Gweledigaethau y Bardd Cwsc/Visions of the Sleeping Bard (1703, Ellis Wynne)

Gweledigaethau y Bardd Cwsc is one of the classics of Welsh prose; this is a judgement you will find in any guide to Welsh literature. If you’re not Welsh, the chances are that this judgement won’t mean much to you, for perhaps the only well-known work of Welsh prose is the much-translated, disparate collection of tales known as The Mabinogion. Even if you are Welsh―even if you speak Welsh―the chances of your being familiar with the title under review are not very great; Wynne can have few readers these days besides academics and their students. The work is obscure mainly because post-medieval Welsh literature is obscure in general, but there are other factors that keep a wide readership at bay. For those with no great love of religious allegory, Wynne’s schematic rigidity and on-the-nose portrayals of various types are unlikely to hold much attraction. Wynne’s religion is, as one would expect of a book published at a time of intense religious controversy, vehemently sectarian in nature, and his moralistic satire correspondingly harsh and unforgiving. Relentlessly, the message is hammered home: the vast majority of people now on Earth are knaves, fools and blinkered sinners deserving of nothing but scorn, and it is only a select band of the righteous who shall inherit the kingdom of God. What appeal can such a work possibly have today except as a historical curiosity? Few readers now will have the inclination or opportunity to judge the book’s worth for themselves, so why does it continue to be referred to as ‘classic’?

Tastes change. Wynne’s Visions (anonymous on their first appearance) were once popular in Wales, and went through several editions. The book was even translated into English―twice (first in 1860 by George Borrow, and then in 1897 by Robert Gwyneddon Davies, to be reprinted twelve years later). There was, then, for a long time a readership for the Sleeping Bard. It was a pious and respectable readership such as barely exists in the godless Wales of the present. But Wynne did not write merely a stern, edifying sermon; his work contains much that is crude and unruly, so that its second translator felt obliged, in the introduction, to express his disapproval, laying the blame at the unrefined sensibilities of a rougher age, and assuring the reader that ‘passages which might be considered coarse and indecorous according to modern canons of taste’ have been omitted. Perhaps these very passages were part of its former appeal. What might a reader today, at a time when canons of taste allow plenty of room for the coarse and indecorous, find of interest? Those unable to read Welsh will have to rely on the translations, both of which are freely available on the web. I have only skimmed Borrow’s version, which is, according to Gwyneddon Davies, ‘charming and racy’, but not particularly accurate. To my inexpert eyes, Gwyneddon Davies himself seems generally accurate apart from the occasional bowdlerization, and even has a fair go at charm and raciness once or twice, but on the whole he is a laborious stylist, often prolix and pedantic when the original is earthily direct. A short Welsh word becomes a longer English word; repeated words are unnecessarily weeded out and replaced by synonyms; oddities of vocabulary and syntax are smoothed over into blandness. To better convey the flavor of Wynne’s prose, quotations from the original will be accompanied by my own reworkings of Gwyneddon Davies’s translation, amended as I’ve seen fit.* I should stress, however, that I make no claims of my ability as a translator; my Welsh is a bit rusty these days, and I certainly lack the scholarly training a really professional job would require.

Some basic information. The book is divided into three sections, each of them containing a separate vision.** The first vision is of an allegorical representation of the world, the second deals with death, while the third provides a glimpse of hell. Wynne derived some of his inspiration from Los Sueños of Francisco de Quevedo (or, more particularly, from the translations by Roger L’Estrange and John Stevens), but although I haven’t read Quevedo, it’s clear that Wynne has created his own distinct work, rooted in the culture of Wales at the turn of the 18th Century. Paragraphs are almost entirely absent, the text running on in great unbroken chunks until the end of the section. Sentences are likewise long, with colons and semi-colons often appearing where a modern writer might place a full stop. Each section closes with a poem, each of these written in a different metre. Each section opens with the bland, guileless narrator falling asleep and being conducted on a tour by a supernatural guide (an angel for the first and third visions, Sleep himself for the second).

