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...
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