Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Dead Souls

by Nikolai Gogol
translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volohonsky

A likeable middle aged petty official, Chichikov, comes to the village of N. and starts buying up dead muzhiks from various landowners.  The idea is to transfer ownership of the titular dead souls (in the sense of persons, not actual souls) to Chichikov while they’re still listed as living for tax purposes, until the end of the year.  Then Chichikov will own these serfs, on paper, and presumably be able to use them as property to stake out a loan and become a large landowner himself.

It’s a remarkably funny book; the landowners are sharp parodies, marked by greed or ignorance or self-inflation.  Because of the townsfolk’s tendency to gossip and worship the veneer of respectability and wealth, Chichikov is treated like a prince amongst the petty officials, and a celebration is thrown in his honor. Very suddenly however, rumors flare up that the serfs he bought are all dead, and that he was planning on eloping with the Governor's daughter. In the confusion that ensues, the backwardness of the irrational, gossip-hungry townspeople is most delicately conveyed. Absurd suggestions come to light, such as the possibility that Chichikov is Napoleon in disguise or the notorious and retired 'Captain Kopeikin,' who had lost an arm and a leg during a war. The now disgraced traveler is immediately ostracized from the company he had been enjoying and has no choice but to flee the town in disgrace.  There is a second book, but much truncated, unfinished, and not nearly as funny as the first.  This edition is fine for Gogol scholars, but for those who just wish to enjoy this “poem novel” should stop at the first book.

four stars

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