Aleksandr Bestuzhev-Marlinsky's Ammalat-Bek
Information and Questions for Reading
Aleksandr Bestuzhev (1797-1837) was born into a wealthy noble family and received an excellent education. He was on his way to making a successful career as an officer (in the dragoons) and a writer (beginning in 1819), but his involvement in the Decemberist conspiracies led to his exile, first to Yakutia (check the map!), and then to military service in the Caucasus, where he was stripped of his former rank. He worked (fought) very hard to achieve distinctions and was finally promoted, slightly, in 1836. Meanwhile, he was not allowed to publish any longer under his own name (NB: he had brothers who were also Decemberists, so the name weighed more than it might have done), so he began to publish as Marlinsky and had phenomenal success. Ammalat-Bek (1832) was the best-known and most popular of his "southern" works; he also wrote in the genre of the Society Tale (best-known example probably "The Test," 1830). He was killed in battle in June of 1837 (meaning that he shares a year, though not the month, of death with Pushkin). For many later Russian writers, Marlinsky was a guilty or childhood pleasure (or both: Ivan Turgenev once confessed that he used to kiss Marlinsky's name on the book cover, he liked the stories so well). We could have called Marlinsky a best-seller, if there had been a publishing industry up to measuring those things in his era; in any case, he made a lot of money and pubiishers were as eager to snap up his works as readers were to buy them. Like many writers who were very popular at the time, his reputation faded (gradually) after his death.
The word "bek" comes from the Turkish, and shows up elsewhere in the Ottoman regions ("bey" in Turkey itself, "beg" in the Balkans); a bek is a leader or chieftan, often of a small tribal group. In Turkic languages the honorific is added to the end of the name, hence "Ammalat-BeK" rather than "Bek Ammalat."
Our translation is taken from an anthology of Russian Romantic works. I contacted the translator, Emeritus Professor Lewis Bagby, to ask whether there was a complete version somewhere - but there is not: he was asked to translate excerpts, due to the length of the original tale. Bagby is also the author of a well-regarded book on the author, Alexander Bestuzhev-Markinsky and Russian Byronism (1995).
QUESTIONS FOR READING AMMALAT-BEK
1) How is the natural beauty and other scenery of the narrative described?
2) What kinds of narrative patterns or plot clichés do you notice as you read?
3) Although this is an abridged version of the narrative, some of its elements are no more persuasive in the original, which I slogged through in Russian just so I could tell you about it. How does Ammalat-Bek's psychology compare to what we are used to as readers of Realist and post-Realist fiction?
4) Bestuzhev was known to have made a study of the local people in the Caucasus, to have learned some of their languages and to dress in local-style clothing. How persuasive and informative are the ethnographic elements of the story?
5) Where does the narrator reveal his own place in the system he is describing?
6) This is the first time we've seen a Russian imagining the inner life of a non-Russian (though Afanasy Nikitin comes close in a couple of places, his narrative pays attention to others and Others in a different, more naîve way). What are the implications of that change?
7) In the end, how do the Russians come off? How do the various other peoples we meet in the story? In particular, what if our final opinion of Ammalat-Bek?