Taras Bulba by Nikolai Gogol is a highly praised book that has a quote on the dust jacket from Hemingway saying its one of the top ten books of all time. I haven’t read anywhere near as widely as him but I would ay in terms of using a piece of literature to sum up a style then this is one of the most perfect Russian books I have read
Taras Bulba is a Cossack that starts the book by welcoming back his two sons from the seminary and then in his impatience to turn them into men takes them to the Cossack military camp and from there agitates the Ataman into launching a campaign against the Poles. On the campaign one son defects to the other side because of love and the other becomes a leader and is captured and tortured. Bulba returns to the Cossack camp without either son after losing one and killing the other and then sets off after a break to fight the poles again and in the end is captured and nailed to a tree and burnt to death.
Is it well written?
It is Russian to the core in that in that moment that when he confronts the son who has followed his heart and is fighting on the other side he shoots him. Another author would have tried to use that as a point at which both sides are reconciled but that’s not the tragic bitter approach that Gogol takes. Throughout the entire story Bulba stays faithful to his principles, which are based on dying defending the orthodox faith and his motherland, and in the end gets a chance to prove that he will die for them. The story flows quickly and there is enough characterisation around the father and two sons to get you involved with the story.
Should it be read?
If someone wants to know what Russian literature, or at least the tragic tag that always gets applied to it is all about, then this is an easier starting point than Crime and Punishment or Onegin. It is also a complete story, whereas Dead Souls, which is a great book, peters out a little bit because of part II being unfinished. The other factor is length and at 141 pages really even for people who have difficulty reading this is more than manageable. You also get the chance to meet arguably one of the hardest men in literature – Taras Bulba.
More Gogol in the form of Dead Souls or other Russian literature from the pool of great writers that remain influential until this day
Version read – Modern Library hardback edition
This book has been described by quite a few people, ranging from Dostoyevsky and Hemingway, in glowing terms and it packs quite a punch in its 141 pages leaving you wondering what on earth makes these Cossacks such hard men.
It is my second Winter Reading Challenge title so just three more to squeeze in over the next few weeks.
Bullet points between pages 99 – 141
* Taras souses the troops as they prepare for a battle with the poles and although many Cossacks are killed they are driving them back but then the gates of the town open and cavalry led by his son emerge
* He manages to get his son Andri trapped in the woods and accuses him of betraying his family, faith and people and shoots him and then witnesses his other son Ostap being captured and only just manages to escape with his own life
* He gets back to the Sech and yearns for news of his son and manages to get in disguise to Warsaw and witnesses him being tortured then executed and heads back fired up and before too long 150,000 Cossacks head to fight off the Poles
* Taras splits from the rest and carries on fighting even after a peace treaty is signed which he rightly predicts is just being used by the Poles to buy more time to destroy the Cossacks
* The story ends with Taras having finally been captured and pinned to a tree and burnt alive but proud of his men escaping and of the victories he has won and Poles he has killed – one of the hardest men I have yet come across in literature
Review posted tomorrow…
If you want to read just one book that sums up the different angle Russians take to telling a story then Taras Bulba is the book to choose. At the moment where a writer from another background might try to resolve the conflict between father and son Gogol has the father shoot him dead, watch his other son get tortured and then happily burn to death himself knowing that the Poles have failed to kill all of his men. I will post details of the final chunk of the book later today to illustrate this point more fully.
You can start to see why this book is rated by some many writers and critics as it has all the right ingredients with battles being a chance to display courage and honour and the love story involving Andri something so powerful it can rip a family apart and divide a community
Bullet points between pages 28 – 98
* The life in the Sech, the Cossack training camp is an eye opener for Ostrap and Andri Taras’s sons, and among the drunkenness and fights there are introductions into the brutal side of Cossack existence – such as burying alive a murderer under the coffin of their victim
* Taras is restless in camp and intrigues against at Ataman to try and get the Cossack leader to declare war on the Turks. His plan succeeds but there are still doubts that they should break their peace pact with the Sultan
* Just as the Cossacks get ready to attack the Turks a messenger from another village arrives and tells then that the Jews and Poles are attacking them and shutting up their churches – news that is greeted with an almost instant pogrom
* The Cossacks head for Poland and Ostrap shows he is a brave leader and fighter and Andri is so brave he dives in where other troops fear to tread so the father is pleased as they halt and lay siege to the Polish town of Dubno
* As they wait for the city to surrender because of starvation Andri is visited by the maid of the Polish noble woman he spotted two years before at the seminary and he travels through a secret passage to be with her and leaves his family and tribe
* Reinforcements come and the Poles bolster their resistance then the Cossacks hear that the Turks have attacked the Sech so the group splits in two leaving Taras in charge of the troops left in Poland – with the father facing his own son in war
The last pages come tomorrow…
Bearing in mind as is pointed out in the introduction that the Russian critic Belinsky thought that Tara Bulba was a “splendid epic worthy of Homer” it seems appropriate to read this book after Joyce’s Ulysses while still trying to find time to finish Homer’s Odyssey.
The introduction puts the book about Ukrainian Cossacks into context with them fighting both Poles and Turks for independence from the former and security from the later and explains that they were a people proud of their freedom and customs and very much into the idea of waging war
Bullet points between pages 1 – 27
* The scene is set with Taras Bulba greeting his two sons who are returning from the seminary their education complete but in his enthusiasm to make real men of them their father decides that the very next day they will ride out to the Cossacks military camp
* Despite breaking the heart of the mother the Cossacks head out for the military camp and as they go you get the back story of Taras who is a Cossack that very much believes in living by the sword, the sons one an intellectual and the other a ladies man in the making
* The stage is set for some action as the brothers and father enter the camp, which rings out to the sounds of blacksmiths hammering swords and Cossack dancing