The Marble Paradise

As I have often commented on this blog, I am insane. Not “come at you with a tomahawk” insane, but certainly “do very strange and ill advised things” insane. Like attempting to rewrite Hamlet into rhyming couplets, or inventing the cheese shot. Well, I’ve started on another insane project – this time I’m aiming to learn more about the world created by Dmitry Glucovsky in his post-nuclear Metro 2033 series and teach myself German at the same time by re-translating the German translation of Sergey Kuznetsov’s мраморный раи into English.

Now I’m not going to do anything as crass as take a German course. That’s for sane people. No, I’m teaching myself the language by squinting at Google translate, beating myself around the head with Barron’s German-English Pocket Dictionary and occasionally sending begging emails to my friend Matt.

It’s slow progress, but it does actually seem to be working. I’m starting to recognise words and I’m sometimes able to figure out the general gist of a sentence. It’s going to be a long time before I’m singing along at Oktoberfest, but at least it’s giving me something to do and will probably have some kind of long term neurological benefit. Or something.

In any case, I thought I’d post my translation of the book’s introduction. So strap yourself in for a slightly-awkwardly-phrased journey through the harsh streets of post-nuclear Russia in Sergey Kuznetsov’s The Marble Paradise


THE MARBLE PARADISE

by Sergey Kuznetsov
Translated from the Russian by Anja Freckman
Translated from the German by Denys the Purple Wyrm


The author dedicates this book to the shining memory of his father


Prologue

A long time ago, many years ago, there was a city here.

It was an ordinary, not particularly large provincial town. The inhabitants were simple people, some educated, some less so. They led orderly, peaceful lives, had times both good and bad, watched their children do the chores, and had a drink from time to time. They managed their lives and their city as best as they could. Some found work in the town, others commuted many hours to Moscow and back and cursed the travel time and crowded railway carriages.

Their city drowned in greenery and its squares, parks and well tended gardens were a welcoming sight. It was especially beautiful in the Indian summer when it was wreathed in every conceivable shade of yellow and red. In late autumn and in winter it was gray and monotonous, yet it still radiated its own particular warmth and coziness. On the long winter evenings the lights burnt in the homes, on the streets the lamps shone one by one in long garlands, and from the air the town looked like a giant, fully lit Christmas tree.

Now…

Now there was no longer a city. All that remained were meaningless, jumbled boxes of abandoned homes with smashed windows, torn-off doors, and power lines hanging limply between crooked, semi-collapsed power poles. Steel rods poked from the torn walls of ruined buildings like exposed bone. Across all was smeared lichen and the green-brown stain of moss. Through the cracked asphalt grass and bushes poked, and the playgrounds were overgrown with high weeds. The summer dressed rusted cars and buses in a cloak of dusty reddish green. That that could rot, decay or dissolve had – over the years – rotted, decayed and dissolved.

On this day the houses were covered by a thin layer of fresh snow, which had fallen overnight for the first time this year. It was a strange snow, light blue-gray. But not even the snow could conceal the aberrance of this world. In the dead city terrifying new residents had emerged. People had not lived here for a long time. Except…

Through the dead town staggered a man, swaying like a drunk. His dark blue radiation suit was badly torn – three deep, bloody furrows ran across the back from shoulder to waist, as if three sharpened blades had sliced in one stroke through the rubberized cloth, the fur jacket and sweater beneath and into the man’s flesh. His chest and left shoulder showed other injuries and his right arm was soaked purple with blood – although it was perhaps not his own. Only the sturdy plastic helmet on his head and the expensive foreign respirator mask strapped across his face seemed intact.

The man was breathing heavily and awkwardly dragged himself in a strange zigzag path – any observer would have thought he was wandering aimlessly. But he had one goal – to escape as soon as possible from this terrible place and reach the Military Academy. Because – he had heard – the basement levels of that facility housed a few other survivors. That would be his salvation, his only salvation. If he managed to reach it…

The man tried to concentrate, to remember: Who had attacked him? Who had he fought?

Something gigantic and grim-faced had attacked in a flash with tremendous force. The creature had pounced on him from behind, slashed him with those claws right through the suit, his clothes and – damn how his back was burning! He was losing blood and there was no way he could reach the wounds to patch them up. What if the beast had venomous claws? The second creature had knocked the gun out of his hands and would probably have demolished him with its next blow if he hadn’t had his army knife.

He’d driven the blade – a serrated-back Spetsnaz knife slightly smaller than a machete – forcefully into the monster’s gut and twisted. Both beasts seemed to lose interest and they… fled?

