the cardboard city and the amber sea

Recently in bookshops in Hanoi and Can Tho, Hanoi Ink came across a couple of quite lovely Soviet-era children’s books from Russia, published in English by Progress Publishers in Moscow. 

Tales of the Amber Sea

I found this book in one of several second-hand book shops on Dường Láng in Hanoi. (I will write more about this street soon.) Tales of the Amber Sea is a collection of fairy tales from Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia that were compiled and translated by Irina Zheleznova with illustrations by Anatoly Belyukin. It was first published in 1974, with this edition from the second printing in 1981. There are exactly 13 stories from each country, making a total of 39 stories in 320 pages.

Some of my favourite titles in the collection are The King of the Mushrooms, The Bear Who Married a Peasant’s Daughter, The Fool Who Pastured a Hundred Rabbits and The Six Toothless Men and a Squint-Eyed One.

Tales of the Amber Sea

The book is one of several collections of fairy tales compiled and translated into English by Irina Zheleznova since the mid-1960s. Her complete body of published work includes Russian, Ukrainian, Byelorussian, Lithuanian, Latvian, Karelian, Estonian, Moldavian, Azerbaijan, Armenian, Georgian, Bashkir, Kalmyk, Turkmen, Uzbek, Tajik, Altai, Zazahk, Yakut, Buryat, Nenets and Chukchi fairy tales. There is no information provided in this book about her approach to collecting the stories or about other collaborators with whom she worked.

Illustration by Anatoly Belyukin

The illustrator, Anatoly Belyukin, is apparently one of a group of famous Soviet graphic artists and book illustrators trained by USSR People’s Artist Vladimir Favorsky. His wife, Ksenia Nikolaevna, was a literature editor and his son Dmitri Belyukin has also become a well-known artist. The illustrations here are in the style of woodcuts, with strong black and yellow colours giving a rather primitive, heavy and somber appearance. They fit well with the contents and give a sense of tales passed down from a much earlier time.

Cardboard Clock Square

As mentioned in my recent post on the old book shops of Can Tho, I found this book in Xuân Vinh bookshop. Cardboard Clock Square by Leonid Yakhinin was translated from Russian by Fainna Glagoleva with illustrations by Evgeny Monin, and was published in 1979. The book is divided into 27 short chapters, running to a total of 78 pages.

Cardboard Clock Square

The book opens with the lively, skilful and good-humoured Brim the Hatter returning from market having sold all his wares. Stopping to rest in a small clearing in the forest for a bite to eat, he takes some scraps of cardboard and cloth and his needle and thread, and fashions a small city and its inhabitants. He leaves threads hanging from each person, which later prove to be significant. Brim goes on his way, and most of the rest of the story revolves around another comically nefarious regular-sized human, Legging the Robber, as well as the tiny Candy Wrapper Girl (now homeless because her candy has been eaten), her chocolate pet dog Choc’lit and the inhabitants of Cardboard City.

Legging the Robber, with his fake eyepatch and rusted pistol, discovers that he can make things happen by pulling the strings attached to the little folk and decides to take control of Cardboard City: “A King isn’t any worse than a robber, and people respect him more.” At first the good-natured citizens of Cardboard City treat him as a friend and tolerate his strange ways, although the shopkeepers are puzzled to find themselves giving him their best stocks, and the Shoemaker likewise finds himself working on a pair of enormous boots. But the Candy Wrapper Girl, Flute the Clown and finally Brim the Hatter work together to frustrate his plans. In the end Brim the Hatter ties each person’s strings from their head and hands together, teaching them that with kindness and skill they can be free from domination of others. Even Legging has his moment of redemption at the end, gathering blueberries for the Baker to make him a cake and realising that “everybody likes a good worker, but nobody likes a good-for-nothing highway robber.”

Legging the Robber in Cardboard City

Legging the Robber controlling the citizens of Cardboard City

Matching the stories, Evgeny Monin’s watercolours are lively, light, colourful and whimsical. They are really quite wonderful. There are many full- and half-page pictures, as well as small visual details on almost every page of text.

The author Leonid Yakhinin seems to have continued writing children’s book up to the present, with recent publications translated into English including Igogo, or a Journey with a Talking Horse, and The Singing Tree. Translator Fainna Glagoleva has translated a number of children’s books from Russian to English, including stories by Victor Dragunsky and Valentin Katayev. I was not able to find out any information online about the illustrator except that he was a Russian artist who lived from 1931 to 2002. A friend recalled seeing many books illustrated by Evgeny Monin when he lived in Russia, and sent me some links to Russian-language sites with background information about the artist and some other children’s books that he illustrated.

Kindess - Freedom - Skill

About Progress Publishers

This publishing house was active in the USSR from 1931, and was best known for English-language political books as well as information on the USSR, including their ABC series with various titles explaining the Party, Socialism and different aspects of Marxism-Leninism. They were also active in a range of other areas including, evidently, children’s literature.

Other Soviet publishing houses in Moscow working in foreign languages included Mir, focused on scientific and engineering publications, and the Foreign Languages Publishing House, which seems to have focused mainly on political theory and literature. Unlike Mir, which has continued operations without its former state subsidy, Progress Publishers appears to have ceased operations at some time in the early 1990s.

~ by hanoi ink on May 8, 2011.

4 Responses to “the cardboard city and the amber sea”

  1. Free from the domination of others, what a wild dream. Cardboard Clock Square sounds like a story you’d want to be careful who you told in Tsarist times, Soviet times too I suppose, maybe any times. Do you know about Maxim Gorky’s The Song of the Stormy Petrel (Песня о Буревестнике), Hanoi Ink?

  2. No, but just reading it here:

    Petrels and other Procellariiformes are wonderful birds. Not sure I can support Gorky’s reference to ‘stupid penguins’ (Глупый пингвин) though.

  3. I love European fairy tales, getting lost in that strange fictitious reality. Hanoi and Vietnam in general seems to be a melting pot of world literature. Thanks for the insight.

  4. I read both these books when I was a kid as well as other Soviet books. Feel nostalgic about them now.

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