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A Remembrance Of Fazil Iskander: 'We Have All Lost A Close Relative'

Fazil Iskander, one of the most important and beloved writers of the late-Soviet period, died on July 31 at his home outside Moscow at the age of 87.

Writer and poet Fazil Iskander once described the Soviet Union as a "strict-regime kindergarten," an adjective usually reserved for the worst of the Soviet labor camps.

Iskander, one of the most important and beloved writers of the late-Soviet period, died on July 31 at his home outside Moscow at the age of 87.

"He was probably the most cheerful and charming writer of the generation of the 1960s," literary critic and professor Oleg Lekmanov told Russian state news agency RIA Novosti. "It is as if we have all lost a close relative."

A memorial service will be held in Moscow on August 2, and he will be buried at the city's Novodevichy Cemetery --- the resting place of prominent Russian and Soviet figures from Anton Chekhov and Mikhail Bulgakov to Nikita Khrushchev and Boris Yeltsin.

Iskander was born in Sukhumi, in Georgia's Abkhazia region, in 1929. His father, an ethnic Persian, was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1938, and Iskander never saw him again. He grew up with his mother's Abkhaz relatives in the village of Chegem, which he would later immortalize in many of his stories, including the classic novel Sandro From Chegem.

He came to national and international prominence as a leading member of the so-called "shestidesyatniki," or '60s generation, writers and poets who were quick to take advantage of the relative cultural liberalism that came with Soviet leader Khrushchev's partial de-Stalinization. His stories and novels usually gave a humorous, wise, uncomprehending village-eye view of the arbitrariness of Soviet rule.

His first novella, The Goatibex Constellation, tells the story of a young Abkhaz journalist who becomes part of a Soviet publicity campaign for the creation of new hybrid animal. The novel humorously savages Khrushchev's various agricultural campaigns and sinister Soviet theories of genetics.

Crippled By Censorship

However, like most of the writers of that generation, Iskander soon ran up against the limits of that liberalism. His Sandro From Chegem was only published in a heavily redacted version in the Soviet Union, prompting the writer to send the complete manuscript to Ardis, a small publisher in the United States that specialized in banned Soviet literature.

Ardis published the complete novel in 1979 and it quickly made its way back into the Soviet Union.

"Censorship completely destroyed that book," said Ellendea Proffer, who founded Ardis together with her husband, Carl, in an interview with RFE/RL in 2003. "You could say that the whole text was a healthy person, while the edited version was a cripple. Sandro From Chegem is a brilliant thing -- but Soviet censorship removed whole chapters -- for example, Balthazar's Feast. That is, they ripped the beating heart out of the book. Soviet censorship of that period was very harsh."

Proffer added that translating Iskander's works into English was very difficult, and he is not readily accessible to English-speaking audiences.

His style bears no relation to "traditional manners of Russian writing" and his works share the penetrating power of William Faulkner and the "humor and simplicity" of Mark Twain, she said. "But unlike such American writers, Iskander has an oriental style, reminiscent of A Thousand And One Nights."

Asked about his own writing style and use of humor, Iskander once said: "In order to have a good sense of humor, one must walk to the very edge of pessimism and look into that gloomy abyss, convince oneself that there is nothing down there, and then quietly walk back. The footsteps one leaves on the journey back -- that will be real humor."

Fazil Iskander in June 1980
Fazil Iskander in June 1980

'The Poetry Of Life'

Iskander wrote his books in Russian and was proud to call himself a Russian writer, despite his Abkhaz roots.

"I am definitely a Russian writer," he said in an interview in 2011, "who has written a lot about Abkhazia. Unfortunately, I haven't written anything in Abkhaz. The choice of Russian culture was obvious for me. Our classical literature is recognized around the world as the most conscientious."

To the end of his life, Iskander regretted the collapse of the Soviet Union and remained nostalgic about what he called the "sense of community" that he experienced in that country. He noted ruefully that the Abkhazia that emerged following the region's 13-month war to break away from Georgian government control in 1992-93 bore little resemblance to the naive, pastoral Abkhazia depicted in his stories.

Iskander "was one of the Russian writers who was entirely deserving of a Nobel Prize," writer Viktor Yerefeyev told Izvestia on August 1. "I would give him a Nobel Prize just for the fact that he created his own literary language. For me, Fazil was a man of amazing moral clarity."

"His personality was stronger than the political system," Yerofeyev added. "He tended more toward the poetry of life than to the politics of life."

RFE/RL's Russian Service correspondent Aleksandr Genis contributed to this report