Monday, October 26, 2009

Jerome, Zamyatin, Orwell, Bradbury

I've got amazing powers of observation
Pink Floyd
Nobody Home
I read Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 when I was thirteen or fourteen years old--the book in Russian translation was in my parents' library. I liked it a lot, but to me the novel seemed too pessimistic; after all, like the majority of the Soviet Union's population, I was brought up to believe that the humanity was just one step away from the luminous future of total prosperity and happiness. So, I thought of Fahrenheit 451 as a wonderful piece of science fiction whose author just happened to be a nihilist. I read all short stories that were included into the book. One of them, The Murderer, was quite memorable partly because the narration had an unexpected humorous tone, and I brought my friends and myself to hysterical laughter reading it to them. Yet, the characters, events and technological fantasies seemed in many cases, like The Fox and the Forest of 1951, improbable or irrelevant--it still was just a fiction albeit scientific, same as The Hour of Bull (1968) by Ivan Efremov (the novel was banned in the USSR in 60s and 70s; I really appreciated it when I had a chance to get it into my hands, but found his The Andromeda Nebula of 1957 too rosy and boring despite the fact that it was highly acclaimed by the Soviet literary officialdom), Stanislaw Lem's Return from the Stars (1961), The Ugly Swans (1972) by the Strugatsky brothers, Isaac Asimov's stories, and others. That was one of the reasons why eventually I lost my interest to the science fiction genre in the early 1980s, but I never forgot those books--they played an important role in forming my philosophic views.

Then I lived through the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the first four years of the chaos and turmoil of the post-Soviet Russia. My family and I were very fortunate to stay in Japan for two years. Since 1997 we have been residing in Canada. It was amazing to witness how rapidly new technologies were changing the daily reality, lifestyle, and psychology of the society and individuals. That was when those books I had read so many years ago started ringing some new bells. Ray Bradbury's The Murderer, published in 1953, sounds like a 2009 story or a news report about somebody who decided to rebel against being wired and online 24/7/365. Ray Bradbury with an astonishing precision predicted what kind of detrimental effects could be brought about to the human nature and behavior by technology. That was impressive enough to revisit his ideas as well as other serious sci-fi writers. Then, I finally read 1984. Despite the fact that it was greatly influenced by Yevgeny Zamiatin's novel We, George Orwell taps into his own power of observation which brings him among other things a foresight of a dispute over the Arctic between the "super-states." However, for the sake of fairness, it should be noted that Zamiatin himself was not completely original in his view on the future of the humankind--allegedly he was familiar with Jerome K. Jerome's (I read his Three Men in a Boat in Russian translation in mid-70s and in English several years ago--one of the best comic books ever written) The New Utopia (1891) and borrowed some ideas from this work. However, it's unlikely that Zamiatin would have included Jerome K. Jerome's concepts into his writing if he had totally disagreed with them; same applies to Orwell. It means that they all, through studying history and observing their contemporary societies, built extrapolations and projections of the future and came to the similar conclusions. And the works of their predecessors confirmed that they were on the right track.

It looks like life is finally catching up with the best pieces of science fiction of 50s and 60s and many of them read like today's accounts. But the work of the observant mind never stops--even the popular culture in the last 10-15 years (films like Blade Runner, Fortress, Outbreak, Twelve Monkeys, Gattaca, The Matrix, Artificial Intelligence: AI, Minority Report, I Robot, The Island, Children of Men to name the few) created a very detailed picture the human civilization can turn into within 100-200 years. This picture doesn't seem very appealing, but it probably shouldn't concern us, should it? Aren't these merely futuristic fantasies of pessimistic culturati, which have no chance to come true? Time will tell, but at least we have been warned.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Little Hedgehog in the Fog

