Weöres’s ersatz Chinese

The Hungarian poet Sándor Weöres wrote several visual poems, but an especially memorable one is “Kinai templom” (Chinese Temple). Weöres recreates in Hungarian the same monosyllabic, vertically written forms that he must have seen himself during his Asian journey of 1937. The poem is included in his 1941 collection Medusza.

Szent fönn Négy majd
kert, lenn fém mély
tág, cseng: csönd,
lomb: éj Szép. leng
tárt jő. Jó. mint
zöld kék Hír. mült
szárny, árny. Rang. hang.

I tried my hand at translating this into English a few years ago but couldn’t manage to recreate the poem with only monosyllables as in Weöres’ original and his Chinese model. Recently, I discovered that Emery George had translated the poem back in the Seventies:

Sage high, Four then
grove, low, bronze deep
dark night, gongs: peace,
bough: king: Life, tones
green come, rank, like
wing blue fame, chilled
spread, shade. long, song.

The decline of German (and French) as languages of culture

In his book Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century, the late Eric Hobsbawm writes on the decline of Mitteleuropa as a sociocultural phenomenon. This remark on the disappearance of German as a language of pan-European culture struck me, being in line with some anecdotal musings that I have had for some time:

Equally, and perhaps even more significant, is the end of German linguistic hegemony. German is no longer the lingua franca of the educated from the Baltic to Albania. It is not merely that a young Czech meeting a young Hungarian or a Slovene will most probably use English to communicate with him or her, but that none of them can any longer expect the other to know German. It is that nobody who is not a native German speaker is now likely to use Goethe and Lessing, Hölderlin and Heine as the foundation of educated culture, let alone as the way from backwardness into modernity.

European literary culture has been massively affected by the change of the European lingua franca to English and increasingly nothing but English. I have always thought it remarkable how many European intellectuals born in the 1920s and 1930s were fond of Hölderlin, participating in his 20th-century resurgence even if they were from outside German-speaking countries proper. Hungarians and Italians upheld him as a poet to know. Now, a few decades on, Hölderlin may well be of interest only to those working in Germany, Austria or Switzerland.

It is not just German. I wonder if Samuel Beckett’s novels (namely the trilogy) have fallen so drastically into obscurity compared to his plays because the former were usually read on the continent in their original French, and now people are less likely to know French or at least read it for pleasure.

New Chuvash resources in Cheboksary

I used to be unhappy with the limited range of Chuvash publications available in the bookshops on Leninsky prospekt, but on my most recent trip I discovered a shop with a fantastic selection. Located on Egerskij bul’var near the intersection with prospekt 9-j Pjatiletki (just across the street from the Šupaškar shopping mall and McDonalds), this bookshop offers seemingly every recent publication from the Chuvash state publishing house. Chuvash books for sale in a fine Cheboksary bookshop

I saw that I. A. Andreev’s Chuvash textbook Чувашский язык has been re-released in a third edition – though I’ve never seen a second – and is now subtitled ‘практический курс’ instead of ‘началный курс’. That’s a bit of a misnomer, as Andreev still has students starting off with translating complicated poetry instead of actually learning how to use Chuvash in daily life, but there’s still enough useful material in the book to recommend it.

Gennady Aigi’s complete poems have recently been issued in a two-volume set. I was able to purchase the second volume, which collects his poems in Russian: Собрание сочинение (Чебоксары: Чувашкое Книжное Издательство, 2009) ISBN 9785767016648. However, the first volume, which collects his poems in Chuvash, is sold out. I heard a rumour from a trusted source that almost the entire print run of that volume went to Chuvash politicians and is gathering dust on their shelves.

Tuqay in Volga-Kama languages

One Tatar book being prominently displayed in Kazan bookshops is a slim volume of poems by the Tatar national poet Ğabdulla Tuqay: Габдулла Тукай, Стихотворение (Казань: Татарское книжное издательство, 2011), ISBN 9785298020398.

Remarkably, the 20 poems in this volume appear not only in Tatar and Russian translation, but also in Bashkir, Mari, Chuvash and Udmurt. This is a nice show of solidarity with other minority peoples of Russia. I’ve often bought a Russian translation of Ivanov’s Chuvash work Narspi as a gift for Mari friends as my contribution to дружба народов, but this little book allows one to present Tatar poetry to others in their own language. I’m not sure if the poems were translated into the Finno-Ugrian languages through Russian or not, though I imagine plenty of minority-language activists in this region know something of Tatar.

