READ THE REVIEWS IN:
Slavic and East European Review
World Literature Today
Read essay "A
She-Savior" by Mikhail Armalinsky
on divinity and necessity of prostitution.
Preface by Olga Vozdvizhenskaya
to the volume of selected works
"Chtob Znali!" ("Let It Be Known!") by Mikhail Armalinsky
Moscow, "Ladomir", 2002, 860 pages; ISBN 5-86218-379-5;
The Copulation of Leningrad with Minneapolis,
or the Overcoming of Discordances
(About the Writings of Mikhail Armalinsky)
by: Olga Vozdvizhenskaya
...I think the rapture you felt is typical not only for Russian literature. By this I
don?t mean that I am not a Russian author. I mean that I am an international author.
Better later than never.
About fifteen years ago the term "returned literature" appeared in Russian literary studies. It was just then, after some delay, that the works of many Russian authors - some still living and others, alas, deceased - returned to Russian readers. And it has turned out that Russian literature is thereby something a bit different and by any measure something bigger than what we, the Russian readers of former times, used to think. And the process of comprehending the "returned literature" continues, even though the forced separation of patriots and emigrants is now already, thank God, in the past. Beyond the borders of the vast Soviet motherland writers were developing (on their own or by other necessities) according to motives that were internally diverse but similar in that they were, in essence, seeking freedom in whatever form it could be expressed.
And here is one more name that until now was little known to the contemporary domestic Russian, - Mikhail Armalinsky, who is also a seeker of freedom, and in such a sphere where taboos and persecutions are especially common and damaging - in the sex life of humans.
This theme itself is little known to the Russian reader. Not that nothing was ever written "about it" in Russian, - it was indeed. However, it was done mostly in secret and, if these texts were printed, they were published only in the fine-print footnotes to posthumous collections of works or they were published according to the Soviet tradition of Samizdat. This latter self-made method of publishing was involuntarily breeding distortions (which, by the way, makes even the attribution of these works quite difficult). For this reason, the series of books in which the present volume allotted to the works of Mikhail Armalinsky appears, is called "Russian Covert Literature." But for the first time in this series are included texts, issued forth from the pen (and, in more recent years, the computer) of this living and very actively working author. Indeed, Armalinsky?s creative work, representing more than a quarter century of literary efforts, has remained, until the present day, more or less "covert" to the Russian readership. In contrast to the other Russian emigrant authors, - the famous or the forgotten but now ransomed from obscurity, - Armalinsky, as a self-standing author, is almost unknown in his homeland.
Unfortunately, only several of his short stories and excerpts from his novel were published in Russia, and, again unfortunately, all of these publications were pirated versions beyond the author?s control. Besides, since he left Russia, Mikhail Armalinsky has never returned to visit it and he has no intention to do so. Therefore we in Russia can only judge him by his writings. An acquaintance with this author is only possible through a kind of "forced correspondence."
Russian erotica had come to be written long ago. And it was not bad at all, but was actually quite good - done by rather well-known figures in Russian literature from Pushkin to Limonov. But erotic exercises in the works of the classic or contemporary authors, poets, or fiction writers were mostly regarded as a side-dish, as some kind of "joke of genius." The only Russian classic in this genre was that of the legendary Ivan Barkov - a "virtual" personage. For very obvious reasons, the Russian native literary environment did not allow the creation of an indigenous Marquis de Sade, nor a Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, nor exquisite dames like Anais Nin or Emmanuel Arsant. And so it is that this cultural gap has now been filled by none other than this very Mikhail Armalinsky. Tirelessly, in poetry and in prose, and beyond the canons of any literary schools, not following anyone and soliciting no followers, he instills into his readers? minds his theme, his views, and his convictions, which carry for him the power of commandments.
