IT IS HARD TO PIN POMERANTSEV DOWN

Frank Williams



"Outsider" is simply too glib. But how to characterize a writer who slips with a chuckle past all the easy categories?

He was born in the Soviet Union, but does not belong to any Soviet, pre-Soviet or post-Soviet literary tradition, group or clan. He grew up in what had been called Chernowitz, a town on the far Eastern frontier of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and briefly part of the Kingdom of Romania, a town historically inhabited mostly by Romanians, Moldovans and Jews.

By the time Pomerantsev came there with his family it was Chernovtsy, a city of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, on the Romanian border of the USSR, dominated by Ukrainians and Russians.  The Jews had mostly been slaughtered by the Nazis and the Romanians had fled, or been deported to Siberia by the Soviets. After the somersaults of geo-politics, this was a city filled with ghosts, their whispers echoing off the walls in literally dozens of different languages. Is this the source of his passion for the acoustics of language?

For a profession that uses words, it’s surprising how few writers are alive to the potential of sound. Pomerantsev has worked in radio for three decades. Radio is about fragments. Fragments of narrative, fragments of thought and emotion, fragments of lives that used, in the old days, to be cut together from pieces of tape and passed over a magnetic head to produce something larger than a single experience or a single life.

Today it’s all digital. The handicraft of painstakingly splicing together voices, removing unwanted breaths and grammatical errors, has gone.

The principle, though, remains the same, and in the hands of a radio master, voices put on weight, thoughts gain density. They collide and spark. Even incoherent sound begins to acquire meaning when placed in the context of a voice.

The radio master is a law unto himself. Visual media are so hideously complex, it takes a whole crew to perform the simplest task. But with radio, one person, on his own, can create worlds. Sitting under his headphones, Pomerantsev orchestrates his characters. The temptation is always to manipulate the voices under one’s control. Cut a pause here, snip a word or half a sentence there, and they will say whatever you want. How to trim and remain true to the original? Radio suits the solitary, the hermit, who has no need of camp-followers and acolytes as he listens in to the sounds to catch the deeper meaning.

FM is so prosaic. A voice dies within a few kilometers. Short wave broadcasting, on the other hand, has poetry. It is truly one of the black arts. A voice transmitted from a field in the middle of England bounces round the globe and can be heard with startling clarity in Australia. From the warm semi-darkness of a studio, with the help of a simple microphone, the broadcaster launches his voice and the voices he has assembled into… no, not into a void. They go whizzing out and up, bouncing off the ionosphere back to earth, back up again and down again, round and round. Does the signal eventually wear itself out, collapse exhausted? Or does it break free, as Khlebnikov imagined, out into the unimaginable?

Even at the end of the Soviet era Vladimir Putin and his colleagues lacked the sophistication to see that characters in fiction express their own views, that they cannot be ascribed to the author. As late as the 80’s, some writers barely survived the consequences. It would be no less criminal to associate Pomerantsev with his lyrical protagonist. He is pure artifice, though a constant presence. Some of us have watched our friend develop over the years in different genres, prose pieces, radio drama and now poetry, sometimes named, sometimes nameless, but always piecing together the fragments, making something of the scraps. What will be the next stage in his development? After the experiments of youth, the synthesis of maturity, what will he give us in mellow old age?

Translating Pomerantsev is a joy. The main task is to let his words sing off the page with same intensity as the original. The rest is simply a matter of trust. Pomerantsev always means exactly what he says, no more and no less. Surrendering to the logic of the written word, and following faithfully wherever it leads, leaves the translator free to find the intonations and cadences equivalent to the original. Pomerantsev’s writing is clear and spare. There are no grace notes or trills to distract. Any false note on the translator’s part can be detected instantly and is his responsibility alone. There are none in the Russian.

 

Written by Frank Williams

 

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