Let us take it for granted right from the start that none of us can give a comprehensive explanation why people need literature. But they do need it – in all its variety. Discussions of things immortal among humdrum reality of our hectic everyday life or small talk about things mundane with people who strive for things lofty and ethereal have seemed strange since long ago, but we continue to read and keep books at hand in most unusual circumstances (none of us has ever had a quiet life). Moreover, in inhumane societies people are avid readers, hiding themselves among pages as if seeking refuge in a shelter, and hailing as prophets those who, unlike the authorities, speak a human language to them. We have acquired a vast experience in recognising those who do not lie to us and we can spot the sincere ones in the multitudes of babbling, delivering declarations and recitations, contemporaies. In fact, the people have been in the habit of talking to themselves since long ago. We can hear them when their talk turns into literature. We used to live a strange life in the time when literature was both the truth, and half-truth, and an outright lie. The authoritarian state had even invented the Writers’ Union, which was totally under its control and whose members sang exhilarating praises to what they were told to praise. Literature used to be both an alarum bell and a cowbell. We, however, got used to the one we had.
These days literature is reinventing itself. It is no longer a shadow parliament, a diplomatic or security service, as it used to be under the Soviets. Literature has changed – or is trying to change. It is again trying to reach us but this time it is not walking the red carpet rolled out before it under official orders, nor it is following hidden paths. It is presenting itself to us as it is: uncensored and outspoken, because subservient writing is dying out due to its obvious futility. There are still writings of this sort, but nobody reads this yield from ingratiating pens. And there is no power to make people do it. There is truth after all in what former Kievite Mikhail Bulgakov said through the words of Moliere in his play about the great Frenchman, ‘No matter how low the writer stoops to those in power, no matter how ingratiating he is, they will destroy him. Don’t humiliate yourself.’ Yet it takes time before writers of dignity and books of merit arrive. They do come, anyway; when people are ready for them.
Books have changed. I talked one day to stall holders at Petrovka book market. They shared with me their merchandising secrets – how they choose daily which books should be placed in the front row and which at the rear. The front row books are those which ‘do not lie’, whatever their literary merits. It is absolutely sufficient that writers say what they think and are sincere; therefore they are good company.
Alexandre Korotko has written a sincere collection of verse. It is not his first book, but it is a front row one. It is trustworthy and trusting. The important thing is that poet Korotko never wore a livery of some court versificators’ union. He was a good civil servant; his work involved meeting a great many people, yet he avoided mingling with maddening crowds whatever they were.
He is free. We used to believe that when freedom came it would give everyone and everything their deserved ranks. We were wrong. Discontinuity in many important traditions – religious, moral, national – has pushed up to the higher layers of society not only the people who highly value their right to be different but also people who feel exulted because there are no restraints, because anything goes. These nouveau vulgaire now have their own vernacular, their music, and their books. Sometimes (and my fellow writers have repatedly told me this) one feels horrified of being exposed to this sneering lot, who have other ideas of what is worth dreaming of or what is right and what is wrong. Yet it is also a tradition – and it did not start today – and one should learn to go through these things.
All human history is a pursuit of justice. The kind of justice which is rooted in people’s conscience but is not found in formal Codes of any sorts. All in all, the history of mankind and its literature is filled with this dream of justice and bitterness of its frustration. The greatest books – Bible, Torah, Quran – are embodyment of the dream of a just society and pain of failed attempts. Poetry does not make any progress. It only has a handful of themes which have been explored by the best minds of humanity over thousands of years. Homer, Saadi, David, Dante, Pushkin, Shevchenko, Mandelstam, and Akhmatova are not separated by the layers of time, they are inseparable in their attempts to tell about love, life, death, joy, justice, pain from the fact that bad people sometimes live better than good ones.
Korotko writes about these things too. He is overwhelmed with excitement to tell about his admiration of love, nature, work, and his happiness of contemplative silence. He has found his God (Korotko spells it G-d in the manner of pious jews; and tells about Mecca of his dreams, which is not an indication of purely Hebrew roots of his visions). He understands, “You are alone on the Earth...”, but – I will repeat it – it is not loneliness but solitude and contemplative silence. Korotko’s poems are sparsely populated – besides him there is his mother, grandma, and the women he loves – and devoid of rush. The rest of the world rotates around this core, as it does in the universes of the majority of good poets. Korotko’s poems are outside time. They could have been written a hundred years ago and – I am sure – they will still be interesting to read and reread in the future. Yet his poems relate to the modern times as well, when everybody has to find their addresses in the Universe. “And time locks away its ticking clock...” I strongly recommend this book. Alexandre Korotko speaks to you the words that are sincere, profound, and kind. It is a valuable experience.