This writer has also taken on the thankless role of Russian erotic annalist. Keeping in mind that Russian literature has always been social, communal, ideological, manifesto-like in nature, Armalinsky, willingly or unwillingly, has become the slapper-in-the-face and spitter-in-the-eye of current social morality. He has selected Copulation ("Soitiye") in all its varieties as his main theme. However, it is well known that sex did not exist in the USSR (a famous claim made by one of the participants of a talk show in the late 1980?s in response to a US reporter?s question on the status of sex in the USSR - translator?s note), even though fornication flourished all over the place. Also it was clear that literati in the land of the Soviets who focused their works on sexual matters and on analyzing sexual feelings could expect for themselves only troubles. And the Jewish author publishing his poetry collections by samizdat in Leningrad during the days of Mayor G.V. Romanov (a particularly ruthless communist party leader - translator?s note) could expect even worse troubles. Therefore, as Armalinsky writes: "I left on November 17, 1976, and stepped onto America?s sacred soil on February 22, 1977." (Armalinsky has chosen a peculiar way to thank his new homeland, artistically revising the American flag into male and female genitalia - a reenvisioning described in detail in his novel Voluntary Confessions - Forced Correspondence).
After settling in the US, Mikhail reprinted his Leningrad poetry collections and then established in Minneapolis his own publishing house, M.I.P. Company, and published through it his own subsequent works as well as many works by other authors. In total, Armalinsky is the author of eleven books of poetry and prose, and, in the last several years, in accordance with modern trends, he has moved to publication on the internet. He is also the compiler of collections of "children?s erotic folklore," of "uncensored proverbs and sayings," and of the already mentioned almanac "Copulation." In addition, the literary journal General Erotic by Mikhail Armalinsky is published regularly on the M.I.P. Company?s website. And, since spring 2001, the virtual "Temple of Genitals" has opened for internet access. So the talent of this Russian (Russian-speaking, to be more precise) author, for whom, hypocrites might insist, nothing is left "sacred," has indeed bloomed on "America?s sacred soil." Such consistency in his deeds and the devotion to his theme in his creative work and his personal life have built for our hero here a reputation as the principal contemporary Russian erotic author, as a disturber of public tranquility, and as a perverted graphomaniac. Yet Armalinsky does not write for hypocrites, and he does have his sacred principles. To appreciate the power and the uncommon attraction of his works, one must know by which kind of sacred principles and from which corner of perspective the author looks at the world and at the people living in it. That is why the volume of these selected works, published in Russia for the first time, is named by the author himself "Let It Be Known."
Reading Armalinsky is not for everyone. After first reading, after vomiting spasms from the "Wasteless Production of Love" calm down; after the trembling in fear from the "Fresh-cut Heads" subsides; after tears from the "Attempt to Part" dry out; after profound compassion for the heroine of "Empty Mail" relents; and after the dazzling in your eyes from obscenities more common on the walls of public toilets than in a book finally fades, you want to shake your head and quickly forget that you even took this book into your hands. But you can?t forget it. Then you begin reading these texts anew and you realize that through the masterful descriptions of genital (oral, anal, incestuous, bestial, etc) adventures there is only one basic subject explored here - a main theme in human life, the search for love.
People are separate and solitary. No one can understand anyone else, and no one fits with anyone else. The world is torn apart and filled with despair. In such a world protagonists, intensively, tormentedly, and with only intermittent hope of success, try to save themselves from the loneliness, to find each other and find illumination in their lives. These protagonists live in a constant state of personal isolation and each of them attempts to overcome this isolation in some characteristic way. The only bridge over the abyss that lies between people, between a person and the world, is love, the warm touch of another being, the mutually experienced moment of copulation. Only that insulates these protagonists from the nightmare of existence.
