Pelagia and the Patronymics

Do you remember a while ago that I told you I had paid good money for NEW books. I devoured one immediately but the second one had to wait. I have been doggedly reading “Pelagia & the White Bulldog” by Boris Akunin on my brief train journeys to and from work whenever there is no “trainfriend” present. Consequently this book is taking a long time for me to finish. I’m still not sure about it. Is it because I am so easily confused by those Russian names, so many bits of a name for each person.


In case you are a scholarly type, and I’ll have you know I know a few, then maybe this explanation borrowed from Paul Goldschmidt will help:


In modern Russian, names consist of a GIVEN NAME (imia), a PATRONYMIC (otchestvo), and a SURNAME (familiia), but as Tumanova notes quite well: “Russian naming conventions for early period are first name (baptismal name, usually that of a Biblical saint), followed by the everyday or common first name, patronymic, and rarely a surname. Russian naming conventions for mid to late period are first name, patronymic, and surname” (1989: 4). More precisely, Russian names started only as a given name, adding the patronymic around the 10th century, and finally the surname (from the patronymic constructions) only in the late 15th or early 16th century. The surname did not become common, in fact, until the 18th century (Tupikov, 1903: 21-22).1


So is it the vasy array of names for each person that confuses me or is it that my powers of concentration are so very feeble.

Occasionally I stumble into a room to find “My Little Darling” watching such cultural delights as “The OC”. She has long ago lost all patience with me when I exclaim how they all look alike and that I have no idea which dumb blonde shopaholic tart is which or which tousled-haired hunk is going out with her whilst she is secretly sleeping with his millionaire thrice-divorced steely-haired virile step-grandfather. I have managed to get the settings of the book into my head and have already employed the location finders and props buyers to ensure that my in the head film looks stunning. Casting is not so straightforward as so far I’m not even sure how many actors I need to employ. I rather think that this is not going to be a film but a TV version made in two parts where it doesn’t really matter if you saw Part 1 or not. A bit like Midsummer Murders. More or less the same setting but with a different name. More or less the same characters but with different names.


The book is strangely a book of two parts. We have the setting up and our main protagonist arrives and seems to be doing her job and then it is all over and we are only halfway through the book. Maybe all will be made clear but as I have only just ventured into the beginning of Part 2 you will have to wait for my verdict.


If this had been one of my usual charity shop purchases I may well have put it aside but as I said I paid good money for this and I don’t want to waste any pages though I do have to confess, and I can probably do that to Sr Pelagia in the absence of the Bishop, that I have been tempted to skip a few.







2 Responses to “Pelagia and the Patronymics”

  1. Harriet Says:

    I too have huge problems with names in books — Russian ones are the devil, I agree, but even in my recent read of Nana I got muddled with all the Frenchmen, many of whose names seemed dreadfully similar. My old copy of War and Peace had a useful list to refer to — though I hasten to say I have tried to read this book twice (W&P) and both times skipped the war and just read the peace.

  2. ahavajora Says:

    It’s funny; I just began reading Doctor Zhivago and I’m annoyed by all of the ‘Ivan Ivanovitch’-es and the ‘Mikhail Mikhailovitch’-es. My Russian boyfriend explained that you almost never meet a real life Russian named Ivan Ivanovitch, but some authors would use names like that to make it easier for non-Russian audiences to follow.

    I take it as a rite of passage for myself that I have studied enough Russian language, literature, and culture to be annoyed by these artificial names. Though, I’ll admit my first reading of The Brothers Karamazov, my first Russian book, I was infinitely lost with all the patronymics and nicknames and whatnot.

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