Monday, September 26, 2005

Hadji Murat

I recently completed Leo Tolstoy's Hadji Murat. At face value an apparently awesome feat bearing in mind the length of Tolstoy's other works. Fortunately, Hadji Murat is a fraction of the size of 'War & Peace' or 'Anna Karenina' but despite the brevity it propels Tolstoy to the foreground of my literary perspective.

Hadji Murat chronicles the life of the eponymous hero who came to personify the resistance of the Caucasus to Russian imperialism. The work was published posthumously and reflects an anger and disillusionment with Czarism that perhaps explains why Tolstoy chose not to make the manuscript public.

Tolstoy outlines his inspiration in a foreword to the piece:

I gathered myself a large nosegay and was going home when I noticed in a ditch, in full bloom, a beautiful thistle plant of the crimson variety, which in our neighborhood they call 'Tartar' and carefully avoid when mowing -- or, if they do happen to cut it down, throw out from among the grass for fear of pricking their hands. Thinking to pick this thistle and put it in the center of my nosegay, I climbed down into the ditch, and after driving away a velvety bumble-bee that had penetrated deep into one of the flowers and had there fallen sweetly asleep, I set to work to pluck the flower. But this proved a very difficult task. Not only did the stalk prick on every side -- even through the handkerchief I wrapped round my hand -- but it was so tough that I had to struggle with it for nearly five minutes, breaking the fibers one by one; and when I had at last plucked it, the stalk was all frayed and the flower itself no longer seemed so fresh and beautiful. Moreover, owing to a coarseness and stiffness, it did not seem in place among the delicate blossoms of my nosegay. I threw it away feeling sorry to have vainly destroyed a flower that looked beautiful in its proper place.

'But what energy and tenacity! With what determination it defended itself, and how dearly it sold its life!' thought I, remembering the effort it had cost me to pluck the flower. The way home led across black-earth fields that had just been ploughed up. I ascended the dusty path. The ploughed field belonged to a landed proprietor and was so large that on both sides and before me to the top of the hill nothing was visible but evenly furrowed and moist earth. The land was well tilled and nowhere was there a blade of grass or any kind of plant to be seen, it was all black. 'Ah, what a destructive creature is man....How many different plant-lives he destroys to support his own existence!' thought I, involuntarily looking around for some living thing in this lifeless black field.

In front of me to the right of the road I saw some kind of little clump, and drawing nearer I found it was the same kind of thistle as that which I had vainly plucked and thrown away. This 'Tartar' plant had three branches. One was broken and stuck out like the stump of a mutilated arm. Each of the other two bore a flower, once red but now blackened. One stalk was broken, and half of it hung down with a soiled flower at its tip. The other, though also soiled with black mud, still stood erect. Evidently a cartwheel had passed over the plant but it had risen again, and that was why, though erect, it stood twisted to one side, as if a piece of its body had been torn from it, its bowels drawn out, an arm torn off, and one of its eyes plucked out. Yet it stood firm and did not surrender to man who had destroyed all its brothers around it....

'What vitality!' I thought. 'Man has conquered everything and destroyed millions of plants, yet this one won't submit.' And I remembered a Caucasian episode of years ago, which I had partly seen myself, partly heard of from eye-witnesses, and in part imagined.

The episode, as it has taken shape in my memory and imagination, was as follows.
What follows is an intense portrait of the period as well as the rival peoples. The narrative is gripping from the very onset and Tolstoy exhibits an unrivalled skill in creating wholly absorbing atmospheres and surroundings. He maintains a degree of conciseness that never borders on reductionist and in fact manages to take the reader on a circuitous moral tour of the characters - you cannot help but root for Hadji Murat and yet sympathise with the Russian infantrymen.

A powerful and provocative novel.

4 comments:

mufti said...

a much awaited return to the blogosphere! hadji m is now even more defnitely next on the list - just need to get through white moghuls, less than 50 pages through and determined this time not to move on till i finish it!

Leo_Africanus said...

Put the 2 books side by side. Just look at the difference: millions of pages...

tc said...

Spot on. Any ideas why Tolstoy fails to get a mention in Edward Said's Culture and Imperialism?

Leo_Africanus said...

No eyed deer.