Khayyam’s Russian illustrations

The monumental Russian edition of the quatrains of Omar Khayyam translated by Igor A. Golubev (Омар Хайяам, Рубаи. Перевод И. А. Голубева, Москва: РИПОЛ Классик 2007, 528 pages, 1305 rubaiyat), just quoted by us, is also decorated by eighteen full-page illustrations by V. N. Belousov. I cannot resist publishing them. The nice symmetric grid of four times four has room only for sixteen of them. On the two images left out I will write in two next posts (the first is here).

V. N. Belousov: Omar Khayyam illusztrációi, az I. A. Golubev-féle orosz fordításból
These images recall a beautiful slice of my childhood, the enchanting illustrations of those cheap Russian booklets of fairy tales sold at those times in the late Gorkij bookshop that endeared to me the Russian language. This magic and naive visual world that emerged, in the last instance, from the cloak of the great Russian Art Nouveau fairy tale illustrator Ivan Bilibin, at that time completely dominated and made unmistakably Russian not only the graphics of these books, but also the envelops printed with small naive pictures of the letters coming from the Soviet Union, the wrapping papers or the decorations of the pioneer feasts as well. I am delighted to see that it has not completely disappeared in its native land. And also that I am not alone with this nostalgy. When I asked for this book in the library, the Mongolian librarian dipped into it and then she screamed: “How beautiful!” I think she probably grew up on similar illustrations in the Mongolian People’s Republic.

At the same time there is in these pictures something anguishing, something tight and determined as well – just like in my childhood. Something so coarsely earthy and material, so self-satisfied and suffocating as in the whole popular literature, journalism and the complete mentality of that period.

It is worth to compare how different traits of Khayyam’s poetry are highlighted by the illustrations made by Endre Szász for the Hungarian translation of Lőrinc Szabó. The Russian illustrator is captivated by the “carpe diem”-motif in Khayyam, the satisfaction with wine, embraces and music. It is interesting that, as we have seen, the Russian translation too shifts the message of the poems in this direction. In contrast, the illustrations of Endre Szász, just like the translations by Lőrinc Szabó, emphasize the existential doubts and struggles of Khayyam.

These attentive and bitter old men are totally different from, let us say, that laughing old man playing the philosopher with a glass of wine in his hand on the second image in the lowest row of the Russian images. This latter keeps reminding me the vulgarly jovial paternalism of the corpulent provincial party functionaries of the eighties. I even have a fancy of hearing that well known, unnaturally drawling, orotund apparatchik tone. To my great surprise, I have recently heard this voice again in a collection of jokes that I received on a Russian audio CD. It seems that it has not completely died out in its native land either.

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