Joseph Brodsky’s “Gorbunov and Gorchakov” onstage


Artur Smolyaninov as Gorchakov and Nikita Yefremov as Gorbunov. (Photo: Sovremennik Theater)

In the Moscow Times today, a review of Joseph Brodskys “Gorbunov and Gorchakov,” which Yevgeny Kamenkovich mounted on the small stage at the Sovremennik Theater – a play which the Nobel laureate never intended to be a play. Rather it’s a 14-part poem of 7,600 words, recalling his stints at the psychiatric hospitals Kanatchikov Dacha and Pryazhka over the Christmas holidays of 1963, while the 24-year-old was awaiting trial in the U.S.S.R. as a “social parasite.” His friends had hoped a diagnosis of mental instability might spare him a harsh prison sentence.  But instead he felt he was indeed losing his mind, and begged his friends to get him out.

The result, written in 1968, was “Gorbunov and Gorchakov,” a conversation between two inmates, which he apparently claimed to have overheard.

His friend Lev Loseff writes in Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life:  “As time went on, Brodsky grew more skeptical of the worth of much of his early work, but twenty years after writing ‘Gorbunov and Gorchakov,’ he still consider it an ‘especially solid piece.’ The years that produced the poem were perhaps the the most dramatic in all his life: police persecution, arrest, trial, exile, return; reconciliation with the love of his life, the birth of a son, a final break.”

Loseff adds that work on the poem “truly became part of the poet’s work on himself:  the next-to-last line of the third canto contains a prayer in which the author’s alter ego asks God-in-Heaven to grant him ‘victory over silence and suffocation.'”

Not much exists in English, alas.  But the poet’s early translator, George Kline, translated a few of its cantos.  An excerpt:

And silence is the future of all days
that roll toward speech; yes, silence is the presence
of farewells in our greetings as we touch.
Indeed, the future of our words is silence –
those words which have devoured the stuff of things
with hungry vowels, for things abhor sharp corners.
Silence: a wave that cloaks eternity.
Silence: the future fate of all our loving –
a space, not a dead barrier, but space
that robs the false voice in the blood-stream throbbing
of every echoed answer to its love.
And silence is the present fate of those who
have lived before us; it’s a matchmaker
that manages to bring all men together
into the speaking presence of today.
Life is but talk hurled in the face of silence.’

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