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Viktor Shibanov

Ethnofuturism in Udmurtia

Udmurtia is an average dependency of Russia and a center of the armament industry. It lies just to the west of the Ural Mountains, and its capital city is Izhevsk. Though it has a population of over 1.6 million people, less than a third of them are Udmurts. During the Soviet period a lot of factories, especially those producing armaments and metals, were concentrated in Udmurtia, and crowds of skilled Russian personnel were transferred there to work. The biggest employer in the capital city is the Kalashnikov machine gun factory, called Izhmash, which manufactures those rifles and submachine guns often favored by the world's guerrillas. Because most people who live in Udmurtia are Russians, the Udmurtian culture used to and still does represent itself mostly as a "shadow" of the Russian one.

In this article I describe one fast-growing cultural phenomenon in today's Udmurtian literature. Estonian scholars and Finnish professor Kari Sallamaa call it ethnofuturism. A group-essay which appeared in the journal Synfeesi has this to say about the phenomenon: "The idea of ethnofuturism is to combine two different sides of culture. Some particular culture is partly its people's ancient, stratified, independent tradition; at the same time it reveals features of a newer, modem world-class culture. Within this connection between these two elements hides naturally the vitality of culture. Ethnofuturism asks the question, Does a smaller population group have any future in culture?" (Pärl-Lõhmus et al. 1994). Thus, ethnofuturism is characterized by oppositions such as past / future, village / city, ancient culture / modernism (postmodernism), and the like.

Literary ethnofuturism of present-day Udmurtian appears in works such as Sergey Matveyev's novel. The Fool (1995), and in Lidia Nankina's short story, "Au-au! or Curved Lines in Heaven" (1993). It is also present in the poetry of Erik Batuyev, Rafit Minekuzin, Mikhail Fedotov, and Pyotr Zakharov, and in the prose of Oleg Tshetkaryov, Nikolai Samsonov, and Ar-Sergi. For these writers, the future of culture, or ethnofuturism, means most of all returning to their national past. Without doing so, it would be impossible for them to reform their lost identity.

In the 1920s, Udmurtian culture and literature gathered momentum and national tendencies arose. Then came Stalinism (1930-1950) and post-Stalinism (1950-1970), which rendered the situation of Udmurtian writers difficult and did

away with all forms of national literature. By 1937 the national writers of Udmurtia had been captured and most of them executed. This meant victory for so-called socialist realism. At this point, any nationalist tendencies either had to be masked or channel themselves into the forms of socialist realism. At that time some prevalent symbols in literary texts were the Communist Party, its employers and ideological goals, sunrises and flourishing gardens (cf. Schibanov 1996). Only Flor Vasiljev (1934-1978) in his poetry and Gennadi Krasilnikov (1928-1975) in his prose elevated the style and use of symbols to a new level.

Ethnofuturism is the strategy and set of shared goals that guides Udmurtian writers of today to create their own unique works. Every new tendency or "movement", including ethnofuturism, lies dormant within its predecessor; it therefore breaks its ties to tradition from the inside. It separates itself from the one that gave birth to it and begins to live an independent life of its own. After perestroika, ethnofuturism in literature arose in Udmurtia. You will find affinities with postmodernist ideas in some of its distinguishing features: (1) Ethnofuturists see today's world as absurd and chaotic, and the former, socialist world as a kind of preposterousness. (2) Both the subject and his/her ways of thinking are considered fractious and "de-centred". (3) Traditional ancient myths are borrowed, fragmented, and mixed with other types of discourse. In what follows I consider each of these features.

Today's world as preposterousness and chaos

According to Lévi-Strauss, the world of myth consists of nature (or chaos) and culture (or universe). To say that socialist realism was analogous to ancient myths meant that, within its own world, socialist realism had its own senseless chaos and organised universe. After perestroika, the situation was reversed: the former chaos became universe, and the former universe became chaos (see Leiderman and Lipovetskij 1991). People who were once classified as positive - such as civil servants, militia, communists, doctors, etc. - are now considered negative. And vice versa: those who were earlier understood as undesirables - schizophrenics, prostitutes, vagrants, alcoholics, etc. - have now become positive figures.

In new Udmurtian literature the action takes place in a world that could be defined as chaotic. Preposterousness reigns in both the city and the countryside. The philosophy of preposterousness was well represented in Albert Camus' 1942 work, Le mythe de Sisyphe: Essai sur I'absurde. The hero, Sisyphus, pushes a gigantic piece of rock up a mountainside, then the rock rolls back down. Sisyphus pushes it up again, and once again it comes down. This process repeats itself endlessly, demonstrating Sisyphus' faith. According to Camus, this story has a particularly important meaning in today's absurd world, in which every human being has the same destiny as Sisyphus. One finds variants of this story constantly repeated in Udmurtian ethnofuturist literature. Among many other texts, this situation is described in Pyotr Zakharov's poem, "Metamorphoses", and in Nikolai Samsonov's short story, "Destiny".