What happened next?

He couldn’t remember. His thoughts were confused. How had he entered the city? When? And what for?

The man couldn’t answer these questions. He remembered the battle, but tried in vain to recall the appearance of the creatures. Helpless, he gritted his teeth. Had the beasts thought he was dead? Why hadn’t they devoured him? After they’d left he must have lain unconscious for a while. He’d only come back to himself when he was already wandering through the city.

He collapsed repeatedly from exhaustion, lying on the ground, trying to get up again, but every time he staggered painfully to his feet he found that he’d lost more strength than the brief rest had granted him.

Twilight settled over the city. He looked around in alarm.

He slid his right hand in its torn glove under the protective suit to the handle of the knife, which hung in a short sheath on the belt of his jacket. He heard – or did he imagine? – sounds that made the blood in his veins falter: howls, yelps, growls, and sometimes a smack and a short angry roar, as if unknown predators were fighting for prey.

He glanced around startled, but couldn’t see anything living.

The wind came up and it started to snow again. With each step, his strength waned, but he knew that he could no longer spare the time to rest, not even for a few seconds – he had to hurry. An hour ago he could ignore the pain in his back, but now the wounds were burning like crazy. It almost felt like insects were crawling in them. He grunted and shrugged. The temperature had dropped considerably with nightfall and the cold was creeping into him through the slits in the suit.

The ruined buildings swam before his eyes, and his vision doubled as his sight dimmed. He laboriously set one foot after another, his legs were like wood and barely obeyed him. Suddenly he clearly heard a voice. Mechanically he turned towards the speaker only to find there was not a soul there.

But the twilight hissed around him, shouted, howled, and the sounds were getting closer…

He had almost left the city behind him.

It was dark.

His hand clasped the grip of the army knife.

His foot caught on a piece of broken asphalt. He tripped, and fell hard onto his back. The noises all around fell silent for a moment, and in that silence he heard, rather than felt, a sickening crunch from his left arm. When the pain arrived a few seconds later it was dull and grey.

His energy was spent. He tried rolling over onto his front like a beetle but a few attempts exhausted his last pitiful power reserves. They also knocked his knife loose and out of reach, which raised a small spark of anger in him – he would have liked to take at least one of the creatures with him into death.

As everything around him slowly sank into a fog, he realised just how carefully a large grey animal was slinking out of the nearby bushes, snuffling up his scent with its half-rat half-wolf snout, teeth bared and growling.

Then he lost consciousness.


Want to know what happens next? Learn German! 🙂

Tunnel Dweller

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been spending much of my time wandering the Moscow Metro system.

Not literally of course. I’ve merely been studying the crap out of it in order to produce a (hopefully) really good English Metro 2033 map.

I imagine there are plenty of really good Russian maps, but none of them appear to have been translated. All of the English ones I’ve been able to locate are sub-par at best. This situation could not stand, so I trawled the net for info, spent what seems like hours on Wikipedia and Google Translate, learned to read Cyrillic (sort of), and put together this miracle of rare frickin’ device.

Moscow Metro circa 2033
Behold its Majesty!

I’ve based it on the Metro as it was in 2002, since that’s when the first book was published. The Metro has been expanded since then but I’ve only included new lines and stations only if I can find evidence they’ve been mentioned in the series. Information from the computer games has been included only where it doesn’t conflict with the novels. I scraped together what information I could from the books that haven’t been translated into English and threw in a grid and index to make locating stations easier. Finally I included the original Russian names and various translations in the index, so no matter what version of the books you’re reading you should be able to find the stations you’re looking for.

People on Reddit seem to like it, which is all I can really ask for 🙂

From VDNKh to Pobedy Park

I finished another of my Christmas books, the Russian sci-fi novel Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky yesterday. For those not in the know – as I was not until Helen mentioned it in an email a few months back – it’s a post-apocalyptic story set among survivors of world war three inhabiting a rebuilt society (of sorts) in the Moscow Metro system.

The setting is fascinating. Each station (the inhabited ones anyway) is its own town with its own government, customs and specialities. Some stations have banded together to form wider alliances, such as the Hansa who regulate trade throughout the system via control of the Circle line, the Communists who have taken almost complete control of the Sokolnicheskaya line, the neo-nazi skinhead Fascists who control a major interchange, and the mysterious Polis beneath the heart of the dead city whose inhabitants are said to live almost as well as people did before the war. Bandits, mutants, gas pockets, seeping radiation and worse things make travel between stations difficult – traveling from one end of the system to the other can take weeks, in contrast to the couple of hours it took back in the days when the trains ran. The surface is uninhabitable, plagued by dangerous creatures and lingering radiation that makes going outside without protective gear a death sentence. And even with a gasmask and environment suit the surface can only be braved at night – after decades underground the survivors’ vision has become so sensitive that the sun would instantly blind them.

