So. The project started as a child of love. The publisher, Alexander, and the translator, Oleg, decided to do a definitive Dortmunder collection. 14 novels in 7 volumes with illustration, beautifully bound, on white expensive paper, deluxe run of 70 copies, sort of a fan club edition. Alexander didn’t buy translation rights, Oleg translated for free, since it was a hobby, Alexander printed books just for fun, since these 70 copies couldn’t possibly to bring any money. He had a full time job, he has a small printing house to supplement his income. It wasn’t made for profit. They advertised on a few message boards, got a few subscribers, hired an illustrator X (name to come).
The cover design came from Soviet SF book series ‘Ramka’, highly popular then. The illustrator, a pro, was the only one who got paid. The print run of the first book sold out fast. They made a second, then a third. Among buyers were wholesale sellers, who did most of the sales at book markets, and subscribers from various Russian cities, not only from Moscow.
After the third volume was done, the tragedy happened. Oleg the translator died.
Ray Garraty, via private email.
I can sometimes imagine people thinking to themselves, as they scan my interminable ramblings, “So who do you imagine yourself to be here, the world’s greatest Donald Westlake fan?” You don’t really want to know who I imagine myself to be, so as the saying goes, don’t ask. But if anyone ever does, I will have my answer ready.
I am not the world’s greatest Donald Westlake fan. Not even close. I am the world’s greatest Donald Westlake blatherskite. It is not at all the same thing. Oleg Zverkov was the world’s greatest Donald Westlake fan.
That’s his picture up top, alongside a sampling of his great project, still ongoing as I type this. Deluxe omnibus volumes of all the Dortmunder novels, in Russian translation (done by himself up to the time of his death), with extensive black and white illustrations (done by Andrey Turbin who is still around, I believe.)
Working as an English to Russian translator, sometimes under the pen name Oleg Smorodonov (I don’t see why translators can’t have pen names too), Oleg discovered Westlake, and through him, the world of John Dortmunder. I feel a pang saying that I never corresponded with him, and will never be able to discuss his special devotion to Dortmunder, but feel confident in saying this much–they spoke to him. In the way that certain books will speak to certain readers. Those books you were waiting all your life to read, and here they are, waiting for you. That is an experience I am well familiar with. Requires no translation.
The Dortmunders had all been available in Russian translation for years, but foreign publishers, constrained by the profit motive (much like the domestic variety) do not always want to pay for the best translation possible, let alone high quality artwork, paper, bindings, and this goes double for genre stuff. He looked at the editions available and they were not to his satisfaction. (Perhaps he thought the English language editions he’d read were not beyond improvement either.) He imagined something better. Worthy of the czar of star-crossed heisters. He envisioned a heist of his own. And for a heist, you need a string.
His friend Alexander had, as you see above, a small printing business, and a love of doing specialty stuff just for the challenge. In a series of conversations I will assume involved intoxicants (because Russia, and because Westlake), Oleg hooked his chum on the idea of doing the Dortmunder editions he had dreamed of, a limited run, priced just high enough to pay their expenses–a diverting but fiscally unrewarding venture. I suppose this would technically make Oleg the Kelp of the story.
A break-even heist, at best. Appropriate, when you consider Dortmunder’s overall career stats. They were in no position to obtain the rights, so they didn’t try. Russia has long had a contentious relationship with western copyrights–but this wouldn’t be stealing an author’s brainchildren for profit. It would be abducting them for love, taking them on a grand adventure, returning them not only unharmed but enriched into the bargain. You see the difference? I bet Jimmy Harrington would.
Materiel was easily available to a man in Alexander’s walk of life–nothing was outsourced. Specialists were recruited. Oleg put the best of himself into his translations and the editorial work as well, while Alexander covered the more technical aspects, as well as sales. (These days, Alexander is doing all of it.)
The books started to come out, were eagerly snapped up by enthusiasts and collectors. The small print runs sold out quickly. When Ray first heard about all this, he assumed the orders would mainly be coming from Moscow. But in fact, a lot of folks out in the provinces wanted copies. Dortmunder spoke to them too. They also wanted to hold these books in their hands.
And then Oleg died, very suddenly. Before the task was completed. Alexander vowed to finish the project in his friend’s honor, as best he could. Then run off some more copies of each for people who missed out the first time. And that’ll be it. He won’t be doing any more Westlakes. It was Oleg’s passion that inspired him.
And that’s the story. By no means unique–you may remember, a while back I showcased a Russian collector’s edition of Anarchaos here, which is also pretty great, but for sheer artisan prowess, I don’t think these Dortmunder volumes can be beat. Anywhere. Though we should not forget the Parker graphic novels and the illustrated edition of The Hunter from Darwyn Cooke that Westlake gave his okay to before his passing. Cooke also died young, unexpectedly, before he’d done everything he wanted to do there. So it’s not some posthumous copyright-related curse. Just a strange coincidence. The world is not simple enough to understand.
When Ray told me about all this, showed me some of the artwork, I knew I had to hold at least a few of the physical volumes in my hands. Never mind that I can’t read them. I wanted to have them. Took a while, but three of these sacred icons are in my possession now.
While I can’t evaluate the literary quality of Oleg’s translations, I can see just by the way certain key pages are arranged, that every effort was made to give people not only the letter but the spirit of Westlake. To get it right. What else would you expect from the world’s greatest Donald Westlake fan?
So. Want to see the books? I ran some scans. I only have Volumes 3, 4, and 5, which cover two novels apiece. Oleg lived long enough to translate most of the series, but the remaining novels will be done by someone else.
Although the books are printed in Cyrillic, title and author are clearly rendered in Latinate typography (useful if they ever make it to libraries outside Russia.) I could just tell you which books they are. I’m not going to. If you’re a hundredth the fan Oleg was, you’ll twig to it quick enough just from the artwork. If you can’t, you need to brush up your Westlake. Start reading him now.
Without further ado.
(Not quite how I’d envision J.C. or Tiny.)
(Where there’s a Wilbur, there’s a way.)
(The concluding page. On to the next book. Which is–)
(First the endpaper illustrations–then a rather magnificent two-pager inside the book. I’ll have to stitch those together. )
(A lot more impressive in the physical volume.)
(Some pages have decorative illustrations, not directly related to the story–and also, at times, footnotes, not part of the original book, presumably there for readers less familiar with aspects of American history and culture. Which includes quite a few Americans, but most of them don’t read Westlake.)
(If at first you don’t succeed….)
(The meat packing district is a lot more densely packed than this, but nitpicking.)
(The best-laid schemes…..)
(At times, Mr. Turbin likes to show us what the characters are seeing in their heads, instead of just dreary literalism, and I think Westlake would approve.)
(Literal, but not at all dreary.)
(“Now, Tim Jepson! Now!”)
(I would have preferred Dortmunder ranting at a TV set, with this parting image on the screen, and perhaps a dish of May’s famous tuna casserole on the table, but that would be a lot more work, and I bet they didn’t pay Turbin that much.)
Overall, I think this is the best-illustrated novel of the six I’ve seen, but much more good stuff to come. On reflection, maybe I better devote one article apiece to each volume. So a three-parter. What’s the worst that could happen? Aw shucks, another spoiler. Can’t seem to help myself.