So I’ve recently gotten my hands on an old Soviet storybook. Call it a family heirloom – my father found it in a box of his old stuff, and apparently it was bought over by some uncles of his who were involved in the Australian Communist Party. But what is The Pike Commands actually about?
The Pike Commands is about Yemelya, a lazy fool, who takes mercy upon a talking fish in exchange for some magic words that will ensure that whatever he wants to happen will happen. The phrase Yemelya is learns is ‘The pike commands and I demands.’ With this incantation the fool gets an axe to chop wood and wood to be chopped, and before that he tells pails to fill themselves with fresh water, which they do so, growing tiny human legs in the process. Perhaps inevitably, the fool abuses this power by forcing the Tsar’s daughter to fall in love with him.
A picture book lives or dies on its illustrations, but not literally. I’ve scanned some images to be uploaded here, hoping that it will fall under Fair Use in the copyright law of my country. Some of these you might want to use for your desktop background.
That’s Yemelya riding his oven. Apparently in Russia they sleep on these things like warm beds. I have no idea to what degree this goes on in modern Russia. Any situation involving snow is miles beyond my ken. According to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, who are cool enough to own the same book I do, all these pictures were drawn by Tatiana Alekseevna Mavrina, so props to her.
After Yemelya visits the Tsar and is incredibly rude to him, the ruler demands that he be put in a barrel and thrown to sea. The Tsar’s daughter, hypnotized by the pike’s power, insists on joining him. This poor woman is the real victim here. I like this picture because there’s something nice and womby about it, and the contrast between the whirling sea and Yemelya’s idiotically relaxed state is pleasing.
Like Aladdin before (or possible after) him, Yemelya uses supernatural means to construct a pretty swish palace. I don’t know what Kevin McCloud would make of this architectural wonder, whether its pinkness breathes the landscape it’s in, but for me the perspective simply doesn’t ring true. It almost looks like a Mad magazine fold-in. Still, a mansion built by magic is bound to get a bit trippy around the edges.
Yemelya and his wife reunite with his family. That horse belongs to one of his older brothers, who I’ve cropped out of the image and is surprisingly nice for an older brother in a fairy tale. The bloke with the gold crown in the boat is the Tsar, coming to apologise to his daughter for throwing her into the ocean. (I hope she doesn’t forgive him, I also hope she smothers Yemelya in his sleep and makes a break for it, otherwise her husband is liable to turn into the ogre from Puss In Boots.) The pike is also there, between the boat and the castle. Now I haven’t mentioned that Yemelya built his fantasy getaway on the desert island his barrel landed on. That means the pike can traverse both freshwater and saltwater waters – truly this is a fish of occult potency!
Did I mention this is a folktale? I’m fairly sure it’s based on a folktale, or this Bulatov person has got the same sort of imagination as people who invent folktales. The magic pike reminds me of the Grimm tale The Fisherman and His Wife, the protagonist of which meets a similarly omnipotent fish that makes his wife Pope before reverting things to their original state, and the Salmon of Knowledge which grants total wisdom to whoever devours it. I have no doubt that somewhere there is a Wikipedia pages that links all these arcane fishes to an Indo-European deity. It’s also worthwhile considering the deeper implications of these godlike swimmers. A being that can make a stove move like a locomotive or turn a fisherwoman into a Pope could doubtless change itself into whatever shape it wants – whether to burrow through the subterranean caves of the Earth like a giant jade mole, frolic in the primordial deep as a transparent squid, zip through the heavens like an aqueous helicopter or even challenge the depths of interstellar space in the form of a philosophizing rocket. That they tend to be fish suggests that being a fish is simply the best and most enjoyable thing to be, and that we would do the same if we were able. (Or perhaps Yemelya’s pike cycles through a range of shapes to mollify it’s great boredom, and its fish state was simply its most vulnerable. And the reason we don’t see more of these omnipresent beings in other forms is that they’re too inaccessible, being underground moles and stuff.) Whatever, it’s fun to think about.
While the story of The Pike Commands lacks tension and is ethically dubious, the great pictures makes the experience worthwhile.