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Sandro of Chegem

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

If all the chapters of Sandro iz Chegema (Sandro of Chegem) were available in one book, they would rival Voina i mir (1865-1869; War and Peace, 1886) in length. As it is, the peculiarities of Soviet publishing have caused some installments to appear at home, others abroad. Soviet censors released parts of the manuscript for publication 1973, while a full Russian-language version of the chapters completed by 1978 was printed in the United States, Sandro iz Chegema (1979). When additional chapters were ready in 1981, the same thing happened: Moscow selected a small part, leaving the entire supplementary edition to American publishers, Sandro iz Chegema: Novye glavy (1981). Until the publication of Sandro of Chegem, English-language readers had access to only an occasional Sandro story through Russian-literature anthologies. The eleven chapters contained in this book are not Fazil Iskander’s most recent additions to the epic, but they are an excellent example of its overall flavor and style; they have since been supplemented by a second selection from the ongoing epic, published under the title The Gospel According to Chegem (1984). Sandro of Chegem is a picaresque novel; Iskander himself in a brief foreword refers to it as a gentle parody of the picaresque novel. The various chapters are loosely connected by the folk hero of the title and a narrator, but as far as the plot line is concerned, each section relates an event largely independent of the whole.

Though Sandro of Chegem is Iskander’s magnum opus, he is by now known to English-language readers through Sozvezdie Kozlatura (1970; The Goatibex Constellation, 1975), Forbidden Fruit and Other Stories (1972), and The Thirteenth Labour of Hercules (1978), the latter two selected by Moscow for translation. The Goatibex Constellation anticipates the parody of Soviet-imported progress present in Sandro of Chegem. In the earlier novel, a madcap scheme of improving animal husbandry through crossing a goat with an ibex satirizes the excesses of Socialist competition. In Sandro of Chegem, the ways in which a small non-Russian ethnic group adapts to various aspects of modern Soviet times find equally amusing expression. Iskander himself is a native of Abkhazia, now an administrative unit within the Soviet Republic of Georgia, but once known as the ancient kingdom of Colchis. Through centuries of subsequent Islamic domination, imperial Russian occupation, and Soviet incorporation, Abkhazians have endeavored to preserve a semblance of native culture. In this they are generously aided by Iskander, but his Abkhazia is not a historically accurate reproduction. Rather, he has created a largely fictional setting which incorporates traditional Abkhazian life-styles, much as William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County embodies Southern mores. Iskander interweaves historical, tribal, and legendary Abkhazian components with elements of his own invention, thereby creating Abkhazian culture as much as preserving it. Though Iskander writes in Russian, is Moscow-educated, and has lived in Moscow since the early 1960’s, the Abkhazians, numbering about sixty-five thousand, seem delighted that their famous native son has brought them international fame. Iskander’s place within contemporary Soviet literature is assured, but he must occasionally tread carefully. His collaboration on the banned anthology Metropol (1979; Metropol, 1983) raised censorial eyebrows, and Iskander’s impatience with Soviet publishing practices is no secret. Nevertheless, despite the fact that several of his works, delayed at home, have found their way into print abroad—a practice that sometimes brings offical reprisals and expulsion—Iskander remains an acknowledged and published major writer in the Soviet Union.

Iskander’s style is largely responsible for his ability to insinuate politically sensitive references into print. His lighthearted humor has the effect of muting controversial allusions. In addition, much of his subtle parody is directed at native...

(The entire section is 1,933 words.)