I’d like to give an example of one of these poems in several languages, but I don’t want to type too much, so I’ve chosen his two-line ‘Kazan’ from 1913:


Ут, төтен, фабрик-завод берлә һаман кайный Казан;
Имгәтеп ташлап савын, сау эшчеләр сайлый Казан.


Огнем заводов дни и ночи людей ты жжешь, Казань.
Здоровых погубив рабочих, ты новых ждешь, Казань.


Ут, төтөн, фабрик-завод менән һаман ҡайнай Ҡазан;
Имгәтеп ташлап һауын, һау эшселәр һайлай Ҡазан.


Заводсен вучӗпе ир те каҫ ҫынсене ҫунтаран эс, Хусан.
Чире ярсан сыввисене, ҫӗннисене кӗтетӗн эс, Хусан.


Тыл но ӵын заводъёсад адямиез сутэ, Казань…
Кужмоез бырем бере, егит борды кутскод, Казань?

Meadow Mari

Еҥлам йӱд-кече йӱлалтет завод тул ден, Озаҥ.
Таза пашазе-влакым пытарен, бучет эше, Озаҥ.

Do the Dravidian languages have a word for ‘ouch’?

Ever idolize a writer on some subject other than linguistics and then feel crushingly disappointed when he makes some elementary mistake or perpetuates some urban myth about languages? In his poem Neiges (1994) Saint-John Perse wrote:

Ainsi l’homme mi-nu sur l’Océan des neiges, rompant soudain l’immense libration, poursuit un singulier dessein où les mots n’ont plus prise. Épouse du monde ma présence, épouse du monde ma prudence !… Et du côté des eaux premières me retournant avec le jour, comme le voyageur, à la néoménie, dont la conduite est incertaine et la démarche est aberrante, voici que j’ai dessein d’errer parmi les plus vieilles couches du langage, parmi les plus hautes tranches phonétiques : jusqu’à des langues très lointaines, jusqu’à des langues très entières et très parcimonieuses,

comme ces langues dravidiennes qui n’eurent pas de mots distincts pour «hier» et pour «demain». Venez et nous suivez, qui n’avons mots à dire : nous remontons ce pur délice sans graphie où court l’antique phrase humaine; nous nous mouvons parmi de claires élisions, des résidus d’anciens préfixes ayant perdu leur initiale, et devançant les beaux travaux de linguistique, nous nous frayons nos voies nouvelles jusqu’à ces locutions inouïes, où l’aspiration recule au-delà des voyelles et la modulation du souffle se propage, au gré de telles labiales mi sonores, en quête de pures finales vocaliques.

It suffices to quote a footnote in Knodel’s paper ‘The Imagery of Saint-John Perse’s Neiges’ in PMLA, Vol. 70, No. 1 (Mar., 1955), pp. 5–18: Word has been relayed to me from an eminent specialist in Dravidian dialects to the effect that, to his knowledge, no known Dravidian dialect lacked means of distinguishing yesterday and tomorrow. One would like to know the exact source of Perse’s affirmation.

Translating Chavain

In translating Sergei Chavain’s novel Elnet into English, one of the most difficult aspects of this mainly straightforward tale is the bilingualism of its setting. The simple Mari villagers whose trials and tribulations the novel depicts often come into confrontation with officials who speak only Russian.

Chavain highlight these villagers’ citizenship in two worlds by even calling them different names depending on context. The protagonist of the novel is introduced to us as Eprem Sakar, in which not only are the Orthodox names Zachary and Ephrem adapted to Mari phonology, but the family name comes first before the personal name (a word order still in use among the Hungarians, Chinese and Japanese, though now lost among the Mari). But many pages in, as someone files charges against this character and thus enters Russian-speaking bureaucracy, his name is entered in the charges as Zakhar Efremov. The translator must thus decide whether to maintain both names in their contexts, or use the Mari name throughout in order to make things easier for the foreign reader. I recalled how the English translation of Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago comes with a short introduction to Russian patronymics and affectionate forms, written as if there were some regret that the reader had to deal with all these complications.

