Three or four lines, and you have the whole world

BessarabianStampsWoolfBessarabian Stamps are not postcards, but even smaller messages, from a place between so many places that you’d be forgiven for not quite remembering where it is. The author grew up in Bessarabia, on the border of what is now the Republic of Moldova but was then the Soviet Union, with Turks, Romanians, Jews and Slavs as neighbours. Phoneme, the publisher, offers “curious books for curious people” in translation – including The Black Flower.

I pounced on Oleg Woolf’s tiny book of microstories because it was compared to a fantastical Polish work, Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles for its magical, shifting sense of reality. You never quite know where you are with Bessarabian Stamps, but softly, humorously, it asks some questions: couldn’t things be different? Couldn’t we talk about things differently?

The book starts with a dedication in another book. “Dear friend, I have you this book with the secret hope that you would never read it…. A book is the worst possible gift – especially a book written in the ‘literary’ genre. Non-literary literature is a drawing at its most economical – prepared on the ant lard of drawing. Three or four lines, and you have the whole world.”

And that world comes at the reader from a very different perspective, in which economizing isn’t always such a good thing.

“Petrea Bruc walked up to the fence, peered through a crack, and saw a bird. High-quality telescopes, said the bird, are made in the following manner: the bottom of a tin can, with a multitude of little holes, is inserted into a tube, followed by a light bulb. This allows one to economize on stars.”

Oleg Woolf certainly doesn’t do that – soldiers and saints, officials and angels jostle for space with the villagers here, and it’s all over too soon. Like poems, these stories are so concentrated that they deserve re-reading.

The Stamps are translated from the Russian by Boris Drayluk, who describes his challenge brilliantly. “I don’t believe that any word, in isolation, is inherently more or less difficult to translate. The trouble is that you seldom find them in isolation. They’re always ganging up, locking horns, brawling, and then caressing each other to make up for it. Say you’ve caught a word in a fighting mood. Well, then you have to ask yourself some questions: How angry is it? How much has it had to drink? And, most importantly, what did that other word do to it?”

When a translator can write this well about what he’s up to, you want to read more. How about The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (2015) next?

Tagged with: , , , , , , ,
Posted in books, short stories, translation
3 comments on “Three or four lines, and you have the whole world
  1. Adelina says:

    …this is very interesting and also new for me… 🙂
    Greetings from Baia Mare, north part of Romania

  2. […] Each little snippet is so evocative that it could stand as a poem or short story (or ‘stamp‘) of its own. Boehm sustains this masterfully. I barely noticed the (for me) […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

advent Alice in Wonderland American And Other Stories Antonia Lloyd-Jones Arabic Argentina Beowulf Berlin Best Translated Book Award Bible books Brazil Brazilian Portuguese British British Library Buddhism Catalan Children's Books China Chinese Christmas Christmas Carols Contemporary Czesław Miłosz Danish Dari David Hackston Dublin Literary Award English Estonian Fantasy Farsi Fiction Finland Finland 100 Finlandia Prize Finnish Flemish Free Word Centre French George Szirtes German Greek Hebrew Herbert Lomas Herta Müller history Hungarian Iceland Idioms Illustration India international International Translation Day Irish Gaelic Italian J. R. R. Tolkien Japanese Jenny Erpenbeck Johanna Sinisalo Korean Language language learning Languages Latin Literature Lola Rogers Lord of the Rings Mabinogion Man Booker International Prize Maori Maria Turtschaninoff Moomins New Year Nobel Prize Nobel Prize for Literature Norwegian Old English Olga Tokarczuk Owen Witesman Oxford English Dictionary Penguin PEN Translation Prize Persian Philip Boehm Phoneme Media Poetry Poetry Translation Centre Polish Portuguese Pushkin Press Queer Romanian Rosa Liksom Russian Salla Simukka Second World War Short Stories Sofi Oksanen Spanish Stanisław Barańczak Suomi100 Susan Bernofsky Svetlana Alexievich Swedish Switzerland Thomas Teal Tibetan Tove Jansson transation Translation translator Translators Without Borders Valentine's Day Wales Warsaw Welsh Wisława Szymborska Witold Szabłowski Women in Translation Month words Words without Borders writing YA

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Follow found in translation on
%d bloggers like this: