[Milkweed Editions; 2020]

Tr. From the Russian by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse

Italics indicate direct quotations from the text.

Longevity has always been of interest to humans. We are able to distinguish it from a distance, point it out in piecemeal for all intents and purposes, while our own earthly limitations keep us from being evidentiary witnesses.

In Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse’s translation of When the Whales Leave by Yuri Rytkheu, longevity is coupled with the transformative power of Great Love, which is the most phenomenal expression of life in the truest sense of phenomena. But without willing souls, without those who suspend their disbelief when confronted with the unknown, transformation is perceived as destruction, an obstacle against that which is solid and known, against that which is simpler and easier to understand. A creation tale echoing the animist stories of Rytkheu’s own Chukchi people, When the Whales Leave reveals a story of Great Love past and the future to come. 

Yuri Rytkheu was born in 1930, one year before the creation of the first official Chukchi alphabet, in the village of Uelen in the Far Eastern Territory of the USSR. Chukchi are the indigenous people from the Chukchi Peninsula by the Bering Strait and while Rytkheu is considered one of the first Chukchi writers, a majority of his work was written in Russian. But his life coincided with a new form of linguistic representation, a meeting of methodologies, an encounter that colors his life as well as his stories.

When the Whales Leave may be considered an ecological novel, but this designation upholds our divide as viewers rather than participants. The text concerns itself with ecological questions, but it strives to underscore the notion that to consider these questions as separate from one’s own time and space is to ultimately do a disservice to oneself.

While Rytkheu’s other texts draw from historical encounters of the Chukchi people, When the Whales Leave draws inspiration from the Chukchi oral story telling tradition in its form as well as content. Chavasse strikes a harmonic chord with this orality, a progressing variation on the natural. Her lines breathe on their own, setting the tempo and rhythm for the reader. In line with an oral story, it’s easy to fall into the whole thing in one sitting, unclear whether it is you or the text who is unwilling to break the advancing and ebbing flow.

In reading the text, a myriad of similar tales wash upon the shores of the story, retreating the moment you seek to underline a similarity. Resemblances to other origin stories, biblical tales, and Russian works whisper in the back of the mind. The notion that creation stories derive from the same flow still doesn’t seem like enough to insist upon common ground. And yet a memory of wholeness persists, of lives that might have been known for certain. 

[Nau] had never yet thought of herself as separate from those who dwelled in the ground warrens, or nested on cliffs, or crawled in the grass, nor thought of herself as different from them. Even the sullen black rocks were alive and dear to her.

The tale revolves around the character Nau, arriving without seeking designations of difference, indistinguishable as child and mother of a world. A primordial Lilith in the world, she understands Great Love as that which brings her together with a partner, Reu. Rising from the waves as did Aphrodite, Reu is transformed from a whale to a human through the power of Great Love. The reader takes part in their early creation, watching transformations from two ends of a spectrum coming together in a middle that neither Nau nor Reu recognize nor deny. Their brood beget generations and after some time only Nau and the reader remain constant as others grow and pass, witnesses to what becomes the stuff of legends. . .a truth that people had ceased to believe in. Great Love is what constructs the first humans. Great Love is what allows them to find language for one another.

You are descended from the giants of the sea, and every whale is your brother. To be a brother does not require that you look the same. Kinship means much more than that. When you climb to the highest crags and peer down, how often do you see tall rocks that look like people? Yet it would not occur to you to call them brothers, or to think you have come from cold stone. . .We came to live upon the earth because of the greatest expression that life can have: the Great Love. It made us into humans, made me into a human. And as long as you love one another, love your brothers, you will remain human beings. Love is all-present.

Nau’s words feel familiar, a secret whispered into your ear long ago but whose echoes revive an unplaceable memory. The reader has the luxury of confirmation, as unaffected by time and space as Nau. Together, Nau and the reader watch as others’ belief is suspended higher and higher.

