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The Old House Under the Cypress Tree.

In The Old House Under the Cypress Tree the Abkhazian humorist Fazil Iskander applies his talent for mythmaking and inner analysis to his childhood memories. Raised by an extended family, of which his aunt was the matriarch, Iskander relates vignettes from family history and explores the values and psychological mechanisms that prompted the actions of family, acquaintances, and even country. He does so without losing his sense of humor, juxtaposing the perspectives of Iskander the child and Iskander the adult.

Exposure is the end result of his kindly probing. The child notices that people, particularly adults, role-play in accordance with social expectations, a trait that lends itself to hypocrisy. For instance, he notes the "heightened look of sorrow" that his mother adopted in hopes of influencing school authorities to admit him. Iskander too fell down on purpose on one occasion when a drunk hit him with a stone, simply because he felt it was expected of him and added to the drama of the situation. The effects of shame and guilt on his childhood experiences and the role of imagination and mystery. in esthetic pleasure are also discussed. The cypress tree becomes a symbol of family, and when the Rich Tailor engages in a campaign to chop it down, Iskander's mother threatens to chop off his head in fierce defense of the tree and, by extension, her family.

Stalin's terror changes family harmony and structure forever. First, Iskander's mentor-uncle is spirited away to the camps, and then in 1938 his father is exiled to Iran. Iskander refers to Stalin's paranoid search for saboteurs and enemies of the people as a fantasy. He believes that Stalin used people's susceptibility to the supernatural and their belief in the devil - since God had been taken away - to hypnotize them and to pit neighbor against neighbor and family member against family member. This idea was discussed in his earlier work, Krolihi i udavy (1982; Eng. Rabbits and Boa Constrictors). The blame falls at least partially on the victims themselves: "If there hadn't been this powerful receptive response and the hypnotized hadn't wanted to be hypnotized, the venture wouldn't have been so spectacularly successful."

Iskander's weapon against evil - or the devil, as he states it - is laughter. He never loses his tone of kindhearted humor, which sustained him through Stalin's purges and the dark incidents of his life. His humor serves to immortalize the now fractured family that once dwelled in the house trader the cypress tree.

Jan Butler's translation is quite faithful to the original. There are isolated passages where a less literal turn of phrase would have been more suitable, and a few errors escaped the editor's attention; but on the whole the translation is a success.

Bonnie Marshall American Academy of Foreign Languages, Moscow
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Author:Marshall, Bonnie
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1997
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