Saturday, February 06, 2010

Nikolai Gogol: Taras Bulba (novel)


Тарас Бульба. First version: RU 1835. Second, revised version: 1842. (First translated into Finnish in 1878, Samuli S.). This translation, based on the revised version of 1842: Juhani Konkka 1940, second edition 1941. Helsinki: WSOY.

Having watched the film Taras Bulba starring Yul Brynner (great in the title role) and with a magnificent epic account of the siege of Dubno I realized I had never read Nikolai Gogol's novel. It was one of Ernest Hemingway's ten favourite books, and it is the book that the young Alyosha reads aloud to the boatmen in Maxim Gorky's My Childhood. After Pushkin, this novel was the second most important inspiration to the great Russian writers. It echoes clearly in the work of Gorky and in Leo Tolstoy's magisterial Hadzhi Murat.

It is a tale of terror in the steppes of Ukraine, starring Zaporozhian Cossacks in the 16th Century. It is written vigorously, with gusto, unflinching about the terrible deeds the Cossacks are able to commit.

The book is, among other things, also atrociously anti-semitic. The Jew Yankel became the anti-semitic stereotype in Russian literature (greedy, cowardly, ridiculous, repulsive). It was disquieting to notice that this edition was published in Finnish in 1940 and in 1941. In the Yul Brynner film the Jewish theme has been completely omitted. The film is also otherwise sanitized: the terror of the Cossacks is generally toned down.

The novel is a half-way masterpiece with a disgusting aspect. The impact can be compared with D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, which can be screened today with apologies only.

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