened to give a gala concert. He stepped forth and graciously offered the Venerated One the dedicated romance.
     But, with shock and distress, the artist ascertained that nary one clap of applause arrived from anywhere. In truth, all the tenants of Olympus, stared thwarted at one another. The goddess, at first perplexed, then vexed and gravely offended, discerning that Fuchs deemed his mission undeniably fulfilled - she who had at no time received such affront, not even from the gods themselves - shot quickly to her feet and, crimson as a poppy flower, irked, shook once her head, gracefully but drastically, inducing Fuchs to tumble to the ground.
     All at once, as though from a sign unseen, the whole of Olympus was on its feet... A deluge of hollers and threats from all quarters. Bar none all frothed with rage at the slap in the face of Olympus by the unskillful earthling... A vigorous arm enjoined by Apollo and Mars yanked Fuchs's vine leaf, sticking in its place the gadgets which were by rights his own. Severe orders were issued that in the future the vine leaf be only accorded to statues, while a graceful hand, the rosy one of the goddess herself, gripped gingerly the artist by the ear and, with a noble gesture, but an energetic one, flung Fuchs into Chaos.  

A deluge of hollers and threats. A deluge of disonancies, of chords upturned and unconcluded, of dodged cadenzas, faulty consonancies, of trills, but above all, rests, showered from every direction upon the exiled artist. A hail storm of jagged sharps and naturals pelted his back ceaselessly, a drawn out rest shattered his spectacles... Those gods possessed of viciousness in excess barraged him with shinbones, with aeolian harps, with lyres and cimbals, and, utmost of score-settling, with Acteon, with Polyeucte, and with Enescu's Third Symphony, whose inspired music on this occasion, originated indeed from Olympus.
     At last, Fuchs's fate was decided. He was to first roam through Chaos with unbearable swiftness, in five minute revolutions, around the planet Venus, then after, so as to wholly expiate the affront brought upon the goddess, he was to be exiled companionless to the uninhabited planet, with the burden of giving birth on his own and on his own alone, to that off-spring, that superior race of artists, which should have sprung forth in Olympus from his amorous union with Venus.
     Fuchs barely began carrying out his verdict, when Pallas-Athena, forbearing, stepped in (unexpectedly) on his behalf.
     He was granted permission to fall back to earth, but only under one condition: there is so much useless off-spring there, artistic or not, that it was not at all needed to beget any other. It was foisted on Fuchs the task of doing away with snobbism and spinelessness of thought in art on earth's realms.
     Placed thus, in this dire bind, after a prolonged and mature cogitation, the artist determined that this last condition was far more difficult to bring about than the off-spring begetting on Venus...
     A heroical decision was then reached by our hero in his roaming through Chaos. He consented to accept Athena's assistance under the condition imposed upon him; but, when he sensed the proximity of earth, he did what he did and, budging a bit to the right, he dropped down in that very neighborhood, slightly shady, from which he departed and which spellbound him such.
     Knowing himself now well prepared, he would learn here how to put into practice that which he hadn't known until then, so that afterwards, fully initiated, he would request the Venerated One's audience so as to try to rehabilitate himself as best he could in what had been left wanting. In this manner, he told himself, it will become possible to give birth to that new race of supermen, and thus would be released of the duty to undertake on earth the impossible bane imposed upon him.
     But the vestals of pleasure, who had welcomed him mirthfuly, upon discerning his intentions, surrounded him from all directions, intercepted abruptly his forward motion and beleaguered, bereaved, flailing their arms in the air in sign of protest, excommunicated him from the neighborhood, exclaiming in unison: "Woe to you, Fuchs, we have lost you and recognize you no longer, because formerly you were the only one who, from Plato's times onwards, understood how to love us purely... What sort of thoughts do you nurse as you step amongst us? Woe to us from now on deprived of the aesthetics of your sonatas, woe to you deprived of the inspiration of our lofty love! Fie on her who, though our mistress, Olympus's and the world's, did not understand how to appreciate you, and spurning your love and art, led you to fall so high up... Flee, Fuchs, you are unworthy of us now!
     Flee, Fuchs, you slimy satyr! How could you devalue the noblest organ, the ear?! Flee Fuchs, you're dishonoring this neighborhood,
     Flee, Fuchs, and may the gods protect you!"
     Thus excommunicated, and frightened of an eventual discharge of their liquid displeasure, Fuchs sat swiftly at his piano and, pedaling steadily and forcefully, arrived lastly at his quiet shelter, with his spirits oppressed, disconcerted, sickened of men as well as of gods, of love as well as of muses...
     He fled to get his umbrella back from the shop and, taking his piano along, they vanished forever in the midst of nature, glorious and unbounded...
     From there his music radiates with equal force in all directions, thus causing the word of grateful Fate to be carried out in part, ordaining him that through his scales, concerts and etudes of staccato, to spread far the word and by their grace, through the power of education, to cause the appearance in time on this planet an improved and superior race of beings, towards his glory, his piano's, and Eternity's...
- www.corpse.org/archives/issue_11/poesy/urmuz.html



Read Russia: An Anthology of New Voice

Read Russia!: An Anthology of New Voices by Elena Shubina

Elena Shubina, ed., Read Russia!: An Anthology of New Voices


Download the Read Russia Anthology

Read Russia!: An Anthology of New Voices presents a new gift to American and English-speaking readers: thirty short works from Russia’s leading contemporary writers. This 448-page collection is weighty and substantial, yet is also just a taste of the stunning writing coming out of Russia today.
The land that gave us many of the greats of world literature presents these leading lights of Russian letters, with the help of expert translators worldwide:
• Olga Slavnikova
• Zakhar Prilepin
• Alexander Kabakov
• Ludmila Ulitskaya
• Mikhail Shishkin
• Yury Buida
• Igor Sakhnovsky
• Vladimir Sorokin
• Sergey Kuznetsov
• Margarita Khemlin
• Maria Galina
• Alexander Genis
• Andrei Rubanov
• Dina Rubina
• Yuri Miloslavsky
• Alexander Terekhov
• Eduard Radzinsky
• Dmitry Bykov
• Sergei Shargunov
• Dmitry Danilov
• Vladimir Makanin
• Yuri Poliakov
• Roman Senchin
• Anna Starobinets
• Alisa Ganieva
• Irina Bogatyreva
• Alexei Lukyanov
• Igor Savelyev
• German Sadulaev
• Alexander Ilichevsky

