If I hadn’t been reading “The Steppe” in Russian, I would never have looked up the word “mazepa.” And if I hadn’t been working hard to read things more closely, I would never have noticed that a very similar word appears as the name of a minor character in “The Cat’s Table.”
In Section VII of “The Steppe,” Yegorushka’s uncle and Father Khristofor have handed the boy over to a group of drivers for a part of the journey. From listening to their conversations, Yegorushka learns that
“…all his new acquaintances, despite their differences in age and character, had one thing in common, which made them resemble one another: they were all people with a beautiful past and a very bad present; all of them to a man spoke with rapture about their past, while they greeted the present almost with scorn. The Russian man likes to remember, but does not like to live; Yegorushka still did not know that, and, before the kasha was eaten, he was already deeply convinced that the people sitting around the cauldron had been insulted and offended by fate.”
One driver, Emelyan, had been a singer in a church choir; his voice ruined by a throat infection, he now makes his living as a driver. Dymov, a rough-and-tumble bully, has been sent out to labor on the steppe by his well-to-do peasant father, who feared he was becoming spoiled. One night, with bad weather coming on, Dymov begins picking on Emelyan, who had been the first to take kasha from the cauldron at dinner. He says, in several insulting ways, that Emelyan is putting on airs. Emelyan finally loses his temper:
“Why are you bothering me, mazepa?” Emelyan flared up. “Am I touching you?”
“What did you call me?” Dymov asked, straightening up, and his eyes became bloodshot. “What? Me a mazepa? Eh? Take this, then!”
According to the end notes in the Pevear and Volkhonsky translation of “The Steppe,” the word “mazepa” means “boor.” This is an understatement of the insult.
Ivan Stepanovich Mazepa (1639-1709), born into a noble Ukrainian family, was for a time the Hetman of the Left-bank Cossacks of Ukraine – fierce, independent-minded warriors living in the steppes. The Ukrainian steppe was a very desirable territory, coveted by the Polish-Lithuanian Protectorate, Sweden, Russia and the Tatars. To protect themselves, the Cossacks of the Left Bank (or eastern side) of the Dnieper River entered into an uneasy alliance with the Russian tsar, Peter the Great. Eventually the alliance soured; Russian military necessity led to poor treatment of the Cossacks and the presence of a badly-behaved Russian military force in Ukrainian territory. Upon learning that Peter planned to revoke Cossack autonomy and replace the hetman with his best friend, Aleksandr Menshikov, Mazepa led a band of some 3,000 Cossacks over to the combined Swedish and Polish forces that opposed Peter at the Battle of Poltava. In retribution, Peter ordered the Cossack town of Baturyn sacked and razed; the dead Cossacks were tied to crosses and floated down the Dnieper as a warning. The Russian Orthodox church also excommunicated Mazepa, issuing an “anathema” against him that has never been lifted.
So, while the word “mazepa” may be translated as “boor,” its connotations of treason and excommunication render the insult far more powerful than the word “boor” suggests in English. Debate over whether Mazepa was an early Ukrainian nationalist or an opportunistic traitor continues in Ukraine to this day.
The story of Mazepa gave rise to the romantic legend that the young Mazepa had an affair with Therese, Madame Falbowska, while he was serving as a page at the Polish royal court. When the affair was exposed, the countess’s elderly husband ordered Mazepa stripped and tied to a horse, which was then put to a gallop – nearly killing both horse and its unwilling rider. The legend inspired poems by Pushkin (“Poltava”), on which Tchaikovsky based his opera Mazeppa; Lord Byron and Victor Hugo both wrote poems titled “Mazeppa”; Hugo’s poem inspired the challenging Transcendental Etude (for piano) No. 4, “Mazeppa,” by Franz Liszt.
The insult “mazepa” drives Yegorushka, who has been teased and bullied by Dymov, into a frenzied rage. The boy shouts at Dymov, consigns him to hell, stamps his foot in a tantrum, and then runs to the wagons, where he cries bitterly for his mother.
“He was terrified and asked himself in despair how and why he had ended up in an unknown land in the company of frightening muzhiks….The thought that he was forgotten and abandoned to the mercy of fate made him feel cold and so eerie that several times he was about to jump off the bale and run headlong back down the road without looking back…And only when he whispered, ‘Mama! Mama!’ did he seem to feel better….”
