Richard Coombes introduces us to the work of children’s author Anna Ignatova, with a sample translation from I Believe You … I Don’t Believe You.
Anna Ignatova started writing after she fell off her bike. She was racing over rough ground when a small stone flew into her wheel, flipping her over the handlebars and into ten days of rest in a darkened room with strict orders to do nothing but sleep. She didn’t quite do nothing but sleep. During those ten days, she conceived what became her first published works, a cycle of poems called Tales That Got Away. They appeared in literary magazines and are devoted to those moments when something quite unexpected come along and bumps the story off in an unplanned direction …
Anna lives and writes in St Petersburg. Since her bike accident, she has written several hundred humorous poems, a number of novellas, and various short stories, all for children and young adults. Some of her verses have been made into television cartoon serials.
The ideas for her stories and poems come to her, she says, rather in the manner of mushroom-picking in the woods: look for it specially and you won’t find it—but make sure you don’t miss it! She likes to set up comic situations in which she can pose interesting life questions. In her short story Djinn Seva, for instance, a Djinn pops out of a carton of orange juice, enabling Anna to explore light-heartedly the questions: What do we wish for? Do we even know what we want? And are we really ready for our wishes to come true?
Fun is a key component of Anna’s work. In her poem An Old Lady Stepped Out Of Her Door, an elderly lady leaves home to go shopping only to find a large puddle blocking her way. The puddle becomes a river on which the old lady decides to sail to the shop in her upturned umbrella. She is swept out onto the high seas from where, after a series of adventures, she returns to find herself a celebrity. Finally back home, she realises that she’s forgotten to buy sugar. And so she steps out of her door …
‘Being a children’s writer,’ says Anna, ‘means writing books that children will read on their own. A very good children’s writer writes the kind of books that children slip under their pillow, to go on reading late into the night.’
Of herself, Anna says, ‘I love making plasticine sculptures. And travelling. I love night-time orienteering in the woods. I love it when we all sit down to tea and apple pie in the evening. I love gathering mushrooms, especially in the forest. I love skiing. Watching cartoons. I love the Akimov Comedy Theatre in St Petersburg. I love The Master and Margarita, and re-read it often. I love guests and holidays. I love it when people burst out laughing at the same time. I love reading to my son at bedtime. And I love it when my son takes a new book from the shelf, on his own.’
Anna’s best-known prose work is her novella I Believe You … I Don’t Believe You, first published in 2013, re-issued in 2016 and 2019, and re-printed several times in between. The book has won two prizes inside Russia and contributed to Anna’s recent nomination for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (ALMA).
Unswervingly loyal to her trademark style, Anna conceived the story’s main theme while dragging herself out of a snowdrift into which she had crashed while skiing. The book is an exploration of what might happen if a young boy from our world suddenly found himself in a world in which no-one ever lied. And what would happen if he were to bring a young girl back from that world into ours? The story is sprinkled with Anna’s typical humour, but with serious undercurrents. I Believe You … I Don’t Believe You is funny, surprising, and also, somewhat startlingly and very touchingly, a love story.
I Believe You … I Don’t Believe You
Published by Akvilegia-M, 2019
Suggested age: 9+
What follows is an extract from I Believe You … I Don’t Believe You. To set the scene: Lyosha has been in the land of truth-tellers for a month. The constant truth-telling amazes him, as does the code of honour by which anyone who takes another’s life, even by accident, feels obliged to jump from a mysterious fog-shrouded cliff at the edge of town. Lyosha has managed to dissuade a doctor who has given a fatallywrong diagnosis from jumping to his death, but he has also been taking advantage of the truth-tellers, enjoying the kudos he gains from lying. He brags that back home he’s a famous Shakespearean actor, and that he can fly. A pair of impressionable twins, the Cornflowers, decide that they, too, are light enough to fly, and head for Seven Owls Park to practice by jumping from the top of a huge model owl. Hearing about the twins’ plan, Lyosha and his friend Willow sprint desperately to the park to try and stop them.
Sample translation by Richard Coombes
Lyosha wanted to cry out, but couldn’t. He couldn’t even breathe. He didn’t notice how tightly Willow was squeezing his hand. All he could do was watch, wide-eyed, as the two girls fell like two stones. The branches of one of the poplars made a grab at them but couldn’t break their fall. The poplar gave out a crack as it tried to hold on to the two light bodies; then its branches broke and let the girls go on falling, down, down, down.
A doctor was the first to arrive, hurrying into Seven Owls Park to attend the broken bodies. He nodded to Lyosha as if to an old acquaintance, and then proceeded to ignore him. He had work to do. The Cornflowers were whisked away in an ambulance. Lyosha wanted to go with them, but there was no room for him, and in any event, he would simply have held things up. It was only when the ambulance had gone that Lyosha remembered where he had seen the doctor before.
He looked around, agitated. Where was Willow? He’d somehow let her slip out of his sight. Perhaps that was for the best …
The best, the best Lyosha muttered to himself, heading for the exit from the park. Nobody tried to stop him. He quickened his pace, walking faster and faster and more and more determinedly. The best, the best, the best, he kept saying over and over, ever more rapidly, until the two words merged into one and whirled frantically round like a carousel inside his head. Thebestthebest …
Willow had also lost sight of Lyosha. At first she saw no one but her tumbling friends. People came dashing up, doctors arrived on the scene, and all the while Willow never took her eyes off the Cornflowers, wanting to see them come round, open their eyes, lift their hands.
