No writer has delved deeper into the innermost recesses of the human mind than Dostoevsky. The result is an array of memorable characters: Dmitri, Ivan, Alyosha and Smerdyakov in The Brothers Karamazov, Prince Myshkin in The Idiot, Rashkolnikov in Crime and Punishment and so many more. To adapt a phrase of Norwegian Nobel prize winning novelist Knut Hamsun these explorations are so overwhelmingly visionary and the delineation of characters so powerful that they leave an everlasting imprint on the reader’s mind. When he wrote Oru Sangeerthanam Pole (1993) Perumpadavam Sreedharan made a similar attempt but here the subject of study is Dostoevsky himself. Based on Anna Dostoevsky’s Dostoevsky: Reminiscences, the novel is a fictional biography structured around a brief but crucial period in the novelist’s life when he reached a point of near ruin. Dostoevsky borrowed money from his publisher giving in exchange a promissory note to give the finished draft of The Gambler within the month. Failing this he would forfeit his right to all his future works. As days go by panic seizes Dostoevsky. He fears he will not be able to keep the deadline. However, the irony is that the heightened consciousness of peril does not empower him to fulfil the task. Nor can it prevent him from borrowing money from all accessible sources to gamble away in casinos. It is at this point that a friend suggests that he engage a stenographer to help him finish the work in time. Anna Snitkina the one who is offered the job is an admirer of the writer. The recent death of a much loved father who too was an admirer of the novelist and who had told her that Dostoevsky had God’s signature upon his heart prompts Anna to see the offer as something miraculous and she arrives at the writer’s doorstep brimming with eager anticipation. Everything goes smoothly until the writer puts her skill to test. The novel is an engaging and insightful exploration of the ups and downs, the frustrations and epiphanies that mark the relationship between author and stenographer.
Sreedharan employs an innovative structure that includes interior monologue, narration, conversation and extracts from the writings of Dostoevsky as well as others to create a fascinating picture of the complexities of the mind and thought processes of a flawed genius; a man prone to epileptic fits, one who succumbs to flashes of mad rage reminding Anna of a wild animal, one who is obsessed with poverty and misery, with feelings of loneliness and self-pity.
The reader sees the troubled artist through Anna’s eyes: her initial bewilderment at his mercurial changes of mood, her amazed recognition of the brilliance of his mind and vision of life, of his creative genius that enables him to dictate as though reading from his mind. She and through her the reader gets glimpses of the sensitive, generous soul eclipsed by the outward persona of a selfish, self-indulgent drunkard and gambler. Interestingly, Anna learns to subtly direct the writer’s wayward erratic path. A remarkable incident that needs mentioning is when she gives Dostoevsky money to gamble away at the casino because she instinctively realizes that the act will prove cathartic in lifting him out of the pit of gloom and self pity he has fallen into.
Translating a novel like Oru Sangeerthanam Pole is a formidable task as the original is a landmark and a classic. A gap of a quarter of a century exists between the original and the translation. Published at a time when pro-Left sympathies made reading and discussing Russian writers an intellectually stimulating exercise in the Kerala literary terrain the novel received tremendous acclaim. This can make translation a daunting task. Poet and award winning translator AJ Thomas’ translation is excellent. The style is smooth and flows easily. It succeeds in bringing forth the magic of the original. This is impressive because as mentioned earlier the original is a melding of multiple narrative techniques with extracts from other texts. There are a couple of instances where the choice of words and phrasal structures jar but they do not impede the flow of the text. The translator’s decision to italicize the thoughts of the characters as well as the excerpts needs special mention as the technique works as a good counterpointing device. The editing and typesetting could have been better. Some of the typo errors are negligible but others irk the reader and hinder enjoyment. It is possible that the reader of the English translation might not be as appreciative of the iconic genius of the protagonist as the readers of the original were. Some might find Dostoevsky’s preoccupation with his frailties and his refusal to take control of his self-destructive impulses, masochistic. However that does not take away the merit of the translated text.
Catherine Thankamma, a retired Associate Professor of English, has worked in various government colleges under the Government of Kerala. She has a Ph.D in theatre from Jawaharlal Nehru University. She has translated Kocharethi: The Araya Woman (OUP 2012).
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