Translator’s note: Today marks the 220th birthday of Russia’s national poet, Alexander Pushkin, the Russian equivalent of the likes of Tagore, Iqbal, Goethe, Dante, Confucius, Shakespeare and Cervantes.
To mark this momentous occasion, I am presenting here an original translation from Urdu of the great Saadat Hasan Manto’s tribute to Pushkin, published in the ‘Russian Number’ of the Urdu journal journal Humayun issued from Lahore in May 1935. This is a significant date since at the time of writing, Manto was a member of the Progressive Writers Association, and had embarked on his literary journey, initially as a translator, and was yet to write the literary masterpieces for which he was to eventually become famous and notorious; as well as the fact that this was arguably the first and one of the most significant writings on Pushkin at the time in South Asia.
What is also interesting to note for the contemporary reader here are the uncanny similarities between the lives of both the writer and subject: for both Pushkin and Manto were largely unrecognised in their own lifetimes, despite believing unapologetically in their own greatness, achieving immortality only after death; both had their run-ins with the law for their reformist tendencies, Manto more so; both wrote masterful short-stories; and both died young.
Modern Russian literature began with the 19th century. The atmosphere of that time was flourishing with exhaustive ideas. The pulse of the people was beating with the ‘Corsican fable’ (the invasion of Napoleon). A feeling of awakening was turning within the bosom of the nation and the doors of a new world were opened to a pleasant morning breeze.
In such conditions, what sort of melodies could arise from a young man’s thoughts?
A song of a new life!
A song of awakening!
If the English Renaissance appeared in the form of allegory writing, then the bud of literature of the red land bloomed in the shape of lyrical poetry. If England gave birth to a great allegoriser like Shakespeare, then the dead land of Russia produced a magic-making lyrical poet named Pushkin, whose exhilarating songs continued giving life to the literary ambience for a long time.
Alexander Pushkin was born on June 6, 1799 in Moscow and departed from this world by reaching the age of the fire-breathing poet Byron. Though this young poet was fated to see very few springs of his age, he achieved worldwide fame in this period.
Pushkin’s paternal grandfather was of Arab origin, whom Peter the Great had bought for a bottle of wine in Constantinople and who married a German woman after some time.
The inheritor of such a strange sort of tradition took his early education from French teachers and a Russian maid, and in just a short time, meaning at the age of 18, earned a higher education degree from a good university. Though he did not prove an intelligent student during his education, his verses even from that time are witness to his greatness.
After finishing his education, he wandered around different places for 2-3 years. Pushkin was naturally an independent-minded man, so he could not save himself from the wrath of the government and was exiled for some time. During this time, the black and white of his thoughts kept circling in different fields.
In 1826, he lived in Petersburg on his return, where his young female admirers as well as the censure of the authorities surrounded him.
At the age of 32, he married an adorable 16-year-old girl, who was the epitome of beauty. The poet began to work with great diligence and devotion to provide for the requirements of this beauty – just so that his beloved life partner could get a prominent position in society. These financial problems and domestic worries adversely affected the poet’s health.
Pushkin is counted along with Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe, though a few critics indicate some defects too in his verse. But everyone agrees that he is the very first and undoubtedly the greatest national poet and thinker of the red nation. Pushkin himself felt his greatness. He writes in a poem:
‘No! I cannot die
My spirit is alive, though my body has changed into a fistful of earth
I am alive, famous and will remain so.
Till there is a poet breathing with life under this sky
My name will be on every tongue high and low
Nation after nation will be captivated by my love
Because my songs have awakened delicate emotions within them
And pleaded for mercy for the fallen!!’
Pushkin’s verses resemble the fiery thoughts of Byron on a few occasions. In his songs, he often gives a message to the Russian nation to awaken from dreams and know their responsibilities.
In a poem, Pushkin addresses the nation, provoking their sense of honour:
If the instrument of greatness cannot awaken you,
Then go! Live on grass!
Can a flock of sheep claim freedom?
They are fated to be shorn or slaughtered!
What else did their ancestors give their generations as inheritance
Except the decayed life of slavery?’
Pushkin tried free verse, influenced by Shakespeare, and penned an allegory. The subject of this allegory is the tormented air of Russia. Though the competent author has shown an example of fine artistry in narrating the psychology of his characters, even then it can only be said to be an allegorical poem rather than a proper allegory. It is steeped in poesy from one end to the other, from which the result can be extracted that Pushkin was not a great allegoriser but a genuine great poet.
Every one of Pushkin’s songs is a great example of economy and worthy of a lengthy discussion. Suffice to say that every single verse is the beautiful ornament of the bride of the poetic kingdom.
His verses are untranslatable owing to their great beauty; because while transferring them into a foreign language, the apprehension is the rough hands of the translator may mutilate their true shape (ref Russian Literature by Jahko Lavrin). However in my humble opinion, a translation of some verses from a song of his could be this:
‘I loved you
The embers of that love indeed
Still remain in the ashes of my love
I confess to it!
But do not be distressed with this thought
I do not want to sadden you again!
I have adorably loved you!
And now pray with my heart
Someone else love you like I did!’
Pushkin’s magic is natural. He talks about ordinary events in a poetic style which is solely his own – this creative power was the philosopher’s stone which Pushkin invented, granting every verse a brilliance like pure gold.
Pushkin’s verse is totally uncorrupted by affectation. His style of reciting poetry makes it clear that all his verses arrive naturally. In Pushkin’s hands, the creative zenith was a toy with which he played for a long time.
All his work, meaning poetic narratives, songs and ghazals consist of not a single word which could indicate any artificiality or affectation. Many a revolution may come in time, a hundred new poets be born, but Pushkin’s greatness is eternal and will remain eternal.
Pushkin turned his attention towards prose in addition to poetry. His prose too, like poetry, is the bearer of countless qualities. Among his novels and short stories, Pistol Shot and The Postmaster have the status of classics.
His short story The Queen of Spades occupies a very high place in the romantic literature of Russia. From an artistic point of view, this short story is free from all faults. It unveils both aspects of Pushkin’s genius. It reflects a deep love for the Western spirit and the land of Russia. This imaginary fable is witness to Pushkin’s imaginative power. Though the subject is imaginary, with this quality, it consists of psychological elements which carry it closer to reality. The story presents a clear picture of high society under the reign of Alexander II.
On February 8, 1837 Pushkin was fatally wounded while fighting a duel. He passed away two days later, leaving those longing for literature athirst.
Mikhail Lermontov composed the following verses on the death of Pushkin:
‘The sweet melodies are silent!
Even their final echo is extinct!
His resting place is narrow and dark
The singer’s lips have been sewn!’
The translator, Raza Naeem, is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader currently based in Lahore. He is the recipient of a prestigious 2013-2014 Charles Wallace Trust Fellowship in the UK for his translation and interpretive work on Saadat Hasan Manto’s essays. He can be reached at email@example.com.