November 25, 2022

The Library: Studying Maps |

Arriving in Moscow, I got a detailed map of the lands of the Caspian Sea that have long wandered (in my imagination, of course) on its arid eastern shores.

Maps fascinated me since my childhood and I read them for long hours as if they were the most fascinating books. I studied the direction of the rivers and the curiously indented coasts, the taiga where the trading centers were marked by tiny circles, and I repeated as one repeats lines of poetry geographical names as beautiful as the Hebrides, the mountains from Guadarrama, Inverness, Lake Onega and the Cordilleras.

Gradually, I came to have such a vivid image of these places in my mind that I could easily have composed travel notes to many parts of the globe.

Even my romantically minded father didn’t approve of my excessive interest in geography, saying it had many disappointments in store for me.

“If later in life you have the opportunity to travel, you are bound to be disappointed,” he said. “You will find the countries you visit very different from what you imagined them to be. Mexico, for example, can be dusty and poor, and equatorial skies gray and dull.

I didn’t believe him. The sky above the equator that I knew could never be gray. For me it was deep blue so even the snows of Kilimanjaro took on an indigo hue.

In any case my interest in geography does not weaken. Later, when I had the opportunity to travel, my conviction that Father’s point of view was far from correct was confirmed.

There was Crimea. It is true that when I made my first visit there (and before that, I had studied every detail of it on the map), it was different from the country of my imagination. Yet the fact that I had already formed an image of the country in my mind made me a much more discerning observer than if I had had no prior idea of ​​it. Everywhere I found features that my imagination had missed and these features impressed themselves most strongly on my memory.

The same goes for the impression produced by people. We all, for example, have an idea of ​​what Gogol was. But if we could get a glimpse of Gogol in the flesh, we would notice many traits that do not match the Gogol of our imaginations. And those traits, I think, would strike us the most. On the other hand, if we didn’t have a preconceived idea of ​​the writer, we’d probably miss a lot worthy of our attention. Most of us imagine Gogol sullen, nervous and phlegmatic. Therefore, features that contradict this mental image of Gogol would stand out all the more – this is when we found him surprisingly bright-eyed, lively, even a bit restless, with a tendency to laughing, smartly dressed and speaking with a strong Ukrainian accent. .

As evasive as these thoughts are, I am nevertheless convinced of their correctness.

So, studying a country on the map and walking through it in our imagination, colors it with a certain romanticism, and if we come to visit it later, we will probably never find it boring.

When I arrived in Moscow, I was already wandering in my imagination on the desolate shores of the Caspian. At the same time, I read everything that came to hand in the Lenin Library on the desert: novels, travelogues, treatises and even Arabic poems. I read Przhevalsky, Anuchin, Sven Hedin, Vambery, MacGaham, Grum-Grzhimailo, Shevchenko’s diaries on the Mangyshlak Peninsula, the history of Khiva and Bukhara, Butakov’s reports, the works of explorer Karelin and various geological studies. And what I read, the fruit of man’s stubborn research, opened up a marvelous world to me.

Finally came the time for me to go and see the Caspian and Kara-Bogaz for myself, but I had no money.

I went to one of the publishing houses and spoke to the director, telling him that I was writing a novel about the Kara-Bogaz Bay. I was hoping for a contract but his reaction was far from enthusiastic.

“You must have completely lost touch with Soviet reality to suggest something so absurd,” he said.


“Because the only interesting thing about Kara-Bogaz Bay is that it has Glauber salt deposits. You’re not seriously proposing to write a novel about a purgative, are you? If you’re not kidding me and you’re serious, get that crazy idea out of your head. You won’t find a single publisher who will advance you a kopek on it.

With great difficulty, I managed to raise money from other sources.

I went to Saratov and from there descended the Volga to Astrakhan. Here I got stuck, having spent the small amount of money I had. By writing a few articles for an Astrakhan newspaper and for Thirty Days, a Moscow magazine, I collected the price for further trips.

To write the stories, I took a trip to the Emba river and the Astrakhan steppes, which turned out to be very useful in my work on the novel. To reach the Emba, I navigated past reed-covered Caspian shores. The old boat had a strange name: Heliotrope. As on most ancient ships, there was a lot of brass everywhere – the brass handrails, compasses, binoculars, ship’s instruments and even the thresholds of the cabins were made of brass.

