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Friday, June 12, 2015

Vsevolod Kochetov, The Zhurbins

Журбины (The Zhurbin Family), Romanian translation
Editura Cartea Rusă, 1953
no copyright infringement intended

Время когда ценился рабочий человек
(Татьяна Караваева)

A Soviet book from 1952, Журбины (The Zhurbin Family), written by Vsevolod Kochetov. A Romanian version came one year later (one of the translators was the poet Demostene Botez, whom I had the occasion to meet just in that epoch: a friend of a friend of my parents, who visited us once or twice; each time I had been very excited - not a small thing to see flesh and blood a known author).

I was around eight years old by then, and naturally it was not a book for kids my age. So I haven't read it. A movie based on the novel was produced by Lenfilm almost on the spot, Большая семья (A Big Family). That movie I watched some years later: my first encounter with director Iosif Kheifits and with one of the best known Russian actors, Aleksey Batalov. After some other years the two would again come together, that time with an unforgettable adaptation of Chekhov's Дама с собачкой. Anyway, if you'd like to watch Большая семья, here is a link on youTube:

Years have passed since then, tens of years ... it's almost impossible to explain, but I suddenly felt the impulse to read the book. I hardly found a torn copy of the Romanian edition from 1953, having on the title page a hand written inscription (dated March 8, 1954): a gift made to a woman by her work comrades - it was the Woman International Day, celebrated by then with a very special emphasis on politics and ideology.

And it happens that March 8 comes into the book, kind of unexpectedly, as everything looks in that day kind of unexpected (and pretty far from political blah-blah, which is remarkable in the context of a book smelling enough of that kind of things). Just a day with men trying to be nice and women enjoying their moment. No, it's not about men doing the house-wiving, not that far, but anyway, it is a day when at the town club only women have the floor (which is not small thing, being well known the rhetorical passion men can suddenly develop at meetings and similar events). A club like all town clubs from those years in that part of the world. The club of a small industrial city: an auditorium for festive days, place to keep conferences and lectures (and sometimes amateur theatricals or similar performances); then a hall guarded by a bust of Lenin or Stalin (or Gorky) - here the youngsters were coming to dance on Saturday evenings, the dance always preceded by a political lecture in the auditorium; a small library (on the shelves again Lenin and Stalin, the novels of Gorky and Sholokhov, Gladkov and Furmanov, not much else), a chess (and backgammon) room; an area reserved for art exhibitions (usually closed and dusty).

Журбины (The Zhurbin Family), English translation
Moscow Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1953
no copyright infringement intended

A small city whose life is revolving around a shipyard on the banks of Lada (I tried to find that river on the map: not easy job; there is a Lada river at the Russian-Latvian border, component of the greater basin of Narva; I'm not sure if that's the very Lada from the book). A family of industrial workers: a real dynasty of shipbuilders, from the great-grand father to the newborns. Stalin still alive (not for long, while the people in the book seem to take for granted some kind of eternity when it comes to the Generalissimo).

And here you go: nothing odd but Stalinism. You feel it in any word and any action, though the name is very casually mentioned once or twice. Casual Stalinism (giving today's readers the weird sensation of walking on an alien planet, where nothing strange happens while anything could happen). Casual while total. It's eternity. A family of industrial workers, amidst other families that way, taking the eternity for granted and living their life, with funny moments and dull moments, with happiness and dramas, small and big, with dreams and with problems. Just living, just eternity.

Kochetov was a staunched Stalinist till the end of his life in 1973. And he wrote his Zhurbins in a period when everything was going in full steam for the Soviet regime and its ideology, when Stalin was at the highest point of his power. For the Soviet art of those years, tightly controlled by the Party, it was the epoch of triumphalism. No wonder that the tone of the Zhurbins is full of confidence, and the ideological truth is taken for granted, doesn't need any proof: nobody questions eternity. It would be interesting to compare the Zhurbins with another novel, published by Kochetov in 1958 (The Yershov Brothers, Братья Ершовы). In the latter, the tone gets a touch of defensiveness, I'd say, the author somehow trying to make sure that his values are still alive and well, while you feel that beneath his universe have emerged some moving sands.

But let's come back to our Zhurbins. Here the author feels on solid ground, and his enthusiasm is without borders. He actually builds in his novel a mythology of the Soviet working class. The personages are rather prototypes, ideal heroes: the patriarch of the family, on the front of labor since the years of the Russian Civil War and even before, his sons, grown up together with the shipyard, the youngsters, open to the new and falling in love (as expected). Well, it's only about new technologies, to put things straight. Obviously the personages and the situations in the novel are strongly romanticized; however the author has a point: Stalinist or not, it's the industrial epoch, and the role of the working class is essential.

A discussion in the first chapter of the book is very relevant in this respect: in the Zhurbin family a baby was just born, neighbors and friends gather to celebrate, grandpa is announcing the event with gun volley's (alarming Egorov, the local militiaman), the wine is flowing in waves, everybody's happy, and, well, the talk is quickly passing to the shipyard problems. Someone raises a question: which component is more important during a ship manufacturing, the engine or the body? For these workers the answer is crystal clear: the ship body is more important - without it the engine would be useless, as simple as that. It makes full sense within the paradigm of industrial society: mass production of steel and cement, of machine tools and ships, of tractors and trucks, and so on and so forth. The industrial worker in the center of things. Время когда ценился рабочий человек. It is far from the post-industrial paradigm, where the engine is more important, as it carries the intelligence embedded in the product, its only chance to live or die in the ever changing globalization. And not only that: mass production replaced by cost and market driven production, shift of interest from the blue-collar to the white-collar worker. Here in the world of Zhurbins, the intelligentsia is favorably viewed only if born from within the working class and keeping strong links with the origins. All other intellectuals are considered at least with suspicion: guys good of nothing, petty characters, if not fully villains (add to this a strain of antisemitism, hidden under Kochetov's strong disdain for everything cosmopolitan).

Having said all this, let's pay attention a little bit to the intrinsic literary qualities of the Zhurbins. We have here a story about a shipyard that is in a process of radical modernization, challenging the people with new technologies, new rhythms in production, new sizes of the ships built there, new sizes of the shipyard itself. And I think that far from being just a dry technical narration, this book can captivate its reader. For some reasons. It is the pleasure of the author in telling a story (and in navigating inside the story). It is the empathy he has for his personages: sometimes they are in situations with no easy outcomes; the author does not interfere, just observes them with delicacy, sending signals of affective support, waiting for them to act one way or another. It is some unexpected humor that rises now and then in the story, bringing some salt and pepper and balancing situations. Sometimes this humor brings a note of relativity in the political universe of the Zhurbins. The club manager wants to promote a lecture about rising lemons locally (a region with harsh winters, by the way) - his party boss advises to add a political touch to the thing. As staunched in his convictions as he was, Kochetov didn't swallow roasted babies at breakfast (at least that's what he said once to Patricia Blake, that he didn't swallow babies in one gulp). Well, not only that: he even enjoyed sending his readers a wink, in rare occasions.

And above all, this book is the epic of the shipyard. Living throughout the book, a personage in its own right, living in the lives of each one around, making its own from each life around, growing continuously, changing itself continuously and challenging everybody around.


(Iosif Kheifits )

(Demostene Botez )

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