From the Introduction by Antonina W. Bouis
Hemingway acknowledged that he would not have known Leo Tolstoy and Fedor Dostoevsky if not for the translations of Constance Garnett.  How could we learn about other cultures and civilizations without reading their literature?  And how could we do that without translation, the most vital and underappreciated art?
While Russian literature provided the world with the gold standard for novels, it also gave us quintessential short stories, certainly by the acknowledged master Anton Chekhov (who was a dab hand at plays, as well), but also by Nikolai Gogol, Alexander Pushkin, Ivan Turgenev, Ivan Bunin, and Isaac Babel, among many others.
In the nineteenth century, Gogol’s stories created a new form within the genre.  His tales of life in a Ukrainian village poked gentle fun at characters who are universal in their cares and concerns, and his stories about bureaucrats in St. Petersburg, the new capital built on swamps and the bones of the laborers, present the city in an eerie and phantasmagorical light. Pushkin, who is the most beloved writer in Russia to this day, Shakespeare and Byron rolled into one poetic genius who argued with tsars and died in a duel over love and honor in 1837, published Gogol’s stories in his literary magazine.  He claimed that all Russian literature came out of the pocket of Gogol’s “The Overcoat.”
Most readers of this volume will have read some Russian literature in college or at a good high school.  If scenes still dance in your heads of cavalry charges, aristocrats dancing and falling in love in brilliant ballrooms, rural gentry spending cozy evenings philosophizing, oppressed or luminous peasants ruminating in their muddy villages, passionate revolutionaries conspiring in underground cells, and miserable prisoners of the gulag going about their day, you are in for a surprise.
Today’s writers treat contemporary issues: the characters are oligarchs and drug addicts, policemen and soldiers, office workers and teachers, feral animals, as well as workers and farmers.  You will also find greater diversity among the authors; the Russian classics were men from the two great cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg. In this anthology, about a fourth of the stories were written by women.  Some of the writers are in their twenties and thirties. Some live far from the capital cities. Others are also television celebrities, former prisoners, poets, playwrights, and political activists.  Some are famous, some are notorious. All have won serious literary prizes and critical acclaim.
There are “long short stories,” or novellas, by Olga Slavnikova and Vladimir Makanin in this volume; these popular writers are translated by the well-known Andrew Bromfield and the up-and-coming Bela Shayevich. Two pieces by Edvard Radzinsky and by Mikhail Shishkin, translated by Marian Schwartz and Leo Shtutin, represent writers already known in America. Alexander Kabakov’s story “Shelter,” sensitively translated by Daniel Jaffe, traces the life arc of many Russians, from semi-dissident posturing as students in the Soviet 1970s to success in the new capitalist Russia, with its spiritual emptiness.  Ludmila Ulitskaya describes the age-old story of women loving the wrong men, but the setting is Queens, New York, when three old friends have a reunion, one of them on a business trip from Moscow, in “Dauntless Women of the Russian Steppe,” in Arch Tait’s fluent translation. The narrator of Andrei Rubanov’s “Gonzo” is a young drug addict, his language rendered into lively English by Polly Gannon.  The narrator in Dina Rubin’s story is a life model (and former electrical engineer) living in Israel, and her weariness can be felt in Marian Schwartz’s translation. Dmitry Bykov tells a supernatural tale about journalists on a train passing through a creepy town, the mysterious dread convincingly conveyed by James Rann.  Another Moscow journalist has an eye-opening experience in war-torn Grozny in Sergei Shargunov’s “Chechnya, To Chechnya!” deftly translated by John Narins. More exotic locales and experiences lie in store for the hikers in the Altai Mountains in Irina Bogatyreva’s “Stars over Lake Teletskoye,” another gem by Tait. The typical Soviet story about factory workers committed to meeting the work plan is turned on its head in Alexei Lukyanov’s “Strike the Iron While It’s Hot, Boys!” with its flow of swear words and puns, cunningly rendered into English by Michele A. Berdy.
And this brings us back to Hemingway’s point: you wouldn’t be reading these stories without their translators.  This volume presents a wide range of Russian writers and of today’s translators in America and England.  Some, like Hugh Aplin, Andrew Bromfield, Jamey Gambrell, Arch Tait and Marion Schwartz, have a large body of work.  Others are new to me. The publication of this volume of new short stories from some of the best writers in Russia today is an opportunity for me to praise the unheralded English-language translator. Other cultures value the skills and talents required in translation.  There are schools, prizes, fame and glory (well, almost).  But English-language readers seem not to be aware of the work that goes into delivering literature from another culture to them.
A good translation should be transparent and unobtrusive, and then, of course, like a good mobile phone connection, it is taken for granted.  Strangely enough, not only is a good translation not credited with bringing an otherwise inaccessible work to light, but the blame for a bad translation somehow falls on the original text.  Clumsy wording and awkward English grammar are attributed to the author, not the invisible translator. Some writers never get a second chance, having been introduced to readers in an inadequate translation and found lacking.
Americans read little in translation.  We seem to consider books to be tools in the most pragmatic way.  If there’s an enemy, we need to learn about him, as if we need to know another culture only when we fear it.  The heyday of Russian literature in English translation was the Cold War.  Today there are many volumes of Arabic literature, which is wonderful, for surely we all have much to learn, but why does it have to be out of fear?
Why not get to know friends better? Russia and America never fought against each other in a war. Russia sent battleships to aid Lincoln during our Civil War, Russian soldiers liberated Auschwitz and marched into Nazi Berlin in World War II, and the Russian president was the first world leader to call the White House to offer help on 9/11.
Russians and Americans have so much in common: a sense of manifest destiny with the pioneering spirit that led to the conquest of enormous tracts of land, the development of rich agriculture and industry, science and technology, and a long reign as the two superpowers who divided the globe between them. Both nations face a present with a multiethnic, multiconfessional populace that is coming to terms with the depression and confusion of being just one more pole in a multipolar world.
Russians pride themselves on being big readers.  But if you look around, in subways and buses, on beach blankets and park benches, Americans are reading books and e-readers.  So I don’t think Russians necessarily read more, but they are certainly more passionate about literature.  American writers were translated into Russian in Soviet times and the visits of John Steinbeck, Norman Mailer, William Styron, and Arthur Miller were major events, not only for the obvious political spin, but because people read and loved their books. Here’s an example of the passion and pride. A chambermaid at my Moscow hotel once asked for my autograph because she had seen the many books delivered to my room from my authors and had seen me drinking tea and vodka (ah, the clichés!) in the hotel restaurant with some of her favorite writers. She was pleased to know that Americans would be reading their works.  I was flattered, of course, but I was even more interested in the cultural differences between the readers of our countries that this revealed. I doubt any American would be so thrilled by the prospect of Gore Vidal or E. L. Doctorow being brought to the Russian reading public that they would solicit a translator’s autograph.
Where do we look for an understanding of the human condition? Not in diet books or travel guides: we turn to fiction and poetry. Writers and poets describe and illuminate our souls. We can find find similar but different approaches to our issues, which are universal, in the writing of Russian authors.
So I say, read the literature of your friends, and not only of your perceived enemies.   “Like” Russia. “Friend” Russia.  Read Russia!

