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?)