Fazil Iskander, Sandro of Chegem
Information and Questions for Reading
More on Fazil Iskander! Check back here each time you go to read another section - I'll trty to add new questions as we work along, and it does no harm to think a second time about the earlier questions.
After he received his college degree, Iskander studied at the Gorky Literary Institute in Moscow (which was, remember, largely a necessiry if a person wanted to make a living as a writer in this planned cultural economy), and he became a member of the Writers' Union in 1957 (4 years or so after Stalin's death), and eventually moved back to Moscow, as well as writing in Russian. Surely his approach to writing was shaped as he came of age creatively in the "Thaw" period, when there was much less censorship imposed on Soviet writers and publications. On the other hand, humor is always a tricky genre, no matter how much people love it. Sandro of Chegem (a nicely old-fashioned-sounding rendering of the title Сандро из Чегема, which means literally "Sandro from Chegem") was first published in the Soviet Union in 1973, but in an incomplete version due to censorship. The first complete publication was in the US (as "tamizdat"), in 1979, with the translation in 1983 - just the same time as the translation we read of The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years). Iskander got away with things that other writers weren't able to get away with.The history of this novel is indicative of Iskander's particular status as a Soviet writer. He published the first of the stories in 1966, but the novel as a whole was first published abroad.
Questions for Reading Sandro of Chegem:
1. Iskander's litlte preface refers to the picaresque novel, one of the first forms of the novel. Its hero, the Picaro, goes from place to place, and the episodes are strung along without particular development of the character: the fun is to see the Picaro, who is often a trickster, being himself over and over again. How much does that sound like this novel?
2. Humor is a very popular literary element, but it also has its risks: laughter often involves making fun of someone else. How does Iskander direct the humor in safe - or not so safe ways?
3. Note the cultural versus religious signs of Islam in the text.
4. What other religions are present in the region, as implied by its ethnic groups? (And why would a warm country with a seashore, where tobacco is an important crop, be likely to have an ethnically mixed population?)
5. Abkhazia as a place with a long relationship with Russians (as well as Greeks, Armenians, Turks): how does this, along with other historical elements, appear in the presentation of Uncle Sandro? (NB: This is the same "uncle" as in "Forbidden Fruit" - they are neighbors, not close relatives.)
6. Our narrator presents himself as a journalist, and he plays a big role in the first chapter or two. How is a journalist qualified to produce a novel? How does the gradual disappearance of the narrator lead the reader into the novel?
6. Russian is a "world language" with many millions of speakers and a literary tradition recognized in other countries, while Abkhazia is a small country. What does Iskander achieve by writing in another language? How does he convey Abkhazian culture?
7. Do you see anything deeper than just a generalized mockery of ethnic stereotyping in the "Endurskies"?
And a few more Questions:
8. Iskander plays with the space between Abkhazia and the rest of the USSR (and the world) - which is possible largely because he writes in Russian. Besides that, in what ways does his writing give an outsider (a non-Abkhazian) an "in" to this society?
9. With a humorous writer, it's often worth asking: what parts are funny? What parts are NOT funny, and why not?