Using Allusions in Viktoria Tokareva's "Pervaja Popytka" as a Means of Teaching Russian Culture through Language

Olga Ogurtsova, Beloit College

Last summer I was preparing a new course for a seminar on Russian culture, and when I chose the topic "Reassessing Soviet Culture", it struck me that I could use just one story by Viktoria Tokareva "Pervaya Popytka" to serve as the centerpiece of this course. When I read the story with students for the first time, I came across many allusions to historical and cultural events in the text which could have been overlooked by the students. And when allusion is left unnoticed, misunderstood or uncovered, then the whole idea of the text could be buried under the piles of allusions. One can argue that once an allusion is explained or 'chewed', as we Russians often put it, the allusion might lose its charm and the reader might lose fascination with the text as a whole. I would like to disagree with such an argument on the grounds that when writers allude to some event or literary character, they expect their readers to decipher their puzzle; thus such deciphering will only justify the effectiveness of the allusion. Good and thorough readers know very well that a successful interpretation of an allusion will lead to the excitement of accomplishment, and to a better understanding of the beauty of the text and the deep meaning of the author's ideas and intentions.

The main difficulty a reader might come across in dealing with allusions lies in the way one reads texts. We read a text and our mind, confronted with allusions, tries to convert words into images; but very often our mind fails to make this conversion, because allusions do not fall into a usual pattern of conversion. Readers are not able simply to send the conversion signal to their minds; they have to have the background knowledge already; they must search for such knowledge in books and encyclopedias to get the complete information. Our role as teachers of language and literature is to help our students first sense, then identify, and finally decipher allusions.

As a working definition for this paper I will use the one introduced by Allan H. Pasco in Allusion. A Literary Craft: 'Allusion is the metaphorical relationship created when an alluding text evokes and uses another, independent text'. Certainly, there are different types of allusions. In this paper I will concentrate primarily on allusions to historical events and to other works of literature. I will try to teach students to understand allusion more fully and I to propose the ways to recognize, explain and interpret allusions. In the English translation by Kristine Shmakov of "Pervaja Popytka" there are only six notes explaining allusions; the number is not sufficient to explain the story's depth. What is more important, however, is that not a single allusion to a historical event is explained. For example, no dates are given in "Pervaja Popytka", but it is important in such a narration to establish a time frame when particular events are taking place. Here is one of the examples. " Five years passed. Nothing was happening in our country. Scared by Prague spring, Brezhnev tried to fix it so that nothing would change and everything would remain the same. No fresh currents flowed. Life gradually urned into a swamp and was covered by duckwheat." The allusion to Prague spring helps a reader know that the year was 1968 and thus the events five years prior were in 1963. Here is a chance to talk about the period of stagnation in the Soviet Union. Another example of allusion is the name of Mara's new husband 'Washscrub', who is a typical representative of Soviet apparatchik. There is a note at the end of Kristine Shmakov's translation which says, ' The reference is to a children's poem by Kornej Chukovskij called "Mojdodyr' (literally, "Wash-until-holes-[appear]), in which the eponimous character marshals cleansing forces to teach a little boy the pleasures of washing'. As you can see, the explanation is too short and does not give any idea why the character's name was chosen to be Washscrub. To understand Washscrub's character fully, one has to know the poem, so I read the poem and explain it, and the students memorize parts of it, since all Russian people know it by heart and use quotes in everyday life. These are just two of the many examples of allusions in the story.

The potential for studying and teaching Russian culture through allusions is unlimited as long as one finds a pattern which will facilitate the process of recognizing and deciphering allusions.