The first vision opens with the narrator ascending a mountain to regard the view with the aid of a spy-glass―a vision of something that is actually before him, though his ability to view it is enabled by artificial means. His own sight is weak, and so requires the spy-glass in order to see far over the Irish Sea (a bit of poetic licence, this, or else some exceptionally advanced lenses). His eyes, and then his mind, ‘journey’ for so long, that he becomes weary; Master Sleep (the same Master Sleep who will serve as his guide for the second vision) covers him with his cloak and locks up the windows of his senses. It is then that the dream-vision can begin. At first, it is something of a nightmare, as the dreamer is taken up into the air by fairies, who plan to kill him. Rescue arrives in the form of a shining angel, who tells him that the journey he is about to undergo is meant to instruct him on the folly of being unsatisfied with his life. Climbing hills to admire the view is potentially bad, and that bad is made worse by bringing a spy-glass along with you. Don’t pine after distant lands; stay down in your valley, humble and content.

The angel conveys the dreamer to a cloud far above the world, and gives him a special spy-glass that grants him a terrestial view of amazing clarity―except that what the dreamer sees is not the world as it is, but an allegory of it, with all human life contained within one gigantic city. Wynne economically provides a sense of concreteness to this allegorical vision:

Gwelwn un Ddinas anferthol o faintioli, a miloedd o Ddinafoedd a Theyrnafoedd ynddi ; a’r Eigion mawr fel Llynntro o’i chwmpas, a moroedd eraill fel afonydd yn ei gwahanu hi ’n rhanneu.  O hir graffu, gwelwn Hi yn dair Stryd fawr tros ben ;  a Phorth mawr difcleirwych ymhen ifa pob Stryd, a Thwr teg ar bob Porth, ac ar bob Tŵr yr oedd Merch landeg aruthr yn fefyll yngolwg yr holl Stryd ; a’r tri Thwr o’r tu cefn i’r Caereu ’n cyrraedd at odre ’r Caftell mawr hwnnw.  Ar ohyd i’r tair anferthol hyn, gwelwn Stryd groes arall, a honno nid oedd ond bechan a gwael wrth y lleill, ond ei bod hi ’n lanwaith, ac ar godiad uwch-law ’r Strydoedd eraill, yn mynd rhagddi uwch uwch tu a’r Dwyrein, ar tair eraill ar i wared tu ar Gogledd at y Pyrth mawr.

I saw one City of enormous magnitude, with thousands of Cities and Kingdoms within it ; and the great Ocean like a Moat around it, and other seas like rivers, dividing it into parts. From long observation, I saw that It was made up of three exceedingly great Streets ;  with a great glittering Gateway at the lower end of each Street, and a fair Tower on each Gateway, and on each Tower there was a stupendously beautiful Woman standing in sight of the whole street ; and the three Towers at the back of the Ramparts reached to the foot of that great Castle.  Of the same length as this enormous trio, I saw a dissimilar cross Street, which was but small and mean compared with the others, except it was spotless, and raised higher than the other Streets, leading up, up, away towards the East, with the other three leading downwards towards the North and the great Gateways.

This city, explains the guiding angel, is the City of Destruction; the castle belongs to Belial, who rules the whole city through deception, except for the high narrow street, which is ruled by King Immanuel. The three great streets and their alluring idols represent pride, pleasure and lucre―a parodic trinity worshiped by all inhabitants of the city except by the dwellers of the high narrow street. What follows is a closer inspection of these streets and their inhabitants, with a great deal of social and religious satire. The pope, of course, being proud, sensual and avaricious in equal measure, has a court in each of the main thoroughfares. There’s a cartoonish portrait of a priest who congratulates a woman for killing her Anglican daughter, and then demands that another woman sleep with him as penance for the crime of killing her illegitimate child.  The Catholic church is seen to depend on tricks and ruses such as moving a suspended image of St. Peter on hidden wires, and placing crabs under a carpet to simulate the sound of the souls of the dead. Secular vices are embodied by such figures as a rich young lady who vainly tries to woo even richer men; a fat alderman who insists on being addressed by his numerous titles; a falsely humble nobleman seeking political office; and an onstentatiously weeping widow whose interest is only in the dead man’s property. All levels of society fall under Wynne’s disapproving gaze, but he reserves his most biting invective for sinners of high status: rulers, noblemen, politicians, lawyers. He includes a couple of fine scornful lists, first describing the contents of the Tower of Pride:

