Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Government inspector ( Play) & Five stories - Nikolai Gogol

Chanced upon an old book published by Raduga Publishers (when the erstwhile USSR had an influence in these parts of the world ), with a relative of mine. Interesting combination of one of the famous play ( The Government inspector) and five of the popular short stories of one of the most popular writer in the 19th century Russia, Nikolai Gogol ( along with Pushkin and  Checkov ).

The Government Inspector, written in 1834, is supposed to be written after an anecdote by Pushkin, takes on the St.Petersburg aristocracy and the government machinery in general under the Tsar's rule.  After the first performance of this play in 1836, the Tsar Nicolas I, supposed to have commented "Hmm, what a play! Gets at everyone, and most of all at me!"

A remote town bureaucracy, is shaken one day by the news that a government officer under disguise is arriving in the town. The clandestine operation, the feared, is to witness and report the corruption and wrong doings of the officials to St.Petersburg. The who and who, of the bureaucracy under the leadership of the local mayor had an emergency meeting to take the necessary steps, to welcome the unknown visitor. This includes, hiding their petty crimes of corruption, cleaning up of the town, making sure that the prominent places like the jail, the school, the local hospital , the court etc are in clean and presentable.

Soon, it was reported by two local land owners ( Dobchinsky and Bobchinsky) that the local inn have a distinguished guest, with suspicious behaviour. They have concluded that , he is the inspector, and a delegation under the leadership of the Mayor goes to receive him. The guest, Ivan Alexandrovich Khlestakov, a St.Petersburg clerk is having a tough time with the inn-keeper, for not having paid any money for this stay and food so far. The inn-keeper refuses to feed him and threatens to take action. To this scene comes the Mayor and team. On Mayor's insistence Khlestakov, agrees to stay in the house of the Mayor as his official guest. Having realised that he was mistaken for some senior official, he decides to play along and make merry. In the brief time in the house, he manages to collect a large sum of money from various people, flirts with the Mayor's wife and daughter ( promising to marry her) , and fled the place taking the best horses available.

The five short stories collectively called as "St.Petersburg Stories". Like the play above, here too, Gogol focussed his satire on the St,Petersburg society.   Nevsky Prospekt talks about the glitter and glamour of uptown St Petersburg and the temptation of two youths. Piskareve, a young artist, falls in love with a beauty who turns out to be a prostitute. He commits suicide in the end. While Pirogov, the lieutenant survives his life after his love with a German immigrant, only to be despatched by her husband.  Second story 'The Nose' is  absurd and funny. Collegiate Assessor Kovalev, realises one morning, that he has lost his nose. The place where it belonged, is now empty and ugly. His attempts to find out and get the nose back in its place is the event of the story. Kovalev, has seen the nose walking on the streets and he failed to collect him and get him on its original place. His attempt to put an advertisement in the herald was rejected, for the fear of public by the editor, his attempt to file a complaint at the authorities was also failed. In the meanwhile, his barber finds the nose, in his soup the same morning. He was unable to recollect any incident while shaving him the previous morning. 

The Great coat and the Portrait are the best of the stories.  Akaky Akakievich Bushmachkin, is a short man, and is the target for his colleagues jeer and ridicule. All day he sits at one place in the office and copy papers. His only materialistic need is to have a new coat. His existing coat is so old and worn out, that the threads are not able to hold together. his tailor refuses to fix the coat saying any attempts to correct this will only make things worse. He suggest that a new coat be made.  So, he starve and collect money from his meagre earning and finally the coat is made. His happiness was short lived as he was robbed of his coat. His desperate attempt to seek help from the authorities failed as "the important personage" was not willing to listen. Despair and cold lead to his death. Poprischin, of Diary of a madman , is like the characters of the other stories, is poor and insignificant. But he wonders why there is so much unjust in this world. Why is all the good things goes only to the generals, he asks. This in fact is the crux of Gogol's writing. Gogol, looks at things from the poor man's angle and uses his writings to ask the questions to the society and the authorities.


The Government Inspector & Five Short Stories ( 1834-1840)

Nikolai Gogol  ( translated from Russian by Christopher English & Gordon McDougall )

Raduga Publishers , Moscow

318 Pages


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