The power of words
Everyone has a story to tell, enough stories in fact to fill volumes with countless words and scenes. Fortunately most of these never make it far past the lips of the narrator, dying at unlistening ears. Others are created and thrive, growing with the attention given to them. What makes these so different from their short-lived counterparts is how the words are used to create a euphony and imagery as visual as any movie. The power of the words themselves are as much a focus as the plot, making the stories sing.
Dead Souls (Vintage, $14.00) sings. Written in 1842 by the Russian novelist Nikolai Gogol, this book certainly does have a brilliant and complex plot, but through its images we also grasp new ways of looking at common themes and are introduced to completely original insight.
It takes place at a time when Russian citizens who recently died were considered alive until the next census report could modify the record. This was especially hard on landowners who were required to still pay taxes on their deceased peasants. Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov wants to take these "dead souls" off of their hands. With the presumption of doing this out of goodwill toward these landowners, his real motive is to sell these mere lists of names as living men to the government for quite a hefty profit. Through his journeys he befriends multitudes of citizens who swear by his good and charming nature and are most impressed with his large number of peasants, thinking him a millionaire. But when word gets out that these peasants that Chichikov has been buying from landowners are in fact ex-peasants, Gogol's talent as a writer shines as he clearly captures the impotent spirits of men as they try to deal with adverse circumstances.
Aware of the power of language, Gogol considers this work his "poema." As we are limited to the translation of the text, much of the poetry is lost, but in this wonderful version by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the imagery and passion remain just as real as it must have been in 19th century Russia. The similes used by Gogol are reminiscent of Virgil's in their ability to draw such close parallels and it is Gogol himself as narrator whose opinion the reader trusts more than any other character as he takes us by the hand and leads us through the unfolding events. The narrator regularly stops the action to lace it with tangential remarks on everything from the nature of Russia and its language, to the upper class, to ignorant men who desperately cling to any story, whether false or not, like a drowning man clings to a splinter to stay afloat. In many ways these are the most valuable and most entertaining parts of the novel.
"Dead Souls" is an extremely funny story that covers many broad themes including man's fear to face the truth, man's inhumanity to man for the sake of "acquisition," and political counterproductivity. But perhaps the real celebration lies in the writing itself, the perfect words that created a perfect novel.