In Zakharov's "Metamorphoses", the hero takes a nail and hammers it into the wall of his sauna. Then he hangs his ladle on it. He drives a second nail into the wall and hangs his sponge on it. He takes a third nail, a fourth, a fifth, sixth, and so on. All of a sudden his neighbour shows up. The curious neighbour observes the other man's actions, then goes home and starts to hammer nails in the wall of his own sauna, upon which he hangs his ladle, sponge, etc. Viewing our lives as both funny and ridiculous, Zakharov repeats in his poem Camus' idea of the absurd Sisyphus.

Nikolai Samsonov's short story, "Destiny", tells about a fellow named Oberjan who in the 1930s, in order to save his own life, served as an informer for the NKVD (KGB) by giving that agency information on persons considered "dangerous". Working in a small village all his life, Oberjan has performed his duties well, including his job as a KGB informer. When the story begins Oberjan is already 80 years old, and he is ready to die. He tries to commit suicide but fails:

death won't take him to the other side because Oberjan has committed so many sins. Oberjan even builds himself a coffin, but when he lies down in it he realizes that the coffin is too small for him. After couple of days he makes another coffin that is bigger and longer than the first one. But again, it does not fit him. He makes a third coffin and a fourth one, a fifth, a sixth, and so on (again the Sisyphus motif.). But all in vain: each new coffin is too short for his body. The problem is that, in order for Oberjan to die, he must first make up for his sins by seeking absolution from those victims on whom he has informed. A central figure in the story is one special birch tree, which hums and rustles even though no wind is blowing. In the course of the story, the Devil, the "evil one" from mythology, keeps showing himself, peering from behind the branches of the birch.

In Oleg Tshetkaryov's stories "The Blue Dove" and "The Noose", as in his new novel, the action takes place in a city of today, located at the center of the armament industry. Abiding chaos shows up in the miserable life of youths who live in the dormitories: the suicides, fears, and threats that armament factories spark among the common folk - these are the main themes in Tshetkaryov's stories. An interesting example of the ethnofuturist view of the fragmented subject (discussed below) is Tshetkaryov's comparison of men with knitting. One hero of the short stories says, "after work I walk down the road and see that all around there is knitted work, seams, knitted work, no humans!"

Fragmented subject and fragmented thought

The consciousness of today's human being is like a shattered mirror. One cannot reconnect those splinters and fragments, and each shard reflects images of different worlds. Similarly, a piece of art is structured by many parallel elements. These can come from every possible level of reality or textuality, from different literary styles and traditions, from different forms of discourse (cf. Smirnov 1994).

The loneliness of man is the starting point of Sergey Matveyev's poetry. This theme most shockingly appears in the poem, "On a birthday". Around a table sit three persons who are looking back on their lives. Who are they? A modernist might identify the first person as the ego, the "I", and the other person as his "shadow" (a kind of Doppelgänger). The third might be "an empty seat", possibly another "I". In "On a birthday" the hero of the poem talks about himself in all of these forms.

The preposterousness of today's life also shows up in Matveyev's prose works. It is seen, for example, in the disparate segments of his novel, The Fool. The book consists of three parts. The first part is highly erotic, featuring seven girls who manage the hero's life for him (Valentina, Galina, Vera, Tatyana, Oksana, Natalja, and Anna). Delirium and babble form the other two parts. Yet despite the powerful contrast between the parts of the book, it is dominated by the consistency of postmodern logic.

Alia Kuznetsova is another poet whose work exemplifies the "multiple" nature of today's subject. Here is one other most well-known poems, called "I'm like a horse":

I'm like a horse.
There's a heavy load on my back -
I'm a fly who gets stuck in a spider's web
I don't know how to get clear of the strong web.
Here I am, I suppose, a spider.
I bite into myself and I am eating myself away.

Also of note is the work of Lidia Nankina, especially her story called "Au-au! or Curved Lines in Heaven". The main character is a 33 year old prostitute named Elena, an unmarried writer who lives in her own apartment. The story takes place at the beginning of 1990s and mostly in Udmurtia in a city of today. But the chronotope of the story also includes Afghanistan, where a war is going on and where Elena's husband was killed; a beach by the southern sea, where the American singer Madonna performs; an imaginary erotic restaurant in which a three-eyed creature is serving customers as a waiter; etc. (on the "chronotope", or time-space segment, see Bahtin 1986:121-123, 284-290). The main thread of the story begins when Elena meets a young female cab driver who seems very familiar to her. The girl, whose name is Lyalya, knows everything about Elena's secret night life and about her writing. "Is this girl an assistant of the KGB?" Elena wonders. Her suspicion grows stronger when Lyalya breaks into Elena's apartment and takes a shower, acting as though it were her own home. Suddenly Elena senses that this strange girl is in fact her own daughter, who has come back from the dead. Elena had gotten an abortion after her husband had died in Afghanistan, so Lyalya did not have the chance to be born into the real world. But the ghost of Elena's unborn child goes on living. Interestingly, time, for Lyalya (the ghost), moves backwards, going from future to past (there are from 3 to 4 different cycles of time moving in parallel in the story). So instead of growing, Lyalya gets younger all the time. At first she transforms into a small child, and finally she disappears (!), closing one of the several time-cycles in the story.