Later, as an official questions Sakar in Russian, there’s a joke involving code switching which can be glossed with some effort, but not translatable in a satisfactory manner:

Ну, какое у тебя будет ходатайство? — йодо земский начальник.

Сакар нимомат ыш умыло, шеҥгекше ончале.

— Ты меня понимаешь?

— Он русским плока калякыт, — шоктыш шеҥгечын Левентей кугызан йӱкшӧ.

Well, what is your plea? the magistrate asked.

Sakar didn’t understand anything and looked around.

Do you understand me?

He speaks Russian badly, came the voice of old man Leventej from the back.

The funny line is Он русским плока калякыт, where the character has adapted the pure Russian phrase Он по-русски плохо говорит to Mari phonology, and then added the Mari accusative ending -m to the object. The best one could do to reproduce the character’s imperfect knowledge of Russian would be with the broken English of the stereotypical foreigner, ‘He no speak the Russian’, but this doesn’t carry across the tension between two spheres of society that is such a key part of Chavain’s novel.

Aigi’s early Chuvash-language verse

While the poetry Gennady Aigi wrote in Russian from the 1950s through the 1980s was published in three large collections after perestroika, his Chuvash-language poems were much smaller in number and appeared in the individual collection Сурхи йӗпхӳ (Springtime Drizzle) put out by Chuvashkoe knizhnoe izdatel’stvo in 1990. These poems date from 1948 to 1989 and reveal that at the same time Aigi was writing in an unusual modernist style in Russian, the poetry in his native language remained more traditional.

Паллах, халь Шупашкар ҫаплах шавлать.
Ҫаплах ялтраҫҫӗ Атӑл хумӗсем.
Урамсенче ҫӗршер хунар ҫунать,
Ҫуртсем ҫине ӳкеҫҫӗ шевлисем.

Ӑҫта эсир, телей сунан кунсем,
Мӗскершӗн вӑрататӑр чӗрене?
Ӑҫта эсир?.. Халь манӑн шухӑшсем
Пурте вӗҫеҫҫӗ Шупашкар енне…

Of course, now Cheboksary is so buzzing,
And the waves of the Volga are so gleaming.
In each street a hundred streetlights shine,
And are reflected by the houses.

Where are you, days wishing happiness,
What is it that you stir my heart for?
Where are you? Now my thoughts
All fly alongside Cheboksary…

This poem is the first in the volume and was written when the poet was 14 years old.

Chavain’s ‘In the Forest’

Sergei Chavain’s 1907 short story ‘In the Forest’ (Чодыраште) does everything it can to make the Tatars seem like the cruelest foes of the Mari. Surely these attitudes were wholly due to the influence of the Russians. In the Russian national mythos, the Muslim Tatars were a diabolic people whose ‘yoke’ was thrown off by the divinely favoured tsar. Though there is no Mari documentation from the time of Tatar supremacy, the Tatars were surely better neighbours for the Mari than the Russians, as the Mari were able to keep their language, traditional religion, and sense of identity. But Chavain harboured a deep hatred of Russia under the Tsars, and for all its Tatar presence, this seemingly innocuous story—like so much of his work—may well be a metaphor of how the Mari have suffered under Russian domination.


Шукерте ожно Виче вӱд воктене илен ик марий. Тудын лумжӧ Тойка улмаш. Пеш шуко улмаш тудын погыжо. Чыла погыж дечат шергакан тудын кок икшывыже – ӱдыржӧ да эргыже – улмаш. Ӱдыржын лӱмжӧ – Чази, эргыжын – Ози. Шоҥго Тойкан Чазиже ынде вуеш шуын, Озиже акажым поктен шуын. Чази ден Ози вольнаште, чодыра лоҥгаште, кушкыт. Шоҥго Тойкан, нуным ончен, чонжо нӧлталт шога.

Акаж ден шольыжо пеш келшен илат. Нуно коктын ик ганат вурседылын огытыл. Ози ден Чази коклан чодыраш коштыт. Ози пикш ден йоҥежым налеш. Чазиже саска погаш куршым налеш.

Тыгеракын, икана Ози ден Чази чодыраш каятат, ятыр коштыт. Вара Виче вӱд воктеке лектыт, кугу тумо йымалан канаш шинчыт.

