Lieutenant Kizhe by Yuri Tynianov
Translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater
It’s taken forty years to track down this tale. The story has fascinated for that long, encountered initially as a consequence of hearing and loving, the Troika from Prokofiev’s suite of the same name. When the opportunity came to make a play based on the story no English version could be located. This was long before invisible searchers could produce answers quicker than they could be typed. The only viable resource was the composer reference collection of Preston’s Music and Drama Library in the Harris Museum. It turns out the synopsis stored therein was accurate, but it was good to finally read a direct translation of Yuri Tynianov’s story first published in the Soviet Union almost a century ago. Some of Olga Smart’s illustrations are chillingly close to scenes we created on stage.
A note on spelling. The Look Multimedia publication1 uses Kizhe rather than Kije and Tynianov rather than Tynyanov, though most references prior to this publication use the latter in each case. To me he will always be Kije, but I will defer to the publisher’s preference for most of what follows.
The story purports to be a biography of a soldier who never existed, but nevertheless became a military scapegoat, then a banished prisoner, then a pardoned hero. He married and had a child. He died, was buried and greatly mourned, and achieved all this without ever being born.
The book is true to Kizhe in that there’s not much to it. It’s a slim volume amounting to some 50 pages. The eponymous lieutenant is hardly there. He is referred to on less than a third of the pages, takes no action, and is completely at the whim of others. In one sense that is inevitable. Someone who does not exist cannot do very much. Strange then, that his name, created by a bureaucratic error, should be the title of the book. By not existing, however, the lieutenant is more than human. Kizhe is a mistake that makes foolishness manifest.
The story could easily have been called Tsar Pavel. It is Pavel’s paranoia that instigates the adventure assigned to Kizhe and the Tsar’s irascibility and imbecility are at the core of this satire on the absurd machinations of imperial governance in eighteenth-century Russia.
While Kizhe is off-stage a selection of other aristocratic players provide the entertainment, several of whom are historical figures. No wonder it suited the predominant sensibilities of the Soviet era. Read between the lines, however, and the power of myth-making is shown to embody any uniform, and that the foolishness needed to follow it is not partisan to any political persuasion.
This version is an amusing read. Pasternak Slater has done a very decent job of making the text accessible. The century-old humour is surprisingly fresh, yet the historic period is vividly presented, and as a consequence the self-centred cognition at the heart of the satire is exposed as a timeless trap.
It is a volume for the specifically interested rather than the general reader. Being so short and having such a tightly buttoned comedic tunic it could easily miss the mark if selected without thought, but for those who enjoy a snifter of stately satire, or who, like me, have some long-standing association with this particular invisible person, it provides a warm greatcoat of smiles.
Having followed him for so long, it is good to have Kije, in the house.
Read about my attempts to put the beloved Kije before an adoring public in Kije and me.
1 Published by Look Multimedia Ltd 2021 ISBN 978-1-9999815-6-3