As the generations pass, Nau translates Great Love for the people, gives it to them in tales and teachings. As a living legend, Nau is tolerated though not truly trusted as true. The people allow her into their homes when she steps inside, but when she moved on to another yaranga, her hosts would breathe a sign of relief. She is taken as neither burden nor blessing. The story follows other characters as Nau is moved from their orbit, to their periphery, towards their blind spots. Her longevity is perceived as a trick of the eye rather than the reality of faith, and as time passes quiet doubt turns to open disdain. In the end, Nau’s relegation becomes everyone’s undoing.

In a way, the fate of those who translate into English is little different. They are allowed in by the literary establishment, for no one would have thought of refusing, and never asked to stay longer. Instead of being considered bridges to worlds recognized yet unknown, their words receive sympathetic nods or challenges of veracity. What if she was just making it all up? How does one become human when one is already convinced of one’s being? How can one do away with the preconception regarding the possibility of understanding? Translations, by virtue of their being, cannot help but come with a literal preconception. Chavasse’s translation is no different, as it recreates Rytkheu’s Russian into English for the reader. But Rytkheu own writing in Russian was an echo of his original Chukchi mythology. The Chukchi version was meanwhile passed down primarily as an oral tradition. In this light, Chavasse’s translation is but one echo within a cavernous history, itself but a momentary iteration on its way to another.

How quickly things can change from myth to mistrust. An incredulity. Why had the things that happened so long ago never happened again? What does it mean to believe the storyteller, even just for the moment of the story? What does it mean to believe in something that no one else will dignify with entertaining? Pride bolsters belief as much as it disassembles it. When Nau is confronted with questions about her morality she raises her own: Why would you say such a thing? You must be feeling unwell. . .How could a person raise their hand to another person? Disbelief is taken as a safer risk, a comparable certainty against the uncertainty of incomprehension. Systems fall victim to short-term gains against long-term developments and often such gains are claimed solely by those who reap. If it was not merely satisfaction with your own deeds in your heart, then one might say that you have learned what Great Love is.

Deconstruction may take generations but loss occurs in an instant. Sustainability requires regeneration and unsustainability reveals itself like rot. There’s a saying that tragedies self-destruct so that we don’t have to. When the Whales Leave isn’t quite a tragedy, for it merely reveals the self-destruction that has already occurred. Restoration requires a return and now, as critic Audun J. Mørch notes, “mythical time has become linear.” In his essay “The Chronotope of the Primordial,” Mørch investigates the temporal representation of When the Whales Leave through Bakhtin’s notion of the chronotope, drawing further connection between Rytkheu’s text and its Russian predecessors.

[Nau] insisted that the most ludicrous part of her stories — like giving birth to whale babies, meaning every nearby whale was also her direct descendent — was literally true. Why talk this way, when it only irritated people?

Why get irritated at such talk? The villagers’ dissent goes beyond disinterest; offence is taken at brotherly insinuations and humanity is elevated onto a pedestal. Why hold so desperately onto the belief that myths were meant to be majestic, noble, inaccessible to the common man: a mysterious origin story that shone from a distance, like the snowcapped faraway mountains, not one debased by mundane details. Why should a myth be majestic while our own humanity is considered a debasement, when fellow beings are cast aside in favor of one’s own victory, one’s own might? In what way is a human different from a whale? After generations of hearing Nau insist on familial bonds, doubt begins to fester and propagate.

The validity of longevity continues to persist as do claims of its fraudulence. The oldest recorded person, a French supercentenarian named Jeanne Calment, died over twenty years ago, while debates over her authenticity live on. While the unwillingness to fall victim to deceit is understandable, the persistence with which longevity is sought to be disproved seems less a selfless act of revelation and more a selfish gesture reflective of impermanence and a lack of culpability. Deny the future of the past and suddenly everything is allowed.

When the Whales Leave is a story of Great Love come and gone. What we will create in its stead remains to be written.

Marina Manoukian is a reader, writer, and collage artist. A contributor to Pussy Magic, she received her M.A. in English Philology from Freie Universität Berlin. Find more of her words and images at marinamanoukian.com or twitter/insta @crimeiscommon.