One evening, when I stayed in the church's office longer than usual and it was quite a late hour to call my family, I decided to search YouTube for a couple of animated films produced in the USSR, Treasure Island and Adventures of Captain Vrungel, which were very popular in 1980s--I felt like watching them again. As it usually happens in the Internet universe, one search lead to another and I ended up on the site rating Soviet and Russian animated films. I was amazed and pleased to discover how many respondents put on the best spot The Little Hedgehog in the Fog of 1975. This 10-minute film based on Sergei Kozlov's script, in 2003 was voted "No. 1 animated film of all time." I always loved this deceivingly simple but profoundly philosophic and highly poetic work, where answers are intended to be found, not just given away. In 1981, my mother happened to buy for my younger sister a book of short stories by Sergey Kozlov titled The Little Hedgehog in the Fog. I don't remember if I had already seen the film--I don't think it makes any difference--but when on one of my visits to my parents this book accidentally got into my hands and I read two-three stories, I felt like I found Atlantis or something. I borrowed the book to show my friends at the Asian Studies Department--most of us lived in the same dormitory. It was returned to my room a month or so later with visible signs that it had changed many hands. "Man, it's pure Zen," was all one of my fellow students, who was the first I gave the book to, could say. It is wonderful that this masterpiece is available on YouTube with English subtitles.



Another work that is considered one of the best animated films is There Once Was a Dog.



The Soviet and post-Soviet animators created a large number of outstanding films many of which have become an integral part of the cultural identity and contributed into the contemporary folklore. This short account would be incomplete without mentioning three films about Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends--Winnie-the-Pooh, Winnie-the-Pooh Goes Visiting, Winnie-the-Pooh And the Day of Concerns Part 1 and Part 2. Understandably translation is incapable to deliver all nuances of the narration and dialogues, yet the English subtitles these films are coming with are giving a pretty good grasp of the jokes and the language fabric.

P.S. After reading Jakes comment, I decided to add one more animated film which doesn't need translation at all. It's a very cute, warm and touching story. I always loved it to tears.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Cats in the sanctuary. Part Four.

The rest of the day I spent doing the usual afternoon tasks—making phone calls, writing emails, helping around the church. I completely forgot about the cats, the ring and the task a la Sherlock Holmes on my hands. Shortly after 3 p.m., I called Irina and invited her for dinner—the treat was on me. There was nothing special—that would be Superstore's 'Big Bird' leftovers and I was going to cook some rice and prepare organic zucchini from the church's small garden squeezed between the sidewalk and the parking lot. I was one of the volunteers who in mid-May cleaned the area around the church and prepared the soil for gardening. All summer, at least once a week Barbara, a church's member who was in charge of this little plot of land, kept bringing to me or giving away three-four large zucchinis. It happened that in the morning she discovered a zucchini that somehow managed to stay unnoticed for apparently quite some time and grow as big as a Little League's baseball bat. Whoever saw it was amazed and it was impossible not to fool with this thing. We suggested different ideas what use this gargantuan zucchini could be put to. Baseball bat was too obvious. Finally, we agreed that it could be a nice non-lethal weapon—"I have a zucchini here and I am not afraid to use it!"—and fantasized the police force being armed with it. It was childish to picture zucchinis being treated same way as guns—"you are responsible for your zucchini; never leave it unattended; use your zucchini with the utmost caution only in the extreme situations when all other means are exhausted; make sure to keep it locked in the specially designated place; etc."—but it was funny. Luckily, I had fresh zucchinis from the previous week and that giant was spared.

Around 5:30 p.m. Irina came to the church from work. The dinner was ready, the table was set. I was going to give her half-an-hour briefing on my search efforts including the PowerPoint presentation, but she said she would like to see the crime scene again and if possible to talk to the witnesses and suspects. We entered my room—that was the first time I was there since I had left it before noon. S.&O. didn't hide their delight to see Irina—they greeted her with adoration and the deepest respect. They had probably figured out that as long as they were around this beautiful woman with a soft and kind voice they were in no danger. "There it is," said Irina, picking the ring up from the floor about an inch away from a dinner table's leg which was ten feet off the computer desk where she had left the ring two days earlier. She beamed with a joy and immediately put the ring on, "I found it." "I don't know how come that we didn't see it yesterday or I didn't notice it today. It's impossible," I was relieved and disappointed at the same time—I worked so hard, but there would be no reward for my bed-lifting and crawling on the floor, and I had to kiss good-bye my powerful briefing and presentation. "Case is closed. I'm ready for dinner," Irina was heading to the kitchen. I followed her and before closing the door I looked back. Santosh was sitting in the middle of the room. He had a Mona Lisa smile of his face.