Read Russia Online

A Digital Companion to Russian Literature

Read Russia Online, now in the first stage of development, will become a curated online resource for the discovery and study of Russian literature. By presenting works of prose and poetry within networks of images, videos, audio files, historical documents, and scholarly commentary, this new resource will offer English-speaking audiences a dynamic interactive space for exploring Russia's rich literary culture.
The intended audience for Read Russia Online is broad: readers/users with limited knowledge of Russian literature will find the resource engaging and accessible. At the same time, scholars and students of Russian literature will find Read Russia Online a useful tool for research, teaching, and learning.  The curated space for original source material, contextualization, and critical commentary will meet the highest scholarly standards.
The primary objective of Read Russia Online will be to provide users with a vivid, informative experience of Russian literary culture. To that end, the resource will take advantage of web technologies to bring together materials that are not easily accessible or available in traditional print environments.  Read Russia Online will supplement, not simply mirror, trusted textual resources (encyclopedias, handbooks, histories, anthologies) and existing reference services (bibliographies, indexes, library catalogues) that long have been in use for the study of Russian literature.  For more information, or to follow the development of this resource, please visit: www.readrussia2013.com


Mikhail Elizarov - Protagonist learns that a number of books by forgotten Soviet writer Gromov possess magical properties, and different groups of readers are in the fierce struggle for them

Mikhail Elizarov, The Librarian, Ad Marginem, 2011.

Protagonist learns that a number of books by forgotten Soviet writer Gromov possess magical properties, and different groups of readers are in the fierce struggle for them. The novel won the Russian Booker Prize-2008 and was praised by critics. As noted in the journal "Znamya", "Mikhail Elizarov prose has evolved from a scandal shocking to intellectually rich fiction."

Mikhail Elizarov’s novel “The Librarian” published in 2007, and awarded the Russian-Booker Prize in 2008 (the most prestigious literary award, based on votes cast by a committee of writers) has been a source of no small controversy.
This is a novel about novels—trashy, socialist realist novels (written in the middle of the 20th century by a third-rate novelist, named Gromov) that were forgotten and overlooked almost as soon as they were published. A few random individuals, however, lost and depressed characters of Perestroika (a single professor, a night-shift nurse, etc.) discover that when read without stopping, these books transfer magical powers to their readers. To those in the know, the books get new names: the Book of Strength, the Book of Patience, the Book of Memory, the Book of Rage, the Book of Power—in accordance with their magical gifts.
Clans of “readers”—secret societies called “Libraries”—begin to form around the few remaining copies of the books. These clans, operating secretly from the most benign post-soviet spaces (a nursing home for orphaned grandmas, a Moscow apartment) led by “Librarians” begin to viciously battle with one another for possession of the books.
By the present day, when the majority of the book set, this world of Gromov-readers has become a veritable alternate universe. Alexey, an aspiring and struggling actor from Ukraine, comes to Moscow to sell his recently deceased uncle’s apartment, only to discover that this estranged relative has been living a secret life as a “Librarian.” Alexey is quickly immersed in the affairs of Gromov-readers, becomes the new “Librarian” and sets off to a series of surreal book-battles, hallucinatory book-reading experiences, kidnappings, murders, and finally, the discovery of a yet-unread Gromov novel “Ballad of Stalinist Porcelain”—the legendary the Book of Meaning.
For your reading pleasure, here are two selections from the latter half of The Librarian. [They are included below]
  1. Alexey’s discovery and interpretation of the book of meaning.
  2. Alexey’s moment of enlightenment, which he reaches in the final pages of the novel, after he has been imprisoned in the basement of a nursing home-“Library,” fated to eternal reading and writing.
Of his novel, Elizarov has himself written:
“Really, my novel The Librarian is, of course, a message for a broad public. It’s so that, if they have questions, I can tell them the answers or at least suggest the answers to them. Obviously, after receiving the Russian Booker my name is going to be more famous, but what makes me happiest is that more people will now have the opportunity to get to know my ideas. If that happens, I will be very pleased” (unpublished interview, see bib.).
Critics of the novel, dubious about its deserval of the Booker prize, have interpreted Elizarov’s “answers” for the broad public as unacceptably nostalgic ones.
This is not completely accurate. As Alexey himself says, “I loved the Union not for the way it was, but for the way it could have been if conditions had been different.” (438) If this is nostalgia, it is an unusual one, for it yearns not to resurrect a deceased time and space (indeed, it despises that former reality) but simply to dream the dreams of childhood again. For children, who believe in magic, the world looks exceedingly more open, full of possibility, and safe. Elizarov, in this novel, tells his reader that, although we’re no longer children, we shouldn’t shun those fantasies.
By explicitly linking the soviet experiment to a youthful magic—to ideas of strength, militarism, eternity, and unity—Elizarov implicitly excuses its ineffectuality (as a kind of charming children’s naiveté) and tries to suggest that art and literature might be more suitable locales for such ideals than real state politics.
But, returning to the critics. If anything, this novel demonstrated to me just how far the country and its cultural imaginary has moved away from not just the soviet decades, but the post-soviet 90s.
In “post-soviet” artistic trends, the dominant mythology was that of “the End of Time.” The fall of the soviet union was interpreted as an end to a certain deeply rooted, and flawed temporality. Negotiating this new space required an adjustment to a new (some said post-modern) set of temporal relationships (to an un-charted future, haunted and foreign present, and unmasked past).
In The Librarian by contrast, the fall of the Soviet Union is presented as the loss of a degenerated body, which, as Alexey suggests, everyone had already realized should never have existed in the first place. The perception, Elizarov argues, that this corporeal loss necessitated a temporal, or existential loss (of ideals) was false. The Librarian is all about showing the ways that soviet ideals can and should persist even after (or perhaps more easily because) the institution has failed.
As many readers have noted, these “ideals” are so abstracted from socialism that they become exclusively about pride, strength, masculinity, heroism—in other words, offensively nationalistic [see Bert’s excellent comments at http://zamerzikar.blogspot.com/2009/10/i-remember-when-dirty-librarian-had.html].
Perhaps, if Elizarov had understood Lenin’s socialism—feminist, international, intellectual—as being the real childhood ideal of the experiment (and not Stalin’s heteronormative paranoid deviation), this argument could have challenged readers instead of merely pacifying or alienating them.

