The Ratcatcher: A lyrical satire

Marina Tsevetaeva (1891–1941) is acknowledged as one of the greatest of Russian poets. Like much of the most original Russian literature written since 1917, however, her narrative poem The Ratcatcher remained unpublished in Russia for some decades.

Tsevetaeva wrote this extraordinary work, which she subtitled ‘a lyrical satire’, in Prague and Paris in the mid-1920s. Using the story known to us as ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’, she pits Art against Philistinism in a critique of all social search for material prosperity (including that of the Bolsheviks). Even for the innovative Tsvetaeva, this is quite a new kind of writing – an explosion of clashing sounds, voices and rhythms, fuelled by anger and bitter sarcasm. At the end the Piper, who stands for the magical power of Art, takes a terrible toll on the children of the town of Hamelin – neat, comfort-loving, hypocritical and reluctant to pay its debts.

The critic D. S. Mirsky saw The Ratcatcher as ‘the first really successful attempt to emancipate the language of Russian poetry from the tyranny of Greek, Latin and French …’, and found in it ‘wit in the most imaginative 17th-century meaning of the word’. This peak of Tsvetaeva’s verse has hitherto been virtually unknown in English. Angela Livingstone, long associated with 20th-century Russian poetry and with Tsvetaeva in particular, brilliantly recreates its wild music.

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‘This translation is just dazzling;­ it inspires absolute confidence. I enjoyed and admired it most intensely … I should never have anticipated your skill with the cracklingly concrete, colloquial, immediate, and elliptical brilliance of this piece.’ ­ – Michael Frayn, letter to the translator

‘For the first time we have a readable Tsvetaeva which persuades us that she must have been a very great poet.’ – Lachlan MacKinnon, Times Literary Supplement

‘I think this is the very pinnacle of the art of translation; what translation of poetry should be but rarely is … Angela Livingstone’s version is so close in meaning to the original that I don’t see the liberties playing a major role here. Rhythm, rhyme and the meaning – everything is so much like the original, it’s almost … well, if not supernatural, then superb.’ – Nina Kossman

‘Reading Russian poetry in translation, I often have mixed feelings. The joy of discovery is quickly blotted out by vexation, and after a few dozen lines persistent annoyance sets in … Rarely, it is otherwise. In a finely tuned line of verse in the target language the style of the original begins to tremble with life, the incomparable music of Russian syllabo-tonic poetry, and then the original not only shines through the dense layers of a foreign linguistic element but seems to stand on a level with it, as if two brothers were comparing heights together. The first impulse is then to look at the translator’s name, and next, to go to the original to compare texts and admire the talent – of the poet or the translator? … Of both. This was my experience when this English translation of Tsvetaeva’s Ratcatcher fell into my hands … Hats off to Angela Livingstone!’ – Sergey Nikolaev, Rostov State University