Кече шокшо. Йырым-йыр пеледыш вуйышто мӱкш, ошымшӱлыш ызгат. Пушеҥге вуйышто кайык-влак мурат. Умбалнырак, чашкерлаште, шӱшпык шергылтарен шӱшкалта. Виче вӱдыштӧ кол-влак йылт-йолт тӧршталтен модыт.

Чази ден Ози, пӱтынь тӱням монден, вӱдыш ончен шинчат. Вӱдшӧ йога чарныде, колжо модеш каныде, шӱшпык йӱклана куанен!…

Ой, Чазиэм, Озиэм! Вашке тышеч те кайыза, шеҥгек ончалде куржса! Вашке гына ачада дек пӧртылза! Чодыраште суас ханын сарзе еҥже-влак коштыт… Ок, Чазиэм, Озиэм, мыйын йӱкем ода кол, чакракат ода тол!

Виче вӱд ӱмбачын кугу пуш толеш. Тойкан икшывыже-влак шеҥгечын суас тӱшка коеш.

Теве суас сарзе-влак толынат шуыч. Теве Ози ден Чазим кучыштат, пидын, пушышкышт наҥгайышт…

Ойган Тойка! Эрычым, ӱдыретым ынде от уж! Виче вӱдшӧ йор-йор йогалеш, йоҥлен кайыше Чази ден Озим пуш дене умбаке, йот мландышке, наҥгая.

Шуко ойгыра пиалдыме Тойка. Чумыр чодырам шерын пытара. Чодырашке лектын кычкыра — нимат уке. Южгунам мӱндырнӧ «ау!» манмыла ваштареш шокта. Тойка тиде йӱк-йӱан шоктымашке куржеш — адак нигӧат уке!…


Чази ден Озин осал хан кидыште илымыштым ойлаш тӱҥалат гын, пеш шуко возаш кӱлеш. Мый иктаж кок мут дене гына каласынем.

Ози, кул лиймекыже, ала-куш йомын. Чази тидым шинченат огыл. Чазижым ик мурза ватыжым ыштен.

Чазин кок эргыже шочын. Туге гынат Чази сай илышым ужын огыл. Эргыже-влакым тудлан ончыктенат огытыл. Кок эргыжат шкеныштым суас улына манын шоненыт. Коклан нуно ханын моло сарзыже-влак дене пырля марийым, рушым толаш коштыныт. Чазим нуно аваштланат шотлен огытыл. А суас вате-влак Чазим «Эй, чермыш кафирь!» манын вурсеныт.

Тыгай кугу орлыкым чытенак, Чази суас мурза дене кумло ий илен. Вара шоҥгемын, пашалан йӧрдымӧ лийын. Ынде тудо нигӧлан кӱлын огылат, опкын мурза Чазим мӧҥгеш Виче вӱд воктеке намиен шуэн.

Чази Виче вӱд тӱрыштӧ шуко шортын шога. Йырымйыр ончыштеш: шып… Кече шукерте ожно Чази ден Озин тумо йымалне шинчымышт гаяк мотор!

Виче вӱдшӧ йога чарныде, шӱшпыкшӧ мура куанен! Чазин шӱмжӧ чот пыртка.

— Мом ынде ышташ? Куш пураш?! — Чази шӱм ойгыж дене шона да сер деке тошкалеш. Виче вӱдыштӧ шыве-шово шоктыш, вара вӱд ӱмбал оҥгешталте да — Чази серыште укеат!… Ойган, орлыкан Чазим Виче вӱд помышкыжо нале.

Вӱдшӧ йога чарныде, колжо модеш вӱдыштӧ… А шӱшпык мура куанен…

Умбалнырак, вӱд серыште, вуйжым луктын, шке шотшылан ужава магыра…


Кас. Тылзе кӱшычын онча, Виче вӱдым волгалтара. Йырым-йыр тымык. Чодыраш кодшо марий содор шке декше кая. Кол кучымо еҥ гына мурдаже-влакым ончеден коштеш.

Ах, могай сылнын, тамлын чучеш чонлан чодыраште, кугу вӱд воктене тылзан йӱдым! Йырым-йыр чыла чонан мала. Тылзе гына кӱшычын сылне-шучко чодырам волгалтара.