The incident between the musician who has fallen on hard times and the bully Dymov is the catalyst for Yegorushka’s first outpouring of real sorrow over the change in his life. However, the word “mazepa” is never repeated in the story. By the end of Section VII of “The Steppe,” Yegorushka has been returned to the company of his uncle. Chekhov declines to speculate on the ultimate fate of the drivers. They are simply fellow-travelers, met on the road, who share bits of their happy past and their unfortunate present with young Yegorushka, in a way that enhances our understanding of the boy’s own feelings about his past and his present. The use of the insult “mazepa,” with its connotations of exile and excommunication, deepens the sense of Yegorushka’s exile, abandonment, and severing of ties with a happy past.
Because I like the music of the word “mazepa,” and enjoyed reading about the history and the legends associated with the word and listening to some of the music it inspired, when I read the last name “Mazappa” in the excerpt of Ondaatje’s forthcoming novel published in The New Yorker, it fairly jumped off the page at me.
Like Chekhov’s Emelyan, Ondaatje’s Mr. Mazappa is a “pianist who cheerfully claimed ‘to have hit the skids.’” Mr. Mazappa, who sits at “the cat’s table” with the narrator, two other boys, and other low-prestige travelers, received a discount on his passage from Colombo to England because he plays with the ship’s orchestra in the evenings. To earn more money, Mr. Mazappa also gives piano lessons. The narrator is fond of him in the vague, childish way that Yegorushka is fond of Emelyan. He is also a catalyst for actions that drive the story forward, and in his advice to the boys we have our first hint about one possible significance of the voyage for the narrator:
“After that first meal, he entertained Ramadhin and Cassius and me with tales of his life. It was in Mr. Mazappa’s company, as he regaled us with confusing and often obscene lyrics from songs he knew, that we three came to accept one another. For we were shy and awkward. Not one of us made even a gesture of greeting to the other two until Mr. Mazappa advised us to keep our eyes and ears open, because this voyage would be a great education. Thanks to him, we discovered that we could be curious together.”
And later, we learn that the narrator has begun to see a social distance between some of his traveling companions, much as Yegorushka understands the difference between men like his uncle and the merchant Varlamov and muzhiks like Emelyan and Dymov:
“For the first time in our lives, we were interested in the fate of the upper classes; and gradually it became clear to us that Mr. Mazappa and his musical legends, and Mr. Daniels with his plants, who had until then been like gods to us, were only minor characters, there to witness how those with real power progressed or failed in the world.”
The final words we have from Ondaatje and his narrator and Mr. Mazappa come near the end of the excerpt, when a stray dog the boys brought aboard has ripped out the throat of a wealthy man:
“Emily came over to our table and demanded to know if we had brought the dog onto the ship, and we responded with an attempted look of horror, which made her laugh. The only person who showed no interest in the opinions around him was Mr. Mazappa, who sat mulling over his oxtail soup. His musical fingers were, for once, motionless on the tablecloth.”
Chekhov’s Emelyan has a similar musical tic: from time to time he waves his hands as if he’s conducting an invisible choir.
If Emelyan is a minor character in “The Steppe,” he is still fully realized and significant to the story. Although Ondaatje’s narrator tells us that Mr. Mazappa is a “minor character,” he too is developed and significant – to the point where I don’t entirely trust the narrator’s assessment of his importance.
I’d love to see how Mr. Mazappa’s character progresses in the novel – to find out what he has to say about treason, and exile, and loneliness, and artistic failure. I’d like to know what he will tell me about the things we can learn from our fellow-travelers on a journey. And I’d especially love to see if there are any other parallels between Mr. Mazappa and the characters of “The Steppe.” Had Ondaatje read “The Steppe,” or perhaps one of the Pushkin, Byron or Hugo poems about Hetman Mazepa? Listened to the etude by Liszt, or the Tchaikovsky opera? Perhaps what looks like an interesting parallel or a connection between the two stories (or at least the legend of Hetman Mazepa and “The Cat’s Table”) is entirely a coincidence.
There’s no way to know until The Cat’s Table comes out in October.