“…a born poet madly in love with simple things like adventure, friendship, rebellion, flesh and blood.” – Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary
A few years ago I’d visited the French literature section of the library to track down a novel by Joseph Kessel (so few of whose works, alas, are available in English). I located it, but simultaneously my eyes spotted a brightly decorated spine the next shelf over. Stretching to pull it down, I barely avoided having it bean me on the head. On the cover a folkloric floral design accompanied the curious name “Panaït Istrati.” Intrigued, I turned to the preface, written by…Joseph Kessel. This fascinating piece of writing served as my entrée to one of the more unusual literary figures of the 20th century.
Kessel’s preface was followed by another by Nobel Prize winner Romain Rolland, recounting the extraordinary circumstances under which Rolland had discovered Istrati. A young vagabond had slit his own throat in a park in Nice and was hospitalized there. Inside the man’s jacket, his rescuers had found a letter addressed to Rolland and had forwarded it to him. “I read it and was seized by the tumult of genius, like a wind burning on the plain. It was the confession of a new Gorki from the Balkans. They managed to save him. I wanted to get to know him. We began corresponding. We became friends.”
The man, of course, was Panaït Istrati, a young Romanian of Slavic and Greek descent who had led a most extraordinary life, one that had taken him around the Mediterranean, across eastern Europe and the Levant, and into and out of all kinds of jobs: “cabaret waiter, pastry chef, locksmith, tinker, mechanic, manual laborer, stevedore, house boy, sandwich man, sign painter, house painter, journalist and photographer.” Along the way, Istrati had picked up stories as varied and entrancing as those of The Arabian Nights. Rolland took Istrati under his wing, recognizing in him a born storyteller (in his preface Rolland notes that Istrati’s storytelling prowess proved so irrepressible he’d interrupted the narrative of his own suicide note to weave in a few choice tales).
Though I’d avoided being knocked out physically by the volume that had nearly cracked me on the head (Volume 1 of four volumes of Istrati’s fiction put out by Gallimard in Paris), I could not escape being metaphorically knocked out by its the first selection, Kyra Kyralina. I was smitten by the novel, enough to hunt down my own copy of the Gallimard edition, a book towards which I have developed a particularly fond personal attachment. Kyra Kyralina marks the beginning of what has come to be known as the Adrien Zograffi cycle. This series of tales set in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire had, by the time of Istrati’s death in 1935, amassed into more than a dozen novels, and had earned Istrati accolades as one of the pioneers of modernism. The Zograffi books had even been compared to Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. But as Kessel points out in his preface, Istrati’s death, the dissolution of his publishing house, and the war all conspired together to send his work into oblivion for a third of a century until the Gallimard edition appeared in 1968.
Thus I was immensely pleased recently to discover an American edition of Kyra Kyralina and for the chance to revisit the novel, this time in English (translated by Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno and including the original Rolland preface). This new English translation is especially welcome given that Istrati’s vernacular French (he’d only begun to learn the language seven years before writing Kyra Kyralina) contains some grammatical oddities that create occasional challenges for those of us whose French is inexpert.
But even were Kyra Kyralina scratched into dirt with a stick, one would be hard pressed not to recognize in it storytelling of the highest order. One reads Kyra Kyralina in large gulps. Its narratives “nest” within a framing device such as one finds in story cycles such as The Arabian Nights or the Decameron, beginning guilelessly and timorously with the young Adrien’s first leave-taking from home, then plunging one into tales of high drama and exoticism combined with a gripping realism. Adrien serves as the conduit for these tales, gathering them from the singular characters he encounters. In Kyra Kyralina, the story idles along until it meets one of these figures, Stavro, whom Adrien and a companion have joined on a trip to a nearby country fair where they’ll try to profit by selling watered down citric acid as lemonade. Stavro, confronted by the two boys after displaying some amorous intentions in a hayloft one night, offers as explanation the story of his life, a history riveting in its brutality, joy, independence of spirit, and instinct for survival. Stories in Kyra Kyralina possess this kind of power: a capacity for bewitching and transforming the moment; in this instance the boys’ sense of insult regarding Stavro’s advances is quickly dissipated by the spell his tale creates.