Pob mâth o arfeu rhyfel i orefcyn ac ymledu ;  pob mâth o arfeu bonedd banerau, fcwtfiwn, llyfreu acheu, gwerfi ’r hynafiaid, cywyddeu ;  pob mâth o wifcoedd gwychion, ftoriâu gorcheftol, drychau ffeilfion ; pob lliwieu a dyfroedd i deccâu ’r wynebpryd ;  pob uchel-fwyddau a thitlau :  ac ar fyrr iti, mae yno bob peth a bair i ddyn dybio ’n well o honno ’i hun, ac yn waeth o eraill nac y dylei. Prif Swyddogion y Tryfordy hwn ye Meiftred y Ceremoniau, Herwyr, Achwyr, Beirdd, Areithwyr, Gwenieithwyr, Dawnfwyr, Taelwriaid Pelwyr, Gwniadyddefau a’r cyffelyb.

All kinds of arms of war for conquest and expansion ;  all kinds of arms of heraldry, banners, escutcheons, books of genealogy, sayings of the ancients, poems ;  all kinds of gorgeous garments, boastful tales, flattering mirrors ; every pigment and lotion to beautify the face ;  every high office and title :  to be short, everything is there which makes a man think better of himself and worse of others than he ought. The Chief Officers of this Treasury are Masters of the Ceremonies, Outlaws, Genealogists, Bards, Orators, Flatterers, Dancers, Tailors, Gamblers, Seamstresses and the like.

More comprehensive is the angel’s list of people to be seen in the Street of Lucre:

Yn y pen ifa, cei weled y Pâp etto, Gorefcynnwyr Teyrnafoedd a’i Sawdwyr, Gorthrymwyr Fforeftwyr, Cauwyr y Drosfa gyffredin, Uftufiaid a’u Breibwyr, a’u holl Sîl o’r cyfarthwyr hyd at y ceisbwl :  O’r tu arall, ebr ef, mae ’r Phyfygwyr, Potercariaid, Meddygon ;  Cybyddion, Marfiandwyr, Ceibddeilwyr Llogwyr ;  Attalwyr degymeu, neu gyflogeu, neu renti, neu lufenau a adawfid at Yfcolion, Lufendai a’r cyfryw :  Porthmyn, Maelwyr a fydd yn cadw ac yn codi’r Farchnad at eu llaw eu hunain :  Siopwyr ( neu Siarpwyr ) a elwant ar angen, neu anwybodaeth y prynwr, Stiwardiaid bob gradd, Clipwyr, Tafarnwyr fy’n yfpeilio Teuluoedd yr oferwyr o’u , a’r Wlâd o’i Haidd at fara i’r tlodion.  Hyn oll o Garn-lladron, ebr ef ;  a mân-ladron yw ’r lleill, gan mwya fy ymhen ucha ’r Stryd, fef Yfpeilwyr-ffyrdd, Taelwriaid, Gwehyddion, Melinyddion, Mefurwyr gwlŷb a sŷch a’r cyffelyb.

In the lower end, you can see the Pope once more, Conquerors of Kingdoms and their Soldiers, Oppressors, Foresters, Closers of common Lands, Justices and their Bribers, and their whole Spawn from the Barristers to the Catchpole :  On the other side, he said, are the Physicians, Apothecaries, Doctors ;  Misers, Merchants, Extortioners, Money-lenders ;  With-holders of tithes, or wages, or rents or doles left to Schools, Almshouses and the like :  Drovers, Dealers who manipulate the Market for their own ends :  Shopmen ( or rather, Sharpers ) who profit on the need, or ignorance, of the buyer, Stewards of all grades, Clippers, Innkeepers who despoil the Families of idlers of their goods, and the Country of its Barley, designated for bread for the poor.  All these are Notorious Thieves, he said ;  and the others are petty thieves, who for the most part are in the upper end of the street, such as Road-despoilers, Tailors, Weavers, Millers, Grocers and the like.

