Taras Bulba

By Nikolai Gogol.

First of all, the good things about this novel and then the misgivings. The atmosphere and story really transports you. Comparisons can be made to the epic Iliad by Homer and the story is entertaining. With Gogol you can never really tell what is going to happen and the tale goes off on a whole different direction at the end. I loved ‘Dead Souls’ beyond measure but Taras Bulba lacks the humour that you find in the characters of Dead Souls. It does have some fantastic one-liners:

“I want my vodka so clear and frothing that it hisses and whirls like it is possessed!”

I have to say though, I found the anti-semitism and xenophobia directed towards the Turks and Poles distasteful. Throw in a some handfuls of misogyny and rampant nationalism and you start to wonder why you are reading the novel. I finished it though, and went on to another short story (St John’s Eve) that mirrored all these elements again. So this wasn’t a one-off. For context, the story was written at a time just after the Poland had attempted a revolution to self-govern the Russian partition of Poland – so Russian nationalism was probably riding high. As for the anti-semitism there are no mitigating factors apart from the fact that those prejudices were part and parcel of Russian life at the time. However, we don’t find anti-semitism in Lermontov or to anywhere near the same degree in Pushkin. Pushkin may have, in fact, had Jewish ancestors as well as African. Unfortunately, after Taras Bulba it seems that Yankel (who is Jewish) seems to become something of an archetype in much Russian literature. We find this later in Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Babel and Turgenev.

So, should this book be read given these factors? I think so, as long as you are aware of them. Everything you read has to be viewed in context. Works of literature don’t just spring into being from nothing – they are created from the historical, social and political milieu that surrounds them. This is why books are so important – they don’t just tell stories – they tell us about what it was like to live in that place at that particular time.

Right, having leapt into the air and kicked the soapbox away in one fluid motion (today is World Book Day), I will read some more of Gogol’s short stories acutely aware of context.

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