To be concluded.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Cats in the sanctuary. Part Three.

It is probably a part of the human nature to question ourselves when something disappears either in front of our eyes or from the place where we had surely put it a short while ago. Even though both Irina and I remembered pretty well that the ring had been left on the computer desk, after unsuccessfully searching for it on the floor around the desk, she guessed that maybe she just thought that she was wearing the ring the day before and it was quite likely that in reality she had left it at home and therefore never took it off and put it on the desk. We decided to give this theory a try and wait until she would go home and look for it where she thought it might be.

The service and the fellowship hour at the church passed quite fast and early afternoon Irina returned home. When she called me to "report" the results of her check up, I knew what she was going to say—the ring was not at home, which meant that the cats either had pushed it into the most difficult to reach spot in the room or—well, it didn't seem impossible—swallowed it. Therefore, I had two tasks on my hands: to search the whole room upside down and inside out and at the same time to be extra careful when cleaning the cats’ litter box—we know that not all that glitters is gold, but…

I chose to start with the first one, because if I were successful, the second, more aromatic task would be then eliminated, but no sooner than the next day—I had some things to do Sunday evening and besides it was getting dim in my room. So, Monday morning the search began. I equipped myself with a flash light, but decided that I could do without a rope, matches, compass, extra clothes, three-day food ration and a Walkie Talkie. The computer desk was too big and heavy to move but its legs were long enough for me to dive under it. My activity didn't go unnoticed by S.&O.—they were totally (not literally) blown away by the flash light and wherever I looked while crawling under the desk I saw cats, cats and nothing but cats and their glaring eyes. "How nice of you! We really appreciate that you've come with this new and wonderful game. Catnip?" It wasn't clear whether Santosh was asking for it or actually offering it to me. I said "no" which was fine to mean “no catnip for you!”, but was apparently impolite to decline his attempt to lift my spirits up (I’ve never tried catnip before—I know cats get high on it, but does it actually work with humans; and what do you do with it—sniff, chew or smoke?), but I didn't care.

My next move was the bed, I mean, I moved the bed. There was not enough room to push it all the way to open the area under it, so I had to resort to the same technique as in the puzzle where you need to move pieces up and down, right and left and back again to try to make a picture but ending up with a soccer player having a ball instead of the head or something even less appealing. Any time I pushed the bed, there was Onni beneath it. With disapproval in his eyes, "What's going on? I thought we agreed that this is MY safe space," he immediately went hiding back under the bed. After fifteen-twenty minutes of the operation "The Obscure Ring," the break seemed to be well deserved. The cats didn't argue. I looked around the room—there was not too much stuff but still enough to spend most of my day moving everything back and forth. “It’s really a lot of work. Yes, yes, indeed,” S.&O. pretended to be very sympathetic. Though, it didn’t prevent Onni from climbing up on the top of the book case, where he comfortably snuggled, happily yawned and closed his eyes. Unlike his brother, Santosh showed more support by nestling next to me on the couch and murmuring away, but I knew that it would take only couple of minutes before he joined Onni. There was no place for me in this sleep country so I got up and went to the door. Later on the cats claimed that I looked infuriated and sounded extremely intimidating, but that’s not true. All I did I said “You’d better, guys, find this… this… this ring, or…” and quietly closed (not even slammed!) the door behind me.

To be continued.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Cats in the sanctuary. Part Two.

That night I had a dream that my room was searched by five or six special agents. I heard them turning every paper, opening cabinets and throwing my clothes on the floor. I didn’t know what they were looking for, but one of them decided to check my head out. Horrified, “I’m hiding nothing there!” I opened my eyes and saw Santosh, as much as I could see in the dark. “I woke you, hah,” he murmured unapologetically and proceeded between my pillow and the wall. There must have been something really important under the pillow, for he repeated his raid about half an hour later. “They will cuddle on the bed,” floated up in my mind Jason’s words, but this time for some reason they sounded more like a warning. Until early morning, the cats had been exploring every square inch of my room, yet in a very random manner, rushing and jumping back and forth and across. It seemed that they were catching up with the time that they were forced to waste under the bed the day before. By 6 a.m. they decided that they had honestly earned their rest, and the room became alarmingly quiet.

