Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1886
Abram Tertz’s short novel Little Jinx is a touching tale of a rejected little misfit, the first-person narrator “Little Jinx” Sinyavsky, whom everybody, including himself, blames for the terrible fate of his five stepbrothers. Turning away from his human tormentors, Little Jinx grows fond of dogs, but even with canines, his luck is sour: a stray bitch quite literally bites the hand that feeds her a piece of sugar. It is only in his imagination that Little Jinx finds some respite. In his daydreams and his writings, Sinyavsky experiences a reunion with Dora, the pediatrician who once cured the little boy’s stutter. Now, she reappears as a lovely young shopgirl to the worn-out middle-aged man, who calls her his good fairy.
By giving his outcast antihero his own last name, author Tertz/Sinyavsky establishes a strange relationship with his little runt that is both ironic and intimate. Tertz shares the profession of writing with Little Jinx, but for Sorbonne professor Andrei Sinyavsky, whose eloquent works on Russian literature command worldwide respect, the association with such a terrible stylist as Little Jinx is a subtle act of self-mockery.
Hardly in command of his prose, which runs away at wild tangents, Little Jinx possesses an uncanny knack for awkward and inappropriate phrases. Tertz’s English translators have done an excellent job in maintaining this deliberately constructed literary chaos; metaphors, for example, cancel each other out with ease. Such is the case when Little Jinx describes his hand-me-down refrigerator simultaneously as “a novelty,” a “museum piece,” and a “reliquary.”
The bond between Little Jinx and his author moves beyond self-caricature, however, to become emotionally very touching, once the reader considers author Sinyavsky’s own life decisions, which Edward J. Brown’s foreword briefly summarizes. A successful and eminently publishable Soviet literary critic in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, Sinyavsky chose to write a series of anonymous articles and fantastic stories that severely lambasted the official Marxist/Leninist doctrine of Socialist Realism. Like Little Jinx, author Sinyavsky lived in two worlds: the drab official one and the realm of the fantastic, where pediatricians become fairies and five dead brothers are reunited at an absurd banquet table on Jinx’s imagined wedding night.
Sinyavsky’s choice of the Jewish pseudonym Abram Tertz further enraged the Soviet authorities. Once Tertz’s true identity was revealed, the author was subjected to an absurd trial in 1965. Convicted of slandering the Soviet Union, he was sent to a labor camp. After his return in 1971, Sinyavsky was allowed to leave for France, where he continued to write as Abram Tertz and to teach.
Traces of the author’s show trial, with its absurd assignation of blame, help readers to understand the mindframe of Little Jinx. Just like a browbeaten defendant before a judge and jury preinstructed to condemn him, the little wretch unquestioningly accepts blame for all the mishaps. This includes his own mangled, dwarfish form, which disappointed his mother, who desired a sixth splendid boy. “People like me should be run over,” Little Jinx muses after four of his stepbrothers have perished.
In the course of Little Jinx’s agonizing narrative, the reader cannot fail to feel sympathy for the clumsy and ineffective boy who grows up to become a guilt-ridden, marginal writer on the outside of society. Moreover, many of the end results of Little Jinx’s actions appear to be less his fault than his victims’. Thus, the youngest of the five Likhosherst brothers, Nikolai, dies essentially because of his own drunken bravado.
Told, like all of Little Jinx, entirely from the self-deprecating perspective of the protagonist, the episode of Nikolai’s death invites the reader to contradict the unfortunate misfit in his assessment of blame. Celebrating his captain’s commission, Nikolai throws a party aboard his new ship. Drunkenly, he grabs his seven-year-old stepbrother’s puppy and flings it overboard, bragging that he “will make a sea wolf out of him.” Little Jinx, however, jumps in the sea to save his pet. His example sends Nikolai’s fiancée after him, and she is followed by the shamed captain, whose head hits the ship’s anchor, killing him. Shaken, Little Jinx tells of his mother’s reaction: “[M]y mother, wringing her hands, pronounced for the first time: ‘You are to blame for everything! You killed your brother!’” With unambiguous clarity, Tertz establishes the moral tone of Jinx’s narrative: Throughout his marginal life, the little fellow will take all blame squarely on his thin shoulders, more than once bringing a tear to his readers’ eyes.
Three more of Sinyavsky’s brothers are done in by their own fatal reactions. Rather than blaming the little runt, Tertz’s tale suggests, the reader should look at the circumstances of (Soviet) life and the roots of evil in twentieth century history. In a pointed allusion to the atrocities of Stalin’s regime, Pavel Likhosherst is sent to his death after he is overheard complaining to an inappropriately optimistic Little Jinx about the hard fate of the laborers on the collective farm he supervises. During World War II, a telegram intended for his stepbrother sends Colonel Vasily Likhosherst to his death at the front days before his leave is over. Little Jinx’s guilt over the misaddressed telegrams pales, Little Jinxsuggests to its readers, in comparison to the evil of Adolf Hitler. The Nazi dictator’s decision to launch war against Joseph Stalin, his partner in crime in the destruction of Poland, is the true cause of Vasily’s untimely death.
