Friday, July 30, 2010

Brodskiana: A Tractor Driver Named Bulov (Not Burov)

Brodsky in Norenskaya / Image courtesy of Музей Иосифа Бродского в Интернете

Just as I was about to skip town and put this blog on hold for a month and a half, a curious little article appeared in Ex Libris, the literary supplement to the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta. The idea behind the article, called “Brodsky’s Grandmother” («Бабушка Бродского»), was simple: the writer of the piece, an film actor who calls himself Yandané, would visit the village where Joseph Brodsky was exiled in the 1960s and talk to the locals about him. The results that Yandané’s experiment yielded were rather interesting. But more about that in a minute.

This episode of Brodsky’s life has become a key component of the personal mythology that influences how readers approach his poetry: after being put on trial in 1964 for tuneyadstvo, or “social parasitism”—basically, freeloading—Brodsky was exiled to the tiny village of Norenskaya in Arkhangelsk province, where he stayed for a year and a half. (The original sentence was five years.) This was the first of Brodsky’s two exiles—the second one was more permanent—and the alienation that an outcast suffers is central to Brodsky’s poetics. But even before he was sent to Norenskaya, the “exile” theme appeared in his work. Take, for example, this poem (in my translation), written in 1961:

You’re finally coming home again. So what?
Just take a look around and see who needs you.
Yes, take a look: who now might be your friend?

(Воротишься на родину. Ну что ж. / Гляди вокруг, кому еще ты нужен, / кому теперь в друзья ты попадешь?)

Brodsky writes as if he were returning from exile, but in fact experiencing estrangement is simply his modus operandi. He only seems to anticipate being banished. And yet he reprimands himself within the poem for choosing to maintain an aesthetic distance from the world; he implies that some real human connections must be made. The irony grows thicker as the poem proceeds:

How nice that you have no one left to blame;
how nice that you are free of all attachments;
how nice that right until your very death
no one will ever bother you with love.

(Как хорошо, что некого винить, / как хорошо, что ты никем не связан, / как хорошо, что до смерти любить / тебя никто на свете не обязан.)

But after all, a poem is a fiction. Everything I’ve ever read about Brodsky’s time in Norenskaya affirms that he sought to keep in close contact with all of his friends and family back in Leningrad while he was gone, as well as that numerous visitors came to see him. Staying aloof when writing a poem is one thing, but friendships are quite another.

Yandané, the Ex Libris writer, was on his way back to Moscow from Arkhangelsk this spring when he decided to stop in Norenskaya “to investigate the details of Brodsky’s sojourn there.” He was surprised by how small the village is: there are only about fifteen houses—no store, no post office, no school—and half of the people who live there are named Pesterev. Almost everyone speaks fondly of the poet.

Yandané had no trouble finding Brodsky’s house, since it stands right on the street and bears a memorial plaque. The owner of the house, Aleksandr Pesterev, explained that the plaque used to be accompanied by a wall-mounted flower box, but he had to take it down because “melting snow seeped from it onto the house, which is already 200 years old.” Even though he was just an adolescent, Pesterev remembers when Brodsky stayed with them and described the poet’s habits: he lived “separately, hung a lock on his door, and set himself up with a kerosene lamp, since there was no electricity in the village then. He wrote and read by the light of the lamp, and they brought him the fuel from Peter [i.e., Leningrad].”

According to another villager, Maria Zhdanova, that house actually wasn’t the one that Brodsky lived in during most of his time in Norenskaya; rather, he lived with another family of Pesterevs, Konstantin Borisovich and Afanasiya Nikolaevna, who “didn’t have any children” and “treated him like a son.” But Zhdanova said that “the plaque wasn’t hung there, because the other house is more visible and stands right next to the road.” (Zhdanova, by the way, is the one whom the villagers call Brodsky’s “grandma,” since she often spoke with him during her work at the local telephone switchboard and cashier’s office.)

For much of the time that Yandané was wandering around Norenskaya and nearby Konosha, he was searching for someone called “A. Burov” with whom Brodsky supposedly worked back in the 1960s. Brodsky mentions him in one of his poems, and Yandané carried that poem with him, showing it to passersby and asking if they happened to know this “Burov.” Here is my rough-and-ready translation of the opening lines of the poem, which I made without any attempt to reproduce the form of the original:

A. Burov, tractor driver, and I,
agricultural worker Brodsky,
were sowing winter crops—six hectares.
I contemplated the wooded country
and the sky with a jet’s trail,
and my boot rested on a lever.

(А. Буров - тракторист - и я, / сельскохозяйственный рабочий Бродский, / мы сеяли озимые - шесть га. / Я созерцал лесистые края / и небо с реактивною полоской, / и мой сапог касался рычага.)

(Incidentally, if you’re curious how Brodsky could have sat on a Soviet tractor with his boot on one of its levers, have a look at this.)

Whenever Yandané would ask anyone about “Burov,” they would always say something like, “Maybe you mean Bulov?” Yandané eventually did find the guy, and indeed his name is Bulov, not Burov. He’s now 65 years old. And he doesn’t remember Brodsky quite as fondly as some of the others:

“And just who is Brodsky? A parasite, a freeloader! I worked for ten years as a KGB driver, I’m a communist. …and they set him up with me for reeducation as a farmhand. I trained him, but he was as lazy as they come. He’d go off into the raspberry bushes and forget about work – you couldn’t call him back! I did his work for him, but still we got along fine. …he would come over to my place and I’d give him something to eat and drink. But when girls in jeans would come from Leningrad to visit him (my wife was pregnant then), I would ask him, ‘Introduce me!’ but he just wouldn’t share… He never invited me to his house and wouldn’t let me in, didn’t drink, lived cut off from the world and cooked for himself – like a spy. How could they have given him the Lenin Prize, that lazy good-for-nothing?! … He was a smart bastard. But Russia is a fool! Gave him a prize… America, America! He’s a leech, and they put up a fucking plaque for him!”

Yikes! Clearly, Bulov isn’t Brodsky’s biggest fan. But Yandané asks his readers to do one thing for the angry tractor driver from Norenskaya anyway: “I advise all of Brodsky’s fans,” he writes, “to change the name in that poem from ‘Burov’ to ‘Bulov’.” 

Fair enough, I’d say.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating! And I love the unexpected nature of Bulov's response.

    (Welcome back, by the way.)