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Iliazd: Восхищение (Rapture)

Iliazd was very much involved with the literary and artistic experiments of the early twentieth century. He took an interest in futurism when still in Georgia and when he moved to Paris became involved with Dadaism and Surrealism. These influences are clear in this book. Translator Thomas Kitson provides a very detailed and interesting introduction, showing how Iliazd became involved in various movements and what influence they had on him. He even says that, according to one critic, this is a roman à clef. Laurence, the main character and a bandit, is said to be based on Mayakovsky, with whom Iliazd had disagreements. You do not need to know this or, indeed, to know about the various influences on Iliazd to appreciate this book. It is, certainly, somewhat realistic but with lots of other elements, both of a surrealistic nature and also informed by Central Asian myth and legend. If I were to compare it to any other book, at least as regards the style, it would perhaps be with Gellu Naum‘s Zenobia (Zenobia), also a surrealism-influenced novel, though the two stories are very different.

Iliazd wrote this book in the 1920s, hoping to get it published in Russia. By the time he tried to do so, it was too late, as the Soviet view was taking over and the publishers turned it down. Emigré Russia publishers in France found it too obscene, so Iliazd ended up publishing it himself in 1930 in a limited edition of 750 copies. It sold very few copies and essentially disappeared. A facsimile reprint was produced in the United States in 1983 and a French translation in 1987. This, the first English translation, appeared in 2017.

On the face of it, this is a Central Asian adventure story. However, it is a Central Asian adventure story written by a man who was closely involved with surrealism, who wanted to bring in the myths and legends of his region and who also had a moral point of view. For good measure, as well as surrealist and mythical references, there are clear influences from The Bible (yes, there is a resurrection) and Dostoevsky.

We start off with a friar, Brother Mocius, who is trekking through his snowstorm, over a mountain pass, to return to his monastery. Though he is used to this, it is not going well. Indeed, it reminds me of Frederick Burnaby‘s A Ride to Khiva, a real-life account of a similar journey in another part of Central Asia. Mocius slips and tumbles and collapses in the snow, falling asleep. He recovers, digs himself out and continues on his way. It will do him no good, as someone is waiting for him and pushes him over an abyss. Iliazd has been giving us descriptions of both the real fauna and imaginary fauna. We have turs, eagles, butterflies, vipers, chamois and bears and this exaggeration – vipers and butterflies are hardly like to appear in the snow – occurs throughout the book. But we also have satyrs, imps and angels. It is not clear till later if a real or imaginary being killed the friar. His body turns up in a river near a sawmill.

We get more of Iliazd’s colourful exaggeration when we now move to a village which has a long unpronounceable name, so unpronounceable that even the locals cannot pronounce it. It has three main groups of people. Firstly there is the wen family. A wen is like a goitre or cyst and all the large family seem to be affected. They will be know in this book as the wennies. There is a family of cretins. Thirdly, there is a retired forester who has built a large, mahogany house, completely unlike the other houses in the village. He lives alone with his beautiful daughter, Ivlita, our heroine. Her mother is long since dead. Father occupies himself with chess (he plays against himself) and his books, written in languages he does not understand. There are others in the village but they play a relatively minor role as individuals.

Meanwhile, back at the sawmill, the suspicion falls on Laurence. Laurence is a deserter as he does not want to fight and kill people. Others had avoided being conscripted but Laurence had given his reasons. When the forces of law and order come, the gravedigger, who suspects Laurence of murderess the friar, betrays him. Laurence kills him and others and flees to the village with the unpronounceable name.While there he persuades father wenny to give him his sons and he becomes a bandit, somewhat hypocritically killing for money.

Though living in the village, he had been unaware of the existence of Ivlita. When they meet, as expected, they fall for each other. Her father, however, is not happy. Laurence continues his spree, making lots of money but when he undertakes a big job, things go wrong. It is assumed he is dead but he is alive – thanks to the mysterious Basilisk. Basilisk belongs to the party – presumably Iliazd is having a go at the Bolsheviks here – who want to overthrow the system (We strive to take everything from the rich so there won’t be any rich people and everyone will be equally poor). He wants to use Laurence to help him do so. It does not turn out the way either Basilisk or Laurence planned. When the Emperor (presumably the Tsar) turns up, things get more complicated.

Laurence, who seeks freedom, and wants to avoid killing, fails in both aspects. He feels that he has to go on being a bandit, to buy fine things for Ivlita and then he is under the thumb of first Galaction, who organises the big heist that failed and then under the thumb of Basilisk.

The authorities inevitably react and it is the poor who suffer. Father wen says You spent time on the plains, collected some money; well, did it come in handy for you? And I won’t even mention the fact that the whole country’s mucked (sic) up because of you. And all because you’re a pretender, one of the unwashed.

While this is a bandit adventure story, our hero is not always heroic. It became clear to him to the point of absurdity that he, Laurence, and his environment, which he so despised, were one and the same and his own guilt was a scale model of generalised guilt. Moreover the path of true love does not run smoothly for Laurence and Ivlita. Indeed, Iliazd, shakes the standard conventions of the adventure story, not only with his surrealistic touches but by having the hero as less than heroic and the heroine not always the devoted lover or, indeed, loving daughter.

Partially because of the many colourful touches and partially because of his subversion of the standard adventure story, this is a most enjoyable read, as we can never be sure what will happen. At times hero, at times, fallen hero, Laurence is a more complex character than your average hero. However, it is easy to see why the Soviets did not want to publish it – the downtrodden working classes do not come out of it any better than the rich and powerful. Thankfully, the book has been rediscovered and we can read it nearly a hundred years later.

Publishing history

First published in 1930 by Sorok pervyĭ gradus
First English translation by in 2017 by Columbia University Press
Translated by Thomas Kitson