My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Having read Gogol’s Dead Souls after The Brother’s Karamazov, the final paragraphs of section one struck a particular chord. What a way to end a book! Well, it wasn’t the actual end, as Gogol spent the rest of his life writing and burning subsequent sections of the book. But all-in-all, I’m going to treat it as the end, because what follows in Dead Souls (after section 1) are sort of pieced together.
Ah, troika, troika, swift as a bird, who was it first invented you? Only among a hardy race of folk can you have come to birth—only in a land which, though poor and rough, lies spread over half the world, and spans versts the counting whereof would leave one with aching eyes. Nor are you a modishly-fashioned vehicle of the road—a thing of clamps and iron. Rather, you are a vehicle but shapen and fitted with the axe or chisel of some handy peasant of Yaroslav. Nor are you driven by a coachman clothed in German livery, but by a man bearded and mittened. See him as he mounts, and flourishes his whip, and breaks into a long-drawn song! Away like the wind go the horses, and the wheels, with their spokes, become transparent circles, and the road seems to quiver beneath them, and a pedestrian, with a cry of astonishment, halts to watch the vehicle as it flies, flies, flies on its way until it becomes lost on the ultimate horizon—a speck amid a cloud of dust!
And you, Russia of mine—are not you also speeding like a troika which nought can overtake? Is not the road smoking beneath your wheels, and the bridges thundering as you cross them, and everything being left in the rear, and the spectators, struck with the portent, halting to wonder whether you be not a thunderbolt launched from heaven? What does that awe-inspiring progress of yours foretell? What is the unknown force which lies within your mysterious steeds? Surely the winds themselves must abide in their manes, and every vein in their bodies be an ear stretched to catch the celestial message which bids them, with iron-girded breasts, and hooves which barely touch the earth as they gallop, fly forward on a mission of God? Whither, then, are you speeding, O Russia of mine? Whither? Answer me! But no answer comes—only the weird sound of your collar-bells. Rent into a thousand shreds, the air roars past you, for you are overtaking the whole world, and shall one day force all nations, all empires to stand aside, to give you way!
The speeding troika image is one of the kinder images of Russia in Dead Souls. A story about corrupt officials and stupid nobility, Gogol cataloged every type of rascal to be found across Russia. And with gusto! The writer seems to have an amorous animus for Chichikov, our ‘hero’ scouring the countryside for dead souls (serfs) to use as collateral in order to get a loan. Funny that his actions by today’s standards aren’t all that despicable. What CEO wouldn’t leverage a dead soul or two in order to mislead shareholders and inflate earnings? Roguery when exercised within a roguish system is natural, or at least understandable. Such is the line that Gogol seems to draw in sand between the self-righteous reader and the sweet-talking Chichikov. And when the hero is caught and exposed, we see our self-righteousness conflated into a gaggle of ridiculous gossip. So maybe it is a speeding troika: love it, hate it, but there’s no stopping it.