Fazil Iskander: Сандро из Чегема (Sandro of Chegem)
This book had something of a chequered history. It is basically a collection of stories about the title character. It was first published in Novy Mir magazine in 1973. Other stories were published separately. Then it was published in book form (but with a large amount cut) in the Soviet Union in 1977. Ardis, the US publishers, published a fuller version in 1979. It was translated into English in 1983. The complete version was finally published in Russian in Russia in 1989.
The book tells a series of stories – not in chronological order – about Sandro of Chegem. It is narrated by someone who refers to him as Uncle Sandro, though not necessarily a nephew or niece. Sandro is now eighty years old and has therefore lived through both Czarist and Soviet systems. He has been a good Bolshevik, as we will see, but, like many of his fellow Abkhazians, he remains fiercely independent and Iskander/Sandro is not averse to criticising the Soviet system where he finds it wanting. More importantly for us readers, he is a lovable rogue, larger than life, always ready to stand up for himself and for his fellow Abkhazians, fiercely loyal but also always on the lookout for the main chance. The stories that Iskander tells about Sandro are generally very funny and mock his fellow men, the high and mighty and the authorities, whether Czarist or Soviet, and show the inevitable superiority of the Abkhaz people and their way of life.
Sandro has, of course, had numerous adventures and we follow many of these. Indeed, the book opens by telling us that many people have tried to kill him, all, obviously, unsuccessfully. The stories we are initially told about his brushes with death concern his love life. However, we soon see that he has had brushes with death fighting the Mensheviks for the Bolsheviks. He is not afraid of the Mensheviks nor, indeed, of anyone, and is happy to stand up to them and anyone else opposed to him. We see this even in the pre-Soviet period when the local prince has him hauled in for beating up a security guard who had the temerity to blow a raspberry (or, perhaps, fart) at him. Sandro’s clever way with words and trickery not only gets him off the charge but he even manages to get himself a pair of very fine binoculars as a reward, which he will use to spy on the Mensheviks in a later story.
Sandro is often in trouble and, on one occasion, he gets off when he is sent to join a dance troupe, as he is a fine dancer. He does so well in the troupe that they entertain Stalin himself. We get to meet Stalin and Beria and, course, Sandro tries a risky dance manoeuvre which he has practised on his own but never before his fellow dancers, which very nearly gets him into trouble but, once again, his charm gets him out of trouble. This sense of invention and imagination helps his gambling friend, who is losing all his money to a rich merchant. Sandro decides to frighten the merchant by riding his horse around the room where the two are gambling and even jumps his horse over the table. The merchant is so put out that he starts to lose and his friend, an Armenian tobacco dealer, wins. It does not help as the Mensheviks will drive him out. Iskander has apparently said that he does not like Latin American magic realism but he is not averse to using a touch of it in this book. He resorts frequently to Abkhazian lore and legend and this naturally includes an element of magic. We see this in a story about a prayer tree, which seems to tell Sandro’s father to join the local collective, which he does. When the tree is partially burned (at the orders of the local Soviet authorities) some human bones and a kettle mysteriously appear and disappear. We eventually get a prosaic explanation for these events.
Iskander clearly has a great gift for story telling as he keeps us amused and entertained throughout these stories. Sandro is such a wilful but lovable character that we cannot help but sympathise with all his travails and share in his triumphs. He is also a survivor, still unafraid at the age of eighty of those more powerful than him and still respected and feared by all and sundry. Iskander wrote most of his stories in Russian, so they are all readily accessible and, fortunately, quite a few are available in English and well worth reading.
First published 1977 by Sovetskii pisatel’
First published in English 1983 by Vintage Books