Dmitri was still asleep when I got up. It was shortly after nine. S.&O. were seen nowhere, but I didn’t bother to look for them—apparently they retreated to their proven safe haven, under the bed. Closer to noon, I made pancakes with jam and tea, and Dmitri and I had a late breakfast. At around one p.m. almost at the same time came Irina and J.M., a reporter of a Lower Mainland newspaper. After the interview, Irina and Dmitri went home, leaving me one on one with the cats.


S.&O. enthusiastically greeted me at the door when I returned to my room. “Sorry for the mess,” they tried to appease me rubbing against my legs. I made myself comfortable on the bed to read and Santosh, who had shown himself bolder and more open to communication even though smaller than his brother—I didn’t mention that they were twins,—joined me with no signs of hesitation. “I like it here,” he looked at me yawning, picking up the best spot to lie down on the edge of the bed. Onni pretended being very busy with a daddy-long-legs. “Hey, Onni,” called him Santosh, “Come make us a company, will ya? This guy is harmless.” Onni didn’t answer. “Leave this stupid spider alone! You're embarrassing me,” Santosh started loosing patience. “Are you kidding?” growled Onni back, “Leaving this juicy, no—crunchy, yam-m-my… m-m-m,” he had difficulties speaking and at the moment I thought that I saw spider’s moving legs sticking out of his mouth. “Ah, forget it. It’s helpless. You’re a disgrace,” Santosh turned
away and closed his eyes.

Later that day, Irina joined me for dinner and to avoid sharing the night with the twins we moved the bed
to a small room upstairs on the other side of the church. Before going to our new bedroom, she took off her necklace and a little golden ring with two tiny diamonds to put on a night cream and left both pieces on the computer desk. We told the cats to behave and wished them good night. It was some challenge to cross the whole church with all lights off except the red exit signs but we made it. Probably because it was kind of a different place and we slept on the floor, though we had a mattress beneath us, we didn’t get the rest we expected. Besides, at 8 o’clock in the morning we were woken up by the vacuum’s noise—custodian was cleaning the carpets—and when it had become really busy in the church by nine, it was time to get up. We went down to my room. S.&O. happily met us at the door—they looked innocent and there were no signs of a major damage. Irina approached the desk to put her jewelry on. The necklace was exactly where she had left it the night before, but the ring was gone.
To be continued.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Cats in the sanctuary. Part One.

Our good friends Jason and Elina for quite a while had been trying to go on vacation for two weeks. Not something very difficult to do these days, except for the fact that they have two young cats—Santosh and Onni—and taking them along understandably would be kind of inconvenient. Leaving these gang-, sorry, youngsters, to the care of a pet shop or a vet didn’t seem like a viable option from the start, so J.&E. made an arrangement with a friend that she would come to their place to feed S.&O. and maybe play with them. But picturing those two in the full control of their (not the cats’) home, I think, was making Jason and Elina a little bit nervous and about half a month ago they approached me and asked if I could look after their cats for just two weeks. I’d been around cats for the most part of my life and gladly agreed provided it approved by the church. As expected, having two cats in my room for a short period of time was not a problem, and J.&E. scheduled to bring them on Friday, August 21st.

As decided, on that day, around 2 p.m. the cats arrived. After being released from the boxes, they realized that it was not their home and immediately protested. They kept complaining while Jason and Elina were giving me instructions, saying that Santosh and Onni would calm down soon and by night they would be cuddling on the bed. “Don’t worry,” I said confidently, “I can handle this,” and very shortly J.&E. left. That was the last time I heard anything from the cats—they hid themselves under the bed and I didn’t see them for the rest of the day. Not much to look after. They showed up when Irina came in the evening—they heard her voice and decided to check out who it was—but any time we left the room, they were getting back under the bed.

