That Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky was one of the best writers of the last century, the small part of his work that has so far appeared in English translation is quite sufficient to establish. Here is a little puzzle from his Letter Killers Club, written in the 1920s and now available in English as an NYRB Classic, translated by Joanne Turnbull. (The Russian word translated “letter” in the title refers to letters of the alphabet, not missives, etc.)

At the beginning of Chapter 5, the narrator says that of the seven “nonsense syllables” that serve the members of the club as names, the syllable Rar belonging to the unique member with whom he feels kinship is “the only one of them to suggest a meaning” (or “remind one of some meaning,” “…a kind of meaning”: напоминало о каком-то смысле). What meaning? Neither the Russian nor the English edition has a note on the point. Perhaps it is clear to a native speaker; I can only note that there seems to be no Russian root of the form r-vowel-r. Let me then offer two possibilities; if anyone has a better one, I would welcome it.

First, the syllable Rar is similar to the title R.U.R., the famous play about robots that came out a few years before the Letter Killers Club (as Caryl Emerson notes in the Introduction). Of course the word robot is Slavic in origin; the Russian root is rab, “work,” “slave.” The theme of human, or human-like, automata occupies Chapter 4, towards the end of which the narrator says to Rar, “You’re the only one of them whom I think of as human” (more literally: “of whom I think: human being“); the expression is echoed by the remark we are pursuing, which follows soon after. Here are the two originals:

Вы единственный среди них, о котором я думаю: ч е л о в е к.

… самое имя его … единственное среди всех их имен напоминало о каком-то смысле …

So perhaps Rar’s name suggests the robots from whom he is distinguished; or the humanity even a robot can develop, as in the play.

Secondly, the word Rar has the unusual property that in Russian (Cyrillic) printing it looks like an English word, at least in the nominative and genitive cases: Рар, Papa. In the midst of a Russian text it therefore leaps to the eye of a reader familiar with English (as Krzhizhanovsky was). Here, for example, is the beginning of Chapter 5 (from

Сначала было я решил не посещать более суббот “Клуба убийц букв”. Но к концу недели мысль об Pape заставила меня перерешить. С первого же вечера этот неповторимый в его своеобразии человек показался мне нужным и значимым: самое имя его, как ни притворялось оно бессмысленным слогом, единственное среди всех их имен напоминало о каком-то смысле; но адресный стол не обменял бы мне его на адрес. Мне необходимо было увидеть Papa, хотя бы раз, и сказать до конца: ведь он не их, а наш: зачем ему оставаться среди убийц и исказителей? Сначала рукопись, а потом и… мне необходима была встреча с Раром. И так как возможна она была лишь там – меж черного каре пустых книжных полок, – то с наступлением субботы я решил – в последний раз, говорил я себе, – присутствовать на заседании клуба.

Когда я вошел в круг собравшихся, Рар, сидевший уже на своем привычном месте, с удивлением поднял на меня глаза. Я попробовал удержать его взгляд, но он тотчас же отвернулся с видом полной выключенности и равнодушия.

So perhaps by its printed form Rar’s name suggests a closer kinship than the general one between two humans. After all, the narrator does look up to him, and turns to him for the answers he feels he needs in order to keep on living.

Later: Karen Rosenflanz, author of the impressive Hunter of Themes: The Interplay of Word and Thing in the Works of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, points out a far simpler interpretation. The name evokes English “rare,” German “rar,” in view of the impression made by Rar on the narrator: in the passage quoted above he calls Rar неповторимый в его своеобразии, “singularly original” (Turnbull) or “inimitable in his singularity/originality.”