The Year of Miracle and Grief by Leonid Borodin, translated by Jennifer Bradshaw
Leonid Borodin was a writer, Soviet dissident and Christian. He was born in Irkutsk – one of those areas of Russia only familiar to me through the board-game Risk! He was imprisoned twice, the second time after the English publication of his writing in the mid 1980s. He died in 2011. Quartet books have recently republished The Year of Miracle and Grief in a handsome quality paperback, and I was sent a copy.
One summer, a twelve-year-old boy comes to a railway town on the shores of Lake Baikal in Siberia, where his parents are to teach at the school. He soon makes friends with the other local children, and spends most of his time outdoors, fishing, swimming, making rafts, building dams, doing boyish things until suppertime.
He is mesmerised by the beauty of the lake and mountains, and keeps finding his eye drawn to a lonely crag with a straggly pine tree on it. The rocky outcrop is known as Dead Man’s Crag – his friends warn him against going up there however the boy, (who is unnamed) feels compelled to try. He scrambles up to the ledge only to discover an wizened old crone sitting there. Once she’s scared him half to death, she introduces herself as Sarma, great grand-daughter of the Great Sibyr. She forces him into a cave, telling to go down to the bottom and return to tell her what was happening. He goes in, down many stairs before arriving in an immense hall:
On a high-backed throne set on a small rocky platform sat an old man. At least he seemed to me to be very old under the thick white beard which fell to his chest. His clothes, halfway between a smock and a cloak, were navy blue, and against this background the white beard looked like sea foam… White eyebrows covered his eyes. The face looked sad and austere.
At his left hand, her head leaning on the armrest of the throne, sat a little girl of eleven or twelve. Her dark chestnut hair was hanging down from the armrest and the old man’s hand was resting on the child’s knees. The armchair she was sitting on was somewhat smaller than the throne, but its back was just as high. On the little girl’s left, with his head resting on outstretched paws, lay a small black dog with a brown patch above his eyes.
And all three of them . . . were asleep.
Sarma had flooded the valley to make Lake Baikal in retribution for the Prince who lived there accidentally letting her son die. Ever since she has held the Prince and his daughter Ri captive, unable to forgive, still grieving. The boy, naturally, falls for Ri and begs Sarma to let him come and visit again. After many visits he tries to persuade Sarma to set Ri free, and Sarma bargains – accepting her terms will change his life totally.
Rooted in local myths of the origins of this bleak and beautiful landscape this fairy-tale is, like all the best of its kind, strong on the consequences of dealing with magic. There is a price in suffering to pay for changing the equilibrium. Borodin was a Christian, and so the fairy-tale almost becomes a kind of parable about forgiveness and grief.
Where this book excelled for me though was in the descriptions of the ever-changing moods of the lake and its environs, going from transcendent beauty to stormy waves to icy danger. The translator, Jennifer Bradshaw has done a great job here. For instance, one day:
The water no longer looked like glass. I had the feeling that an immense blue tablecloth had been stretched out between the four points of the compass and that beasts were walking underneath it, unable to reach the shore. The smooth shining waves were not lapping against the bank but flowing on to it in a film of transparent sky blue.
From the start, we know that the boy survives all his trials, as the story is recounted by an older and wiser self. This degree of hindsight and first-person narration gives a totally different slant on what happens, it’s not as immediate as a certain other tale I’ve read recently involving magical sleeping beings in a cave deep under a hill I can think of (Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen that is); they do share the love of landscape though.
If you love Russian landscapes and fairytales this story, at first deceptively simple but then complex underneath, may be one for you. (8/10).
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Source: Review copy – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Year of Miracle and Grief by Leonid Borodin, Quartet paperback, 190 pages, republished Nov 2013.