It wasn’t so much a Book of Meaning, as a Book of Scheming. It presented itself as the three-dimensional laquered Russian miniature, a panorama come to life, a personally memorable soviet icon on a brightly laquered lining, depicted with the help of gold, azure, and all the hints of that scarlet color of world labor: factories, draped with trembling silk, turbulent wheat fields and combines. Workers were grasping blacksmith’s hammers in their mighty hands, collective-farm workers in turquoise sarafans were binding golden sheafs, cosmonauts in starry helmets and billowing silver capes were trampling the soil of unknown planets. Into red vortexes, a swift October Lenin thrust his hand upwards, a sailor and a soldier carried a banner, endless and light, as if made of chiffon, on which the battleship Aurora pierced storm clouds with the light of the sun.
The Scheme opened before me the sphere of the black laquered miniature. Murky events of past and approaching catastrophes oozed out like red mercury on buffed coal. There, where the heart of the soviet motherland pulsed like a tiny diode, an attack fell with the cruelest strength. The thin, spidery legs of geological cracks ran out of the extinguished marks. The flickering fuses of the borders crumbled apart, the sutures of the republic divided, and all of a sudden, in the hole-ridden frontiers of the newly-weakened country, the ancient, eternal Enemy appeared. He dispersed acoustic buoys in the seas--to catch every movement of the deeps--and threw a net of total control into the cosmos. His invisible hand dug with a diamond glass-cutter deep into the cracks of the fragile federation. Along those very cracks, an eventual split, grievous and final, was intended. […]
The Enemy perverted everyone he touched. And so the Baltic, smelling like it had drowned, pushed the spying ears of radiolocation stations in on us, ploughed for the Enemy’s barracks, opened ports for his ships. Asia flooded her cotton fields with concrete, turning them into landing strips for bomber-jets, and erected Dutch-style greenhouses—to regale their soy and potatoes upon the American-Dane, Austrian-Italian and Canadian-Turkish soldiers.
At the appointed hour the nuclear storage-boxes will explode, and the enemy submarines will surface in the Pacific Ocean and the North, Baltic, Barents, and Black seas. Through re-born Ukraine, on rumbling armored tanks, gloomy soldier in grandpa’s German camoflauge will set forth. From the Georgian side, Chechen warriors will fly in American helicopters. Along the freezing waters of the Amur river, predatory, webbed Chinese Junks will glide, carrying pirate troops to Russia’s shores. The narrow-eyes peddlers […] will take “Kalashnikovs” of Chinese make out of their checkered bags and conquer ancient Siberia. On Sakhalin, the Kurile Islands, and Kamchatka, Japanese troops will begin a landowner’s march.
The enemy will not be stopped. The red button of the rocket-launch was removed long ago with its wires. But even if it was still there, it wouldn’t bring those rockets to life. The bellies of their shafts have been scraped out. Heavy ballistics were cut off long ago on Peace treaty agreement. Airplanes won’t fly, underwater atomic missiles won’t shoot from their docks. Military electronics were long ago blocked by the evil workings of enemy signals. We will not be saved.
But there is a special secret person, in possession of the illustrious Seventh Book. He knows that when the Books are read, one after the other, without stopping, the terrifying Enemy will be rendered powerless. The country will be securely covered with an invisible cupola, a miraculous shield, an impenetrable arch—stronger than everything in the world, for it is held up with unshakeable supports: good Memory, proud Patience, heartfelt Joy, mighty Strength, sacred Power, noble Rage and the great Scheme.
Before my eyes, a train of random events unfolded over countless years. In a small room, where the windows are draped with velvet curtains, a person is sitting at a simple office table. A marble lamp with a green lampshade casts electrification on the open pages. No one enters the room and no one leaves it. We see the reader from behind: his hunched shoulders, and his head, tilted in a trembling diadem of light.
He who reads the Books knows neither fatigue nor sleep, and needs no food. Death has no power over him, for she is less important than his laborious heroism. This reader is the irreplaceable guard of the Motherland. He carries out his watch over the spaces of the universe. Eternal is his labor. Indestructible is our guarded country.
This was the Scheme of the Book.

Everything was fair. Although a bit belatedly, I finally received the inconceivable happiness promised by the Soviet motherland. Even if it was the false, induced one of the Book of Memory. What’s the difference?…After all. in my real childhood, I piously believed that the state sung in books, films and songs really was the reality in which I lived. The earthly USSR was just the crude, incomplete body. In the hearts of romantic old-people and children from well-off urban families, an artificial ideal existed separately: the Heavenly Union. And when these ideal, mental spaces began to disappear, the inanimate geographical body disappeared as well.
Even when hatred for one’s own country and her past was considered in society to be a sign of good taste--I intuitively set aside those de-masking novels, those vociferous seagull voices yelling about all those gulag-children of the Arbat, walking about in all white. I was bothered by literary half-truths and in particular by their frowning authors, who beat against the table the hollow victim skulls of the past epoch. That bony clickity-clack didn’t change my feelings for the Union. Having grown up, I loved the Union not for the way it was, but for the way it could have been, if circumstances had been different. […]
And there was one key moment, the importance and paradox of which I didn’t realize for years. The Union knew how to make a Motherland out of Ukraine. Ukraine without the Union sure couldn’t remain one…
The country in which two of my childhoods were located at the same time—the genuine one and the fictional one—was a real Motherland that I couldn’t refuse. And The Book of Memory lying on the tray was her last will and testament.
If the Motherland is free, her borders are inviolable, that means that the librarian Alexei Vyazintsev is steadfastly carrying out his watch in the underground bunker, endlessly spinning threads for the protective Shield that is stretched over the country. Against enemies visible and invisible.
I will never die. And the green lamp will never go out.
Mikhail Elizarov, Bibliotekar’ (Moscow: Ad Marginem Press, 2009)
K.V. Loginov, Unpublished Interview with Mikhail Elizarov. [http://filologinoff.livejournal.com/657473.html]
- ahsasha.com/