Кол кучымо марий, чӱчкыдын тошкен, омашышкыже кая. Кӧргыж дене тудо шона: «Тыште сай верак огыл… Ожно тышан ик ӱдырамаш вӱдыш пурен каен, маныт… Вашкерак тулым олташ кӱлеш…»

Марий омашыште шинча, йыл-йыл-йыл тул йӱла.

Йӱд ынде ятыр лийын. Лач пелйӱд гутлаште Виче велне шыве-шово шокта да вӱд ӱмбаке айдеме вуй лектеш. Ӱпшӧ ошалге, кужу. Тылзе волгалтарат, вӱд ӱмбалне пуш коеш. Пушыштыжо еҥ-влак ӱмыл гай вудакан койыт. Нунын коклаште — ик ӱдырамаш ӱмыл… Кӧ ок пале гын, каласена: тиде ӱдырамашет — Тойкан ӱдыржӧ, Чази. Тудым хан-тушман вӱдыш пуртен колтен. Чази ынде вӱд ия лийын. Южгунам тудо вӱд ӱмбаке лектын кычкыра:

— Тушман!… Утарыза… Ачий!… Ози!… Пикшет…

Южгунам муралта:

Мардеж южшо пуалеш,
Пу лышташым тарвата.
Виче вӱдшӧ йогалеш,
Изи пушым йоктара.
Тудо пушын кӧргыштыжӧ
Чевер ӱдыр шинчалеш.
Ачаж ден аваж деке
Сай саламым колталеш…

Адак шортмо, осал мурзам вурсымо йӱк шокта. Умбалне эр пагытлан агытан мура. Вӱдыштӧ шыве-шово шокта… Да адак чыла вере шыплана.

Ӱжараже кече лекме верыште йошкарга. Колызо марий, помыжалтын, мурдажым ончаш кая.


Long ago a man lived next to the Viče River. His name was Tojka. His holdings were very large, but dearest of all he had were his two children, a son and a daughter. The daughter’s name was Čazi, and the son’s Ozi. Old Tojka’s Čazi was almost grown up, and Ozi was fond of his older sister. Čazi and Ozi grew up in the dense forest. Watching them, old Tojka’s spirits were lifted.

The brother and sister lived very happily. They never ever fought with one another. Ozi and Čazi walked around together in the forest. Ozi would take his bow and arrow, and Čazi would take a basket for collecting fruit.

Thus one day Ozi and Čazi went into the forest and walked around a lot. When they come out next to the Viče River, they sat down under a big oak tree to rest.

It was a hot day. All around honeybees and bumblebees were humming among the tops of flowers. Birds sang in the treetops. Further away, in the thicket, a nightingale was loudly tweeting. In the Viče River, fish were playfully leaping about.

Čazi and Ozi, forgetting all about the world, sat looking at the river. The river flowed on without stopping, the fish played without a rest, and the nightingale sang joyfully.

Oh, my Čazi and Ozi, get away from here fast, run away and don’t look back! Just go back to your father quickly! The Tatar khan’s soldiers are walking in the forest. Oh, my Čazi and Ozi, you aren’t listening to me!

A big boat was coming up the Viče River. A band of Tatars appeared behind Tojka’s children.

Thus the Tatar soldiers came. Thus Ozi and Čazi were taken, tied up, and hauled off into their boat…

Alas, Tojka, now you cannot find your son and daughter! The Viče River flowed on, and it took Čazi and Ozi away into the oblivion of a foreign country.

Poor Tojka grieved for a long time. He utterly exhausted himself combing the forest. He went into the forest and shouted, but there was nothing. Occasionally a distant sound like someone saying ‘oh!’ was heard. Tojka hurried towards the source of this sound, but again there was nothing.


If you wanted to talk about Čazi and Ozi’s life in the hands of the evil khan, you would have a lot to write. I will say just a few words.

Ozi became a slave and disappeared off to somewhere. Čazi didn’t even know about it. A nobleman made Čazi his wife.

Čazi bore two sons. Nevertheless she did not have a happy life. Her sons were never even shown to her. They believed that they were Tatars. Together they joined the khan’s other soldiers in pillaging the Mari and the Russians. They didn’t consider Čazi their mother. The Tatar women cursed Čazi, saying, ‘Ugh, the Cheremis kafir!’

Thus enduring great torment, Čazi lived with the Tatar nobleman for 30 years. She grew old and was no longer fit to work. Now no one needed her and the mean nobleman sent her back to the Viče River.

