Asymptote is an international non-profit journal specialising in translated literature of all kinds.
1- Zaina by Polina Zherebtsova, translated from the Russian by Irina Steinberg
Genre: Prose Fiction
This story had so many layers it was like an onion. It’s set against the backdrop of the Chechen wars, and there was also a dark irony to the gender politics at play. The protagonist, Zaina, is the most financially independent and liberated woman in town. Conversely, she is also the most reviled. She is a sex worker, doing work which society still sees as degrading and shameful. Her neighbours are simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by her. They think she must have some tragic backstory to end up as a ‘fallen woman’, but Zaina is mysteriously reserved, at least until the final paragraphs. Zaina proves herself to be braver than any other resident when she puts herself between Russian soldiers and an old couple who are her neighbours. But not even her heroism is enough to quell malicious gossip about her situation and life choices.
At the same time as provoking reflection on the fate of sex workers in highly conservative societies and conflict zones, this story also provoked research on a fairly forgotten conflict in an unfamiliar part of the world, which I think successful international literature often does well. To me, a Westerner, the words ‘Chechen War’ conjured up nothing other than a vague sense of Russian imperialism, at least before reading this piece.
2- Epilogue by Irina Odoevtseva, translated from the Russian by Irina Steinberg
Genre: Prose Fiction
First published in 1926, this story is beautifully situated within its own sociopolitical context. Having studied history, I am fascinated by the way in which historical events influence people’s writings. This is simultaneously a distinctively moral tale and a heartfelt testament to feeling adrift and uprooted. It’s reminiscent of Guy de Maupassant’s The Necklace– a warning against the dangers of lusting after the veneer of a luxurious lifestyle without considering the consequences, yet it also offers a rare insight into the lonely life of a Russian emigré living in exile. The narrator has a difficult relationship with her home country. She hates what Russia has become, but has lost all sense of direction and agency. She has become passive, relying on men for her financial and emotional security, and realises too late how fickle and superficial her situation really is.
3-The Cut-off Caucasus – A Trip to the Village in the Mountains: Exploring Azerbaijan’s Xinaliq, Quba and the Five Fingers by Noémi Kiss, translated from the Hungarian by Peter Sherwood
Genre: Non-fiction essay, travelogue
This was a welcome bit of escapism after a claustrophobic year. I’m a keen traveller with a particular interest in southeastern Europe. I had to cancel my third Balkans trip in 2020 and I’d like to venture even further East whenever that becomes possible again. I find countries around the Caucasus so alluring because of their fusion of Eastern and Western cultures. These countries straddle Europe and Asia, not truly ‘belonging’ to either continent. They often have a serious lack of tourists and suffer under a new generation of dictators that have emerged since the collapse of the USSR. Azerbaijan, where this travelogue is situated, is even more mysterious for its political isolationism. I would be unlikely to ever go there specifically as a tourist. I do enjoy reading travel writing about countries which are difficult to visit or particularly remote, even if it is accompanied by a pang of jealousy.
Something which does jump out at me in this piece is the tension between cultures and languages underlying the region, most prominently between Azerbaijan and its closest neighbour and enemy, Armenia. Azerbaijan is a secular Muslim country with various minority folk religions in the more mountainous regions, whereas Armenia is majority Apostolic Christian. A lot of people in Azerbaijan still speak both Russian and Azeri, a hangover from Soviet times. Many countries in this region are emerging from the long shadow of the USSR yet still feel the effects of political isolation and underdevelopment, partly due to their geography and partly due to the style of government which followed. I loved the references to Azerbaijan’s linguistic diversity, as I would never have heard of the Xinaliq and Juhun languages had I not read this piece. Preserving linguistic diversity of sparsely populated regions will be an ongoing challenge in the 21st century.
On Literature and Film by Volker Schlöndorff, translated from the German by Julie Winter
Genre: Non-fiction essay
There’s a beautiful focus here on the interconnectedness of literature and film which details both their convergences and divergences. Reading novels is often seen as a higher and more noble pursuit than film, yet filmmakers have the ability to condense pages upon pages of prose into a single camera shot, the example given being a close-up of Julie Delpy in Homo Faber.
I found Schlöndorff’s excitement at filming novels often considered ‘unfilmable’ refreshing and challenging. I can see why he considered Günther Grass’ The Tin Drum unfilmable. Grass specialises in unreliable narrators and shifting, complex perspectives which stray into the surreal.
Schlöndorff also made me reflect on exactly what kind of secret energy a book has which pushes me to keep turning the page, sometimes hundreds of times. His preferred method of filming a novel includes close collaboration with the author (when alive), which reminded me of the translation process. In some ways, you can see the filming of a novel as just another form of translation. Translation works best when there is clear and amicable communication between the author and translator, or author and director in this case. Only then does Schlöndorff feel he is fully able to realise his and the author’s vision.
5- Disenchantment in Dirty Snow by Tomáš Forró, translated from the Slovak by Magdalena Mullek
Genre: Non-fiction essay, conflict journalism
In all the drama of recent years (Brexit, Trump, Covid-19), it’s easy to forget about the Russian invasion and continued occupation of some regions in Ukraine. It was only when I visited Kyiv in October 2019 that I was viscerally reminded of the ongoing conflict. There are memorials and museum exhibitions detailing the names of every Ukranian casualty, some of the most recent victims of Russian expansionism and nationalist caprice. A strange mainstream media silence has settled over the subject recently, and one has to wonder why. Are we bored of hearing about Russia’s bully-boy tactics? Is the West scared of something?
I have a great respect for journalists who put themselves in danger, and sometimes even in the line of fire, in the pursuit of truth. War zones are some of the most propagandised places in the world, so Forró’s account of interrogation and eventual release at the hands of the feared Ukrainian Berkut forces is as impressive as it is nail-biting. Unsurprisingly, the geopolitical situation is still both incredibly complex and tense.
In some ways, Russia and the Ukraine are so similar. They have a very similar language, are geographical neighbours, have often been in some kind of political union (although not often consensual on the side of the Ukranians), and share many cultural and religious traditions. However, there is a deep, pulsating resentment there. Memories of the Holodomor have caused inter-generational trauma, and the invasion of the Crimea reopened old wounds. It’s almost inconceivable that this acrimony could be overcome in my lifetime.