Just to be clear: Mikhail Elizarov’s novel Библиотекарь (The Librarian) has absolutely nothing to do with our beloved institutions that offer books and other reading materials to the public. There are no dusty stacks, shushing librarians, or magazine racks. Meaning that, right from the title, the reader gets a big dose of остранение (defamiliarization) – the concepts of “librarian” and, really, “reading” have left the building.
Elizarov’s Librarian is one of the most fun(ny), sad, suspenseful, and peculiar books I’ve read in a long time. His librarian, Aleksei, narrates, describing how he goes from a lousy start on an entertainment career in Ukraine to inheriting his Siberian uncle’s apartment and, unexpectedly, leadership of an odd book group. Rival groups fight each other – often to the death using sharp and blunt objects – for possession of books by a hack writer named Gromov, a World War 2 veteran whose Soviet-era novels never became popular.
Gromov’s books later win readers not through plot but with mystical powers that, like mind-altering drugs, grant gifts. Нарва (Narva), known as Книга Радости (The Book of Joy), has a euphoric effect, and Книга Ярости (The Book of Rage)was “discovered” by a prisoner. Another book is called Книга Силы (The Book of Strength) – it keeps a group of elderly women lucid, alive, and more than kicking. These nursing home women become a fierce clan, and one uses a crane hook as a weapon. Aleksei’s library possesses Книга Памяти (The Book of Memory), which creates the “mirage” of happy memories.
Yes, the premise of The Librarian sounds absolutely implausible. But Aleksei’s unassuming, self-deprecating voice makes it feel absolutely plausible, even if I don’t always believe what the book groups believe. His calm, first-person narrative describes lonely people looking for meaning, companionship, and illusion in an unstable country. (The lack of relatives and social order make it easy for groups to pass deaths off as accidents.) Readers look for meaning in literal ways, too: the biggest prize of the Gromov world is the lost Книга Смысла (Book of Meaning), in which Gromov praised Stalin at the wrong time, a case of myth-making gone awry. That seventh book turns up and leads us to Aleksei’s fate.
I enjoyed The Librarian because it compelled me to keep reading and left me with questions. I can’t help but love a novel about a parallel world inhabited by books and their effects on the people who read them… still, I know The Librarian won’t appeal to everyone. The crusade-like battles weren’t my favorite aspect of the book: I think their sadness and frequency bothered me more than the violence, though I found humor in new uses for hockey equipment, pelts, and Soviet coins.
The Librarian was a controversial 2008 Booker Prize winner, as Vladimir Kozlov reports here in The Moscow News. Some critics of the award called the book “’fascist trash,’ probably referring to elements of nostalgia for Soviet times that were latent in the novel,” writes Kozlov. Beyond the fact that Elizarov scoffs about such criticism, saying he didn’t romanticize the Soviet era, I think he’s correct to say, “The Soviet Union isn’t concretely in the text, there are just human relationships that are tied to the ideals that Soviet cultural aesthetics promoted.” (My translation of a sentence from this interview.)
The Librarian grabbed me because of Elizarov’s inventiveness in creating a trippy parallel world: he blends magical reactions to books with what we know as reality, incorporating historical, religious, and cultural references. I have to think it isn’t a coincidence that Gromov wrote seven books and there are seven seals in the Book of Revelation. Given all that, I even thought the cryptic and messianic ending – which effectively freezes time for Aleksei at Pokrov, the Feast of the Protection, in October 1999 – seemed logical, despite its ambiguity.
I won’t write specifically about the crypticness or ambiguity because I don’t want to ruin the ending for those who may read the book, either now in Russian or later, in translation. (Serbian and French rights have been sold.) But I will say this: I think the ambiguity is tied to the book’s references to illusions and the past.
Maybe I’m a materialist, but I find a cautionary tale rather than glorification of the Soviet past in The Librarian. I didn’t find much worth romanticizing in the world of the libraries beyond, perhaps, the relationships Elizarov mentioned in his interview. Those friendships, though, are underpinned by violence and all sorts of illusions, meaning I think the characters choose paths that, to expand on a Russian saying, take the sweet lies of myth and mysticism over the bitter truth of reality. - lizoksbooks.blogspot.com/

The Librarian by Mikhail Elizarov

Mikhail Elizarov was born in 1973 in Ivano-Frankovsk, Ukraine and could hardly remember the Soviet epoch of the generation of his parents and grand-parents. However, in 2007 this young writer wrote a book which would come to be associated with the Lost Generation of Soviet people and won the 2008 Russian Booker Prize.  It was the fourth and largest book of the bright debutant of the 90′s and in essence the first major post-Soviet novel showing the reaction of the generation of the 30’s to the world in which they lived.
The title of the book,  Библиотекарь ( The Librarian), deceptively conjures up the expectation of perhaps some quiet evening reading. Indeed, The Librarian is a novel about books, about the mystical powers of the written word. In the beginning, one hardly expects the strange turbulence which books such as this can create including the violent refusal of the readers of the books by the obscure writer Gromov to recognize the end of the epoch, and an almost Kafkaesque end to the book.  Gromov’s books had the magical powers to change the person who read them and readers started to organize  the “libraries” or armies to fight for these books.

Moskva : Ad Marginem, c2010.
The Librarian starts with a quotation from The Foundation Pit by Andrei Platonov. And in some sense it is the continuance of the ideas of the great and tragic book by Platonov about lives spent in vain.”The worker must fully understand that baskets and engines can be made as necessary, but it’s not possible to simply make a song or a sense of excitement. The song is more valuable than mere things…” Andrey Platonov