Čazi wept along the Viče River for a long time. She looked around her, and there was nothing. It was a beautiful day, like when Čazi and Ozi had sat beneath the oak tree long ago.

The Viče River flowed on, and the nightingale gaily sang. Čazi’s heart was pounding. ‘What shall I do now? Where shall I go?’ She pondered this with a broken heart and walked towards the riverbank. A splash came up from the water and ripples spread on the surface. Čazi was no longer on the riverbank! Alas, the savage Viče River had taken Čazi to its bosom.

The river flowed on and fish played in the water, while the nightingale gaily sang. On the riverbank a frog raised its head and croaked to itself.


It was evening. The moon shone above and illuminated the Viče River. All around it was quiet. A man hastily made his way through the forest. It was only a fisherman coming with his bait.

Oh, how beautiful and sweet to one’s soul is the forest on a moonlit night along the great river! All about living things are sleeping. Only the eerily beautiful moon above illuminates the forest.

The fisherman, frequently stamping his feet, went into his hut. ‘This is not a good place,’ he thought to himself. ‘Once a woman went into the water here. I ought to light a fire quickly.’

The man sat in his hut, and the flames flickered.

It was now late at night. At the stroke of midnight a splash came from the Viče River and a person’s head rose from the water. Her hair was long and white. The moon illuminated what seemed to be a boat on the water. In the boat ghostly men appeared. Among them was the ghost of a woman, and if anyone doesn’t now, we will tell you: this woman was Tojka’s daughter Čazi. The fiendish khan had her cast into the water. Čazi was now a demon of the river. Sometimes she came out of the water, saying, ‘You fiend! Help! Daddy! Ozi!’

Sometimes she sang:

The wind blows about.
The tree shakes its leaves.
The Viče River flows on,
It brings a little boat.
In the middle of that boat
Sits a lovely girl.
To her mother and father
She sends her greetings.

Again a weeping voice cursed the evil nobleman. In the distance a cock crowed, for it was dawn. A splash came up from the water, and again all was silent.

The rising sun turned everywhere red. The fisherman woke up and went to check on his bait.

Narspi and wealth

This excerpt from the second chapter of Konstantin Ivanov’s long poem Narspi describes the wealth of Mikheter, father of the maiden Narspi. This wealth, immense in a village, pales next to the riches outside of Chuvashia, a fact which I suspect Ivanov was aware of.

«…Михетере мӗн ҫитмен?
Мӗнӗм ҫук-ши ҫуртӑмра?
Кӗмӗл тенкӗ, тӗртнӗ пир
Сахал-ши-мӗн ҫӳпҫемре?
Тырӑ-пулӑ туллиех
Ишӗлмест-и кӗлетре
Ҫу, сӗт-турӑх, сӑра-пыл
Тулли мар-и нӳхрепре?»

Чӑн сӑмахӑн суйи ҫук:
Михетерӗн мӗн ҫитмест?
Пӗтӗм ялта пӗр пуян,
Ӑна никам ҫитеймест.
Унӑн ҫурчӗ хула пек,
Кӗрсен витӗр тухма ҫук.
Хуралтисен тӑррине
Чӑх-чӗп вӗҫҫе ҫитме ҫук.
Картиш тулли япала.
Купаланса выртаҫҫӗ.
Кӗлет тулли тыррисем
Тӑкӑнас пек тӑраҫҫӗ.
Урхамах пек лашисем
Утӑ-сӗлӗ ҫиеҫҫӗ,
Унӑн выльӑх-чӗрлӗхсем
Пичӗке пек ҫӳреҫҫӗ.
Турикасри ҫак кил-ҫурт
Аякранах курӑнать —
Пирӗн ватӑ Михетер
Тивӗҫлипе мухтанать.

‘…What has Mikheter lacked?
Is there nothing I don’t have in my house?
Of silver rubles, woven canvases
could there be little in my śüpźe?
Full to the brim with grain
The granaries collapse under their own weight
Of oil, dairy products, beer and mead,
Is the cellar not full?’

