NEA Literature Fellowships

Adam Siegel

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(2015 - Translation)

Excerpt from The Island; Or, A Justification for Meaningless Travels by Vasilii Golovanov

[translated from the Russian]

Yesterday I went to Pechora, to the harbor, by an old house I'd noticed the day I arrived.  A large and soot-covered house with windows which once must have looked directly onto the river, but which now faced a long fence surrounding the port.  I was intrigued - did someone live there?  It was difficult to tell.  Moss and wild chamomile grew on the roof.  The kitchen garden lay fallow, only a tiny bed dotted with sprigs of dill attested to the fact that someone still lived, was living out her days, within this house.  And then the front door opened, and a wizened little woman in a white headscarf peered out.  I hailed her, one thing led to another, and she invited me in, to treat me to tea and pickled carrots and smoked salmon.

And she told me her story.

About how once upon a time the Pechora flooded, its banks overflowing like the sea, how she had gone out with her grandfather, astonished by this great watery mirror, and how they had rowed, almost flying, over the drowned meadows, the fields of hay, the brush along the riverbanks….

"Grandpa, where is the riverbank?"  There was no riverbank, only a rowboat, gliding across the transparent blue, grandfather and granddaughter together in that rowboat….

And she spoke of her husband, who took her out of the village and into the city.  Seemingly never giving a thought as to whether their life was rich or poor, happy or sad.  Life was just hard, and they would get through it together, rowing against the current.  Then all of a sudden he was gone.  And she understood that for her he had been the dearest, closest, most reliable person in the whole world….

He used to work for three days at a stretch, setting the beacons and checked the river markers.  One day he left for his shift, taking the food his wife had packed with him.  He said goodbye.  He left.  As always.  And hardly had he closed the door behind him when something began burning within her: longing.  Longing for a happiness that would never be.  She ran down to the harbor office after her husband, but he was gone.  Down to the docks.  Gone.  The barge was already gone, down the river.  Three days later they brought him home, dead.  Earlier he had complained of a headache, something painful squeezing his head.  He who had never complained about anything at all before….

What broke her weak heart, what shattered it forever, was the death of her fourteen-year-old son, a long time coming - and she loved the boy all the more for it, maybe because he took after his mother: slender and delicate.  One day he went swimming in the Pechora; he caught a chill, and later, drying off by the fire with the other boys, he started coughing.  She couldn't take him in for treatment because she had to go to work, and she couldn't treat him herself, except give him pills, nothing else.  When they admitted him to the hospital it turned out he had pneumonia, and week by week he grew thinner - and because he was tall for his age, he was placed in a ward filled with grown men from the countryside, and they smoked all the time.  "Mama, it's not good for me here," he said....”

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"And then they placed him in quarantine, along with two peasants from Kotkino who had typhoid fever.  I went to the head doctor to take him home, he'd been there for so long, and he wasn't getting any better, and now with this typhoid....  'Give him to me,' I said....  'No,' the doctor said, 'he's very ill, we can't discharge him when he's this sick, his abdomen is severely distended....'

“I go and look: his stomach is all swollen, that's it ... I ask the doctor, 'Does this mean he's going to die?'

“He died.  I couldn't sleep for a month.  I lost twenty pounds...."

Original in Russian

About Vasilii Golovanov

With the appearance of Vasilii Golovanov's The Island, contemporary Russian literature has produced a figure who can examine Russia in all her contours -- geological, ecological, historic, ethnographic, geographic, even psycho-geographic -- to create a work that fulfills Walter Benjamin's dictum: All great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent a new one.

Adam Siegel is a writer and translator from Central and Eastern European languages. He holds degrees from the Defense Language Institute, the University of Minnesota, the University of California, Berkeley, and San José State University. His translations of authors such as Vasilii Golovanov, Viktor Shklovskij, Hubert Fichte, Hans Henny Jahnn, Thomas Bernhard and others, have been published or are forthcoming in venues such as Conjunctions, Context, The Brooklyn Rail, B O D Y, Dalkey Archive, and Solar Luxuriance. His translation of Hedda Gabler was staged by the Art Theater of Davis in 2014. His writing has been published or is forthcoming in venues such as Solar Luxuriance, Streetnotes, XCP: Cross-Cultural Poetics, ActionYes, Caketrain, and elsewhere. He is languages and literatures bibliographer at the University of California, Davis.

Photo by Deatra Cohen

Translator's Statement

The NEA honors all translators - it provides much-needed recognition and support to those who work to make the world of literature truly universal. I am grateful to the Arts Endowment and the reviewers for their support and their efforts.

The fellowship, in addition to providing the translator with greatly appreciated resources for completing this translation project, is an independent and critical validation of the translator's advocacy.

The NEA honors the author – the NEA Literary Translation Fellowship I have been awarded is above all a recognition of something Russian, French, German, and Spanish readers have known for some time - that Vasilii Golovanov, author of The Island and other works, is one of the outstanding Russian writers of his generation.

I am grateful to the NEA's reviewers for sharing my appreciation for Golovanov's work. I am honored by their recognition of my own contributions to literature. And I thank the NEA and the reviewers for their confirmation of my own belief that Vasilij Golovanov's moving, astonishing, and sui generis works are among the most significant of this young century.