“The writer Dmitry Alexandrovich Gromov (1910-1981) lived his final days in complete obscurity. His books completely disappeared in the debris of Lethe, and when political disasters destroyed the Soviet motherland, it appeared as though there was nobody left to remember Gromov.
Barely anybody read Gromov. Of course the editors who determined the political loyalty of texts and the critics read it. But it was unlikely for somebody to be worried about and interested in titles like “Proletarian,”(1951) “Fly, Happiness!”(1954), “Narva”, (1965),”On the Roads of Labor” (1968), “The Silver Flat-Water,”(1972) or “The Calm Grass”( 1977).
The biography of Gromov went side by side with the development of the socialist fatherland. He finished middle school and pedagogical college and worked as executive secretary in the factory newspaper’s editorial board. The purges and the repression did not touch Gromov; he quietly endured until June of ‘41 before he was mobilized. He came as a military journalist to the front. In the winter of ‘43 Gromov‘s hands were frostbitten; the left wrist was saved but the right was amputated.
So all of Gromov’s books were created by the enforced lefthander. After the victory Gromov moved the family from the Tashkent evacuation to Donbas and worked at the city newspaper’s editorial board until his retirement.
Gromov started to write late, as a mature forty-year-old man. He often addressed the theme of the formation of the country, glorified the cotton being of the provincial cities, towns and villages, wrote about mines, factories, the boundless Virgin Soil and harvest battles. The heroes of his books were usually the Chairmen of the Kolkhozes, red directors, soldiers returning from the front, the widows keeping their love and civil courage, the pioneers and Komsomol members – strong, cheerful, and ready for heroic labor. Good triumphed with painful regularity: the metallurgic factories were built in record time, the recent student during his  sixth month internship at the factory became a skilled specialist, the plant exceeded the plan and accepted the new one, and the grain in the fall flowed by the golden mountains to the Kolkhoz’s granaries. Evil was rehabilitated or went to prison.” …
….”Although Gromov published more than a half-million copies of his books, only several copies survived in the club’s libraries in distant villages, hospitals, ITK, orphanages, or otherwise rotting in the basements between the materials of the party’s  congresses and serials of Lenin’s collected works.
And yet Gromov had dedicated fans. They scoured the country collecting surviving books, and would do anything for them.  In the normal life Gromov’s books had the titles about  some flat waters and grasses. However, Gromov’s collectors used significantly different titles – the Book of the Power, The Book of Strength, The Book of Rage, The Book of Patience, The Book of Joy, The Book of Memory, The Book of Meaning…”
Copyright Mikhail Elizarov
Translated by Elena Dimov, edited by Margarita Dimova  pages.shanti.virginia.edu/

Mikhail Elizarov was born in 1973 in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine. He graduated from Kharkov State University, with a degree in philology. Simultaneously with his studies, he studied vocal at Higher Musical School. Until 1999 he was a student at the Kharkov Arts Academy, studying film directing. He continued his film studies in Berlin, Germany. 
His first book, Fingernails (a novella and collection of short stories) appeared in 2001, published by Ad Marginem Press in Moscow. The book was shortlisted for the Andrei Bely prize. He followed that with his novel Pasternak and short story collection Red Film. The books were nominated for the National Bestseller award. His novel The Librarian received the 2008 Russian Booker Prize. 
Elizarov has been the recipient of a number of scholarships from European cultural foundations, including Literarische Kolloquium Berlin, Baltic Zentrum (Sweden), and Stipendium der Stadt Schwaz (Austria). His books have been translated into German, French, Italian, Danish, Chinese, Serbian, Romanian, Polish and Hungarian. Since 2007 Elizarov has been living in Moscow where he continues to write. -  rus-lit.org/authors/1204/


Tom Sandqvist shows that Dada did not emerge fully formed in Zurich but grew out of an already active Romanian avant-garde

Tom Sandqvist, Dada East: The Romanians of Cabaret Voltaire, The MIT Press, 2006.


Arndt Niebisch - The avant-garde movements of the early twentieth century inhabited the media discourses of their time like parasites, constantly irritating and taking from them. Dadaists ripped images of a mechanically reproduced world out of newspapers and magazines and reassembled them...

Arndt Niebisch, Media Parasites in the Early Avant-Garde: On the Abuse of Technology and Communication, Palgrave, 2012.

Read it at Google Books

The avant-garde movements of the early twentieth century inhabited the media discourses of their time like parasites, constantly irritating and taking from them. Dadaists ripped images of a mechanically reproduced world out of newspapers and magazines and reassembled them in their collages. Futurists instrumentalized the brevity of telegraph messages for their free word poetics. Artists such as F.T. Marinetti, Raoul Hausmann and Luigi Russolo constantly abused existing media technologies and hijacked public communication. This study traces these subversive tactics from avant-garde poetry to media technological experiments with radio tubes.


Rafael Sanchez Ferlosio - A magical picaresque novel: a chair puts down roots and sprouts 'a few green branches and some cherries,' while a paint-absorbing tree becomes a 'marvelous botanical harlequin'

Rafael Sanchez Ferlosio, Adventures of the Ingenious Alfanhui, Trans. by Margaret Jull Costa, Dedalus, 2000. [1952.]

These are the adventures of a magical little boy which will appeal to both children and adults.

In his dedication, Ferlosio describes this exquisite fantasy novel, first published in 1952 and now beautifully translated into English as a 'story full of true lies.' Much honored in his native Spain, Ferlosio is a fabulist comparable to Jorge Borges and Italo Calvino, as well as Joan Miro and Salvador Dali. Cervantes comes to mind. Ferlosio's prose is effortlessly evocative. A chair puts down roots and sprouts 'a few green branches and some cherries,' while a paint-absorbing tree becomes a 'marvelous botanical harlequin.' Later, Alfanhui sets off on a tour of Castile, meeting his aged grandmother 'who incubated chicks in her lap and had a vine trellis of muscatel grapes and who never died.' This is a haunting adult reverie on life and beauty and as such will appeal to discriminating readers. - Publisher's Weekly

Trees with feathers for leaves, birds with leaves for feathers, lizards that turn into gold, rivers of blood and transparent horses - these are just some of the magical occurrences in this enchanting fairytale. Thus book of wild ideas and true lies is a kaleidoscopic celebration of the natural world, and a poetic parable on the passage from innocence to experience. - Lisa Allardice in The Independent on Sunday

...what keeps things moving are the vivid imagery, and the truly fantastic wonders described so vividly. A strikingly different sort of fantasy, more for fans of the surreal and magical realism than of the usual genre. - Carolyn Cushman in Locus

