Reading

Mikhail A. Berman-Tsikinovsky: Between Medicine and Literature

by Maria Pia Pagani, University of Pavia (Italy)

Mikhail A. Berman-Tsikinovsky, Reading Plato by the Light of the Full Moon. A Collection of Short Stories, Chicago, Rush University, 2011 (Translated from Russian to English by Alexander Burry and Tatiana Tulchinsky, Introduction by Fyodor Polyakov, 253 pages – ISBN: 978-0-615-42739-3).

Born in Char’kov, 12th November 1937, Mikhail Alexandrovich Berman-Tsikinovsky is a Jewish doctor-writer, Russian speaking and writing. He lives in the United States for more than 30 years, and is the “heir” of the Russian dynasty of doctor-writers which has its father in Anton Chekhov.

When Hitler’s armies attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, his mother (a pediatrician) and her two children – Mikhail and the elder brother Vladimir – left Kharkov for Uzbekistan, where they stayed until 1946. He graduated from Kharkov Medical Institute as a Doctor of Medicine in 1961, and earned a Candidacy of Medical Sciences (Ph.D in Hematology) in 1970. In 1978, he immigrated with his family to the United States. Since that time he has been living in the Chicago area, working as a physician.

He started writing poetry at age sixteen, but did not publish in the Soviet Union. His literary career started “officially” with emigration: in America he never abandoned Russian language and assumed a literary pseudonym, Berman-Tsikinovsky, combining his father’s family name (Berman) and his mother’s maiden name (Tsikinovsky).

Like Chekhov, Berman-Tsikinovsky is a great observer of human life and has a deep sense of humor. His literary works share common themes rooted in his experiences as a Soviet immigrant in the United States, and the most recent result is in the new book Reading Plato by the Light of the Full Moon. A Collection of Short Stories (Chicago, Rush University, 2011). Translated from Russian to English by Alexander Burry and Tatiana Tulchinsky, the volume presents 40 short stories and “Nine Lyrical Etudes”.

Berman-Tsikinovsky’s enormous creative productivity is astonishing for working full time physician. He has a unique talent of writing stories in a very condensed way with simplicity and clearness affable only to a few great writers. His own and other immigrant early experience in Chicago together with very vivid recollection of the Soviet life defined the context of his prose, which is original and innovative.

In his introduction, entitled “The stamp of time”, professor Fyodor Polyakov (Vienna University) wrote: «A rhythm of new American life is superimposed onto the imported everyday life of Soviet émigrés. However, the temporal plan of the stories combines the features of life on the North American continent with episodes of the earlier Soviet reality. This disturbs the chronological succession. The author aims for a motley composition of situations and impressions, a kaleidoscope, within whose framework we also collide with several characters who obviously bear autobiographical traits. We also see what an important part of the author’s intent it was to hold onto all of these words that had once been spoken, all these everyday details, which have been splintered by time, and have lost their contours from distance». And more: «The author leaves his heroes such a space, in which they maintain their individuality, the stamp of time, bringing about the uniqueness of their image, language and stylistics».

For example, in the short story Milya Rabinovic’s laws, Berman-Tsikinovsky describes one day of life of a doctor practicing in the office on Devon Avenue, the main street of “Russian” neighborhood. On Wednesdays Milya doesn’t have office hours, and he is doing today some errants: going to a bank, shops, dentist like anybody else. But there is some difference. Rabinovich lives in two separate worlds. The one- with wandering on the busy Chicago streets, making jokes and enjoying the nice sunny day in January, and another one-in his head, with very little connections between the two. His ideas (or laws) are intellectually challenging, but for the most part are weird and even crazy. In particular, he believes that Time does not exist at all: it is illusion, fiction, and anachronism! Stylistically, the core of the story is the striking unity of contrasting features of our life from the very beginning to the very end.

Little Fira is another masterpiece among the many of them in this book. The story begins in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), when a young Jewish girl from a southern provincial town comes to a glamorous northern city to study medicine. She comes to Leningrad because she would not be admitted to the local medical school without a huge bribe, despite being the high school valedictorian. But in Leningrad, the anti-Semitism is less rampant than in Ukraine, and finally she is admitted to the Leningrad medical school.

Berman-Tsikinovsky possesses the unique talent of writing stories in a very condensed way, with simplicity and clearness available to only a few great writers. The last page of this short story is written in poetic prose. Like Pushkin’s Tatiana, Fira would have given up everything that had happened since then – emigration, her wonderful career, her second marriage, everything that was meaningful in her life – for one moment of fearless youth and the blissful happiness of first love.

Berman-Tsikinovsky’s poetic prose reaches the highest level in “Nine Lyrical Etudes”, in which the narrative style cinematographically mixes the past and the present, pregnant with open and hidden connotations, and philosophical, historic and literary allusions. Ultimately, we arrive at a grandiose finale that celebrates the vision of the human mind.

Maria Pia Pagani (Italy). Degree cum laude in Foreign Languages and Literature at University of Pavia (Russian, English), PhD in Modern Philology (XXth cycle n.s.). She is author of many essays about Eastern Europe Theatre and the world of jesters, storytellers and “fools for Christ” in Byzantine-Slavic tradition. She published the monographs: Le maschere della santità. Attori e figure del sacro nel teatro antico-russo (2004, Cesare Angelini Prize, Youth Section), I mestieri di Pantalone. La fortuna della maschera tra Venezia e la Russia (2007, Youth prize for study and research about Popular Culture in Veneto), Un treno per Eleonora Duse (2008). She realized the first Italian edition of I santi dell’antica Russia (2000) by Georgij Fedotov, and the volume Starec Afanasij. Un folle in Cristo dei nostri giorni (2005). Collaboration for the Italian edition of L’Apocalisse (2005) by Andrej Tarkovskij, with preface by Mario Luzi. She is the Italian translator of Michail Berman-Cikinovskij, for whom edited the novel Il tempo in prestito. Biografia di un medico scrittore tra Char’kov e Chicago (2008), the collection of poems Emigrai in Occidente. Ricordi in versi di un esule sovietico (2008), the three dramatic collections Il teatro di Devon Avenue. Scene di vita russa a Chicago (2009), Vita, morte, eternità. Trilogia drammatica di Pietrogrado (2009), Destini in scena tra Roma, Costantinopoli e Mosca. Miscellanea di testi teatrali con un dramma in versione bilingue (2010), and the collection of short stories Storie di migranti fra URSS e USA (2010). In 2003 she received the Prize for Youth Researcher in memory of Maria Corti, and in 2006 the International Prize ‘Foyer des Artistes’ for her study and translation in Eastern Europe Theatre and Literature. Personal page in www.academia.edu

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