Saturday, 24 December 2011

Monday Starts on Saturday, or Динозавр не работает

We're into extra time at the Russian Sci-Fi Quidditch Cup Final - it looks like Ivan Efremov's team have this year's trophy in the bag, unless Beliaev's Amphibian Man can tackle Erg Noor - and now the Strugatskii Brothers score! Lovely ninja broomstick work in goal from Arkadii - and Boris has grabbed the Golden Snitch! Game over! The Strugatskiis win again! Not surprising, with their work ethic; after all, Monday starts on Saturday, and this year August starts in July...

I've been overtaken by sub-Hogwartsian match commentary hysteria firstly because I'm excited to finally hold in my hands Andrew Bromfield's excellent translation of the Strugatskii brothers' genre-bending 1964 novel Ponedel'nik nachinaetsia v subbotu (as Monday Starts on Saturday), and secondly because the publisher, London-based Seagull House, attempted to boost this book on their web page by framing it as the Russian precursor of J.K. Rowling's warlock heptalogy. Clearly a doomed attempt, since English translations of this novel seem to dematerialize like badly-transmutated mosquitoes; they're certainly as evanescent. There is a 1977 translation by Leonid Renen, which I have not seen. Bromfield's version has vanished from sight since its publication in 2005; Amazon copies are like gold dust. Its presentation is impeccable; indeed, Seagull deserve praise for including Evgenii Migunov's whimsical original illustrations. And Bromfield copes magisterially with a highly modulated text, designed to baffle, tantalize, and delight the reader by turns. Only the lack of annotations - essential for any foreign language edition - disappoints. For instance, Vasilii the talking cat - muttering incoherently as he staggers around the massive oak tree outside Sasha's window - is a spoof on Pushkin's 'кот ученый' (learned cat) from the poem Ruslan i Liudmila, who 'все ходит... кругом' (constantly walks in circles) around a green oak tree. If he circles right, he sings a song; if left, he tells a fairy tale. Unfortunately, as a sign outside the museum warns, this cat is out of order; hence Vasilii's disconnected quotes and drunken stumbles. Belly laughs for Russian readers who learned the poem in school; polite mystification from everyone else. J.K. Rowling sells hundreds of millions of copies of her books because she doesn't expect her audience to read Pushkin. The Strugatskiis don't, and did. Enough said.
Another point of difference from the Potter saga is that Monday isn't a school story; NITWITT isn't Hogwarts or, for that matter, Gont. Its authors aimed it at 'younger scientists', but not children. Its hero, Sasha Privalov, becomes a trainee wizard when he's already a mature man: he's a computer technician who drives to a remote North Russian town, Solovets, to meet up with colleagues on a walking holiday. He never meets them. Instead, he offers a lift to two chance-met hunters, who find him a bed for the night at the local museum run by an exceptionally witchy hag. Before he knows it, he's exchanging pleasantries with a magical pike that lives in a well; accepting advice from a talking cat; and donning a Cap of Invisibility to dodge police. Inevitably, Sasha gives up his St Petersburg job to work as a programmer at NIICHAVO [Научно-исследовательский институт чародейства и волшебства], dexterously rendered as NITWITT [National Institute for the Technology of Witchcraft and Thaumaturgy] by Bromfield. NIICHAVO sounds, of course, like nichego, the Russian word for 'nothing'. The rest of the book describes comical episodes from Privalov's apprenticeship at the Institute. On New Year's Eve, he works the midnight shift at NITWITT (where the apparently simple task of closing the Institute becomes sheer slapstick, as all the staff trick their way back to their laboratories before midnight - Monday starts on Saturday, after all!); in another episode, he rides an improvised (and suspiciously Wellsian) time machine into the 'described future', where all possible science fiction outcomes mingle in reality; and at the end of the book, he learns he will shortly be sent to Kitezhgrad, the factory city that supplies NITWITT's technology - setting the scene for the bureaucratic bad dream of Monday's sequel, Tale of a Troika (Skazka o troike, 1967).

