The Fruits of Travel. Vladimir Korolenko’s Bez iazyka as an Ethnic Passage

Margarita Marinova, University of Texas, Austin

This paper concerns itself with the travel narrative cum “ethnic passage” (pace Ferraro). Even though it focuses primarily on the literary by-products of an individual tourist journey to America--Vladimir Korolenko’s novelette Bez iazyka [Without a Tongue] (1898), but also his travel sketches “V Ameriku” [“To America”], personal letters, and journalistic articles from the same period—it seeks to raise questions regarding recent theories of the nature of the “immigrant narrative” genre, and to engage with the on-going discussion of the latter’s involvement in nationalistic projects. My goal is not to offer any over-arching theoretical constructs, which add up to a usable universal matrix for reading “immigrant” stories. Instead, I present a case study of a single work and its immediate cultural contexts, whose answers to crucial questions such as how, to whom, and to what end an immigrant story is told, reflect specific inter/intra-cultural struggles in Russia and America at the turn of the twentieth century. From this point of view, Korolenko’s tale can be read—not unlike Walter Benjamin’s reading of Leskov’s narrative strategies in “The Storyteller” essay--in terms of its investment in the nation-building (communal memory preserving) processes, operative in the two countries at the turn of the twentieth century.

However, this ethnic passage offers a multi-layered narration that “writes the national” (after Bhabha) only so it can simultaneously challenge its validity in the first place. It is here that the significance of the immigrant’s (un)writing of the national project as the story of a journey comes through most clearly: travel provides the much needed uprooting of one’s origins that opens a legitimate theater for practicing actions. Fragmented and disseminated, such ethnic passages are concerned, to paraphrase Michel de Certeau, 1) with marking out boundaries while at the same time transgressing their limitations; 2) with an exploration of the deserted places of memory (the “Sabbath of memory”); and 3) with making transparent the presence of alterity in the (national) story. In Korolenko’s novelette Bez iazyka, the “Sabbath of memory” transforms the self-other encounters on American soil into a revelatory re-interpretation of the Russian-Jewish relationships back home. By tracing the changes in the main protagonist Matvei’s relationship to the surrounding (foreign) world, I contend, the author hopes to provide the necessary excess of vision for his contemporary readers so that, having witnessed events from their past in a new light, they, too, can approach them differently, in a “good and healthy manner,” (as he wrote in a 1901 article), and become “the pioneers of a civilization founded on the mixing of cultures.” Ultimately, Bez iazyka’s immigrant passage turns into an allegory of Russia’s own struggles and hopes for salvation, as a country comprised of many ethnic groups.