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11 June 2013

All Russian to me

Reading the first few pages of “Maidenhair” by Mikhail Shishkin, I was stunned by these random lines within the very modern story:

“And so Darius and Parysatis had two sons, the elder Artaxerxes and the younger Cyrus.  When Darius was taken ill and felt the approach of death, he demanded both sons come to him.  At the time the elder son was nearby, but Darius sent for Cyrus to another province, over which he had been placed as satrap.”

It was a Proustian moment and I was propelled back a decade to the summer I spent taking a one-on-one Ancient Greek class with one of my favorite professors, Brad Cook.  The text that summer was Xenophon’s “Anabasis,” often referred to as the march of the ten thousand.  The lines by Shishkin are the opening ones of Xenophon.  Here they are in the Greek (click a word for some linguistic fun):

This is one hell of a book (Shishkin), so nothing I find would surprise me.  I just wonder at its purpose.  Anyway, here is my pretty literal translation from the Greek:

“Darius and Parysatis begat two sons, the elder Artaxerxes and the younger, Cyrus.  And when Darius lay sick and suspected the end of his life, he wished both sons to be nearby.  The elder one happened to be nearby, but he sent way for Cyrus from the province over which he (Darius) had made him (Cyrus) Satrap.

The one thing I remember clearly from Xenophon is that it felt after a while like I was marching along with the troops, covering so many stathmoi everyday, trapped inland with no guide and no hope of seeing the coast and a glimpse of familiar islands, and I was as thrilled as any Greek when the shout went up toward the end, “thalatta!, thallatta!,” “The Sea!, The Sea!”  We shall see what this ancient tale of strangers marching through and trying to escape a foreign land has to do with a novel of Russians trying to get into a foreign land and escape their own.  

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