The body of great literature being created outside of the English-speaking world is vast; St. Petersburg Review is taking great strides to bridge the gap between cultures and languages that sometimes keep writers and readers apart. The thick volume is jam-packed with fiction, poetry, plays, and creative nonfiction plucked from everywhere in the world. A great deal of the work has been reflected through the prism of translation: a double-edged sword. Reading work in translation is, in some ways, like seeing a great painting through a pair of cracked eyeglasses. You can see the whole of the work and take it to heart, but there will always be some measure of intellectual distance between you and the artist. On the other hand, translations such as these are wonderful because you get a taste of the different music made by phrases that emerge from minds trained to think in unfamiliar languages.
Liu Jian’s “Rock Soldier” hooks with its first line: “If it wasn’t for rock ‘n’ roll, I never would have donned the uniform of the People’s Liberation Army.” The story describes the first-person narrator’s youthful infatuation with rock music, a rebel genre in China. Liu Jian, known as “the punk” around school, listens to banned music and eventually starts composing his own songs and playing in a band. (The Review classifies the piece as fiction, though the author and protagonist share a name.) The author’s biographical note explains that “Rock Soldier” will soon be released as a novel. The portion included in the journal stands on its own, but also serves as a powerful first chapter that leaves the reader wanting more.
Nathan Deuel’s essay “Night of the Gun” describes an experience he shares with his wife while in Saudi Arabia. Unable to refuse the standing invitation any longer, they visit their landlord’s home and estate. During the tour, the landlord laments that his children are being influenced too much by fundamentalists and proudly proclaims his heritage:
Growing emotional, Mohammad began telling us how his family had been a powerful tribe for centuries. There had been a battle here, right where we were sitting, just after the Prophet’s time. The leader of his tribe, he told us with an air of melancholy, had led his men straight into the strongest part of enemy lines. Spears had pierced his horse’s chest, Mohammad said, but the leader had pushed on.
The Deuels’ visit indeed concludes with the appearance of an unloaded gun, brandished by Mohammad, their “would-be-friend.” Deuel’s story reinforces the contradiction that can separate people from different cultures; our different understandings of the world make interaction interesting, but can also lead to unwanted tension.
In 1918, Russian poet Aleksandr Blok wrote a programmatic poem in reaction to the Bolshevik Revolution. “The Twelve” collects half a dozen vignettes representing the perspectives of a wide range of men and women affected by the changing political scene. In an introductory note, Polina Barskova comments that it is difficult to tell who had Blok’s sympathies, and she’s right. Barskova is also correct in her assertion that the greatest joys can be derived from the way that Blok “collected all manner of rhythms and sounds,” transcribing the “music of revolution” that was being played around him. The editors gave translator Peter Scotto’s work its own section in the middle of the issue, deservedly so. Scotto imbues “The Twelve” with a great deal of narrative momentum and finds innumerable ways to arrange the text to allow the reader to hear that “music of revolution.”
Very few of us, sadly, have the resources necessary to travel the globe and mingle with the literary elite at every stop. Reading this issue of the St. Petersburg Review is a satisfying alternative.