As is traditional for such settings the story is that of a quest. The main character, Artyom, must leave his home station of VDNKh – under seige by terrifying mutants from the surface known as ‘Dark Ones’ – and deliver a message to Polis in the hopes of saving not only his home, but the entire Metro. We follow him on his dangerous journey and get to see the Metro and its inhabitants through his eyes. It’s a damn good adventure story, so good in fact that it’s sold over 500,000 copies in Russia alone and spawned a franchise with a sequel, stories by other authors, and two computer games.

That’s the good stuff. The other stuff, well…

The prose is not great. With a few exceptions it’s slow, pedestrian and stilted. Dialogue between characters is awkward and in some places so forced that you could envisage it being read off an autocue. A random example…

He spoke totally without accent, his pronunciation was no different than Artyom’s or Sukhoi’s. That was very strange – hearing pure Russian speech from such an unusual being. Artyom couldn’t shed the feeling that this was some kind of farce and the narrow-eyed man was only moving his lips while the bearded guy or the man in the leather coat spoke from behind him.

‘I shot one of their officers,’ he admitted reluctantly.

‘Well, good for you! You’re just the kind we like! That’s what they deserve!’ the man with the high cheek bones said enthusiastically, and the big, dark skinned guy who was sitting at the front turned to Artyom and raised his eyebrows respectfully. Artyom thought that this guy must mispronounce words.

See what I mean?

Given the book’s great popularity in its native country I suspect that this is all down to a quick, by-the-numbers translation by someone familiar with English on an academic or business level but with limited exposure to the language in a literary or informal setting. Which is a real shame as the story deserves much better.

In addition to being dull and stilted the translation has other issues. The different stations are highly important to the plot, but their names are mostly left untranslated. This makes it hard to get your head around the Metro as every location is a random string of syllables, completely bereft of meaning. Coming up with an English name for each station would have gone a long way towards both mentally navigating the Metro and creating atmosphere. ‘Sparrow Hills’ for Vorobyovy Gory,  ‘Clear Ponds’ for Chistye Prudy, ‘Mir Avenue’ for Prospekt Mir. At the very least ‘skaya’ could have been cut off the end of the names and either rendered as ‘Station’ or left off entirely. Alekseyev and Oktyabr are easier to get to grips with than Alekseyevstraya and Oktyabrstraya for instance.

And while we’re on the subject of station names, the map provided in the book is horrible. A bunch of stations important to the plot aren’t even labeled! Try and find Sukharevskaya on it, I dare you! I had to resort to looking a map up on Wikipedia to figure out what the hell was going on half the time. In addition to not including vital information for understanding the text, it does include information that really should be left to the reader to discover by actually reading the text. For the sake of avoiding spoilers I won’t elaborate, but it would have added a real sense of exploration to the story if the map started out limited to just what Artyom knows and you have to fill it out mentally along with him as the plot progresses.

Oh, and ‘Artyom’. Couldn’t that have been rendered as ‘Artie’ in non-formal instances?

While reading the story I was often pulled out of the action by thinking about how I’d rewrite certain passages. In fact, I think I’ll have a go with the example from above…

He spoke without an accent, his pronunciation was no different to that of Artie’s or Uncle Sukhoi’s. It was strange, hearing pure, unadulterated Russian from such an unusual looking individual. Artie couldn’t shake the feeling that his rescuers were playing some kind of joke, and that the narrow-eyed man was moving his lips while the bearded man or the guy in the leather coat spoke instead.

‘I shot one of their officers,’ he admitted reluctantly.

‘Good for you!’ enthused the man with the high cheek bones. “That’s what they deserve. You’re the kind of guy we like!”. The big, dark skinned man at the front of the cart turned and raised his eyebrows in respect. ‘Surely’ thought Artie ‘This guy can’t speak proper Russian?’.

Now I’m not saying it’s Shakespeare, but I like to think it’s better than the 0fficial version.

Anyway, translation issues aside it’s a great book and well worth a read if you’re into post apocalyptic fiction. Check it out, and be sure to come back regularly for my chapter by chapter unauthorised re-translation!

(Just kidding 🙂 )