In "Wasteless Production of Love," the heroine must choose between neatness and comfort in her home with an abusive husband, on the one side, and, on the other, a woman?s sense of desirability, the endless admiration of homeless male vagabonds, everyone of whom, hard hit by life, is kind and patient with her. The heroine chooses the slums, where she is queen. An ugly gynecologist and his unsatisfied patient unite back-to-back, at least managing in this way to find mutual contact. It is precisely the ugliness of the circus freaks Hairy and Furry which makes their union so unique and unbreakable, and their death on the stage is the highest point of their love. The heroine significantly named Love (in "The Woman Saying: ?Let?s Fuck!?") is torn between the comfort and stability of life in the U.S. and Russia?s elemental passions. She chooses Russia. The protagonist of "Panties" is ready to copy a dog in a search for a mistress, and the heroine of "A Dog?s Joy" finds her sinful solace only in the company of dogs. Love blooms in unexpected places and springs forth between unexpected partners, taking unexpected forms. Yet every appearance of love is a miracle. "Miracle Expelled" is how Armalinsky defines the moment of love?s triumph, the moment overcoming any separation, the moment of orgasm. Yet in "On Both Sides of the Orgasm" is life and death, and only the instant of highest pleasure given to a human being divides them. That is why so many of the stories in this book have a tragic ending. Ken and Natalie in the "Attempt to Part" cannot live together and cannot love without each other. Death reconciles them and brings them together. "The Hero" from the short story of the same title becomes close to his son only through death. The bodybuilder from "Muscular Death," who spent all his short life in search of someone who would love him, was secretly and subconsciously in love with himself. He dies after copulating with himself. The young man from "...He left Grandma as Well" spends several hours between love and death at his dying grandmother?s bedside, and the scary characters of "Fresh-cut Heads" engage in a love game with death. The skeleton of a dead woman looks like an ideal lover to the hero of "The Deal." Love and death as two equal sides of being are indeed an eternal theme of literature!
Sex in Armalinsky?s world view is the absolute that helps to overcome life?s imperfections, even though the moment of copulation (the moment of truth) is short and transient. And, as it turns out, even the myth of the conception of God?s son is possible to retell as a story of a shining and sensuous love, acutely felt by the protagonists before their flight ("Rainbow Sign").
Mikhail named the first of his books of poems written in the U.S. "After the Past." By this he drew a dividing line in time separating his current life from his old life in the USSR. Nevertheless, the Russian theme did not leave his thoughts and dreams, and his experiences from Soviet reality, for which he paid a high personal price, were unique and influential. For that reason Armalinsky cites Leningrad as the place of publication of his first books (although, of course, they were actually published in the U.S. as reprints). He insists that his texts must be considered chronologically: "It is foreign to me to hunt, as Nekrasov did, after his first book and to destroy it because of ?shame for the past,? and it is also unacceptable to me to ?improve? my youthful poems in my mature age as Pasternak did with his. All of this is just a humiliation and the destruction of a past self." The more that Armalinsky?s persona lives in an English language environment, the more (and it is especially noticeable in the later verses) the sense of his native language sharpens and a desire grows to connect the torn ends in his soul with his creative work. This is the underlying point of the main work in this volume, the novel, published in the already legendary 1991, Voluntary Confessions - Forced Correspondence.
The main protagonist of the novel resembles the author in many ways. Boris is a Jew, a Russian poet, and a U.S. citizen. Such a set of qualities results in "ambivalent relationships" with the world. While a part of his soul remains on St. Petersburg?s streets and on the shores of the Gulf of Finland, Boris?s development into a mature man and author, finding his style and his theme, takes place in the U.S.A. Two main literary authorities are named in the novel, and again there is between them an ocean of time and space. They are Fyodor Dostoevsky--there (i.e. here, in Russia), and Josef Brodsky - here (i.e. from our point of view, there, in America). There is all the same duality and separation, and therefore endless letters fly between American city N - and St. Petersburg wherein Boris and his artist friend communicate to each other their views on the search for love, on courtship, on breakups and disappointments, on marriages and divorces. The past lives close to the present, and Boris (sometimes to his own disadvantage) tries in diverse ways to enable the transfer into his new life of the people who surrounded him in his old life. These new meetings with old acquaintances very often lead to a reevaluation of the former human connections, but the new ones are no better, which the protagonist - and the author - dares to confess loudly to one and all. The confessions are voluntary, and, by the end of the novel, the lyrical and sarcastic avowals are ever more frequently replaced by political, philosophical, and esthetic positions. By this it is easy to imagine the concordance of the hero?s views with those of the author.
