Friday, August 28, 2015

Book Review: Dead Souls (By Nikolay Gogol)

And translated by Robert A. Maguire.

"It is much easier to depict large-scale characters: there all you need do is fling the paints on to the canvas unstintingly - dark, burning eyes, beetling brows, furrowed forehead, a black or fiery-crimson cloak thrown over the shoulder - and the portrait is done. But if you take all these other gentlemen, of whom there are many in the world, and who greatly resemble one another in appearance, yet in whom, as soon as you look more closely, you will perceive many highly elusive traits - such gentlemen are dreadfully difficult to portray."

Thus wrote Nikolay Gogol, was one of the greatest writers of Russian literature. Brilliant lines that refuse to be erased from memory. His eccentric and highly satirical style of writing is not easy to understand as is the case with translated literature. Some of the nuances are definitely lost in translation. And add to that the fact that it is incomplete. But still it comes across as a brilliant piece of literature.

The story revolves around Chichikov,  a small time conman who plans to buy dead souls (who still exist on the census list) and then mortgage them for a handsome amount. As he goes about meeting and dining with the various landlords, the reader is exposed to various shades in the human character. One invariably falls in love with the characters who seem to be all flesh and blood, thanks to the author's brilliant delineation.

The Russian way of life is exposed in all its glory and shortcomings. The peculiar disease of living it up in style while being up to the neck in debt is finely depicted. When Chichkov sets about with his little scheme, some of the landlords readily agree while others try to hold on to the deal souls thinking that they might be worth more (one even wonders about the going rate for them). And still others strike a tough bargain for them by extolling the virtues of the serfs.

He almost succeeds and it the most sought after bachelor at a ball. But his undoing arrives in the form of a particularly greedy old lady who arrives in town to find out about the going rates of the dead souls.

So, he ends up moving to another town. And goes about his scan after spending some days in idyllic bliss. Until the bureaucracy and corruption does him in. (Doesn't it remind us of some famous people who have been in the news lately)

Apart from the detailed characterizations, it is the fact that this story still holds relevance, makes it for a most entertaining read.

But I must warn you that the language is not easy and one might just struggle with the first 50 pages or so. And then, it will just grow on one.


  1. Ohh .!!! I must write this down to my list of 'books to read'

    1. Thanks for dropping by Mythili...yeah...this will turn out to be one memorable read