So that’s just about everyone, then. Only the very righteous and determined are able to make the trek up to the high narrow street and enter through its low gate, there to enjoy sober, modest, innocent, compassionate and peaceful contentment, broken only when they have to defend the City of Immanuel from one of Belial’s periodic attacks. It is the commotion of one of these attacks that causes the dreamer to wake up, to his disappointment, distraught to be once more confined to the limitations of the physical world. A piece of doggerel concerning the dire effects of sin and the church’s promise of redemption rounds off this section.***

The second part of the book is the shortest. It opens with the narrator at home in bed, having just engaged a now-departed neighbour in a fireside chat about the brevity of life and inevitability of death. As he drifts into sleep, Sleep himself appears to him, together with Nightmare (who doesn’t stick around, although the vision that follows is pretty nightmarish); where should he take the dreamer but back to the City of Destruction? Only this time, they arrive at the other side of one of the gateways, all three of which lead to another gateway at the back. This rear gateway was several doors, one for each manner of death appropriate to different sinners (hunger for misers, cold for scholars, fear for murderers, etc. ); the doors are attended by squabbling imps, who attempt to grab the terrified sinners and haul them through their own door into the land of Death. This, of course, is the entrance by which all inhabitants of the City who shunned the high narrow street are taken into Death’s realm. The dreamer himself does not enter through any of these doors, but finds himself awake on the other side after being made to fall asleep by his guide (that is, he sleeps in the midst of his dream). The description of the ghastly scene allows Wynne to really go to town with horrific imagery:

[…] mi’m gwelwn mewn Dyffryn pygddu anfeidrol o gwmpas ac i’m tŷb i nid oedd diben arno :  ac ymhen ennyd wrth ymbell oleuni glâs fel canwyll ar ddiffodd, mi welyn aneirif oh! aneirif o gyfcodion Dynion, rhai ar draed, a rhai ar feirch yn gwau trwy eu gilydd fel y gwynt, yn ddiftaw ac yn ddifrifol aruthr.  A gwlâd ddiffrwyth lom adwythig, neb na gwêllt na gwair, na choed nac anifail, oddieithr gwylltfilod marwol a phryfed gwenwynig o bôb mâth ;  feirph, nadroedd, llau, llyffaint, llyngyr, locuftiaid, prŷ ’r bendro, a’r cyffelyb oll fy ’n byw ar lyfredigaeth Dyn.  Trwy fyrddiwn o gyfcodion ac ymlufciaid, a beddi, a Monwentau, a Beddrodau, ni aethom ymlaen i weled y Wlâd yn ddirwyftr ;  tan na welwn i rai ’n troi ac yn edrych arnai ;  a chwippyn er maint oedd yn ddiftawrwydd o’r blaen, dyma fi o’r naill i’r llall fod yno Ddyn bydol ;  Dyn bydol, ebr un, Dyn bydol, eb y llall !   tan ymdyrru attai fel y lindys o bob cwrr.

I saw that I was in a pitch-black Valley of infinite radius and it seemed to me that there was no end to it :  and in a moment, by a few bluish lights like new-extinguished candles, I saw countless oh! countless shades of Men, some on foot, and some on horses, rushing back and fro like the wind, awesomely silent and solemn.  And a barren, bleak, malignant land, with neither grass nor hay, nor tree nor animal, save deadly beasts and poisonous vermin of every kind ;  serpents, adders, lice, frogs, worms, locusts, earwigs, and all the like sort that live on Man’s corruption.  Through myriad shades and reptiles, and graves, and Cemeteries, and Tombs, we went ahead to see the Land unhindered ;  until I happened to see some turning round and looking at me ;  in an instant, notwithstanding the prevailing silence, a whisper passed from one to another that there was a Man from Earth there ;  A Man from Earth, cried one, A Man from Earth, cried another !  while they crowded round me like caterpillars from every quarter.