The [anonymous, but obviously Russian] publisher, prefacing Bromfield's translation, writes that 'the book itself, luckily, has nothing to do with politics; it's just pure undiluted fun based on an explosive mixture of folk-tales with popular myths of modern science', only to add half a page later that the Strugatskiis have inherited Gogol's famous hand-me-down of overcoat via Saltykov-Shchedrin, Olesha, and Bulgakov; that is, 'humorous fantasy, impregnated with social meaning and political satire'. Monday Starts on Saturday, like all the Strugatskiis' books, is inseparable from politics. The egregious Ambrosius Vybegallo, head of NITWITT's Department of Absolute Knowledge, with his sheepskin coat and odour of stale herring, is a vicious pen-portrait of the peasant-botanist Trofim Lysenko, whose remorseless self-aggrandization and bad research retarded Soviet science for almost three decades. Or take Merlin, another Pencey-class phony, who survives as director of the Department of Predictions and Prophecies ‘because he had written in all his questionnaires about his implacable struggle with Yankee imperialism even back in the Middle Ages, attaching notarized typed copies of the relevant pages from Mark Twain to the questionnaires’. Moreover, as Bromfield's publisher admits, there is a kind of politics operating in Monday that Western readers might miss, such as the poignant primitivism of the inkwell on the Solovets police officer's desk, or the blank spot on Vybegallo's wall where a suddenly-impolitic portrait has been removed. But the brothers aren't yet condemnatory of either Soviet policy or science itself: their Institute is 'concerned first and foremost with the problem of human happiness and the meaning of human life', and its saving grace is altruism: 'Every man is a magician in his heart, but he only becomes a magician when he starts thinking less about himself and more about others'. In Apocalyptic Realism (1994),  about the Strugatskiis' imbrication in Russian mystical and apocalyptic culture, Yvonne Howell wisely notes that the good cheer and lingering positivism of this book is antithetically bookended a decade later by the disillusionment of A Billion Years Before The End of The World (1976) and Beetle in the Anthill (1979).

How does Bromfield handle this thaumaturgical minefield of in-jokes and irony? Magically well; he ingeniously renders NITWITT's medley of technical jargon, Vybegallo's bad French, arch arch-courtesy, and Merlin's medieval English into viable equivalents. (Alas, that splendid throwaway one-liner 'Выбегалло забегалло?' doesn't translate). I would query 'bozo' for 'detina' [детина], and 'yolki-palki' [ёлки-палки'] is not quite 'Holy cow!', but overall this is a tour de force. I loved 'plywitsum' for 'umklaidet' [умклайдет] - to the layman, a magic wand. Particularly admirable was the alliterative 'The old granny will have my guts for garters' where, in the original, Sasha is concerned that his landlady will tear off his head. Moreover, since the reader shares Sasha's perspective of total bewilderment and frustration with the nonsensical phenomena of NITWITT, making sense of new characters resembles a logic problem (Roman has the hooked nose, the bruiser in the Hawaiian shirt is Vitya, so Volodya must be the bearded one who smiles). Andrew Bromfield makes these introductions as painless as possible.

С наступающим!
No prizes for guessing that I'm watching Charodei, Bromberg's 1982 New Year's classic loosely based on Monday, tonight! Since Monday begins on Saturday, New Year's Day must begin on Christmas Eve. Hence, I'd like to thank all my readers for their support and ever-welcome comments, and wish everyone a rumbustious, lucubrative, and generally magical 2012!


  1. The same to you, and I'm very much looking forward to Понедельник начинается в субботу -- I'm in the middle of Трудно быть богом now and am thrilled I have so much Strugatsky to go!

  2. Thank you for another fun post, Russian Dinosaur. Поздравляю с наступающим! I wish you a very happy 2012 with lots more good books... I'm looking forward to reading about them!