Khozjain: Valentin Rasputin's "Proshchanie s Materoi" and Russian Folklore

Lisa di Bartolomeo, University of Pittsburgh

Although many writers have used folkloric tropes for their own purposes„from Pushkin's lovely verse-fairy tales such as "Tsar' Saltan" and "The Golden Cockerel," through Dostoevsky's many folkloric constructs, to Sologub's "new mythology" synthesizing folklore, literature, and philosophy (Evdokimova)—few have made folklore so integral to a work as Valentin Rasputin has throughout his career. Considered a "derevenshchik" or "village prose" writer, Rasputin clearly expresses the concerns of the Soviet or Russian countryside, in particular Siberia, making his connection to folklore seem natural. But Rasputin's use of folklore is much more than a quaint collection of bast shoes, embroidered towels, and references to folk figures. Rasputin's works breathe with the continued life of nature and domestic spirits, of traditional healing and medicine, of people who live a world still inhabited by figures beyond those of the human realm. These folkloric aspects are treated less as village kitsch and backward beliefs than as a strong, stable way of life for many people whose worlds remain the countryside of their ancestors. Rather than using stories, figures, or even language ethnographically or condescendingly—suggesting a modern, urban superiority over the uneducated rural masses—Rasputin's tales posit the denizens of those very backwoods as being the more genuine, the more grounded, the more alive, for their very connection to the earth and their own past. This approach is inherently one of respect and shared belief, as may be gleaned from Rasputin's public statements: "A person does not stand firmly, does not live confidently without this feeling, without this closeness to the activity and fate of his forefathers, without the comprehension from within of his responsibility for the place given him in the general scheme of things, to be who he is" (Polowy, p. 11). This sense of groundedness, of right and wrong, is a chief characteristic of Rasputin's protagonists, whose own connection to the earth and to the past may be threatened by aspects of modern life.

Valentin Rasputin's Proshchanie s Materoi (1976) tells the story of the drowning of a world, a land, an island, and the destruction of everything tied to it. The telling of this tale, however, is not limited to humans; the narration is, in fact, a meteor shower of voices, voices of animate creatures. "Animate" here describes equally well all the creatures of this island, from the people who live there to the houses in which they live, from ancestral bones to tiny herbs and mushrooms. The river speaks, the tsar larch tells stories, houses sigh and the mill screams; even the distant, starry sky has a song. Similarly, fire, the evident agent of destruction, here speaks with its own rasping hiss. This animism, this sense of making animate what is commonly considered inanimate, permeates the novel, becoming the most effective and beautiful instrument on which to play this requiem for the lost soul of nature. By imparting souls, thoughts, and feelings to everything on this island, Rasputin finally elevates the tone and level of this unnatural disaster. For him, the loss of the island is more than the loss of native soil for a handful of old people; it is a wholesale slaughter of millions of feeling creatures, more tragic than the simple loss of a way of life.

Pervasive in Russian folklore, animism and personification similarly anchor the island Matera and her inhabitants. Animism, a belief system which attributes souls to living creatures and even inanimate objects such as trees, rocks, or rivers, enlivens nature and provides a basis for respect and mutual recognition—humans are not the only possessors of souls, and therefore not the only legitimate inhabitants of a given place. Similarly, personification—by which one attributes human features and motivations to other creatures—enables humans to relate to other beings by positing fundamental likenesses. If we believe an animal weeps for a lost offspring, or a meadow for a burned-down tree, we come to value all forms of life, seeing in others reflections of ourselves. From the very beginning, Matera's soulfulness establishes the folkloric animism enlivening the novel, painting the forces of life and death in the colors of lore. But all this animism requires a conduit, a spirit-talker, as it were, to hear and report the sad sighs of the houses and the evil hissing of the fire; these spirits have a language, but need an interpreter. The novel's animism and use of folklore culminate in that which is spirit in physical form: the "Master." It is the Master who understands the various tongues, who roams his realm and listens to his subjects. The absolute character of this tragedy, represented by the flooding of the island, finds expression primarily in the figure of the Master. Through the Master the reader sees that the island herself is not mute. His placement as an immortal within the sphere of mortality elevates the work to new heights of religiosity. The image of the Master weaves in folklore, tying the work in with a timeless fairy tale past. The Master is part of the land as neither mere human nor simple tree can be. For Rasputin, this corporeal spirit, closely related to the ancient Russian folk belief in the domovoj or domestic spirit, no doubt claimed position as the perfect embodiment and expression of this tragic nature ballad. The general animism of the inhabitants is distinguished in the figure of the Master, as well; while every object on the island has a soul, only the Master has a voice, assumes form, roams his territory freely. The Master, in fact, unites the general animism of Matera by his very mobility, intermingling with the island's creatures and places independently, almost suggestive of a kindly priest or shaman visiting his flock. This paper investigates Rasputin's use of folkloric tropes such as the domovoj to establish a timeless lineage for his island, the better to demonstrate the price incurred with its loss.


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