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Andrei Bely: Котик Летаев (Kotik Letaev)

I remember once seeing an interview with Salman Rushdie in which he was asked whether it was worth while reading books in translation. His very sensible response was that, in the case of, for example, Gabriel García Márquez, while he may not get every nuance that a Spanish speaker would get when reading the original Spanish, he was still able to get a lot of worthwhile pleasure from the translation. This is, obviously, a view that I share, as there are many books on this site that I am not able to read in the original but which I can still enjoy in translation. This, however, becomes trickier with poetry and with novels where the author makes much of puns, language games, etc. Is it worthwhile, for example, reading Finnegans Wake in translation?

Bely is very much a case in point. Петербург (Petersburg) is a very fine novel but one that relies heavily on language games, puns, etc. However, it can be still be read and very much appreciated, even by those who do not speak a word of Russian. While you can appreciate and enjoy this book if you do not read Russian, the situation is even trickier. It tells the story of a very young boy and his view of the world, making extensive use of onomatopoeia, puns, plays on words, etc. In his introduction to the English translation, the translator states The reader should beware of making too much of specific items in the English translation, which is as cautionary a note as I have ever seen in a translator’s notes. And once you are into it, you will see why. A case in point – and there are many other examples – concerns Tolstoy. The word Tolstoy comes from the Russian word for fat. Accordingly, young Kotik equates any fat man with Tolstoy.

Young Kotik, though writing at the age of thirty-five, is also giving his opinion of his very early life. He sees swirls and movements and action. But he also sees conflict. His father is his father but he is also mathematician Letaev. How can the two be reconciled? There is conflict between his mother and his father. His father likes order and structure. He wants young Kotik to learn his alphabet early and become studious, while his mother, more into movement and action than her husband, wants him to be a child. Caught in between is his nanny, Raisa Ivanovna, and she ends up paying the price, losing her job, which causes Kotik so much distress that he sets off looking for her. We also get his view of many of the visitors to the household such as Christofor Christoforovich Poppul, who is always collecting facts, rushing off, for example, to London to collect more facts (and Bely takes advantage of this to make a play on words between London and landau).

It is not a particularly easy read but it should be considered as a novel written by a poet, in a poetical style, where language and word structure and impressions are paramount, rather than plot and characterisation and, as such, is an interesting footnote to Bely’s work.

Publishing history

First published 1922 by Epoka
First published 1971 in English by Ardis
Translated by Gerald Janecek