Readers who don’t understand Welsh will perhaps be able only to dimly appreciate the beauty of Wynne’s sound patterning in the passage above, but his fondness for alliteration ought to be apparent (e.g. ni aethom ymlaen i weled y Wlâd yn ddirwyftr, which might be crudely approximated as nee eye-thom um-line ee well-led er w[oo]lard un thee-rooeest-rr). Quite as direful is the picture of King Death’s court:

[…] â phenglogeu Dynion y gwnelfid y murieu, a rheini ’n ’fcyrnygu dannedd yn erchyll ;  du oedd y clai wedi ei gyweirio trwy ddagreu a chwŷs, a’r calch oddi allan yn frith o phlêm a chrawn, ac oddifewn o waed dugoch.  Ar ben pôb twr, gwelit Angeu bach â chanddo galon dwymn ar flaen ei faeth.  O amgylch y Llŷs ’r oedd rhai coed, ymbell Ywen wenwynig, a Cypres-wydden farwol, ac yn rheini ’roedd yn nythu dylluanod, Cigfrain ac Adar y Cyrph a’r cyfryw, yn creu am Gig fŷth, er nad oedd y fangre oll ond un Gigfa fawr ddrewedig.  O efcyrn morddwydydd Dynion y gwnelfid holl bilereu ’r Neuadd, a Philereu ’r Parlwr o efcyrn y coefeu, a’r llorieu ’n un walfa o bôb cigyddiaeth.

[…] its walls were made of the skulls of Men, which displayed their teeth hideously ;  the clay was black and mingled with tears and sweat, and the lime outside riddled with phlegm and pus, and inside with black-red blood.  On the summit of each tower was seen a Deathling with a quivering heart at the head of his arrow.  Around the Court were a few trees―the odd poisionous Yew, or deadly Cypress, and in these nested owls, Ravens and Vultures and the like, crying without end for Flesh, even though the whole place was but one great putrid Slaughterhouse.  All the Hall’s pillars were made of the thighbones of Men, and the Parlour’s Pillars of shinbones, and the floors a layer of all manner of Butchery.

That lime is particularly horrible―so horrible, in fact, that Gwyneddon Davies couldn’t bring himself to include the phlegm and pus; ‘ruddy with gore’ is the most he can manage (Borrow has no such scruple). Weirdly, Gwyneddon Davies also translates ‘Adar y Cyrph’ (literally, corpse-birds) as vampires, rather than vultures, a blunder Borrow doesn’t make; it would seem that the later, less racy translator doesn’t always come off best as far as accuracy is concerned.

The third and final vision, which is the longest of the three, sees the dreamer being conducted on a tour of hell, which is reached via a vast chasm in the realm of the dead. A great deal of this section consists of the various torments suffered by the damned, described with conspicuous relish and some bitter humour. Drovers, for example, are given the faces of sheep and cows, and are driven like animals; apothecaries are ground up and stuffed into pots with animal fæces; an innkeeper who had served bad beer is boiled; women obsessed with beauty perpetually apply cosmetics which turn them ever more painfully hideous. As in the first section, all levels of society are scourged, but it is the agonies and humiliations of the powerful, with their arrogant certainty that the social status they had enjoyed in life will protect them, that are most gleefully depicted. Muslims, Puritans and Catholics are also excoriated; the Anglican church is, of course, the one true religion. One the most striking and, to me, alienating aspects of Wynne’s satire is the absence of any hint of mercy or compassion. This should not be surprising, as to feel any pity for the damned would be to risk questioning God’s judgement. When some of the condemned souls beg for mercy, a devil answers them that God has already shown humanity more than enough mercy, and that it should not be granted to those who do not deserve it.

