Contemporary Histories: Aleksei Parshchikov’s “I Lived on the Battlefield at Poltava” and Derek Walcott’s Omeros

Yulia Borisova, Northwestern University

Aleksei Parshchikov’s “I Lived on the Battlefield at Poltava” and Derek Walcott’s Omeros have much in common. Both works were written in the 1980s and are epic imitations dealing with historic events. Walcott’s book addresses the past of his native island of St. Lucia, and Parshchikov’s poema conjures up the famous 1709 Poltava battle between the Russians and the Swedes. Besides the thematic similarity, the two works share a crucial formal feature, namely, an interaction between two kinds of narrative: the representation of historic events and the metaliterary commentary on this form of representation. In other words, both works focus on the question of what history is and how to write about it. It is precisely in their answers to this question that Parshchikov and Walcott depart from each other considerably.

The two poets create largely differing visions of history and of the relationship between past and present. First, while Walcott chooses a more traditional narrative, based primarily on the principle of verisimilitude, Parshchikov’s depictions are not only deliberately fictional but also fantastic. He does not ignore facts completely, but makes it clear that the principal foundation for his historical representations is other literary works. Second, in portraying historical time, both poets envision several time planes, and temporal development in their works is not linear. Yet while Parshchikov imagines these different temporal planes—present and past—existing simultaneously and even merging with each other, for Walcott these planes are distinctly separate and moving from one to another is rendered as imaginary. Finally, whereas Walcott wants to draw a line of separation between past and present, Parshchikov aims to make connections. In order to explicate this point I will use a theory developed by Iurii Lotman and Boris Uspensky in their 1977 article “The Role of Dual Models in the Dynamics of Russian Culture (up to the End of the Eighteenth Century).” Lotman and Uspensky suggest that a crucial factor for a culture’s development in time is the interrelation between the ways in which it sees its past, its present, and its future. Some cultures—including Russian—tend to conceptualize this interrelation by means of binary oppositions and to reject past historic stages. Other cultures—primarily Western, according to Lotman and Uspensky—draw on the “neutral zone,” and their development is characterized by more continuity. When this theory is applied to the works in question, it turns out that Parshchikov’s poema is closer to the Western model, and Walcott’s—to the Russian one.