European studies blog

Exploring Europe at the British Library

25 April 2024

“The hands want to see, the eyes want to caress”. Braille books in Slavonic collections 1

The British Library is committed to creating an inclusive reading experience. We collect audiobooks and braille materials in various languages and forms and are always on the lookout for new and exciting titles. This post and a second one will feature rare and first-edition braille books in our Slavonic collections. Here we hope to shed some light on the extraordinary life of a largely unknown blind Ukrainian author often likened to such literary giants as Hans Christian Andersen and Oscar Wilde. The second post will touch on the publishing history of a book by a writer who needs no introduction. Without further delay, we invite print and braille readers, children and adults alike, to embark with us on a fascinating journey beginning in the sleepy village of Obukhovka, across vast swathes of Asia and Russia, all the way to Middle-earth, and back again.

The story begins on a frosty January day in 1890 when a third child is born into a family of a wealthy Ukrainian landowner in imperial Russia, Iakov Eroshenko and his Russian wife. The boy, later known to literary enthusiasts in Japan and China as Ero-san and Ailuoxianke respectively, is christened Vasilii. Four years later, tragedy strikes the Eroshenko family when little Vasia loses his vision to measles. Later in life, he would remark: “I hazily remember seeing only four things: the sky, pigeons, the church where they roosted, and my mother’s face. Not too much…But that always inspired and inspires me to seek out pure thoughts - thoughts as pure as the sky - and always made me remember my homeland as well as my mother’s face, in whichever corner of the world Fate cast me.”

Photograph of Eroshenko as a young man wearing a military-style tunic

Vasilii Eroshenko. (Image from http://pmu.in.ua/nogroup/eroshenko/)

Sepia photograph of a church with a group of men standing outside

The Church of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul in Obukhovka. Built circa 1842, it burned down in 1946. It must have been the silhouette that was etched in Eroshenko’s memory (Image from https://sokm.org.ru/vystavki/virtualnye-vystavki/782-obuhovskie-remesla#)

Young Eroshenko proved precocious throughout his schooling. Blindness had taught the future anarchist and anti-imperialist to take everything with a pinch of salt and to question authority. In 1900, he started attending the prestigious imperial Moscow School for the Blind, where he received training in arts, music and sciences. While there , he also mastered braille and conceived his first literary pieces, painstakingly pricking words into paper with a needle. After graduating in 1908, Eroshenko decided to try his hand at music. He started to earn a living playing second violin for a blind orchestra in Moscow. Rumour has it that he paid a substantial part of his income to a poor actor who would read him books unavailable in braille script.

Photograph of Eroshenko playing the violin, accompanied by a woman on the piano

Eroshenko playing the violin (image from http://pmu.in.ua/nogroup/eroshenko/)

Vasilii’s life took a sharp turn when he crossed paths with the sister-in-law of Leo Tolstoy’s biographer and disciple, Pavel Ivanovich Briukov. Anna Sharapova, who was one of the pioneers of Esperanto in Russia, decided to teach the language to the gifted violinist. Esperanto was invented in 1873 by the Polish ophthalmologist L.L. Zamenhof, who believed that a universal, politically and culturally neutral language would erase communication barriers and relieve international tensions. Eroshenko found Zamenhof’s ideas compelling and soon became a devout Esperantist. Having learnt from Anna about the prospect of continuing his education at the Royal National College for the Blind in England, Vasilii pinned the green Esperanto star onto the lapel of his jacket and set out to London. From then on, the star would guide him, often quite literally, to his distant destinations.

In London, Eroshenko learned about the respect blind people enjoy in Japan. Intrigued, he soon started planning his next trip. He returned to Moscow, where he began taking Japanese classes. In April 1914, he boarded a ship in Vladivostok and headed to Tokyo. Once settled in the Japanese capital, he supported himself by teaching Esperanto and lecturing on Russian literature and women’s emancipation. He also wrote short stories for major Japanese magazines. However, it was not long before he became active in revolutionary circles seeking to undermine Japan’s colonial efforts in East Asia. In 1921, he was accused of threatening national security and social order and was expelled from the country. His stories Vuz’ka klitka (The Narrow Cage) and Orlyni dushi (An Eagle’s Heart) appeared in print in the same year.