There is no little sadism to be found in this hard-heartedness; this is exemplified by a scene in which the dreamer is almost overwhelmed by the ghastly sounds and sights of Hell, his angelic guide gives him a fortifying drink just to that he is ready to face even greater horrors. Vigorous as Wynne’s prose is (I doff my hat to two fantastic instances of onomatopoeia: ‘hai, hai, hai-ptrw-how, ho, ho-o-o-o-hwp’ and ‘drwp-hwl-rwp-rap dy-dwmp dy-damp’), I can’t deny a certain tedium creeping in. He carps on and on about various sins great and small, delighting at length the punishment of those who commit them, and then indulges himself in long gloating speeches given by the chief devils about the extent of their misdeeds and depth of their evil. It’s all too wearisomely repetitive, and the disdainful moralizing is never entrirely free of that obnoxious narrowness of mind one associates with religion at its most crabbed and petty, its most inhuman. Wynne’s sectarian satire remined me in some ways of Swift’s Tale of a Tub, which was published a year after the Visions (though it was written earlier). The comparison shows up Wynne’s limitations. Like Wynne, Swift (or at least his narrator) also holds up the Anglican church as a more rational, moderate alternative to the supposed extremes of Catholicism and Puritanism, and also employs a caustic wit deemed profane and vulgar by primmer readers. But Swift is altogether more ambiguous, diverse and unsettling; he is too fascinatingly idiosyncratic to succumb to monotony. Wynne doesn’t quite have that idiosyncrasy, and so my reaction to his hectoring is simply to reject it, though the drearier passages are not so frequent nor so long that they overcame the enjoyment I derived from reading the good parts. A mixed bag, then, but with much to savor. If you want to try a translation, I can’t say that I’d recommend Gwyneddon Davies, which amplifies Wynne’s flaws and reduces his virtues. Borrow is probably a better bet, inaccuracies be damned.

*I have also sought to adhere more closely to the author’s use of punctuation, italics and capitalizations.

**Wynne might have intended more sections. At the beginning and at the end of the book, it is stated that the pages in between are the first part, but there is no evidence of a second part having been written.

***The poem that ends the second section is more doggerel, this time about the inevitability of death. The last poem, on a similar theme, is far smoother and more musical; it seems to have been written with an existing tune in mind.

Carnival Night (1956, Eldar Ryazanov)

The wispiest of plots―Ogurtsov, the bumptious temporary head of a Soviet ‘culture palace’, attempts to change the planned New Year’s Eve show into something more serious and educational―forms the basis for what is essentially a series of revue sketches in this gently satirical comedy. At the time of the film’s release a few years after the death of Stalin, Khrushchev’s leadership had inaugurated the famous ‘thaw’ in Soviet society, represented in Carnival Night by the ultimately victorious struggle of the modern, free-spirited younger generation against outdated, stuffily authoritarian redoubts such as Ogurtsov. But this is hardly a penetrating political critique. Carefree fun is the order of the day, an ideal embodied in the heroine, Lena: a confident, capable young career woman in a position of some authority at her workplace*. She has a teasing will-they-won’t-they relationship (spoiler: they will) with her shy colleague Grisha; together with their co-workers, they rush to thwart Ogurtsov, whose idea of an opening act is for a scientific lecturer to give a short speech of no more than 40 minutes.

Ogurtsov is certainly not to be taken as an accurate portrait of overbearing Communist officialdom. In a nice irony, the staunch defender of dignity and earnestness is a caricature so grotesque that there never seems to be any serious possibility of his winning, while the other characters (either young and modish, or else older but accommodating of young people’s values) seem so utterly normal precisely because they know how to let their hair down. The cartoonish array of harrumphs, gurns, pratfalls and ridiculous poses employed by famed comic actor Igor Ilyinsky are in stark contrast to the performances of the rest of the cast, who (with the sole exception of Sergey Filippov as the dry academic who gets smashed and ends up giving a drunken dance instead of a lecture about life on Mars) act like ordinary human beings. It’s a measure of Ilyinsky’s skill that he can go so completely over-the-top without being unbearable; his pantomimic extremes are in any case necessary to offset the possibility of the audience feeling any sympathy towards his character, because the film is quite relentless in using Ogurtsov as its punch-bag. Director Ryazanov and writers Boris Laskin and Vladimir Polyakov, no doubt mindful of the short running-time, don’t want to risk the light-hearted tone being complicated by subtle shadings they haven’t the space to develop, and so there’s no hint here of the ambivalence of Malvolio’s humiliation in Twelfth Night; Ogurtsov is basically inhuman, therefore the indignities he suffers cannot elicit sympathy.