An honest, fundamental curiosity, refusing to censor any aspect of life, gives Istrati’s writing both a mythic quality and puts Istrati ahead of his time, with a particularly enlightened sensibility concerning gender and sexuality. Predictably, while the novel was popular upon its publication in France, it met with suspicion and distrust in the U.S., where, as Sawyer-Lauçanno points out, attitudes were quite a bit less liberal sexually than in the Ottoman culture from which Istrati emerged.
Istrati’s principal characters are, like those of Albert Cossery a few decades later, vibrant common people who refuse to accept anything less than their full human dignity, and who, through the sheer ferocity of their zeal for life, expose the niceties of bourgeois morality as sham. Unforgettable in their courage, persistence and vitality, they find themselves able to survive even in the most wretched of circumstances through a conviction, sometimes beaten by the world into a fragile thinness, that events will turn, that their oppression will not last forever, and that “suffering a thousand setbacks does not give one the right to dismiss all of humanity.” In this way these wanderers at fortune’s mercy become teachers of others in the school of hard knocks, their lessons often rising to heroic heights. When Stavro’s mother suffers a ferocious beating by her brute husband, she flees with Stavro and his older sister Kyra, then, once at a safe distance, leaves them with a powerful speech:
I was made by the Lord for the pleasures of the flesh, just as he made the mole to live underground without light. And just as that creature has everything it needs to live in the earth, I was lacking nothing to enjoy my life of pleasure. I made a vow to kill myself if I were forced by men to knuckle under and live a life other than what my body and soul dictated. Today, I am thinking about that vow. I’m going to leave you. …And Kyra, listen to what I have to say to you. If you Kyra, as I believe, do not feel the need to live a life of virtue, then don’t. Don’t be virtuous if it means you are constrained and shriveled inside. Don’t mock God. Strive to be the best in how He made you. Seek pleasure, even debauchery, but don’t let debauchery harden your heart…and you, Drogomir, if you cannot be a virtuous man, be like your sister and your mother, be a thief even, but a thief who has a heart, for a man without a heart, my children, is a corpse that keeps the living from living their lives.
Adrien plays a peripheral role in these tales, that of listener and transducer. The few places in Kyra Kyralina where he appears, he’s a traveler, “following his own destiny” and “[piling] up plenty of adventures,” the perfect vehicle for recounting the stories he hears, as learning them is “what interested him most in life: the need to look ceaselessly in to the deepest part of the human soul. The multitude of nameless beings he encountered rarely possessed souls worth exploring, but Adrien knew how to find them, and by chance he occasionally came upon them.”
It’s a glowing, vibrant, grand world of adventure, violence, tenderness, good humor, great friendship, and a prevailing love bound by blood. Above all, it is a distinctly human world in which God, important only in an abstract sense, proves fairly useless. When Stavro laments that God may have erred in preserving a few of his subjects after the Flood, he adds forgivingly that it wasn’t entirely God’s fault since, “God (like me at sixteen) didn’t know the world all that well and didn’t know what people were capable of doing.”
For its simultaneously larger-than-life and down-to-earth characters, warmly engaging narrator, and vivid realism combined with the exoticism of tales from another age, Kyra Kyralina is a work I relished re-reading. Istrati, like many supporters of communism, traveled to the newly formed USSR. Ever peripatetic, he traveled far beyond Moscow, confirming with his own eyes the rumors that others had incredulously dismissed. Among the first of several authors (later to include George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Victor Serge and Istrati’s close friend Nikos Kazantzakis) to warn of the horrors unfolding under Stalin, Istrati paid dearly for these truths. Accused of betraying the revolution, he was denounced ferociously by many who had been his ardent supporters. Rejected by both left and right, broken and disheartened, sick with tuberculosis, Istrati returned to Romania, where he died in the sanitarium in Bucharest.