 One rainy night, a distant wind blew into the garden. Alfanhuí had his window open, and the wind made the flame of his lamp flicker. The shadows of the birds trembled on the walls. They moved only slightly and hesitantly at first, as if they had been woken unexpectedly. From his bed, Alfanhuí saw the shadows trembling on the walls and the ceiling, and saw how they fragmented and overlapped in the corners of the room. It seemed to him that his little room was getting larger and larger until it had become a vast salon. As the little flame in the oil lamp flickered, the shadows of the birds were growing larger too and more numerous. The wind was blowing more forcefully in through the window and brought with it something like the music of rivers and forgotten forests.
The flame made the shadows dance to that music. Like ghosts or puppet birds they began dancing the arcane dances, the primitive dances of their species, tracing on the high ceiling of the salon a great ring of wings and beaks, a constantly changing ring, light and luminous, that turned and turned, restoring to the dead shadows the birds' former colours. In the middle danced the heron with the Chinese eyes, moving its beak to a haughty rhythm, keeping time for all the other birds, and the wind seemed to be hurling gusts of rain into its eyes. The stuffed birds had vanished from their pedestals, as if the rain had brought them back to life, and they had flown off to join their shadows dancing on the ceiling of the salon.
The fog of silence and solitude vanished, and forgotten visions awoke as the music of the wind and the rain met the dead colours of the birds. In the middle of the ring of birds on the ceiling, a circle seemed to open up to which all the primitive colours were returning. The thousand greens of the jungles, the white of waterfalls and, from the land of wading birds, the pink and grey of the wetlands, with a red sun trembling on the muddy, bloodshot surface. At the foot of the purples and yellows of the reedbed gleamed the black silt of the banks, carpeted with tiny roots that snaked about amongst the myriad tracks left by different birds. The salty whites of the estuaries returned, along with the saltmarsh birds who probe the mudflats with their long beaks. And the marine sun of the seagulls and the albatrosses beating down on a desert of sand and conch shells. The blue of the cities of the land came back, as well as the swallows threading through the arches of the towers, stitching belfry to belfry with the threads of their flight. The wind also blew open a book of dried flowers and began leafing through it. The flowers grew moist again and revived, climbing the walls of the salon, invading everything, forming a dense, flowering arbour full of nests from which more birds emerged and immediately flew up to join the luminous circle on the ceiling.
Alfanhuí would have been unable to say whether there was a dark solitude in his eyes and an unfathomable silence in his ears because the music and the colours came from that other place from which concrete knowledge never comes, a place abandoned on the very first day behind the farthermost wall of memory where that other memory is born: the vast memory of things unknown.
The birds danced and danced the primitive dances of their species, and once more there was that intermingling of flocks flying towards the sacred rivers - to the Euphrates, to the Nile, to the Ganges, to those Chinese rivers named after colours - once more the whole migrant, multicoloured geography of birds, the light of ancient lands.
Then the luminous circle of visions vanished, and the dance of the shadows returned to the walls, obscure and agitated this time, like a witches' dance, moving to the dull thud of a distant drum, a dance by stiff ghosts with gangling legs. Faster and faster they danced; the salon walls were closing in again, the room pressing in around Alfanhuí's head. The dance and the shadows shrank smaller and smaller around the flame of the lamp. The shadows returned like grey butterflies singeing the dust on their wings. It was the dust from the birds' dry feathers, and, for a moment, the infinitesimal motes glowed incandescent, repeating, as they burned, each of the bright, distant colours in the visions, only to be lost again in the small, simple light of the lamp. Everything once more withdrew into itself. The wind had dropped. The shadows were dying, once more motionless on the grey walls; the birds were dying in the empty glint of their glass eyes, and the final drop of oil rose up to the exhausted flame, expiring on the threads of the wick. The flame sputtered out with the last dust motes and was soon nothing more than a smoking cinder, barely glowing, in the brass lamp. The dark, moribund smell of burnt oil hung in the air, and everything went dark. There was now a light silence that seemed to be waiting for a clear, solitary voice, for a song greeting the dawn or for the footsteps of hunters.

John Lucas - A veritable successor to Douglas Adams. Why are the Galaxy's wealthiest and most powerful inhabitants plotting to destroy the entire universe, and replace it with a smaller and more convenient reality of their own construction?

John Lucas, Faster Than Life, Dedalus, 2002.

Blending exuberant inventiveness with subtle satire, Faster Than Light is a novel that will appeal not just to fans of humorous science fiction, but to anyone looking for a quirky and original read.

Why are the Galaxy's wealthiest and most powerful inhabitants plotting to destroy the entire universe, and replace it with a smaller and more convenient reality of their own construction? What happens when an entire society devotes itself to alcoholic excess, elevating the pursuit of inebriation above all other goals? And is it really possible that the most ruthlessly successful organisation in the whole of space and time could be outwitted by two young humans, members of a species previously regarded as noteworthy only for the inexplicable enthusiasm with which it destroys the ecosystems on which its own survival depends? Answers to all these questions and more can be found in this unusual and dazzlingly funny novel. Blending exuberant inventiveness with subtle satire, Faster Than Light is a novel that will appeal not just to fans of humorous science fiction, but to anyone looking for a quirky and original read.
A veritable successor to Douglas Adams, John Lucas has demonstrated with his debut novel a capacity to fuse witty satire and the more inventive elements of science fiction. If you liked Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy you will definitely like this imaginative and humorous view of the place our planet has in the universal pecking order. - Buzz Magazine
'Humorous science fiction' are three words to strike terror into the bravest reader's heart. Very, very few people do it well. There's Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, and there's...er...Thank God, then, for a promising newcomer such as John Lucas. His debut novel does smack rather of Adams. However, once one boldly goes a few chapters in, Faster Than Light seems to have more in common with fantastical satire in the mould of Gulliver's Travels. And, somewhat unusually, for science fiction that satire has a strong leftist bent. Jason and Alex are two very ordinary human beings until they are abducted by an alien who bears a distinct resemblance to a second-rate game-show host, but is actually a giant Krullen beetle. The Krullen have been employed by the Total Trading Corporation to save artefacts from this universe, to take to a new one they're creating because they don't like the tax rates in the current time-space continuum. They will then destroy anyone who isn't rich enough to buy their way into their prefab utopia. The earthlings' mission is, of course... - Joe Cushley in What’s on in London

