Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls

Devsatatingly funny: The satire that launched modern novel in Russia

Nikolai Gogol's Dead Soul launches the 'great Russian novel form' with a satire, so apt and so funny, that the novel remains as one of the most popular Russian text ever. Gogol's own personal life may have been a dire disaster, but as a novelist he stands next to only Tolstoy and Dostovesky, as short story writer only Chekov comes close to his fame, and mind you, he preceded them and their writing. He was, alongside Pushkin, one of the major early forces in Russian literary scene. Since all other major novelists from Russia have delved into tragedies and melodramas, going down to philosophical and religious questions, Dead Souls comes as a relief fun read, rather one of the funniest reads.

In Dead Souls, he provides a cast of unforgettable and hilarious characters in episodes that leave you reeling with laughter. The hero or the anti-hero Chichikov or Tchichikov drives from town to town, buying "dead souls" i.e. dead peasants, assuring landowners that this will benefit them as they would pay less tax on their workforce. The tax was based on census numbers, and since many peasants died between two census years, landowners ended up paying taxes on people who didn't exist. Chichikov's brilliant idea was to collect a long list of (dead) peasants he had bought, and use that for getting a estate for himself. The novel tells us a story after story of his meeting his landowners and getting his purchase by a mix of tact, sweet talk, and so on, each purchase is full of absurd and funny details.

Beyond the obvious laughters, the novel provides a very detailed description of Russia in early nineteenth century. The sketches of nature bring alive similes and metaphors that Gogol (who was a failed poet) uses remarkably well. While the observations related to people, customs, bureaucracy and Russia are full of brilliant wit, they in fact recreate a lively and throbbing world to us. The world as it was. The bureaucracy has not changed much since then. Nor have the quacks and hacks and cheats who make fortunes by buying and selling dubious things. Hence Dead Souls has this undying and translatable humor that will keep this book in publication forever.

I would rank Dead Souls alongside Three Men in a Boat, Catch 22, A House for Mr Biswas and The Hitchhikers Guide to Galaxy as the novels that made me laugh the most. It has shades of Tolstoy in details it provides about rural life and rich landowners, shades of both Tolstoy and Dostovesky in pointing to certain moral issues (but that is at most an undertone) and maybe he was the one who influenced the style of his more famous successors. If you haven't read Gogol, you definitely need to pick him next.


Blue Athena said...

Am tempted to pick up the book now, though never did like 'A house for Mr Biswas.' Had the book in 1st or 2nd year in English Hons class.

But Gogol, soon!

Aditi said...

Damn, that is some list! When I asked you to follow the tag, I was curious to find out what kind of reading influences might've nurtured your style.

In writing my own list, I dunno how I could've forgotten Mulk Raj Anand!!! I loved his 'Untouchable'!

I am going to make a copy of this list and take it with me when I go book shopping on this trip to India :D