Thursday, December 15, 2011

Guest Post by Jane Kindred: The Language of Fallen Angels: Russian on the angelic tongue

When I first decided I was going to create a celestial world that echoed the world of pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg, I didn’t actually intend for the story to have anything to do with Russia. I was just working from the “what if” of an angelic grand duchess being the only survivor of her family’s execution and having to go into hiding with demons. Stumbling across the name of the city of Arkhangel’sk while searching for Russian angelic names was the beginning of my Russophilia. I just loved the way the name sounded and looked. Alongside the history of angels, I was soon researching the history of Arkhangel’sk, and the story began to be increasingly rooted in the real world.

Meanwhile, thinking it would be a fun way to do some research for the book, I signed up at the local community college for a class on Russian Culture and Civilization. That whim would turn into a full-on obsession within a matter of days. As soon as I began studying Russia, I fell in love with it. We watched Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev in class and I ran home to put it on Netflix so I could watch it repeatedly (all three and a half hours of it), fascinated by the images of the icons painted in the early Orthodox cathedrals by devoted monks—and equally fascinated by the depiction of pagan rituals celebrated on the summer solstice before being subsumed by the Church. We read Gogol and Pushkin and Anna Akhmatova, and I couldn’t get enough, moved to tears by the sound of words I didn’t even understand.

When my instructor mentioned she was hosting a summer Russian-language trip to St. Petersburg, there was no way I could pass it up, though I had to turn my entire world upside down to do it. (I think it was around this time that friends began to be less amused by my obsession and a little more concerned.) I didn’t know a word of Russian, so I bought a Russian language dictionary and a beginning Russian textbook and taught myself the Cyrillic alphabet and the rudiments of the language. By the time we arrived in St. Petersburg, I could spell my name in Cyrillic script, identify signs for the metro and the bathroom, count to 20, and say “I don’t know,” “I don’t understand,” and “I don’t speak Russian.” (And “How much is that bulochka?”)

I fumbled my way through conversations over evening tea (and bulochki) with my hostess every night, managed to buy things at the corner markets—even if I later learned I was asking for the equivalent of being a bottle of water rather than purchasing one—and counted my money in rubles and kopeks. I was hesitant to speak in broken Russian in social situations, but the longer I listened to the flow of the sounds of the people around me, the more I seemed to be following what others were saying. One of the highlights of my trip was listening to a friend’s uncle who didn’t speak a word of English reciting long stanzas of Yevgeniy Onegin as we walked to the Ekaterine Palace in Pushkin.

By the time I returned to the States, I knew my demons weren’t just going to happen to land in Russia when they fell. There would be an indelible tie between Heaven and Russia, and my demons would be Russian. I wanted the language to be an authentic part of that characterization, woven in among the English words as unobtrusively as possible. Like Joss Whedon’s characters do with the odd Chinese phrase in Firefly and Serenity, my demons often slip into Russian for more course expressions, and I also made it a kind of secret language used by the demon peasants still living among angels in my celestial St. Petersburg.

There’s a scene set in modern St. Petersburg in which a human negotiator between the demons and the Seraphim brute squad chides my demon Belphagor after he expresses ignorance about a post-Stalinist statue commemorating suffering in the gulags: “It’s your country, yet I seem to know it better than you do.” Belphagor shakes his head and replies, “Not my country,” and his friend says, “Of course it is. Why else do you come here?”

Just as it did for me, Russia took hold of my demon from the first time he fell into it. It’s beautiful and tragic, heartbreaking and triumphant at once, plunged into the harshest winter nights and soaring into the most magical, brief summer days in a way that’s almost a metaphor for its entire history, and its people are its soul. It’s no surprise, then, that Russian is also Belphagor’s language of intimacy.

There was no way I could do the place or the language justice after a five-week trip and with a very limited vocabulary, but by letting my angelic grand duchess experience it as I did, as a foreigner dependent upon the people around her who embody the place, I hoped to convey both its lyrical magic and its darkness to the reader. While my Russian phrases may be imperfect, so are my demons, after all, having picked up their Russian on the streets of Heaven’s slums. Hopefully, we’ll both be forgiven for our mistakes.



Jane Kindred began writing romantic fantasy at the age of 12 in the wayback of a Plymouth Fury—which, as far as she recalls, never killed anyone…who didn’t have it coming. She spent her formative years ruining her eyes reading romance novels in the Tucson sun and watching Star Trek marathons in the dark. She now writes to the sound of San Francisco foghorns while two cats slowly but surely edge her off the side of the bed. Jane is the author of The Devil’s Garden (Carina Press/June 2011) and The Fallen Queen (Entangled Publishing/December 2011), Book One of The House of Arkhangel’sk trilogy.

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  1. I can say that your passion for Russia is certainly infectious, when I'm actually repelled by Russia in general. I consider the language to be too unappealing, even if it is a cousin language of Bulgarian. I don't even have any particular reason, why I harbour this dislike, but I'm very happy that you had your whole life and writing changed for the better through this experience. Great post. I hope you had the chance to eat Russian chocolate. The best there is in Eastern Europe, I admit that.

  2. Sounds like a neat experience! And Belphagor sounds like a cool character. :)