Anna Aslanyan


19 November 2019

At the White Hotel

The entrance to the White Hotel, decorated with barbed wire, Union Jack bunting and toilet paper, resembled a border checkpoint. To get in you had to fill in a landing card. The guards were dressed in coveralls, anti-pollution masks and flak jackets with Sooty and Sweep puppets peeking out. We were separated into two quarantine pens. (‘It’s just as well,’ one man said as his companion was led away.) After about an hour the pens were opened and we were ushered into another waiting area. At last a whistle blew. A Morrissey lookalike appeared and sang ‘Everyday is like Sunday’.


16 September 2019

At the ICA

Sergei Loznitsa’s film The Trial is composed from the original footage of one the first Stalinist show trials. The only additions are intertitles, which reveal at the end, for anyone who didn’t already know, that the ‘Industrial Party’ never existed. Some of the footage was used in a 1931 propaganda film directed by Yakov Poselsky (and, as Loznitsa joked in his introduction at the ICA, by Joseph Stalin). A team of investigators worked on producing the show trial for more than a year, drafting the script and coaching the actors. It isn’t clear if the public filling the hall are aware of their role: some listen to the proceedings intently, others fall asleep, some take notes, others shield their eyes when the lights are on them.


20 July 2019

On and around the Moon

‘Why had we come to the moon?’ the narrator of H.G. Wells’s The First Men in the Moon (1901) asks. ‘The thing presented itself to me as a perplexing problem.’ The novel features in The Moon exhibition at the National Maritime Museum, alongside other books that anticipated the space age: Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and Lucian of Samosata’s True Story, written in the second century AD. It begins with a ship blown to the moon by a whirlwind; a war between Phaethon and Endymion ensues, enabled by giant spiders. Aubrey Beardsley was one of the illustrators of an 1894 English edition.


3 July 2019

Salmon Fishing in London

The Tyburn Angling Society purports to have been established by a royal charter issued by King Edgar the Peaceable in 959 AD, though there are no records of its existing before the 21st century. The River Tyburn, culverted in 1750, still flows underground from Hampstead to Westminster. The society claims to want to ‘daylight’ the river, bringing it back up to the surface. It commissioned a map in the early 2000s showing the proposed course, which would cut a swathe through ‘£1 billion worth of property’. The buildings marked for demolition included Buckingham Palace and the offices of Westminster City Council, which promptly rejected the proposal.


19 April 2019

On Waterloo Bridge

‘Where the fuck is the government?’ posters on Waterloo Bridge said. A road sign at the northern end flashed: ‘Global warming at work.’ 


29 March 2019

A Common Policy

La Disparition, a lipogrammatic classic, turns 50 today. You probably know who it’s by; if not, you can look it up to find out why I’m unwilling to say who did it. From its first publication on 29 March 1969, this book built a cult following. It’s primarily famous for what’s missing from it, a basic but important thing that forms a part of words you can’t usually do without. Staying strictly within this tight constraint, it says what it wants to say about its protagonist, Anton Voyl, and his vanishing act – a conundrum for his companions – in a grippingly ludic, rigidly formulaic way.


28 February 2019

‘Babilfrenzo’ at the Bodleian

The fantasy of a universal language is at least as old as the story of the Tower of Babel.


23 October 2018

Subliterary Modes of Earning the Odd Pound

Anthony Burgess went to Leningrad in 1961. Reading his stories about the trip, it's hard to tell how good his Russian was. Sometimes he portrays himself as fluent: ‘In my best Russian I said to various Dostoevsky characters: “Where, comrade, is the nearest aptyeka?” They were all evidently healthy people, well-fed on Soviet food, for they did not know.’ At other times he admits that his ‘tiny bit of Russian had burst at the seams’. He gets names wrong, referring to a friend as ‘Sasha Ivanovich Kornilov’ (an unlikely combination) and later calling him ‘Alexei’. His wife's name, Llewela, is a challenge to transliterate into Cyrillic, unlike their surname, which he spells 'Uilson' (his full name was John Anthony Burgess Wilson). The title page of one of his Russian textbooks, kept in the archive of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation (IABF), is inscribed in an outdated orthography, not quite consistently: Иван Вiльсон.


18 August 2018

At the Fringe

'Will we be safe here?' asked a German man sitting next to me in the front row. We were about to see Leave. To Remain (An Aristophanic Brexit Tale), a Fringe production modelled on Aristophanes’ Acharnians, whose protagonist, Dikaiopolis, makes a private peace treaty with Sparta while the rest of Athens remains at war. My neighbour was worried we'd be expected to take part in the show. It's set in a not too distant, post-Brexit future, where the British equivalent of Athenian direct democracy is interactive TV programmes.


13 June 2018

Tsoi lives!

On 30 May, when the Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko, reported dead the day before, appeared at a press conference in Kyiv, the Russian-language internet responded with the meme 'Tsoi lives'. The rock star Viktor Tsoi and his new wave band, Kino ('cinema', 'film') – with their simple but powerful lyrics, fresh tunes and the frontman's low, casually drawn-out, artfully accented baritone – were hugely famous in the 1980s. A university friend of mine lost much of his street cred when, on hearing someone say, 'Let's put some Kino on,' he replied: 'What film?' Tsoi died in a car crash in 1990, aged 28. 'Tsoi walls', covered in slogans and lyrics, have since sprung up in several cities, along with a number of sculptures, including one of Tsoi on a motorbike (he never rode one).