In spite of its grimness, Tertz’s novel ultimately pleads successfully for living and enjoying life despite the ever-present threat of tragedy. Typically for its tongue-in-cheek optimism, Little Jinx articulates this hopeful message by negating its alternative; that is, to hide from life and live in silence will not save the narrator’s brothers. Thus, Dr. Yakov Likhosherst constantly taunts Little Jinx to say more than either yes or no. The runt of the family has deliberately reduced himself to this semiliterate status because he is so afraid that a wrong word may cause yet another involuntary fratricide. This decision by Little Jinx alludes again to Tertz’s caustic criticism of the old, pre-glasnost Soviet Union: a false word or a writer’s line misinterpreted by a party functionary could and did cause people trouble, ranging all the way from reprimand to a trip to a labor camp or “psychiatric” clinic.
Frustrated by his inability to draw his stepbrother into a conversation, Dr. Likhosherst eventually misdiagnoses him as suffering from peritonitis. Faced with the physical evidence of his mistake—Little Jinx’s cut-open body—the surgeon loses his nerve and dies of a heart attack. Being monosyllabic has not prevented Sinyavsky from “causing” another death.
With only one of Little Jinx’s brothers, Vladimir, left, their mother becomes full of fear-induced coldness and inhumanity. She moves in with her oldest son and forbids Little Jinx any contact with him. With its characteristic fascination with absurdly convoluted plot lines that nevertheless lead straight to the moral of the tale, Little Jinx shows that to flee into self-isolation and deny the existence of so basic a human bond as familial love cannot provide a means of salvation. Tertz is quite outspoken here: Mother Likhosherst’s final plot backfires completely. Longing to wish his mother a happy birthday, Little Jinx arrives at the door of his brother’s palatial government apartment. In panic, his mother chases him away, only to find Vladimir outraged at her cruel behavior. Blindly running after Little Jinx against the traffic, Vladimir is hit and killed by a dump truck.
Tormented by his life, Little Jinx suffers a series of nightmares that nicely illustrate Tertz’s uncanny ability to conjure up visions of pure tragedy: a boy is eaten by a pig, another is killed by a brush thrown by his angry mother, and almost every action seems to lead to catastrophe. Waking, Little Jinx finds that the stray dog that bit him is scratching at his door, begging to be let in again. In this, the dog resembles his first love, called Dora like his dream-fairy, who verbally insulted him only to confess her love to him once she had married another man.
If tragedy characterizes many waking and sleeping moments of Little Jinx’s life, Tertz ends his narrative with a vision of hope. This vision charms the reader because it is so purely fantastic and surreal. Walking into a deliciously overstocked food market, Little Jinx finds his fairy, Dora Aleksandrovna, transformed into a beautiful shopgirl of seventeen. In what the worn-out little man reads as a mating dance performed for him, Dora hands out the shop’s rare delicacies with a supernatural equanimity and fairness to the many customers. When it is his turn, he asks only for the Ceylon tea she recommends, bypassing all the mouth-watering goods described in loving detail. He questions her about his father, a traveling ne’er-do-well who impregnated Mother Likhosherst with Little Jinx. In response, Dora offers herself in marriage, the wedding to be held that night. By means of a narrative ellipsis with the speed of dreams, Little Jinx jumps from the store to Dora’s one-bedroom cottage. There, his bride presents Sinyavsky with her dowry gifts. The most important is a little writing cabinet, filled with classic books and spacious enough to hold Little Jinx’s manuscripts.
The middle of the room holds a banquet table with seven seats. There, Little Jinx’s five brothers sit, discussing his various deaths; it appears now that they believe he has died instead of them. He has drowned, starved to death in a gulag, or died of a heart attack. With subtlety, Tertz’s novel fulfills Little Jinx’s desire to redeem himself by dying the deaths his brothers have suffered; the misshapen outcast rises to Christlike stature. Drunk with fairy wine, Sinyavsky even becomes his lost father as he shuffles through the snow to go home to his lover, Mother Likhosherst, and his freshly born son.
As dawn breaks in his vision, Little Jinx wakes. He bravely continues his salvation, however, by writing down his vision. Bent over reams of paper, Sinyavsky transforms a private moment of grace into a public reality. His printed pages will exist to give hope to others.
Tertz’s Little Jinx is a fascinating tale that seeks to combat despair and tragedy by pointing out that there is really no alternative to embracing life and to realizing every chance to experience joy. This must be done, Little Jinx shows, even though tragedy might strike at any moment. Living in a world full of evil, moreover, must not render one hopeless. To keep on living, and writing, is humanity’s ultimate act of expressing hope. Tertz’s novel is a fine example of a tale well told and of a protagonist who finally lives well, even though lesser spirits may despise him for his mangled body, his poverty, or his fantastic imagination. Dora’s kiss is as real as the written pages of Tertz’s book
Sources for Further Study
Chicago Tribune. October 15, 1992, V. p. 3.
Kirkus Reviews. LX, June 1, 1992, p. 692.
Library Journal. CXVII, July, 1992, p. 129.
The Nation. CCLV, November 2, 1992, p. 511.
New York Times Book Review. XCVII, September 20, 1992, p. 46.
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