Russian-Argentine Literary Exchanges

A review of Russian-Argentine Literary Exchanges, by Dina Odnopozova.

Dina Odnopozova’s dissertation skillfully traces the history of the literary dialogue between Russia and Argentina in the twentieth century. Using the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881), Roberto Arlt (1900-1942), Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), and Viktor Pelevin (1962- ), the author argues that the literary interactions between these two countries, located at the peripheries of the Western “cultural meridian,” used alternative channels of cultural distribution and consecration, and were often influenced by social and political conditions in their respective countries.

In the Introduction, Odnopozova outlines her dissertation and provides a collection of emblematic anecdotes from Stalin’s meeting with the Argentine envoy to Argentine intellectuals’ infatuation with Russia after the Bolshevik revolution to emphasize the mutual interest between the two countries. While discussing the somewhat artificial and often exaggerated antagonism between the sophisticated literary group Florida and the politically-engaged (and often Bolshevik-sympathizing) group Boedo, the author credits the popularity of Russian literature to the latter’s publishing efforts, both in book format and in periodicals: “The image of Russia as the romanticized land of the Bolshevik Revolution was being built on the pages of Buenos Aires’s leftist journals” (p. 16). As for individual writers, while Arlt openly borrowed from Dostoevsky, Borges directly influenced Russia’s extremely popular postmodernist writer Pelevin, who “transposed whole chunks of Borges’ imaginary constructions, such as the Lottery of Babylon, into Russia in order to assemble a new post-Soviet literary narrative” (p. 23).

Chapter 1, entitled “Dostoevsky and the Urban Mythologies of Roberto Arlt,” analyzes the ways in which Dostoevsky inspired the works of the famous Argentinian urban writer Roberto Arlt. Familiar to Arlt in poor translations, Dostoevsky’s novels allowed him to create his unique narrative style and to successfully transplant Dostoevsky’s characters onto Argentine soil. The author delves into similar mythologies of Petersburg and Buenos Aires, and finds further similarities between Dostoevsky and Arlt not only in their treatment of the capital cities, but also in “urban alienation, clandestine alliances, gratuitous aberrations from social expectations and moral standards” (p. 28). Odnopozova emphasizes Dostoevsky’s and Arlt’s fascination with urban sketches and feuilletons, with uncouth and raw spoken language, which allowed them to construct their characteristic narratives. Giving multiple textual examples, the author argues that Arlt borrowed from Dostoevsky consciously, and used the latter’s techniques in describing Petersburg to construct his own narrative of Buenos Aires and to “set a new vector for Argentine urban writing” (p. 63).

The deliberate absence of all references to Russia after a brief period of infatuation in Borges’ literary trajectory serves as a focus for Chapter 2, “Present and Absent Russia in the Works of Jorge Luis Borges.”  The author reconstructs Borges’ attitudes toward Russia by dividing them into four marked periods – early fascination with Russian literature and politics, then Borges’ interest in Argentine nationalism, which led him to stark opposition to all things Russian, and, finally, reconciliation and new appreciation of Russian literature. Taking biographical approach, Odnopozova builds her argument around Borges’ early contacts with Russians, his ecstatic poetry devoted to the Russian Revolution, his familiarity with Blok’s and Mayakovsky’s poetry, Russian references in his personal letters, and later deliberate omissions of references to Russia. The author’s analysis of Borges’ famous short story “Lottery in Babylon” leads her to conclude that the author portrayed the Soviet Union without naming it. Despite the omissions, Odnopozova sees the influence of Dostoevsky in Borges’ choice of themes, narrative, and even characters. The final reconciliation with Russian literature, according to the author, was inspired by Borges’ own distancing from “mental constructions and fantastic universes” (p. 115), and led to Borges becoming, in a way, an agent of distribution of Russian culture among Spanish-speaking reading public.

Chapter 3, “Russia’s Imaginary Map of Latin American Literature,” analyzes the logic of Soviet perception of Latin America. Assuming the position of a “charitable uncle,” Russian and Soviet critics, publishers, and writers found utilitarian purposes in Latin-American literature, emphasizing the political content of the works, and publishing only the works of those writers who were “politically reliable” or aligned with communist ideology. The author outlines the history of first appearances of Latin American works in Russia and the Soviet Union, and cites financial and political challenges to accurate representation and study of Latin-American literatures in the Soviet Union. Odnopozova analyzes the fate of Ernesto Sabato’s works to illustrate the vicissitudes of Soviet publishing predicated upon the writer’s political convictions, and further shows that when official channels of cultural distribution  banned a particular author, the clandestine publishing, samizdat, could disseminate his or her works. Odnopozova discusses the influence of Latin-American magical realism on such prominent Soviet writer as Chingiz Aitmatov to prove the strength of mutual fascination and productive borrowing between cultures.

In Chapter 4, entitled “Borges in Russia,” the author provides a meticulously researched history of Borges’ publication, dissemination, and reception by the Russian reading public, and analyzes Borges’ influence on the works of a popular Russian writer Viktor Pelevin.   Not published in the Soviet Union until 1984 due his dinner with Pinochet and his overall political incompatibility with communist ideology, Borges’ short stories could have been disseminated illegally as early as 1959, according to the author. Once officially published, Borges acquired a cult-like status among Russian intelligentsia, and after the fall of the Soviet Union, his writings were used as one of the models for new Russian prose, especially for Viktor Pelevin’s popular novels. For Pelevin, “Borges’ texts offered a repository of symbols and mythologemes that could be transferred into the new Russian reality without citing original sources” (p. 156). The borrowed features, including pseudo-scholarly narrative, rewritten myths, similar philosophy and repertoire of symbols, found their most complete realization in Pelevin’s novel Generation P. The author returns to the analysis of “Lottery in Babylon” to emphasize the similarities between the Babylonian lottery mentioned in Pelevin’s novel, and argues that symbols of the collective consciousness derived from Borges apply perfectly to the post-Soviet era described by Pelevin.

In the Conclusion, the author brings together Arlt and Pelevin, finding similarities in their usage of Dostoevsky and Borges, respectively. While outlining the avenues for further research, Odnopozova reiterates that in times of crisis, Argentina and Russia catalyzed each other’s cultural productions.

The dissertation succeeds in reaching its proclaimed goal of mapping “the literary relationships between Russia and Argentina, two countries located at the periphery of the Western ‘literary Greenwich meridian’ (Casanova 4),” and in providing an alternative to the universalizing and Eurocentric models of literary distribution and canon formation offered by Pascale Casanova in her influential work The World Republic of Letters (1999)” (p. 3). Odnopozova systematically reveals the highly political nature of Argentine-Soviet cultural dialogue, making her project interesting not only to literary scholars, but also to the historians of the period. Using the methods rooted in comparative literature, the dissertation makes a considerable contribution to the Russian/Soviet-Latin American studies, and, once published in a book format, will lead to better understanding of alternative, non-Eurocentric, circuits of cultural production and distribution.

Marina Potoplyak
Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies
University of Texas at Austin
marina.potoplyak@gmail.com

Primary Sources

Arlt, Roberto. Seven Madmen (1929)
Borges, Jorge Luis. “Lottery in Babylon” (1941)
Pelevin, Viktor. Generation P (1999)

Dissertation Information

Yale University. 2012. 212 pp. Primary Advisor: Katerina Clark .

Image: Based on Photograph of Roberto Arlt, Wikimedia Commons, and photograph of Victor Pelevin by F-line, Wikimedia Commons.

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