Tag Archives: Russian publishing

Enconium: Mr. Dortmunder and Oleg

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.

Vol 3.

 

KIC Image 0009(1)

KIC Image 0001(3)

KIC Image 0002(3)

(Not quite how I’d envision J.C. or Tiny.)

(Much better!)

KIC Image 0007(1)

(Where there’s a Wilbur, there’s a way.)

KIC Image 0009

KIC Image 0010

(The concluding page.  On to the next book.  Which is–)

KIC Image 0022

(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.)

KIC Image 0003(1)

(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.)

KIC Image 0002(2)

KIC Image 0001(4)

KIC Image 0001(2)

(If at first you don’t succeed….)

KIC Image 0002(4)

KIC Image 0003(3)

(The meat packing district is a lot more densely packed than this, but nitpicking.)

KIC Image 0006(2)

(The best-laid schemes…..)

KIC Image 0007(2)

(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.)

KIC Image 0008(1)

(Literal, but not at all dreary.)

KIC Image 0009(2)

KIC Image 0011(1)

(“Now, Tim Jepson!  Now!”)

KIC Image 0012(1)

(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.

11 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Addendum: Anarchaos in Russian

01

“There’s a way to make it easy,” the steward told him.  “Start to say anarchy, and midway through switch and say chaos.”

The missionary tried it: “Anarchaos.” The apologetic smile flared again, and he thanked the steward, saying, “It certainly is a name to give one pause.”

“I suppose they meant it that way,” said the steward.

“And their sun,” said the missionary.  “Do they really call it Hell?”

“It is Hell,” said the steward.

Though we’ve been seeing less of Ray Garraty since I came to the Great Starkian Interregnum in Westlake’s bibliography (hopefully he shall return once I’m reviewing Parker novels again), my correspondence with him has continued apace, and this past week he shared something with me–seems an online friend of his in Russia has created a special limited edition of Anarchaos–just thirty copies–with illustrations that look like woodcuts (but are not).

I’ll let him explain how this all happened–

It’s really only 30 copies been printed. They weren’t even offered for
sale, distributed through the small closed circle. Actually, the idea
to make this book came to the publisher Sergey after my review on
Anarchaos two years ago. A little later he found out that a translator
started to translate this novel, they got in touch, and after that the
publisher decided to make this edition.

All books by this press are made with illustrations. The illustrator
is a young artist who lives in Moscow, Diana Kuznetsova, who did
illustrations for other books by this press.

I think this is the first instance I’ve ever seen of an illustrated edition of a Westlake book (other than Philip) that really works.   Westlake didn’t write novels with the intention of having his words accompanied by pictures (his short stories for the pulps were another matter).  The publishers he was working with mainly didn’t do that.  They might hire superlative artists for the lurid paperback cover, or the more respectable hardcover dust jacket–they might not.  But never did any of his novels feature artwork like this.

12

Or this.

13

Or this.

08

Not to mention this.

11

If you’ve read the book, you can figure out which scene is being illustrated, most of the time, without needing to read the text.  And you can probably figure out what this picture is doing in the book as well.

03

Prince Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin, whose revolutionary ideas were chosen as the founding principles of Anarchaotian government (or lack thereof). Interesting that they use a picture of the younger man, not the white-haired old sage.

(This is what I get for writing this too quickly, and not doing the research I typically do for my reviews–that’s Mikhail Bakunin, and a perfunctory check of Westlake’s novel would have prevented this egregious error, but ah well.)

If I might offer a very small criticism, Rolf Malone is supposed to be a very large strong intimidating looking fellow, and if this is supposed to be him, he’s a bit on the skinny side.

09

But nothing wrong with his virility.

07

So this is a very Russian vision of Westlake’s science fiction novel–and it translates beautifully on a visual level.  (I can only assume the textual translation is equally inspired.)    They’re not emphasizing the hardboiled American detective fiction element of the story.  This is Anarchaos transplanted into another literary milieu.  It feels more like Dostoevsky, or Tolstoy, or even Turgenev (with the Strugatsky Brothers thrown into the mix).  An earlier era, a period romance with philosophical overtones.  A harsh semi-feudal frontier environment, and a hero who is somehow just surviving from page to page.  It’s different, but that’s all to the good, I think.

There is something timeless about the story of Rolf Malone, and his single-minded quest for understanding and revenge, and finding the social currents he navigates deeper and more treacherous than he could have ever imagined.  You can find similar stories in many cultures, from long bygone eras, like the Irish saga of Máel Dúin.

If I might make a suggestion to the publisher, perhaps an additional copy could be mailed to the Westlake estate.  Westlake loved to collect odd foreign editions of his works–it gave him a great deal of personal satisfaction to know his ideas, his characters, his stories, were being read and appreciated in many languages, all over the world.  He understood that something is always changed in translation–something lost, something gained–and that this is part of how we as a species learn from each other, share our experiences, our perceptions–and find out how much they have in common.  He might have particularly appreciated the independent nature of this publisher, the almost hand-made feel of this edition.

This is one of many ways we have of staving off the nightmare scenario that Westlake painted in this book.  Stories have preserved the knowledge and legacy of many a fallen civilization.  Hopefully ours won’t be next–but just in case.

I’ll try to get the next review up shortly.  (Just in case).

4 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, science fiction