Some examples of Ogurtsov’s stupidity and outlandishness. He thinks of himself as an upholder of high culture, yet mistakes Grisha’s clichéd declaration of love, accidentally broadcast to the whole building, as a speech from Shakespeare. The self-professed admirer of Gogol and Shchedrin is so clueless regarding the nature of satire that not only does he fail to recognize himself as the target of a fable recited during the show, he also requests that in the future the name and workplace of the target be given to remove any ambiguity. After hearing a singing quartet rehearse a comic song, he calls for the number of singers be increased, brushing off the objection that it would no longer be a quartet with the observation that quartet with a few extra members is a mass quartet. In one of the funniest scenes, a mildly risqué skit by a pair of clowns is steadily stripped on Ogurtsov’s orders of all suggestiveness and humour, until the duo enter in suits and without makeup to deliver a moralistic homily.

The effect of Ogurtsov’s preposterousness on the film’s politics is to ensure that the Soviet system is ultimately endorsed. Any criticism of bureaucratic heavy-handedness, censoriousness and repression cannot help but seem mild when such evils are embodied in one ridiculous, middle-ranking figure whom it is impossible to take seriously, and who is easily defeated. Tellingly, Ogurtsov’s superior is clearly on the side of the young, giving the impression that Russia’s Ogurtsovs are thin on the ground and out of step with official government thinking. What’s more, appearing alongside professional performers, the employees of the Culture Palace, whether economists or librarians or waitresses, are so full of talent that you might think that the U.S.S.R. under Khrushchev was bursting with gifted singers, dancers and musicians calmly going about their day-to-day jobs. I must confess that many of the songs seemed rather tuneless and exhausting to me, but they might not seem so to someone more familiar than me with Russian popular music, and there’s no doubting that they are performed with tremendous brio. It’s clear why Carnival Night was such a success on its release, and why it has retained its popularity in Russia: sunny, populist entertainments combining songs, gentle satire and physical comedy are not easy to bring off, so an example that gets the balance as right as this is bound to be received fondly. Its brevity is definitely in its favour: a few more minutes and it would have felt over-extended. My favourite bit: when Ogurtsov, after some difficulties, finally makes his way onto the state to deliver his speech only to find himself applauded (for reasons I won’t reveal) as an unwitting comic genius.

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*I don’t know how common it was for such women to feature in Soviet films of the period, but Hollywood in the 1950s was hardly falling over backwards to provide alternative models of womanhood to the dutiful wife and mother archetype, so it’s refreshing to see one here. The role briefly made a star of Lyudmila Gurchenko, but her career struggled for a while in the face of official disapproval before she made a comeback some two decades later. See her obituary here.

Kappa (1927, Akutagawa Ryunosuke, translated by Geoffrey Bownas)


Above: An illustration of a kappa, dating from 1836.

The kappa is an impish, river-dwelling creature from Japanese folklore. Descriptions of its appearance vary, with turtles, monkeys, otters, salamanders, frogs and eels among the animals providing models for comparison. It seems to be a point of general agreement that it is about the size of a small child. Most have a beak, a shell and a bald cavity at the top of the head that must be kept full of water whenever the kappa is on dry land. Stories about them attest to wildly varying modes of behavior towards humans, ranging from the friendly to the mischievous to the lethal (including attempts to extract a magical ball from the anus, a terribly uncouth thing to do without permission and/or lubrication). They feature in Akutagawa’s delightful (though also rather bleak) novella-length tale, a kind of satirical fable written shortly before the author’s suicide in 1927. Akutagawa retains most of the basic physical characteristics of the traditional kappa, but soon leaves the riverine environment behind to portray an otherworldly but civilized kappa society, describing its peculiarities in custom, structure, politics, aesthetics, philosophy, sex etc.