From the above examples, it is clear that the works of today's young Udmurtian writers display "preposterousness" and "multi-stylistic discourse" (in Russian science: polistilistika). To close, let us consider briefly the ethnofuturists' construction of myth in their writings.

Mythological motives

The preposterous and absurd world has long been a subject of European literature. But in the ethnofuturism of Udmurtia, "indigenous" Udmurtian mythological subjects and themes are also beginning to grow and develop. Even though the consciousness and thought processes of today's subject might be fragmented, and even though today's world can be construed as chaos, we can draw positive strength from the ancient myths. (That is why we must not yet think about Udmurtian "postmodernism", but rather ethnofuturism). Mythological symbols abound in new Udmurtian literature. As examples, one can mention Ar Sergi's black raven (in the story, "Kristya and the raven"); Oleg Tshetkaryov's tree of the world (in the short story, "The noose"), Lidia Nankina's child of the world, which instead of growing keeps on setting younger (as mentioned above, in the story "Au-au! or Curved Lines in Heaven"); Mikhail Fedotov's devils and water trolls (in a collection entitled Pain), and so on.

Though space prevents me from analyzing those symbols in detail, scholars such as Juri Lotman (1994). Aleksey Losev (1991), and Igor Smirnov (1994) agree that many of today's ways of thinking are based on ancient myths. The philosophy of life based on Udmurtian tradition and mythology survived even in the form of socialist realism, existing in the subconscious and appearing only on the semiotic level (cf. Vasiljev and Shibanov 1997). In the 1990s, after perestroika, new Udmurtian writers consciously combined mythological ways of thought with (post)modem ways of thinking. Together they form a new and original literary whole - ethnofuturism.

(Translated by Seppo Koskinen)

Bahtin, Mihail (1986). Literaturno-krititsheskie statji. Moskva: Hudozhestvennaja literatura.

Camus, Albert (1942).Le mythe de Sisyphe: Essai sur I'absurde. Paris: Gallimard.

Kuznetsova, Alia (1995).Lushkemjaraton [Intim]. Izhevsk: Udmurtia.

Leiderman, M. and Lipovetskij. N. (1991). Mezhdu haosom i kosmosom [Between chaos and universe]. Novyj mir 7: 240-257.

Losev, A. (1991). Filosqfija. Mifologija. Kultura [Philosophy. Mythology. Culture]. Moskva: Polititsheskaja literatura

Lotman, Juri (1994).Izbrannyje trudy [Selected works]. 3 vols. Tallinn: Aleksandra.

Matveyev, Sergei (1994). Lul [Soul]. Izhevsk: Udmurtia. - (1995). Shuzi [Fool]. Izhevsk: Udmurtia.

Nankina, Lidia (1996). Vajobyzh kar [Swallow's nest]. Izhevsk: Udmurtia, pp. 126-176.

Pärl-Lõhmus, Maarja; Kauksi Ülle; Heinapuu, Andres; and Kivisildnik, Sven (1994).Etnofuturismi: Ajatustapa ja tulevaisuuden mahdollisuus [Ethnofuturism: A way of thinking and an opportunity for the future]. Synteesi 4: 5-8. Samsonov, Nikolaj (1991). Shundyberganjos [Sunflowers]. Izhevsk: Udmurtia, pp. 152-191. - Look the same in English.

Shibanov, Viktor (1996). "Uber die Poetik der udmurtischen literarischen Utopie des XX. Jahrhunderts". Part 7. 174-177. Jyvaskyla: COIFU.

Smirnov, Igor P. (1994). Psihodiahronologika: Psihoistorija russkoj lileratury ot romantizma do nashih dnej. Moskva: Novoje literaturnoje obozrenije

Toporov, Viktor (1995). Mif. Ritual. Simvol. Obraz: Issledovanija v oblasti mifopoetitsheskogo. Moskva: Progress - Kultura.

Vasiljev, Sergej and Shibanov, Viktor (1997). Pod tenju zerpala [Under the shadow of zerpal}. Izhevsk: Udmurt University Press.

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