by Justin E. H. Smith

I’ve just completed the first lesson of L. N. Kharitonov’s Self-Teaching Manual of the Yakut Language (Third Edition, Moscow, 1987). What satisfaction! At this early stage the vocabulary is very similar to Turkish, though to be precise the true relation is the reverse: modern Turkish is a distant descendant of a Central Asian proto-Turkic, and of all Turkic languages it is Siberian Yakut, or Sakha, that preserves the most archaic features.

My eventual hope is to be able to do an English translation of the oral epic known as the Olonkho, or at least of the parts that have been written down. What I’ve previously been able to read is Platon Alekseevich Oyunsky’s (1893-1939) Russian translation of the saga ofNurgun Bootur the Swift (Yakutsk, 1931), as well as a number of his scholarly works on Yakut poetics. Oyunsky also wrote some of the most heavy-handed, schlockiest Soviet socialist poetry I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a lot), but even this didn’t do the trick: in 1939 he was removed from a train returning from Moscow to Yakutsk, and arrested for his involvement in ‘Yakut bourgeois counterrevolutionary organizations’. He died in a labor camp that same year, and was rehabilitated, for what that’s worth, in 1955.

Oyunsky’s translations of portions of the Olonkho into Russian are stunning, and to the extent possible evoke the  full richness and vitality of the lived –which is to say recited, or quasi-sung– poem. Is his work, now, ‘obscure’? Is it ‘obscure’ to take an interest in this material? It seems so, especially in our hyperprofessionalized academic landscape where the slightest deviation from our ‘area of specialization’ is taken as a sign of deviance. But what is important about Yakut epic is that it offers a plain and revealing case study for coming to understand the oral roots of literature. The Olonkho is as literary as Homeric epic, but the history of Siberia’s encounter with the technology of writing is different from that experienced in the Eastern Mediterranean. (Plato and Aristotle both cite Homer as an authority, largely thanks to his work having been written down, and the tradition to which I am supposed to belong, philosophy, is often thought to be a tradition of commentary on these two, so I hope it’s clear where I’m going with this: philosophy = Olonkho + writing.)


If you do not read Cyrillic, this might look, more or less, like Russian, but it is nothing of the sort. Even the borrowed terms in Sakha are adapted to the radically different phonetics of Turkic. For one thing, as in Spanish, consonant clusters must be flanked by vowels on each end, thusскамейка (‘bench’), becomes ыскамыайка, and flaunts right at the outset the dreaded ы, which can strictly never be an initial vowel in Russian, and which the rabid nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky recently called for eradicating from the Russian language altogether: it is an ugly ‘Asiatic’ letter representing an ugly Asiatic sound, he said; evidently anxious about the clarity of the distinction, he insisted it was for nomadic pagan hordes, not for Russians.

I have tremendous admiration for Soviet foreign-language pedagogy, and am consistently impressed with instruction manuals published in the USSR for the minority languages of the union, even if this means that the Yakut I will be learning, at least for now, will center principally on daily life at the factory, or some dull athletic competition of young Pioneers. Curiously, in Kharitonov’s historical introduction he bemoans the Tsarist-era Russification of Yakutia, yet the themes and names he chooses for his exercises are decidedly Russian (and not just Soviet) as well. Here’s my translation exercise from the first lesson:

This is a class. Here is a table, a chair, a bench. There stands a stove. This is a door. Here sits Sergei. There sits Semyon. Over there stands Ivan. Ivan, come, sit here. Mikhail, come, stand here. What is this? This is a class. What is this here? This is a table, a chair, a bench. What is standing there? There stands a stove. What is over there? Over there is a window. Where is the door? That is the door. Who is sitting here? Sergei is sitting here. Where is Liza sitting? Liza is sitting there. Is Ivan sitting? No, Ivan is standing. Who is standing over there? Ivan is standing over there. Is Piotr here. No, Piotr is not here.

Even with this rudimentary material, the story-seeking human mind fills in the scene, imagines it all. I am reminded here of Nabokov’s recollection of his first encounters with English instructional books:

My first English friends were four simple souls in my grammar –Ben, Dan, Sam and Ned. There used to be a great deal of fuss about their identities and whereabouts — ‘Who is Ben?’ ‘He is Dan’, ‘Sam is in bed’, and so on. Although it all remained rather stiff and patchy (the compiler was handicapped by having to employ –for the initial lessons, at least– words of not more than three letters), my imagination somehow managed to obtain the necessary data. Wan-faced, big-limbed, silent nitwits, proud in the possession of certain tools (‘Ben has an axe’), they now drift with a slow-motioned slouch across the remotest backdrop of memory; and, akin to the mad alphabet of an optician’s chart, the grammar-book lettering looms again before me.

And why is Ivan standing? I now find myself wondering. And where is Piotr? (Is he a delinquent? A counterrevolutionary?) And how inviting and hearthy, to find a stove in the classroom. Is thisYakutia? I want to be there.

Over and over again, literature is born, from stories, from suggestions, from traces. The supposed archaicness of many of these traces is no impediment; even in the most hyperrealist novels of the modern age, it has been the mind of the reader doing most of the work, filling it all in.

Much of this filling-in was once done by the bard, by the reciter of literature. But a shift occurred, in much of the world anyhow, after which, it was thought, literature is not to be recited at all, but read. And now all we readers have are traces. Increasingly it seems worthwhile to me to study and to reflect upon the relationship between living literature, of the sort the Olonkho represents, and the fossil vestiges we have now come to take, almost without reflection, for the real thing.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website.