Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Taras Bulba

My brother lent me Nikolai Gogol's Taras Bulba some time ago.  When we were younger we saw the movie, but I honestly don't remember much from it (beyond Taras Bulba removing his scalp lock in anger at one point).  My dad decided he wanted to watch the movie again, so I decided to hurry and read the book before he gets the movie.  I started it this afternoon and finished it this evening (it's only about 140 pages, so totally doable in a day).

Taras Bulba opens with Taras Bulba's sons returning home from school.  Old Bulba (as the book often calls him) decides that they should immediately set out for Zaporozhe Sech, the training camp and base of the Cossacks.  After arriving there, his sons prove themselves to be adept warriors.  But the only way to truly have them reach manhood is to test their mettle on the battlefield.  Unfortunately, their current Ataman (leader) has made peace with their normal enemies.  So Taras sets about getting a new Ataman elected, one who will lead the Cossacks into glorious battle.  They decide on a course of action, but just before their army is about to leave, they get word that Jews and the Poles are ravaging the Ukraine (I think it was that the Jews were holding the churches in pledge, Jewish women were making skirts out of Orthodox priests' cassocks, and that the Polish priests were travelling around in carts which were pulled by Orthodox Christian men instead of horses).  So they decide to attack the Poles instead.

Their attacks go well until they arrive at the town of Dubno.  The Cossacks will not fare well against the fortified town, so they decide to wait until the townspeople starve.  It is there that Andri, Taras Bulba's younger son, discovers that the woman he is in love with is there.  He decides to turn his back on his people, his faith, and his homeland to be with her. 

Taras Bulba doesn't believe this can be so (especially since some of their numbers were attacked and enslaved during the night), but when he discovers it to be true, he is enraged.  He disowns the boy and vows to destroy the girl who would so tempt him.  But then the Cossacks get word of another tragedy: the Tatars have attacked the Sech and enslaved or killed all the Cossacks who remained (and stolen all their treasures).  So the Cossacks decide to split their army in half.  The Ataman will lead one half to save their comrades, while the second half, led by Taras Bulba, will remain to free their comrades at Dubno.  Taras Bulba manages to kill Andri just before he and his other son, Ostap, get surrounded.  Ostap is captured, but one of the other Cossacks manages to get Taras Bulba out of the battlefield.  Old Bulba was wounded in the battle, but after recovering from his wounds he decides to sneak into Poland to find his son.  This is much harder to do now that the Poles have put a huge price on his head.  He manages to do it though with the help of a Jew.  He is unable to speak with his son, but is in the crowd when Ostap is executed.  He later returns to Poland with a large force of Cossacks.  The other leaders agree to a peace, but Old Bulba refuses.  He takes whatever people want to go with him and pillages Poland in the name of his son until he is captured and killed.

So that was Taras Bulba.  A bit of crazy carousing and a whole lot of battle.  Gogol's prose is beautiful, particularly when he is describing things.  I was struck a number of times by his beautiful imagery, particularly when he was talking about the Ukrainian steppes. 

My one issue with the book was that I had a really hard time keeping most of the characters straight.  I had no problem with Taras Bulba and his sons, or the Ataman (because the book just referred to him as the Ataman once he was elected) and one or two other characters, but everyone else seemed to blend together in my head (rather like the dwarves from The Hobbit).  So when Gogol started detailing how people were dying in battle, at best I would have a vague sense of someone being a Captain or something, but that was it. 

Other than that, Taras Bulba was a very interesting read.  Most of the books I've read are by North American or Western European (ie English) authors, so it was fun to read something from Russia.  My brother lent me a book of Gogol's short stories, so that'll be a lot of fun to read in the future (I'm not going to read it yet though.  I'm going to read some other stuff first before coming back to Gogol).

Oh, I should also mention the introduction by Robert D. Kaplan, who likened a lot of what happened in the book to crowd mentality.  The Cossacks came together as a crowd and made decisions as a crowd.  It took only a strong personality to point them in a direction and set them loose.  I thought it was interesting that Taras Bulba often would point his brother Cossacks in a direction that suited him then join in on the action (almost surrendering himself to the crowd mentality after he was certain they were doing what he wanted).  Kaplan's introduction was rather thought provoking (and made me want to go read The Iliad or The Odyssey (which my brother and I are going to do soon!))

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