All this made the Heliotrope look like a polished, smoking samovar bobbing on the small waves of a shallow sea.

The seals floated on their backs in the warm water, occasionally slowly flapping their fins. Young girls in navy blue sailor outfits, fish scales stuck to their faces, came on rafts and followed the Heliotrope, laughing and whistling.

The reflections of the creamy clouds above our heads and the white sand islands around us blended indistinguishably into the shimmering water. The small town of Guryev rose in a veil of smoke. I boarded a brand new train, making its first trip, and rode to the Emba through steppe country. Petrol pumps whistled in the town of Dossor on the Emba amid brilliant pink lakes. There was a pungent smell of brine. Instead of window panes, the houses in the city had metal netting so thickly covered with gnats that no light could penetrate.

When I arrived at the Emba, I completely absorbed myself in oil extraction, learning everything I could about oil derricks, oil exploration in the desert, heavy oil and light oil, the famous oil fields from Maracaibo to Venezuela, where petroleum engineers from Emba went to seek additional experience. I saw a solpugid bite one of the oil engineers. The next day he died.

It was Central Asia. It was stiflingly hot. The stars twinkled through a haze of dust. Old Kazakhs walked the streets in flowing calico pants with showy patterns of black peonies and green leaves on a pink background.

After each trip, I returned to Astrakhan. I lived in a small wooden house belonging to a journalist who worked for the Astrakhan daily. When I arrived in the city, he had me come to his house. I felt very comfortable in his house which stood on the edge of a canal in a small garden full of nasturtium flowers. It was in this garden, in a small setting with no more room than for one person, that I wrote my stories for the newspaper. And there, I slept too.

The reporter’s wife, a sweet, sickly-looking young woman, spent much of the day in the kitchen quietly crying over the clothes of her baby who had died two months earlier.

After my stories were written in Astrakhan, my work as a journalist took me to other cities: Makhach-Kala, Baku and Krasnovodsk. Some of my later experiences are described in Kara-Bogaz. I returned to Moscow, but a few days later I was again traveling as a correspondent in the northern Urals, in the towns of Berezniki and Solikamsk. After the incredible heat of Asia, I found myself in a country of dark pine forests, bogs, lichen-covered hills and early winter.

In Solikamsk, in a monastery converted into a hotel, I started writing Kara-Bogaz. In wartime fashion, I shared my dreary, cold vaulted room with three other occupants. They were chemical engineers – two women and one man – employed in the Solikamsk potassium mines. There was an air of the 17th century in the hotel – a smell of incense, bread and animal skins. Night watchmen in sheepskin coats chimed the hour on iron plates, and alabaster cathedrals, built in the days of the wealthy Stroganovs, stood white in the gloomy light of falling snow. There was nothing here to remind me of Central Asia. And that, for some reason, made writing easier for me.

It is a brief and hasty sketch of how I came to write my novel Kara-Bogaz. Of course, I have omitted many of the encounters, travels, conversations and incidents that have been woven into the fabric of my story. On the other hand, not all of the material I have accumulated has been incorporated into the book, which is not unfortunate, as it could well be useful for a future novel.

In writing Kara-Bogaz, I made use of what I had seen in my travels along the shores of the Caspian without worrying too much about plan or structure. When the novel appeared, my reviewers referred to it as having a “spiral composition” and seemed very pleased with it. I must admit that when I wrote it, I didn’t give much thought to the composition.

What I thought a lot about was that I shouldn’t miss the romanticism and the heroic spirit that gives a glow to the commonplace and must be expressed vividly and faithfully – whether it’s a novel on Glauber’s salt or on the construction of a paper mill. in the northern forests.

If he wants to move human hearts, the writer “must adore truth, have deep faith in human reason and a lively love of life.

The other day I read a poem by Pavel Antokolsky. There are two verses that express well the state of one who is in love with life. I quote them here:

The distant sighs of violins
Proclaiming the grip of
The spring that is near,
And the silence, ringing crystalline
With countless drops, the call answers.

And all these melodies of nature,
What time is powerless to destroy,
Will live spotless through the ages,
To fill the hearts of men with joy.


Translated by Susanna Rosenberg