NABOKV-L post 0011979, Sun, 23 Oct 2005 16:45:25 -0700

Subject
Nabokov & Pushkin's great-grandfather Gannibal
Date
Body
From slave to Slav

Hugh Barnes and Frances Somers Cocks present parallel investigations into
Pushkin's African great-grandfather in Gannibal and The Moor of St
Petersburg. Philip Marsden is enthralled

Saturday October 22, 2005
The Guardian


Gannibal: The Moor of Petersburg
by Hugh Barnes
300pp, Profile, £16.99
The Moor of St Petersburg: In the Footsteps of a Black Russian
by Frances Somers Cocks
403pp, Goldhawk Press, £8.99

Alexander Pushkin's African ancestry gave him a certain allure when he was
alive and has continued to do so long after his death. His great-grandfather
styled himself Abram Petrovich Gannibal (the last name mutating into Russian
from "Hannibal"), had been sold in Constantinople as a slave, served at the
court of the Ottoman Sultan, was freed, taken to St Petersburg, became a
favourite of Peter the Great and forged a very distinguished career as a
military engineer just as Russia was rising to its full imperial height.

All this is undisputed. When the story is traced back to its
pre-Constantinople stages, into the interior of 17th-century Africa, it
becomes a little less clear. The trail vanishes into a confusion of very
slight references, half-recorded sultanates and shifting kingdoms. But
origin-hunting being the compulsive sport it is, and Pushkin's genius being
so enduring, the question has continued to draw packs of literary hounds to
the chase.
Until recently, it was widely believed that Gannibal was from Ethiopia. The
flowery account of his own son-in-law claimed as much. The notion hardened
into something like fact in 1899, when Dmitry Anuchin wrote a centenary
essay on Pushkin and his origins. Anuchin took Gannibal's own passing
reference to his native city town of "Lagone" and concluded that it was
probably Logo in northern Ethiopia, now in the border region with Eritrea.

As part of his somewhat eccentric translating of Eugene Onegin, Vladimir
Nabokov questioned the solidity of Anuchin's thesis. He casually suggested
that it was just as likely to have been "the Lagona region of equatorial
Africa, south of Lake Chad". But the Ethiopian connection has persisted. For
Pushkin's bicentenary in 1999, the Russian Institute in Addis Ababa
campaigned for a commemorative set of stamps to be issued by the Ethiopian
post office. A street in the capital was also named after the poet, and now
a rather small, tousle-haired statue stands atop its fluted column on a
nearby traffic island. The Ethiopians themselves have been slow to pick up
the excitement surrounding their great "kinsman". Those studying in the
Soviet Union were exposed to it, and at least one subsequently called his
son Pushkin. But the new statue is not even glanced at by the muleteers and
street children that throng around it each day, and ask an Addis taxi-driver
to take you to Pushkin Street and he will stare at you blankly.

The Ethiopian case has become shakier of late. Anuchin's advocacy has been
exposed as racially based ("hamitic" Ethiopian origins being more likely to
explain Gannibal's success than "negroid"). Meanwhile Nabokov's remark has
gained weight. A Russian expert from Benin, Dieudonné Gnammankou, has
revealed that the pattern of the slave trade around Lake Chad at least makes
that region a more likely candidate than Gondarene Ethiopia.

Both Hugh Barnes and Frances Somers Cocks have expended a great deal of
sweat, air miles and library hours trying to pinpoint the birthplace of
Abram Petrovich. They are probably the only two Gannibal-hunters to have
examined each of the two areas. They are almost certainly the only ones to
have followed his trail so exhaustively not only in Africa, but also
Istanbul, Moscow, St Petersburg and Siberia.

Barnes appears to come down in favour of the central Africa option. His
moment of revelation takes place during talks with the current Sultan of
Logone-Birni, to the south of Lake Chad. Scholars have long pondered the
strange inscription on the crest that Gannibal adopted for himself in
Russia. Beneath a caparisoned elephant are the letters FVMMO. Barnes asks
the sultan if it could possibly mean "elephant" in his Kotoko language. A
Kotoko origin for the word would clinch the origin question. No, says the
sultan, it does not mean "elephant" - it means "homeland". It is, as
presented in his book, the most dramatic incident in all of Barnes's
researches.

