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One of the most important books in my early childhood was transgenerational: our parents grew up with it and passed it on to us, for who knows what reasons, because it was profoundly obsolete by the time I read it. It was origibally published in 1939. But I think we all loved it despite and not because. It was called What I Saw and was a fictionalised, narrativised encyclopedia for a young Soviet citizen. The storyline was a young boy who travels with his mother from a little provincial town to Moscow to see the marvels of the new Communist state. It is told in first-person, naïve voice, with fully developed defamiliarisation, presenting the world a new and exciting. As I see now, it was a remarkably upper-class story given its propagandist agenda: first-class railway sleeper, luxury hotel and other details which, with the knowledge of poverty and terror of the times when it was written feels disgustingly hypocritical. But of course I didn't reflect on these things when I was a child. All the information the book offered, all the horisons it opened, and the lovable character! The only thing that disturbed me was the character's name, Alyosha. Since the cover clearly stated that the author's name was Boris I could not get around the fact that he called himself Alyosha. It sounded unnatural and false. There is research on young children's problems with deixis, and I am a good example. I hated books told in first person in which the author pretended to be someone else. Since What I Saw had an ambivalent fictional status it contributed to my confusion.
I generally had issues with names because although some books I liked had protagonists named Masha, I was uncomfortable about the ownership of my name. It is a very common name, and there were several namesakes among my friends and classmates, but I always felt that a fictional character had appropriated my name and somehow exposed me to the world, in a false identity. One of the favourite books was called About the girl Masha, the dog Cockerel and the cat Thread (it doesn't sound half as awkward in Russian), written by one of the major poets of the Russian avant-guard, Alexander Vvedensky. I didn't know it then of course, and I learned it by mere chance, because sources interested in the avant-guard don't take children's books into account. And it wasn't an avant-guard book, but a very artless, warm story about this five-year-old girl, Masha, and her father the pilot, her mother the painter, her brother and her pets. The main conflict of the story is that the mother gets ill and must change climate for the winter so Masha travels to the Black Sea and makes some new friends. Again, for a book published in 1937 it is rather idyllic.
I have done what we ask our students to do. I have re-read the book. (It is available online). Of course, I cried floods. It all came back to me, the words, the mental images, the sounds, the taste of milk and the smell of the summer meadow. I can see why this book is still in print. I wish I had read it to my children. It is a kind book, unpretentious, simple – in the best sense of the word. It has humour, and it does not talk down to the reader. And something I had forgotten: Masha is a poet. I was a poet too when I was five. I could connect to it. I could also connect to Masha being teased with a rhyme: “Masha – kasha” (porridge). I now remember that I envied Masha because she had a dog and a cat.