"Eloquent Gesture" in the Art of Fazil' Iskander

Marina Kanevskaya, University of Montana

In this paper I focus on one of the recurrent narrative devices in the art of Fazil' Iskander: what I call an "eloquent gesture." Iskander loves a visual image as he cannot imagine the inner movement without its expression in the external gesture. For each movement of the soul, he finds a corresponding visual expression. I propose to view this device as an instance of decentralization of the discourse in the midst of the authoritative text. Iskander's prose carefully describes and instantly interprets gestures, facial expressions, bodily postures, inarticulate exclamations, etc. not only of people but also of animals, and even plants. In fact, the animals' voices often receive the same interpretative treatment as seemingly incoherent or random exclamations of the humans.

One of Iskander's most life-affirming strategies is to show the harmony between a child and an animal as in the stories "Evening Road" or "The First Errand.". Also, in the last chapter of his chegem novel, Iskander describes the ancient walnut tree as the "Tree of Childhood." He interprets the growing tree as an expression of both the potential of childhood and the living force of the nation: "Taking a firm footing in the ground the tree bravely raises its branches to the sky." Similarly, the novel's roots reach deeply into the Abxazian history and lore. In the "Story about the Sea" the persistent scrutinizing of a drowning boy's facial expression enables Iskander to place the reader in the context of life ruled by scarcity and need. The decision to ruin the nice outfit for the sake of the other's life becomes, if not altogether heroic, than at least altruistic.

The author attains a similar goal in the story "My First Day at School." The sadness on the mother's face yields a broad scope of meanings ironic in their representation yet deeply tragic: "This expression was not informed by an outright duplicity. It resulted, as I understand now, from a habitual entrance into the rut of hopelessness." Thus, this lyrical and at the same time ironic stratagem reveals the presence of the two narrative voices: one of a child and another of an adult. "Certainly, all this was very unclear then,"--writes Iskander in relation to the experience of this boy,--"Still, I am convinced that in the present explanation I am developing a kernel of the very impressions which I had then and not the different ones."

Iskander's interpretation of a gesture reveals a three-tiered awareness: a character does one thing, thinking another, whereas the author perceives the innermost level of being. In Russian tradition, this device stems from Leo Tolstoy. Iskander uses this technique with seeming simplicity. He delves into the ostensibly trivial situation and reveals its far from trivial complexity of the suppressed thoughts and emotions. The author's recurrent remark, "as I understand it now," plays an important role in creating a dialog between the boy in the past and the same person as an adult in the narrative present. Although his characters demonstrate considerable self-awareness and perceptiveness of the others' behavior, it is the inevitable extension of his conclusions and his final aphoristic style.