A day before, my former co-worker Liviu, one of the nicest and funniest guys I’ve ever met, offered that on Friday he would come to the church with pizza, and I was going to have a quiet dinner with him and his charming wife Mikhaela. By half past seven, at the table around two pizzas and mashed potatoes and vegetables that I had cooked couple of days earlier were sitting Liviu, Mikhaela, me, Irina, Dmitri who was just back from the island, Errol who picked up from Tsawwassen and brought to the church Dmitri who was just back from the island, and Olga, one of Irina’s best friends, who is in the process of opening her yoga studio and stopped by to discuss the flyer. I still don’t know whether it was pizza or just me. Nevertheless, despite the fact that there was an attempt to turn our dinner into a meeting of SAWA (Stressed-At-Work Anonymous), we had a lot of fun and spent a wonderful time together.

By 9:30 we wrapped the dinner up, everybody went home, but Dmitri stayed with me. We played tennis, baseball and golf on Nintendo Wii for about an hour—Dmitri was tired after work— and went to sleep. The cats remained hiding under the bed.

To be continued.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A letter to Anonymous, a.k.a. Andrew

Last Monday an anonymous A. left the following comment to my post "Is 1984 inevitable?":

The truly Orwellian is only the second sentence – because it’s meaningless and absurd – two major components of a genuine Orwell’s slogan. The third is a banal remark. The first is just plainly stupid, but it is quite obvious what you, Mr. Lennikov, are getting at. I have to disappoint you -you are deeply mistaken if you think that public opinion favors you (judging by the Internet). I also found it quite interesting that comments in your support are mostly illogical and full of Orwellianisms, when the negative ones contain plenty references to the current laws and democratic procedures.

An ex KGB agent hiding from the law in a church basement and living from donations – truly Orwellian’s.
A.
July 27, 2009 7:32 PM
I happened to be too busy to respond to this comment, so removed it from the blog for a while to get back to it later. Then, two days after that, Anonymous who that time called himself Andrew attacked my earlier post under quite a sensational title.
Lennikov's guilty subconscious revealed itself
In his blog (http://mikhaillennikov.blogspot.com/) Ex KGB agent tries himself as a writer (see Sanctuary. One month & 6 days - An Old, Old Fairy Tale). I find this reading amusing, because no matter what exactly Mr. Lennikov kept in mind writing this piece, he described very precisely what KGB (in his tale - Office of Three Ministers) was doing in my country (former USSR). Reading this story you can also get an impression what Mr. Lennikov did in KGB ("In the middle of the night they were awoken by the noise of truck engines and tires and the marching boots on the streets. Then somebody loudly knocked on the door."). I don't know where exactly to place Mr. Lennikov - among those who were driving the trucks, marching on the streets or knocking on the door, but it doesn't make much difference for me.

Ex KGB agent took his inspiration from Rev. Martin Niemoeller, a German Lutheran pastor who was arrested by the Gestapo in 1938. He wrote:
"In Germany, the Nazis first came for the communists and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a communist. Then they came for the Jews and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me and by that time there was no one left to speak for me."
I find the Rev. Martin Niemoeller story much better, but maybe Mr. Lennikov thinks that for an average Canadian this piece is to complex to comprehend.
A
July 29, 2009 10:03 AM
At least it became clear that Anonymous Andrew at some point lived in the USSR, and it seemed that he still lived there. Also, I was very happy for him that he managed to correctly guess that the story referred to all totalitarian regimes including the Great Terror and purges in the Stalin's Soviet Union. Although, he wasn't able to figure out which job description from this allegory to assign me to--I must admit it would have taken a lot of imagination--he still demonstrated phenomenal abilities to draw parallels and conclusions from almost any statement or phrase. To be fair, I found Andrew's reference to Rev. Martin Niemoeller very educational (no kidding), but couldn't understand why Andrew thought that it was too difficult. Seriously.

