Challenge 849 Response
For Whom the Joke’s Told
with Bill Bowler
In Natan Dubovitsky’s Near Zero, Chapter 12, the first paragraph says that Sara is a real person; the Chief (Igor) implies that she is an android. Does the distinction seem to make any difference to Yegor?
[Bill Bowler] Sara is not an android. There’s no sci-fi in the story. This passage is a metaphoric depiction of brutally demeaning sexism and the objectification of women by men. I think the author is trying for black humor, but it comes across as rather unfunny and hard to take, a case perhaps where Russian cultural sensibilities are somewhat behind those of the West.
At the same time, there was kind of a “free love” movement in the post-Revolutionary USSR, and women were working hardhat jobs there long before they could dream of it elsewhere. Things are not always simple, and we can’t really generalize about Russian society.
By the way, Sara turns out to be an undercover officer in the Russian State Security Service, the FSB, formerly called the KGB. She resurfaces later in the novel as Capt. Yana Warhola (see Cast of Characters). Hard for the reader not to be at least a little confused, but it's all in fun.
And yes, “Warhola” is a thinly veiled reference to Andy Warhol and nothing more. Dubovitsky simply cannot pass up an opportunity, however small, to poke fun at pop culture.
In translating the scene, I had thought possibly to try and soften it, make it a little more “politically correct”; but then again, why should I?
[Don Webb] Thanks, Bill, your explanation helps a lot.
At first, readers may be appalled by Chapter 12, for the reasons you say. True sex dolls are normally comic or even farcical props in film or television, but Igor’s portrayal of Sara almost parodies pornography.
We are clued in that the scene is supposed to be comic. The author makes a far-fetched ethnic joke about Sara’s purportedly being an American “model” who sings poorly and comes from Minnesota, a place that can get as cold as Moscow. And, at the end, Yegor’s and Sara’s break-up is amicable.
The humor will be funny only to a very select audience. And that may be precisely the point: the author knows he’s telling a grotesque joke, but he also knows that some readers will take it literally, and the joke’s on them.
Cyrano takes a somewhat different tack in The Other World, episodes 14-16. Cyrano is captured by a Moon-being and made to perform a kind of circus act as a trained animal. He is befriended by a true space alien, the Sun-being, who opens up a wonderful new perspective to him.
But Cyrano and the Sun-being are speaking the Greek of Renaissance Humanists, and the befuddled audience eventually tires of it:
He had gotten that far when my mountebank noticed that the people in the room were beginning to become bored with our talk, which they did not understand and took for inarticulate mumbling. He began jerking my rope even harder, to make me jump. When the spectators had laughed their fill and were assured that I was almost as intelligent as the animals in their country, they went home. (Episode 16: Do You Perceive What I Perceive?)
Are the “spectators” Moon-beings? Hardly. They’re benighted readers who have no patience for the unfamiliar. Cyrano deliberately uses sarcasm to show his hand. Readers can’t pin anything on Dubovitsky; he plays it safe by having his joke both ways.
“Politically correct” normally refers to attempts to make language socially inclusive. Sometimes it succeeds; sometimes it’s merely awkward. At best, it’s courtesy, but some people fear it for that very reason.
You’ve done well, then, to refrain from cleaning up chapter 12 in the interest of being “politically correct.” You’ve heeded Erich Maria Remarque’s wise admonition to a translator: “Don’t write a better novel than I did.”