Included in the book are two essays, "Miracle Expelled" and "She Savior," which belong to the genre of manifestoes, and in them the main points of Armalinsky?s ideology are formulated precisely and completely. In the "Temple of Genitals" the same principles - the divinity of orgasm, the sacredness of copulation, the redeeming mission of prostitution - are elevated to the status of commandments. In a certain way, Armalinsky can even be considered a religious thinker, or, at least, a relentless preacher of the symbols of his faith.
The emotional spectrum of Armalinsky?s writing is generally wide: from a detailed description of everyday life in "The Hero" to a philosophical contemplation of "what a person thinks about in the minute...the day...the year...the life of his death;" from the fantasy of "Light in the Window" and "Self-excavations" to the smashing sarcasm of "The Tale About Russian-French Connections." So, according to the Soviet military expression (Armalinsky himself is a connoisseur of such expressions) our author is "here humane, but where needed merciless." The exquisite analysis of a detached researcher combines in Armalinsky?s work with the subjectivity of a personally involved participant (and no wonder, inasmuch as the author is a live and healthy person, an interesting man of fifty something). And there is the penetrating lyricism of other writings - with their readiness for the endless battle against hypocrisy. The persistently created image of himself as a brazen one gives Armalinsky the power to cut through obscene "truths" (perhaps this is why the theme of abortion is so frequent in his writings) and to elevate the obvious but suppressed virtues by focusing the eyes even onto those body parts from which it is customary to avert one?s gaze in shame. Sometimes the seemingly overwhelming offense of public morals is just the way selected by Armalinsky and his characters, the way of the search for love, for unity and for mutual concord, the way leading to a melting of everything that is separate and apart into an endlessly repeating universal copulation. For this too is God?s miracle (I am not afraid of repetitions), no matter what the oppressors say. And any road to God is acceptable. Unacceptable are the lies and the violence that are the creation of the devil.
It was not easy to prepare this book for publication and it will not be easy to read this book-first of all because the subject of the book itself demands from the reader a reevaluation of many of the verities that have been considered an imminent part of Russian literature - hypocrisy presented as wisdom, the fear of a forbidden lexicon (although no other Russian words exist to define the genitals and their acts, and all euphemisms are just Orwellian "newspeak"), the traditional division of literary expression into "high" and "low" levels (to divide us is to conquer us), and the contemptuous attitude towards natural (albeit unusual) manifestations of human sensuality (I advise the readers to pay special attention to the anti-Tolstoy pronouncements in the novel - also quite extraordinary, but true). But the author and his readers are separated now only geographically. Mikhail lives happily in his Minneapolis and does not intend to move anywhere else. But his thoughts are in many ways directed to Russian reality. Electronic mail shortens distances and helps to overcome divisions and clear up differences that are more often than not imaginary.
Maybe it is really is a good thing that this volume is being published only now, in the beginning of a new century, in a Russia being revitalized by freeing itself from a multi-century imposed tradition of false moral taboos and fears. A deprived and brainwashed person is controllable and helpless, and one of the main mottoes of totalitarianism is "Their ignorance is our power." Thus - Let It Be Known!
Translated from Russian by Dr. Lee B. Croft.
1. Here and further quotations of excerpts from Mikhail Armalinsky?s letters to the editor of this book are published with the kind permission of Mikhail Armalinsky. The epigraph is from a letter dated August 8, 2001.
2. Particular scandalous fame came to M. Armalinsky when he published in 1986 the "Secret Journal of A.S. Pushkin." This book was in fact very well noticed in the USSR, and, even in modern Russia, the arguments about it are not abating. The first truly Russian edition (i.e. the one published in Russia) took place only in 2001, also in the book series "Russian Covert Literature." The works of Armalinsky himself have been reviewed by a handful of critics in the native Russian press beginning in the early 1990?s.
3. This is the name Armalinsky selected for the title of the Almanac of Russian Erotic Literature that he published in 1989.
4. This is from Armalinsky?s letter dated May 6, 2001.
5. The illustration of the U.S. flag was printed on the cover of the New York weekly publication Screw on its Independence Day issue 1061, in 1989 and it is reproduced on the fly-leaf of this edition.
8. This is the title of one of the poetry collections. Poems from it are included in this book.
9. This is from a letter dated March 22, 2001.