Friday, January 20, 2012

We Are All Udmurts!

Lately I’ve been trying to imagine the life of a woman I’ve made up, from a place didn’t make up (…though sounds like I did).

The woman’s name is Mrs Huff, and she rents a room out in Queens. She is old, frightened, but has powers her new lodger - whom she is immediately convinced is a thief - isn’t quick to realize...

The place she’s from is Udmurtia – a semi-autonomous ethnic republic on the edge of European Russia. The Udmurts are a Finno-Ugric people related to other small groups of Finno-Ugric people near them …and also to a some larger populations to the West - the Finns, of course, the Estonians, and also the Hungarians – who maybe 1100 years ago were the Udmurts’ next door neighbors, until they took their horses and rode west.
I first learned about Udmurtia in a funny, excellent travelogue by self described anti-tourist Daniel Kalder called “Lost Cosmonaut” and I was immediately hooked.

Who were these crazy people?? I don’t know why they fascinated me so much, or what exactly I’m chasing writing about one now.

…Perhaps it’s something about the comic melancholy of coming from a people who almost none of us in America have ever heard of, or hear from. A people Russia has done an excellent job of nearly (culturally) destroying. What it might feel like to come from such a proud culture that is not only disappearing…. but whose name itself sounds ludicrous to our ears? who speak a language no one could study in college even if they wanted to?

Maybe it’s the only recently discarded pagan heritage (their closely-related neighbors, the Mari El, never converted to Christianity, and so are considered Europe’s last fully pagan culture). Maybe it’s that Tchaikovsky is from Udmurtia (though ethnically Ukrainian) or that Kalashnikov – born in 1919! still alive! inventor of world most popular gun! – lives there now and there is a museum in the capital celebrating him.

Or maybe it’s: we who write in English have a notion that we have the potential to write for a huge audience, if we are lucky, millions. (100s of millions if we write a hit movie... or "The Phantom of the Opera".) We think “if my play is published, in a hundred years, in 500 years, people may still read it!”

What would it be to write a play in Udmurt? What courage. What humility. For what you write will most probably evaporate.

And yet we, the children of victorious linguistic groups, will evaporate too. Most all our work will fade away. 

And someday, maybe in 500 or 1000 years, even our language may change past recognition.

So perhaps: We are all Udmurts. Or will be.

- David Zellnik

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