The unnamed human narrator is an inmate of a psychiatric institution who regales all who will listen with his stories of life among the kappa, claiming to have dwelt with them after plunging into a strange dark hole (shades of Alice in Wonderland here). Kappa society turns out to be startlingly different from human society, yet at the same time oddly reminiscent of it, with contrasts and parallels both offering opportunities for oblique commentary on contemporary Japan in ways that will doubtless remind readers of Gulliver’s Travels. Especially sharp is Akutagawa’s depiction of industrial relations among the kappa, which have developed an ingeniously Swiftian solution to the problem of mass unemployment caused by technological advances: the literal consumption of laid-off workers. Each round of job losses is reported laconically by the press through the prism of falling meat prices (one wonders whether Paul Dacre has any kappa ancestry*). The narrator’s horror upon learning this is met with scornful laughter from his friends, who point to the practice in Japan of poor merchant families selling off into prostitution daughters they cannot support. In both cases, unproductive members of society for whom no place can be found are disposed of callously, but neither case is usually an occasion for discomfort, let alone outrage, in those accustomed to it.

In Kappaland, the political system is marked by a corruption that is absolute yet efficient, streamlined and effectively unopposed – a prophetic glimpse of where we’re headed, perhaps.  The meaningless names are telling: the main newspaper is called Pou Fou, ‘pou fou’ being an interjection translatable as ‘ah’. In government is the Quorax Party, ‘quorax’ roughly corresponding to ‘good heavens’ or ‘bless me’. The head of the Quorax Party is known to be such an inveterate liar, that the truth of a matter is easily arrived at by assuming the opposite to whatever he says. But he is a mere figurehead for the owner of Pou Fou, which, although ostensibly a publication sympathetic to the workers, is actually under the control of the most powerful kappa industrialist, himself mere putty in the hands of his wife. Each level deception is apparently obvious to most of the populace, but there seems not be much drive for reform, their indifference to their own exploitation an extreme representation of the mass quiescence and compliance in the face of capitalist oppression that was such a dispiriting feature of human society in Akutagawa’s time, and remains so today.

Not all of the humor in Kappa is so satirical. Much of it takes a more genial delight in topsy-turvy weirdness, such as the idea (advanced by the ghost of a deceased kappa in the midst of a séance) that Basho’s famous haiku ‘An old pond/A frog jumps in/Splash!’ would be much improved by the mere substitution of the word ‘kappa’ for frog. The kappa way of giving birth is a standout:

Just as we would, the Kappa calls in a doctor or a midwife to assist at the delivery. But when it comes to the moment just before the child is born, the father―almost as if he is telephoning―puts his mouth to the mother’s vagina and asks in a loud voice:

  ‘Is it your desire to be born into this world, or not? Think seriously about it before you reply.’

 At one such event witnessed by the narrator, the reply is in the negative, and so the child is aborted. Kappa babies can talk even before they emerge from the womb; one prodigy is reported as having given a ‘public address on the subject of the existence of God when it was only twenty-six days old’, but it sadly died shortly after.

The translation by Geoffrey Bownas seems to have anglicized or at least altered some of the names. The appearance of some very mild and very English swear words (‘Oh God!’, ‘bloody’, ‘Oh Christ!’, ‘for God’s sake’) struck me as a little incongruous. Japanese is famous for being a language without swear words; that reputation may be undeserved, but it seems that profanity may tend to work in different ways than it does in English. I have no idea what Bownas was working with, but I’d imagine it would be difficult for any translator bring off. One translation of a possibly profane interjection fails completely when a character is said to scream out ‘Goodness!’ – ‘goodness’ is a word I have yet to hear anyone scream. Quibbles aside, Bownas renders Akutagawa in admirably dry and elegant prose. It may be that he even gains a joke in translation, as when the kappa language is called ‘Kappanese’ – very good.

*Indeed, evidence of significant human ancestry has thus far been inconclusive.