Fazil Iskander is among the best-loved contemporary writers in Russia, his books regularly featuring among the ‘top ten’ bought by readers each year. An Abkhazi*by birth (though he writes in Russian), he has created a unique literary realm from the people, landscapes, and traditions of his native land, and drawn on its culture of toasting and story-telling to create an authorial persona of immense charm.
Iskander is a leisurely raconteur, meandering, lyrical, and humorous. The world he celebrates is one whose tastes and values are directly antithetic to those of modern, urban, northern Russia—a slower, sunnier place in which the rewards of hard labour, and the pleasures of feasting, conviviality, and neighbourliness, have not been lost. To be sure, his characters—including the children who feature prominently in his work—are far from perfect beings: they can be shrewd, selfish, and deceitful, and Iskander is funny and unsentimental about them. Still, they have not forgotten the value of friendship and kindness, and in that sense make poor material for conversion to a political ideology that respects neither.
Beneath Iskander’s benevolence lies an uncompromising ethical judgement that was not lost on the Soviet authorities. It emerges explicitly in openly satirical works, like the political fable Rabbits and Boa Constrictors, but is implicit in all his writing. He knows that the idyll he evokes is fragile and doomed; from beyond the safe courtyards and sunny verandahs the shadows constantly obtrude. The forces that menace his world are powerful and hypnotic. But Iskander also knows that ‘the thing the public hypnotist fears most is laughter in the hall’. It is through laughter rather than preaching that Iskander has tried to help his readers recover their better selves.
Fazil Iskander was born in Sukhumi and grew up there, spending his summers with cousins in a mountain village in Abkhazia. Both locations are immortalized in his
* From Abkhazia, on the Black Sea. See note, p. 6.