On the next day, Andrew seemed to get very upset to discover that his comment of July 27 was removed. He didn't spare bullets to shoot me out.
I couldn't discover my comments in your blog (the last one was addressed to the entry Is "1984" inevitable?) and since they were more on the negative side I presume you remove all unfavorable remarks from your blog. Well--given the fact that you have zero comments at the moment let me return to my previous statement that the public support of your cause is also very close to that number as well. Which means that our the most democratic government in the world certainly makes its decisions according to the public opinion, our voice counts as much as our vote and difference between the law and the justice is quite negligible--I suggest this is the reason why you want to spend the rest of your life in Canada rather than in Russia.

Your reflexes also show that there is no such a thing as a former KGB agent as there is no a former Bull Terrier. I truly believe that before you hit the delete button the first thought that popped in your mind was "I have to report this to authorities".
Andrew
PS I'll be in touch.
July 30, 2009 4:08 PM
Andrew continued his brilliant art of fabrication. He started with a presumption, and then masterfully connected the number of the comments on my blog to the level of support of my family. But his next statement truly confused me, as it appeared that he lived in Canada, not Russia (good for you, Andrew!), yet in the last paragraph Andrew managed to save the day by building a postulate out of a thin air and showing unsurpassed talent of clairvoyance. "I truly believe," he said. From that moment on, I got really scared even to breathe, for Andrew would definitely clairvoir that and immediately report to the world that the given reflex undoubtedly revealed, again, "that there is no such thing as a former KGB agent." And when he threatened that he would be in touch, I lost my sleep.

Andrew's next comment was profound, philosophical and even poetic, but that time he decided to sign as Jason Cowley.
Some Find True Freedom When They Are Confined; Others, like Saddam Hussein, Meet Their Nemesis. from Dickens through Dostoevsky to Beckett, the Hole in Literature Has Become a Metaphor for Isolation, a Place of Safety or Danger, a Sanctuary or a Prison
Jason Cowley
July 31, 2009 5:39 PM
And he hammered the last nail into the coffin by putting a short comment to my most recent post "Two months" where I called the date "a milestone."
Milestones are 5, 10 and 25 years.
Andrew
August 1, 2009 7:35 PM

So, Andrew, as you can see, not only did I not delete your comments, but I put them together in a post to make it more convenient for the readers to have an opportunity to peruse your writing. I will leave it to them to decide whether or not, as you claim, "comments in your support are mostly illogical and full of Orwellianisms, when the negative ones contain plenty references to the current laws and democratic procedures," as YOUR comments are a very typical example of the level of discussion and arguments of "the negative ones." I found it somewhat disturbing that the way you put it shows quite a despise and disrespect to Canadians who believe that I should stay in Canada with my family. Besides, you claim that their number is close to zero. Well, according to Angus Reid Strategies, as published in Vancouver Sun, "41 per cent of Canadian respondents - and 55 per cent of those in British Columbia, - disagree with the federal government's decision to return Lennikov to Russia. Conversely, only 12 per cent of national respondents, and 19 per cent of British Columbians, agree Lennikov should be deported." What these numbers mean is that out of the respondents who had heard or had an opinion about the case, 77% in Canada and 74% in British Columbia were in favour of my stay. Probably, it's just because they haven't realized yet how "mostly illogical and full of Orwellianisms" they are. But you, Andrew, will certainly teach them what is right or what is unright (if speaking in Newspeak). And dare they not listen to you! They MUST be happy that such a wonderful and knowledgeable person like yourself, Andrew, chose Canada your next destination and became Canadian citizen. Not just happy--ecstatic.

In my humble opinion, it wouldn't hurt if you picked up a little bit of civilized manners. Speaking figuratively, you came to my house, insulted me, insulted my guests, put graffiti on my walls and truly believe that not only can you stay as long as you want, but come back at any time. Well, good luck doing that in real life.

And as a closing, I would like to say that I am not inviting you, Andrew, for a discussion, for, as much as your comments may be amusing and tell of an educated person (which I sincerely respect), they are not very interesting as far as the substance of argumentation and the logic of a dispute are concerned. You don't seem to be capable, at least in my case, of a civilized dialogue, because you appear blinded by hatred. Old George Orwell would probably say that you were back fresh from not a Two-Minute Hate but Decades of Hate.

The war is over, Andrew. Go in peace and may the Lord be with you.

Good bye, Andrew.