Willow immediately recognized the doctor who nodded to Lyosha. He was the doctor who had been walking towards the cliff edge that day. The man whose whole life Lyosha had succeeded in changing. Now he was saving the Cornflowers. Two girls, sent to their own ruin by Lyosha’s appalling lies and saved by the man Lyosha had turned back from the edge of the cliff. Meaning what? That Lyosha was also saving the Cornflowers?
Everything is so complicated, whispered Willow. She was in shock. I’m confused. I don’t understand what’s really happening. I can’t make sense of it on my own.
She looked around. Lyosha was nowhere to be seen. Willow knew, though, where to go for help.
‘Where’s Lyosha?’ she asked, as soon as she’d opened the door.
Beech had already heard the news. Willow briefly wondered how, and then pushed the thought aside. What did that matter now?
‘Beech, do you know where he’s gone?’ Willow’s voice was unusually high and sharp. Anxiety was suddenly washing over her; she couldn’t name it yet, but it was frightening her.
Beech leaned towards Willow without getting out of his chair. ‘I can guess. And I’m horribly afraid I’m right.’
‘Why would he …?’ Willow suddenly understood. ‘Oh!’
‘Yes,’ said Beech. ‘That’s right. Maybe, though, just maybe … it might be possible to change it …’
Willow ran out without waiting for him to finish.
Lyosha was walking across a green meadow. How enormous it is, this meadow, he thought. It gives you time to recall your whole life. It’s deliberately this size, so that you can walk and think, walk and prepare yourself. And it’s all very fair, very honest. Nobody’s forcing you; you make your own decision. You walk and you make your decision. Clever thinking. Everything here is cleverly thought out. Though … what did he need a lot of thinking time for? One: the Cornflowers’ dreadful fall was all his fault. Two: he had no way to get back home. In any event, everyone there already thought he was dead. Well, let them be right. He would be dead soon. Hopeless. All hopeless!
He jumped, and started to turn round. In that same instant, though, he recognised the voice. Willow. Of course Willow. She always understood him better than anyone else. She had known where he would go. Oh, how he wanted to talk to her! One last time. That would be OK, wouldn’t it?
No. It’s all been said. All been done.
Lyosha broke into a run.
She caught him up. She was so fast, always so fast! But he was very close to the edge now. He could already feel the dampness of the fog, and in the fog, the emptiness. Let’s fly, shall we, Aleksei Borisovich? You said you could fly. Go on, then. Fly. So as not to be a liar.
‘Lyosha, stop! Or I’ll fall with you!’
Oh, that’s not fair. That’s his trick, the one he’d used to stop the doctor. But he hadn’t meant it then, he hadn’t really intended to fall himself. That was the difference. Willow meant it. She’d said she would, and she would. She’d fall with him. That was the difference.
He stopped, and turned towards her.
‘I can’t stay here,’ he said. ‘It’s all gone wrong. Forget it … it’s all gone … it’s all spoilt.’ I shouldn’t stay here. I’m not one of them. I’m a stranger here. That’s what he’d been thinking as he walked across the meadow. I’ve come crashing in ruining everything here. People here could die because of me. They really could.
‘Lyosha, don’t go. I know you didn’t mean to do it. You didn’t lie on purpose. You’re just used to talking like that. You … you wanted to entertain us, didn’t you?’
Her eyes are enormous. They want to pull you right inside them. Hold on to you and not let you go.
‘I’ve been thinking a lot about your world, Lyosha. You’re used to lying. You do it without thinking. Just like breathing. The fox in the fairy tale about the Kolobok—I know she wasn’t deaf. She lied. And you don’t have to explain that to the children in your world—they understand it without being told. You’re steeped in it. That’s why you’re such a good storyteller.’
Willow kept talking and talking, coming ever closer to Lyosha. Suddenly she seized his hand and held it tight.
‘I don’t want you to go away. You’re my friend. I love you.’
‘Really?’ asked Lyosha, surprising himself with his own question.
‘Honestly! How long have you been living here, and you still haven’t learned to believe!’ Willow laughed. She found the strength to laugh.
Lyosha started to weep. He wept, thinking, it’s probably good to cry. It would help him feel better. His burden would drop from him along with his tears. A part of his burden anyway. In his own mind, Lyosha heard the joyful voices of the Cornflowers: ‘You’ll fly! You’ll be so light!’
No. He would never be light. And there was nothing to wait for. It was for the best. The best, the best …. Oh, Mum, Mum, where are you? I want to find you.
Goodbye, Willow. I love you too. That’s what he wanted to say. He really wanted to say it. But he said nothing. He squeezed her hand, and walked off into the fog.
Richard Coombes is a UK-based Russian to English literary translator, and writer.
Recent publications include translations by Cambridge University Press and B O D Y magazine, and original stories published in Anti-Heroin Chic and Down in the Dirt.