Mahogany (Krasnoe Derevo) by Boris Pil'niak, 1929

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MAHOGANY (Krasnoe derevo)
by Boris Pil'niak, 1929

Boris Pil'niak's "Mahogany" ("Krasnoe derevo") defies attempts to place it within the confines of a well-defined literary form. It certainly comes across as a relatively long story in the category of short fiction. Neither the European term "novella" nor the Russian povest' can accommodate its decidedly modern form. It has no central characters and no coherent plot, and the narrator mixes stylistic levels as well as ideological assumptions cleverly enough to efface himself. It is constructed as an elaborate collage, with the events and characters loosely related to each other through a small number of leitmotivs. One overriding concern—material and spiritual dispossession—prevails, however.

The title refers to eighteenth-and nineteenth-century mahogany furniture that outlives its builders and its owners and represents some permanence amid confusion and transitoriness. The chairs, tables, and wardrobes that two Moscow art dealers buy from the residents of a town in the country had witnessed Russian history in the making. Russian peasants were originally sent to Europe in the eighteenth century to learn the craft of carpentry. Upon their return to the primitive conditions of their homeland, they adapted their skill to meet local needs and created an indigenous Russian mahogany style. The knowledge was handed down from generation to generation, and the furniture ended up in the homes of the nobility and of the merchant class.

As the narrator of the story accounts for the fate of pieces of furniture that pass into the possession of the antique dealers, Russian history becomes a prominent theme. The liberation of the serfs in 1861 signaled the rise of the furniture factory and the end of privately built pieces. By the beginning of the 1920s mahogany chairs and tables had become treasured antiques that their owners sometimes had to sell at prices greatly under their value. Faced with starvation, people parted with cherished objects and artworks.

The story takes place in a town the narrator keeps referring to as the "medieval Russian Bruges, imperial Russia's Kamakura." Allusions to a Japanese and a Belgian city point to the division of Russia geographically and spiritually between East and West. Furthermore, Bruges, immortalized in literature by Georges Rodenbach, also symbolizes the "dead city." The narrator never directly refers to the city of the story by its real name, Uglich. Lying by a river in the heart of the Russian countryside, the town looks back on a dark history, for the last member of the Rurik dynasty, Tsarevich Dmitri, was murdered there. Boris Godunov, the murderer, "sentenced" the church bells to death. His work is completed in the 1920s as, during the course of events in the story, the bells are destroyed and the carillon heard no more. People outside the new power hierarchy of the Communist party face severe discrimination. The narrator paints a devastating picture of the corrupt ruling elite, who live in seclusion to hide their luxuries from the eyes of the public, whose wealth they embezzle and waste. In equally lucid terms the narrator uncovers the sufferings and destruction of the peasantry even before the full brunt of collectivization.

An ominous, dark, and mud-filled world surrounds the town. As communism, an original European import, takes hold and develops its indigenous Russian variety, much as mahogany furniture had done two centuries earlier, daily customs reflecting the pre-Petrine spirit of Russia's austere Domostroi retain their tight grip over the older generation. The young unlearn the old values, but nothing replaces them.

The only people who have faith are the okhlomon s, a group of mentally unbalanced men who supported the revolution during the civil war but who became profoundly disillusioned with the Soviet state. They own nothing and live in a commune. Like his predecessors, the holy fools who were much venerated by superstitious Russian folk, the chief okhlomon seems to be endowed with prophetic powers, and he predicts a "time of troubles."

"Mahogany" resembles a painting whose fragments create a lasting impression as they mutually illuminate one another. They radiate a sense of melancholy before the approaching storm of the worst excesses of Stalinism in the 1930s. The okhlomon 's dark forebodings become real, for Pil'niak was one of the first writers to be arrested and killed in the 1930s.

Peter I. Barta