But it is not conclusive. A year or so later Somers Cocks also sits before
the sultan. He is amused by the sudden literary interest in his family and
has called one of his many sons Pushkin. Somers Cocks receives a different
translation of FVMMO and offers another explanation. It could be Latin, she
says, the acronym of a motto: Fortuna Vitam Meam Mutavit Oppido ("fortune
has changed my life in the city").

The real location of Abram's origins will probably never be proved. For all
their efforts, the tireless sleuthing of these two authors only confirms the
mystery. Others will come up with their theories. African boys yet unborn
will be named Pushkin; plaques and statues will appear in unsuspecting
towns.

Abram's career in imperial Russia is much better documented, and it forms
the most substantial part of Barnes's gripping book. It is an astonishing
story and one that would merit re-telling even without his connection to
Pushkin. Barnes delivers it with great panache and wide reference.

In 1708, Peter the Great commissioned a battlefield portrait following his
victory over the Swedes at Lesnaya. He is shown with Prince Alexander
Menshikov. Standing in front of the prince's horse is a dark-faced boy in
the uniform of the Preobrazhensky guards, fresh from his part in a crucial
ambush. Gannibal was then just 12 years old. Throughout his teens Gannibal
remained remarkably close to the tsar. He became his godson, acted as his
private secretary, special envoy and spy. His ability to wake at the
slightest noise led to him share the tsar's bedroom in order to record the
imperial nocturnal musings. As the tsar's favourite at court he attracted a
great deal of attention. Boyars queued at his door to win his favour.

All this time, he was studying. He read Newton, Spinoza and Descartes. He
became fascinated by mathematics and logic. He produced a manual of
cryptography. He travelled with Peter the Great to Paris, stayed on, was
forced to flee his debtors and the city on foot, joined the French army, was
quickly promoted and used his ideas on artillery to help ensure victory over
the Spanish in the Pyrenees. The Nègre du Czar returned to Paris a war hero.

Back in Russia, military engineering became the backbone of his career. He
wrote a two-volume technical work, Geometry and Fortification, was made
major-general and appointed chief of artillery and fortification for the
entire Russian army. In 1762, he performed his last act for the Romanovs. It
was the grand celebration for concluding peace with the Prussians and
Gannibal, pyrotechnician to the court, had organised a vast firework display
over the Neva. As he lit them, so Peter III issued him with a letter of
dismissal. Gannibal had finally fallen from favour. He retired to the
country and lived out his last melancholy years walking and reading, trying
to write his memoirs, ever fearful of the knock on the door from the secret
police.

Through Gannibal, Barnes presents a wonderfully vivid picture of Russia at
its most progressive, during the greatest of its periodic spurts of
expansionist secularism. Gannibal's early position at court perfectly
reflects the inclusive spirit of that age, his own studies and innovations
represent the brief flowering of Russian Enlightenment thought. His later
demotion shows how redundant that thought could be in the byzantine world of
the Russian court.

Somers Cocks's quest for Gannibal is no less committed. By bus, taxi, camel,
tramp-steamer and train she travelled from Ethiopia to Siberia. She did it
in stages over several years, filling the holidays from her day-job as a
primary school teacher. She has also written two very charming children's
novels on the adventures of "Abraham Hannibal".

Her book is at heart a wide-ranging travelogue, full of the hazards of
lecherous sea-captains, the trials of Russian train rides and dollar-a-night
flophouses. But she has researched the subject tirelessly and is not shy of
revisionism. The young Gannibal, she suggests, was not an elite servant of
the seraglio but an ordinary houseboy at the Topkapi Palace.

She concludes her journey with some of Pushkin's closing lines to Eugene
Onegin: "And my companion, so mysterious / Goodbye to you, my true ideal."
Her passion for Gannibal and the fairytale elements of his life shine from
her book and give it great impact. She clearly relishes the gaps in his
story and is thrilled by his dramatic spanning of two such vastly different
worlds. She is wise to imply that the precise nature of that first world
will remain a mystery.

· Philip Marsden's most recent book is The Chains of Heaven: An Ethiopian
Romance (HarperCollins). To order Gannibal for £15.99 or The Moor of St
Petersburg for £8.99, both with free UK p&p, call Guardian book service on
0870 836 0875.

----- End forwarded message -----