Dreldor is not a planet noted for its natural beauty or historical sites.
It has no spectacular wildlife, and its half-derelict cities contain little
in the way of notable architecture. Its sizeable tourist industry is based
on one thing and one thing only, namely, its drinking places. These shabby
and unassuming little bars are justly famous for the baffling variety of
cocktails they serve, most of which are either unknown or banned on other
planets. Creatures of all shapes and sizes make the pilgrimage from
neighbouring star systems to sample them. And, fortunately, most of them
remember the one vital rule that anyone visiting Dreldor should follow.
That is, never drink anything without first reading its list of ingredients
very, very carefully.
The reason for this is that Dreldor's bar staff regard alcohol alone as an
entirely inadequate base for a cocktail. After all, those races with a
taste for serious partying have long since evolved livers that break it down
as fast as they can drink it. The planet's scientists and cocktail waiters
have been experimenting for centuries with solutions to this problem, and
they now have at their disposal an astonishing arsenal of intoxicating
substances. Compounds that most civilised races would hesitate to use even
as chemical weapons are freely available, mixed with local fruit juices and
served with the Dreldoran analogue of an olive.
Sadly, in all the excitement of landing, Jones had neglected to mention any
of this to Alex and Jason. Eagerly they gulped down their randomly-chosen
drinks, their minds untroubled by even the tiniest inkling of the possible
"Mine tasted a bit like chocolate," said Jason. "Cold, gritty,
throat-burning, eye-watering chocolate. It's pretty strong stuff, though.
Everything seems to be going round and round, and I'm not sure I can feel my
legs any more."
"You're lucky," said Alex. "Mine's not having any effect at all."
"Don't worry," said a voice. "We can soon put that right."
"Who's there?" asked Alex, looking around in confusion.
"I'm your drink," said the voice. "In the past couple of seconds, I've
colonised every cell of your body, analysed your metabolism, and learnt your
language. And now I'm ready to provide you with whatever mind-altering
experiences you care for."
"You've done what?" asked Alex, aghast.
"There's no need to talk out loud," said the drink. "It's unnecessary,
because I can read your mind, and it's causing your companion to worry about
"I've always regarded drinking as a fairly straightforward business,"
thought Alex. "You spend a few hours relaxed and happy, in return for which
you feel like shit the next morning. All my previous drinks have seemed to
understand that. They haven't started talking back, or analysing my
"You're referring to old-fashioned low-tech drinks. Mere combinations of
intoxicating chemicals. I'm much more than that. I'm a highly intelligent
organism in my own right, albeit an artificially constructed one."
"I don't want my body cells colonised by an artificially-constructed
organism," said Alex. "Go away. I don't want you."
"In that case you were extremely foolish to drink me," said the drink. "You
didn't even think to negotiate a fixed-term tenancy agreement, which means
I'm legally entitled to inhabit your body for as long as I see fit."
"This is awful," wailed Alex out loud. "I've had drinks disagree with me
before, but this is the first time one's tried to claim squatter's rights.
What should I do, Jones?"
"I don't know what to suggest," said Jones. "Other than being a lot more
careful what you drink in future, of course."
"A fat lot of help you are," hissed Alex.
"You really should try to be more positive about what's happened," said the
drink. "You'll find there are all manner of advantages to sharing every
cell of your body with an organism such as myself. As well as my primary
function of manipulating your moods and sensations in whatever way you
desire, I can also monitor your body for signs of disease, and make minor
repairs and modifications. Have you ever thought about experimenting with
new limbs or sexual organs?"
"No I've not," said Alex, angrily. "I'm quite happy with the ones I've got,
thank you."
"There's no need to get upset," said the drink. "It was only a suggestion.
The important thing for both of us now is to stay calm, and try to establish
a modus vivendi. As long as you're reasonable, and allow me a fair share of
access to your body, you'll find me a most reasonable tenant."
"Access to my body?" protested Alex. "What on earth are you talking about?"
"It would hardly be fair for me to remain a passive observer all the time,"
pointed out the drink. "We'll have to swap roles now and again. You can
take the back seat for a while, and I'll use your body to pursue my own
"What sort of interests?"
"Just the usual social things. Going to the cinema, playing tennis, having
sex with the hosts of other drinks."
"No way!" said Alex, turning round to find Jason, and discovering to her
dismay that he was slumped unconscious at the foot of bar. A thin stream of
blood was trickling from one corner of his mouth.
"Oh shit," said Alex, bending down to examine him. His face was pale, and
he barely seemed to be breathing.
"Don't worry about him," said the drink. "It's just a mild case of
benzylite poisoning. As long as he remembers to drink plenty of water
before he goes to bed, and books himself in for a liver transplant first
thing in the morning, he'll be as right as rain."
"You're a great help," said Alex. "How am I going to get him back to the
ship, Jones?"
"I don't know," said Jones. "Carry him, I suppose."
"Get real," said Alex. "Can't you teleport us, or something?"
"I'm afraid you've been watching too much science fiction on TV," said
Jones. "Transporting even a single subatomic particle over any distance big
enough to notice is a major technological headache. Transporting a whole
person is practically impossible, particularly if you need them to be alive
when they get there."
"How about the Insti-Med module?" said Alex, searching her bag for the small
black cube Jones had given her.
"I fear it will be of little help," said Jones. "It just wasn't designed
with the peculiar drinking habits of the Dreldorans in mind."
"Oh no," said Alex, resting her head in her hands. She suddenly felt very,
very lonely, and a long way from home. "What am I going to do?"
"Excuse my intrusion," said a voice behind her. She turned, and saw a
Dreldoran, dressed in elegant orange robes, his face exhibiting the fixed
scowl she knew from her guidebook to be the equivalent of a smile. "I'm
Drax Warford, the well-known socialite and television celebrity. When I
heard on the grapevine that aliens of an entirely unknown species had landed
on our dull little world, I simply had to come and meet you. Would you
permit me to buy you a drink?"
"Don't trust him," said the drink. "Whatever he's up to, you're best off
having nothing to do with it. Drax Warford is the sort of man who gives
ruthlessness and greed a bad name."
"Normally I'd love to," said Alex, ignoring her drink. "But the fact is
we're otherwise engaged. My companion is suffering from some kind of
poisoning, and I have to get him back to our ship."
"What a terrible thing to happen," said Drax, sniffing cautiously at the
dregs of Jason's drink. "The barman really shouldn't have served him one of
these. I'd imagine a single mouthful would be more than enough to cause
permanent damage to anyone who lacked the Dreldorans' highly-evolved triple
"There must be something we can do," said Alex.
"If you wish, I'll summon my personal physician," said Drax, reaching for
his communicator. "I'm sure he can prescribe an antidote."
"You're too kind," said Alex.
"Not at all," said Drax, bending down over Jason, and shifting his
unconscious body to a more comfortable position. "The important thing now
is that you should try not to worry too much about your friend. Why don't
you tell me what you're doing here on Dreldor, while we wait for Dr
Weissland to arrive?"