Translator Huw Davies is translating Dmitrii Bykov’s historical novel June (Июнь, 2017) and pitching it to publishers with the aid of a RusTrans bursary. Here he talks about how the novel spotlights a special Soviet preview of what we now call ‘cancel culture’. You can read the passage he discusses here.
Picture this scene from a novel: the student body at a university has been convened so that an allegation of harassment, made against one of the male students by a female student, can be discussed and a decision reached on how to punish him. We, as readers, already know that the allegation is false and that the girl who made it, Valya, was coerced into doing so by someone who had misunderstood the situation. Fairly quickly, the focus of the debate shifts away from the ‘he said, she said’ of the alleged incident, and the discussion becomes an assassination of the accused’s character, with a series of his peers standing up to cast aspersions on him and only one speaking out in his defence. Now transpose the image in your mind to the Soviet Union in 1940, and you will have something resembling the nightmarish scenario which confronts Misha Gvirtsman, one of the protagonists of June, at an early stage of this novel in three parts by Dmitry Bykov.
It is a memorable set-piece that poses challenges to the translator. There is a diverse range of characters whose voices need to sound convincing – from Misha’s sole defender, who has an Engels quote (real or made up) for all occasions, to the two main accusers, the “twitchy” Nikitin who needs, “at any cost”, to make someone else “the odd one out”, and the forthright Goltsov, who seems to take an inordinate amount of pleasure in not being “overly sophisticated”. Goltsov even appears to have rehearsed his speech in advance, and he calls for the student body to “purge the ranks” of people like Misha, with their “lordly attitude” and “high-brow sparkle”. The grandstanding of these self-appointed prosecutors calls to mind the show-trials of the 1920s and ’30s, and the talk of “purges” reminds us of those who were exiled or summarily executed during the Great Terror. Misha senses his accusers have calculated that “the less there was of him [Misha] at the university, the more there would be of them” – but he also suspects there is a more sinister reason for the hostility towards him, one that goes beyond mere jealousy of his skill as a poet.
Misha’s public humiliation can be seen as an instance of ‘cancel culture’ avant la lettre. He is suspended from the university for a year. Will he continue to be drawn, against his better judgement, to Valya? The love-hate relationship between them is of the kind one might find in a novel set in the present day, but it is taking place at a particular moment in history when there is a global catastrophe around the corner. The death of Valya’s ex-boyfriend – killed in action after volunteering to fight during the Soviet-Finnish ‘winter’ war – serves as a reminder of the fate that may await Misha. The invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, about which these characters are blissfully unaware (during a parlour game at a party, they take turns putting on a blindfold, symbolizing this ignorance of what the future holds) will ultimately upend all of their lives and cast everything into uncertainty.
Read the extract here.