Dead Souls – Nikolai Gogol

Dead Souls.  A very intriguing title, I'm sure you'll agree.

Dead Souls. A very intriguing title, I’m sure you’ll agree.

I’m not gonna lie to you, I first picked up this book because I like Gogol Bordello and found out they were named after this author. I googled the author, thought this book sounded interesting and downloaded it to my Kindle.  I wish I could tell you that I was just interested in Gogol’s satirical representation of Soviet mentality, but the truth I just like pop music.

Saying that, I did genuinely like the storyline here.  The basic premise is this:  Chichikov is a fraudster.  That’s not a spoiler by the way, we are privy to this information from the beginning.  He travels around Russia buying up ‘dead souls’.  “What are they?” I hear you cry.  Settle down, I’m about to tell you…  Ok, so at the time it was legal to own serfs to work on your land.  You didn’t have to pay these serfs, but you did have to pay tax on them.  Obviously, once they were dead you no longer had to pay tax but you only got one census each year to declare them dead.

What Chichikov does is this, he buys the names of the dead off other landowners meaning they no longer have to pay the tax on them, Chichikov does.  This makes the farmers very happy.  It also makes Chichikov very happy as he builds up an impressive list of these dead souls, giving the banks the impression that he is a very wealthy, landed gentleman.  The banks then agree to lend him heaps of cash, which, of course he has no intention of paying back, as he will declare all his serfs dead by the time the next tax year rolls around.  He can then legally avoid paying back the banks, making him very very happy.

So that’s the basic premise.  I like it, it’s sneaky, clever, dark and filled with some grotesque characters.  Like pretty much all other Russian literature I’ve read, it’s a bit too long, but as Gogol died whilst writing part 2, the story ends mid sentence.  Seriously, there’s not even a full stop at the end.  It doesn’t matter though as the story is pretty much wrapped up by that point.  It did thankfully prevent Gogol writing the follow up in which the Russians redeemed themselves.  That would have been far too pious and far less interesting.

If you’re a fan of Russian literature then I would recommend this.  If you just fancy trying something different, I would also recommend it, but if you’re after a little light reading, probably best to steer clear, it is 19th Century Russia after all.

Sample Text:

“It is well-known that there are many faces in the world over the finishing of which nature did not take much trouble, did not employ any fine tools such as files, gimlets, and so on, but simply hacked them out with round strokes: one chop-a nose appears; another chop-lips appear; eyes are scooped out with a big drill; and she lets it go into the world rough-hewn, saying: “ALIVE!”

Further Reading:

If you like 19th Century Russian literature you might like Crime And Punishment

If you like the grotesque imagery you might like Perfume

If you like an unfinished ‘epic poem’ (Gogol himself described Dead Souls as a poem) you might like The Aeneid


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