This true story has nothing false in it:
What does Mikheter lack?
He’s the one rich man in the whole village.
No one could equal him.
His farm was like a fortress.
Once you’ve gone in, you won’t find a way out.
The roofs of the buildings,
A chicken couldn’t make it on top of them.
His yard is full of goods,
They lie all heaped up
The granaries, full of grain,
Stand to overflowing.
His horses were like Argamaks,
They eat hay and oats.
His livestock
walk around like barrels.
His hilltop estate
Can be seen from afar.
Our old man Mikheter
Is deservedly praised.

(Mikheter is a transliteration from the Chuvash Cyrillic. The pronunciation is [Miɣʲeˈdʲer].)

Chavain’s place in history

I’ve posting Sergei Chavain’s poem Ото (The Grove) here before, but it’s worth showing again in the content of this abstract of Kim Vasin’s study Сергей Чавайн: Жизнь и творчество (Sergei Chavain: His Life and Work) on Chavain’s role in Mari literature.

Ик тымык ото уло мемнан элымше,
Шога тудо ото кугу ер серыште.
Тушто ладыра деч ладыра пушеҥге кушкеш.
Тушто мотор деч мотор саска шочеш.
Тушто, ужар лышташ лоҥгаште, шӱшпык мура,
Тудо ото гыч ерышке яндар памаш йога.
Тушто шудыжат ужаргырак.
Тушто пеледышыжат сылнырак
Тудо отым мый йӧратем,
Тушто пушеҥге руышым мый вурсем.

A peaceful grove stands in my native land
On a large lake’s cool and verdant bank.
Among the trees is e’en the darkest shade,
The sweetest fruit grows in this sunny glade…
Amongst green leaves, the nightingale sings.
Towards the lake run cold glistening springs.
In this grove the grass is always green,
Here the fairest flowers ever seen!
I love this grove with all my heart,
And I curse those who cut it down.

Sergei Grigoryevich Chavain wrote this poem on December 2, 1905 while a student at the seminary in Kazan’.

On the path of intellectual development there is in every national literature a writer who leaves an unforgettable track and greatly enriches the cultural life of his native people. Such is S. G. Chavain (1888–1937), the songster who laid the foundation of Mari literature. His name is tied to the most glorious pages of Mari creative writing.

The poem ‘The Grove’ is a joyful Romantic work. Its contents, its series of images, is reminiscent of folksongs and traditional storytelling. In one of the sayings of his people, strong young people are compared to a green grove and tall oaks. The Mari thought it necessary to spare young trees. They lovingly praised beautiful forest lakes and the small springs issuing from the bottom of ravines, and they thought up fine words and glorified their strength and beauty. The flowering forest became a common image and poetic symbol.

The writing of ‘The Grove’ was only the beginning of the development of Mari literature. Back in the 19th century, some enlightened writers had embarked on collecting Mari sayings and writing ethographical researches, and they compiled schoolbooks. After the creation of Chavain’s work, Mari literature became truly literary. Chavain’s subsequent literary work was prolific. His novel Elnet, the musical drama The Beehive, his historical tragedy Akpatyr, and his many poems and songs enriched Mari literature.

The Soviet people commemorate this glorious writer and talented son of the Mari. His collected works have appeared not only in our region, but have been translated into the languages of many peoples of the Soviet Union and have been published in other countries. Sergei Grigovyevich Chavain, who laid the beginnings of Mari literature, is the first classic author. His work strengthened Mari writing and laid a noble basis for later victories.

Notice the typical features of Soviet-era writing, such as the triumphalistic tone, the omission of Chavain’s death under Stalinist persecution (unmentionable even as late as 1987) and the rather untenable suggestion that Chavain’s very personal and national work somehow glorified the whole USSR.

Vasin’s claim that all peoples have national writers and Chavain fits that role for Mari leaves me uneasy. With the development of national cultures in Eastern Europe, one sees certain writers being installed as the founder of indigenous literature, but are they really any good? My own acquaintance with Mihai Eminescu is coloured by fond memories of beginning the study of the lovely Romanian language, but if I try to think dispassionately, he was in the main mediocre. Perhaps the exceedingly limited interest show abroad in his work could be proof of limited talent. I daresay the same might be said about Sándor Petőfi, Hungary’s national writer, and Taras Shevchenko, the founder of Ukrainian literature.

It’s hard to think of an analogous early writer in English. Shakespeare is lauded as the greatest of all English writers, but aside from a few histories his works have little to do with the land of Britain. Chaucer was also quite cosmopolitan, and Beowulf is set in another country completely.