Review: “Taras Bulba and Other Tales” by Nikolai Gogol

Neither thumbs up nor thumbs down for Taras Bulba and Other Tales by Nikolai Gogol. Short stories.

“Taras Bulba” – an adventure novella about the father and two sons of a Cossack family – is a fun historical swashbuckler which does a fine job of evoking a time and place: the landscape, the culture, the individuals. This is, mind you, assuming you can overlook the rampant anti-Semitism and various other bigotries, which were so pervasive that even I – used to putting up with a lot of offensive stuff in old books – found it difficult to squint past. As for the stories, they certainly have many moments of amusement and some of satisfying horror, but the author has little sympathy for his characters as humans, and as objects of satire they are not terribly funny at this remove of time and space. If you are reading for pleasure and are not driven by national pride or a specific interest in Russian literature, I would instead suggest, say, the short stories of Dickens.

It seemed exceedingly strange to Ostap and Andrii that, although a crowd of people had come to the Setch with them, not a soul inquired, “Whence come these men? who are they? and what are their names?” They had come thither as though returning to a home whence they had departed only an hour before. The new-comer merely presented himself to the Koschevoi, or head chief of the Setch, who generally said, “Welcome! Do you believe in Christ?”—“I do,” replied the new-comer. “And do you believe in the Holy Trinity?”—“I do.”—“And do you go to church?”—“I do.” “Now cross yourself.” The new-comer crossed himself. “Very good,” replied the Koschevoi; “enter the kuren where you have most acquaintances.” This concluded the ceremony. And all the Setch prayed in one church, and were willing to defend it to their last drop of blood, although they would not hearken to aught about fasting or abstinence. Jews, Armenians, and Tatars, inspired by strong avarice, took the liberty of living and trading in the suburbs; for the Zaporozhtzi never cared for bargaining, and paid whatever money their hand chanced to grasp in their pocket. Moreover, the lot of these gain-loving traders was pitiable in the extreme. They resembled people settled at the foot of Vesuvius; for when the Zaporozhtzi lacked money, these bold adventurers broke down their booths and took everything gratis. The Setch consisted of over sixty kurens, each of which greatly resembled a separate independent republic, but still more a school or seminary of children, always ready for anything. No one had any occupation; no one retained anything for himself; everything was in the hands of the hetman of the kuren, who, on that account, generally bore the title of “father.” In his hands were deposited the money, clothes, all the provisions, oatmeal, grain, even the firewood. They gave him money to take care of. Quarrels amongst the inhabitants of the kuren were not unfrequent; and in such cases they proceeded at once to blows. The inhabitants of the kuren swarmed into the square, and smote each other with their fists, until one side had finally gained the upper hand, when the revelry began. Such was the Setch, which had such an attraction for young men.

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