Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Pushkin's The Captain's Daughter

I have seldom paused to consider the translators who have made my obsession with Russia possible.  Without them, I wouldn't be able to read any of the hundreds of brilliant Russian novelists, playwrights, and poets admire so much.  Recently, I was so floored by the beautifully elliptical prose of Platonov's book, Soul, that I decided to read up a little on the translators, Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, who had, apparently, helped to convey the book's mysterious power to me. Next I decided to read Chandlers' translation of Alexander Pushkin's novella, The Captain's Daughter.  While it's difficult for a non-Russian speaker to know whether one translation is more or less faithful to the original, I can say that Robert Chandler seems to convey a real sense of poetry in his work. In the future, I'll try to pay more attention to the translations I select.  I've already looked up Robert Chandler's interviews online to see which other translators he recommends.

All this being said, The Captain's Daughter is concise but strangely elegant piece of historical fiction.  The book's plot revolves around a young nobleman, Pyotr Grinyov, who serves on the outskirts of the expanding Russian Empire in the last quarter of the eighteenth century.  The book is a romance, and necessarily involves the protagonist in duels, military combat, and acts of chivalry in the service of a young maiden.  It also relies upon rigid gender stereotypes.  For instance, the heroine of the book lacks almost any positive characteristics, and initiates almost no action whatsoever.  She's handsome;  she suffers and cries;  and she awaits rescue.  Her mother does participate in decision-making, but even this version of female possibility seems to involve perpetually hectoring her husband, and eventually making the noble decision to avoid life in the absence of a husband.

The book is rescued from romantic cliche by its acknowledgement of the brutal center of Russia's social structure and imperial adventures. For Pushkin's hero is slavishly served by a devoted serf.  This serf's fate depends entirely on the whim of Pyotr Grinyov his his landowning father.  Although the serf serves his masters faithfully, Pushkin makes it clear that he is entirely dependent on the goodwill of his lord, who may send him to work in the fields for acts of disloyalty, or for no reason at all.

Pushkin's treatment of inequality lies along side his treatment of Russian imperialism.  For on the outposts of empire, Pushkin makes it clear that the Russian czarina is profoundly resented by local Cossacks and tribal peoples. While the hero expresses few doubts about the legitimacy of his czarina, and admires the men and women who dies in her service, he does not doubt that Russia's civilizing mission in this period involved military aggression and torture.  The complexity of The Captain's Daughter is linked to the author's self-evident respect for the villain of the story, Pugachev, who is generous enough to pardon enemies, and respectable enough to allow Pyotr Grinyov to rescue his love interest from the clutches of an evil Russian rival.  (Note that Pushkin's History of the Pugachev Rebellion provides another excellent avenue into Pushkin's sophisticated approach to social upheaval).

In the end, Pushkin also complicates his depiction of femininity. Although the maiden once merely awaited rescue from Grinyov, she does at least set out to beg assistance for her future husband from Catherine the Great.  While pleading for assistance isn't the textbook definition of female agency, the empress is of course able to exert her willpower at both the center and periphery of empire.

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