This novella was my favorite book, when I grew up in the Soviet Union. Since its first publication in 1923, it’s had numerous adaptations in Russia, including a super-popular movie and a ballet. Now, it also has an annual festival in St. Petersburg named after it. The festival – a gala for high school graduates – takes place in the middle of June, during a prom night, a white night in St. Petersburg. The highlight of the night is when a ship under scarlet sails cruises along the Neva River, and spectacular fireworks coruscate overhead. Ironically, in the last few years, the title role of the ship has been played not by a Russian vessel but by the Swedish brig Tre Kronor.
The simple story has two protagonists: Assol and Gray. The dreamer Assol, a poor girl in the fishing village of Kaperna, doesn’t fit among her dull, hardworking neighbors, and they wouldn’t forgive her for that. Suspecting that her inner world is much more beautiful than theirs, they react in a thoroughly human way: they mock and scorn her. But her dreams are her refuge. One of them is about a prince, coming to her on a magnificent ship with scarlet sails. A ridiculous dream, isn’t it?
Gray is an heir to a considerable fortune. He lives with his parents in a castle, with a score of tutors and servants, but he dreams too – of becoming a sailor and roaming the seas. His mom and dad don’t understand him, so he runs away from home and makes his dream come true. Later, after a chance encounter in Kaperna, he, already a captain of his own ship, makes Assol’s dream come true as well.
Never before, a big ship came to this shore, and this ship carried the same scarlet sails the name of which had represented an insult for so long. Now those sails blazed. Innocent like a fact, they clearly and irrevocably denied all the laws of nature and common sense. (translated from Russian by me)
The plotline is lyrical and romantic – a fairy tale about the power of dreams. The heroes are more archetypes than breathing people, but the writer’s voice is marvelous, expressive and emotional. His words are so evocative they touch your soul. You could almost see every scene, breathe the salty air, hear the gulls scream. Every detail is like a tiny butterfly infused with radiance.
I noticed that the reviews are sharply divided. Some readers wouldn’t accept this little story; it’s too simplistic, too symbolic for them. It doesn’t have enough conflict. Its narrative is too flowery. Assol is too passive.
Others (like me) sing dithyrambs to it…for the same reasons: it is simplistic and symbolic, its descriptions are eloquent like poems, and there is no overt conflict. The tension thrums underneath the entire story, like waves under a pier – invisible but tangible. The adversities the heroes face are subtle. There are no villains, no battles, no chases. Just dreams vs. real life. Do you know a deeper conflict? Or a deeper joy, when the dreams win against reality? And Assol – the supposedly passive one (but she’s not, not deep inside, where it counts) – has inspired many more artistic interpretations than any other heroine of Russian literature.
The popularity of this short book (only seven chapters) in Russia is hard to overrate. Unfortunately, it’s not easily available in English. Furthermore, I’ve heard that the existing English translation is no good. So I translated this book into English myself to share it with my friends. You can find it on my website: http://olgagodim.wordpress.com/translation-scarlet-sails/