Cover of 'Vuzka klitka' wityh a picture of a tiger in the mountains

Cover of Vasilii Eroshenko, Vuzʹka klitka: kazky (Kharkiv, 2016). YF.2016.b.1727

Eroshenko’s stories reflect his view that social ills result from colonial oppression, marginalization of the poor and disabled, and racial inequality. Vuz’ka klitka ponders the question of freedom and free will. The image of an enraged tiger killing and wreaking havoc in the name of freedom and brotherhood is disturbingly familiar. Orlyni dushi juxtaposes the human and natural worlds and offers a sharp critique of imperialism. Its opening: “There once was a mountain kingdom that was ruled by its larger, more powerful neighbour” is also a chilling one in the context of the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Cover of 'Orlyni dushi' with an illustration of two eagles on a rock

Cover of Vasilii Eroshenko, Orlyni dushi: kazky (Kharkiv, 2016). YF.2016.b.1726

As I flick through the milky pages, I cannot help but admire the author’s vivid storytelling and simple yet evocative language. Both stories were written in Japanese, but, for various political and ideological reasons, the Ukrainian translations have always relied on earlier Russian translations. Those, in turn, were based on Chinese versions. Inevitably, Eroshenko’s voice got muffled and distorted along the way, making it hard to disentangle his legacy from that of his translators. The copies we hold, proudly adorned with blue-and-yellow ribbon bookmarks, are the first Ukrainian translations made from the Japanese originals. The translator and scholar of Eroshenko’s work, Iuliia Patlan’, makes a valid point in the preface arguing that this makes them much more faithful to the author’s voice. The Ukrainian text translated from Eroshenko’s original Japanese was titled Vuz’ka klitka to distinguish it from Tisna klitka, Nadiia Andrianova-Hordiienko's 1969 translation from Russian. Both books have print on one side and braille on the other so that a sighted person can read to a child, and they can follow along.

Opening from Vuz’ka klitka showing parallel printed and braille text

Opening from Vuz’ka klitka showing parallel printed and braille text

Before settling in the Soviet Union in 1924, Eroshenko had a brief stint in Europe and spent a couple of years in China, where he befriended the modernist author and radical thinker Lu Xun. The blind globetrotter was not met with much fanfare in his homeland. Soviet Esperantists were deemed a threat to the Communist Party, mainly for their transnational networks, which were believed to be swarming with spies. Eroshenko’s refusal to cooperate with the Soviet Secret Services came with a hefty price, as most of the author’s personal archives were confiscated and destroyed. The author, whose life resembled a fairy-tale quest for meaning, departed on his final journey on December 23, 1952. He was buried in his native Obukhovka, unrecognised as a storyteller in Ukraine and Russia. It was not until a translator, Vladimir Rogov, learned about a mysterious ‘Ailuoxianke’ in Lu-Xun’s The Comedy of the Ducks that the dots finally connected, and Eroshenko started to gain the recognition he deserved.

Vasilii Eroshenko did not let his disability limit or define him. Although his short stories may lack the happy endings that we all look for in fairy tales, his fascinating life reads as a beautiful ode to hope and resilience and carries a heart-warming message that light will always prevail over darkness.

Hanna Dettlaff-Kuznicka, Interim Curator of Slavonic and East European Collections

Andrew F. Jones, Developmental fairy tales: evolutionary thinking and modern Chinese culture (London, 2011). YC.2011.a.7404 (Includes an English translation (from Chinese) of Vuz’ka klitka)

Julija Patlanj, ‘Vasilii Yakovlevich Eroshenko’, Kontakto (March, 2005)

Adam Kuplowsky, The Narrow Cage and Other Modern Fairy Tales (New York, 2023)

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