Saturday, December 02, 2006

book of books - Taras Bulba

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

Plot summary
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.

Leads to
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

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