My Life in Four Books: Katya Kozhukhova

1) What book was most important to you in high school? Why? 

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco.

I don’t know where I got the idea that this book was forbidden; maybe because it was a murder mystery, or maybe because my mother kept it on a bookcase full of “frivolous” paperbacks (she preferred that I read Tolstoy, Nekrasov, and Romain Rolland). Either way, I stole it and stuffed it in my backpack, where it quickly fell apart from eager handling. Looking back, I think my mother knew I took it, especially after the cover fell off and had to be clumsily taped back on, but it was sweet of her to play along with whatever book-smuggling drama was unfurling in my head.

I barely understood the book itself; Umberto Eco’s writing isn’t for fifteen-year-olds to understand. The plot is relatively straightforward: it’s a murder mystery set in a medieval monastery. Layered over the mystery are detailed portraits of medieval life, meditations on the nature of knowledge, and a collection of puzzles for those who study Latin in their free time. Re-reading The Name of the Rose as an adult, I had to patch over the gaps in my knowledge with Wikipedia articles. (As a teenager, I would have died of shame before consulting the internet.) The re-reading didn’t bring me as much joy as I’d expected; the book was no longer forbidden.  

2) What book was most important to you when you were an undergraduate English major? Why? 

The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx.

Prejudices and rumors from the American culture wars filter into the Russian immigrant community slowly and with distortions, but by the time I went to college in 2008, even my extended family had heard that fancy universities would indoctrinate me into the secular-anarcho-Communist-postmodern-cultural-Marxism. Having escaped from the ruins of the Soviet Union, they were especially concerned about that last -ism.

The first-year curriculum at my college included selected readings from Karl Marx.

“Well?” my great-aunt asked anxiously during the Thanksgiving of my first year at college. “How was the Communist indoctrination?”

“I didn’t understand a word of it,” I confessed.

To be fair, neither did my family. They had been indoctrinated into Marxism-Leninism, not taught it. Older family members recalled that “the West was rotting from the inside,” there would be “an inevitable failure of capitalism” as a result of “corrupt bourgeois values” because these words had been repeated to them hundreds of times. Their exhaustion and anger in the face of this programming was understandable. Without any real preparation, I didn’t understand the writings of Marx myself.

 At the time, reading The Communist Manifesto felt like opening a box that had been locked all my life, only to find that it was empty. For a book that had allegedly ruined my family’s life, it was unimpressive. I read it, and set it aside.

Of course, I came back to these ideas later, when I was 27 and working 10-hour night shifts for well below minimum wage. A lot of things began to make sense, which hadn’t made sense within the walls of an expensive private college. This is not to say that I ever became a Communist; my family’s experiences had inoculated me against that. Instead, I came to see Marxism as neither the source of all ills nor the solution to them.

3) What book have you reread the most often in your life. Why? 

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

 With American Gods, I discovered a way to get twice the value out of a single book by reading it in translation. Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel is based on the idea that gods, too, can immigrate, lose their identity and become genteelly poor. In the original version, Gaiman does his British best to sound American, which is entertaining in itself, but the Russian translation is even more fun.

 For one thing, it’s a lot franker. There’s a scene towards the beginning of the book in which a bus full of recently released inmates gets their first glimpse of a city street.

The English text has one of the men saying, “There’s women out here, man!”

The Russian text says, “Вот шлюха идет!”

Translated back to English: “Look, a whore!”

With American Gods, I learned that it was possible to follow a translation the way an amateur chess player follows a televised match. What an interesting decision. Strange move. Oooh, unusual tactic there. You know, I could probably do better than this professional with decades of experience . . .

There is a Russian saying, which I will attempt to translate with the same frankness shown by the translators of American Gods.

The original Russian saying reads: “Пиздеть – не мешки таскать.”

Translated into English, that means: “Talking shit ain’t hauling bags.”

Translation is thankless and exhausting work with a million pitfalls, whereas reading translations is a fun pastime that engenders a feeling of superiority. American Gods was my maiden voyage into this very rewarding hobby.

3) What book is most important to you now? Why? 

The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes

Last year, my fiancé, A.J., wrote a short story inspired by Don Quixote. He also made fast friends with my 92-year-old great-aunt, Lyudmila, who loves literature and barely speaks any English. In order to share his work with Lyudmila, A.J. commissioned a Russian translation of his story from me.

 The translation proved difficult. (Have I mentioned there’s a Russian proverb about the non-equivalence of “talking shit” and “hauling bags”? What a wonderful proverb.) To get a feel for the way Don Quixote (and Quixote-inspired material) might sound in Russian, I had to read the Russian version of the novel. I had resisted doing this before because, after a childhood crammed with “the classics,” I resented any book that fit into this category, but this was for a noble cause, so I set aside my resentment and borrowed the audiobook.

It was hilarious. I’m so glad there’s a part two. A.J. claims that Cervantes only finished and published the second part to spite the author of an earlier, unauthorized sequel piggybacking off of Cervantes’ fame, and that in part two Cervantes does not miss an opportunity to remind the reader of his low opinion of this shabby knockoff. I can’t wait.

As a child, I was forced to read the classics, and hated them. As an adult, I no longer care which category a book belongs in; instead, I read for pure delight, and Don Quixote is delightful.