Where Taras Bulba should be ranked among the works of Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852)—or, for that matter, among the monuments of European literature—is by no means settled. Ernest Hemingway called it “one of the ten greatest books of all time,” while Vladimir Nabokov, who adored the Gogol of the St. Petersburg stories and Dead Souls, dismissed it as a dull, melodramatic juvenilium, on a par with “rollicking yarns about lumberjacks.” Of course, neither of these is an authority to be consulted too credulously; when reading their critical verdicts, one can never be certain how deep the one was in his cups, nor how high the other in his dudgeon. The truth is that Taras Bulba is a lesser achievement than the strange, brilliant, delirious works of Gogol’s prime; but it is, nevertheless, colored throughout by the inspired exorbitances of his genius.
Originally published as a long short story in 1835, the tale had assumed the dimensions of a short novel by 1842. It is often described as a “prose epic,” and Gogol certainly composed it in a Homeric key (blood-steeped battles, rudely eloquent perorations, a prose of studied naďveté, controlled torrents of parataxis, languidly involved similes, plentiful descriptions of insouciant brutality, and a narrative voice blessedly pure of psychological subtleties or moralism). But it also reflects the conventions of the historical romance, and owes as much to Scott and Cooper as to Homer. At its center, in fact, is a love story so implausible in its elements—an absurd coincidence, a girl with the eyesight (apparently) of a falcon, a maidservant able to find one sleeping soldier among thousands in the dead of night, a secret passage into a besieged town—that Ann Radcliffe might have recoiled from it as too fantastic.
The tale is set in the Ukraine, among the Cossacks of the great Zaporozhian Sech (a large fortified island encampment on the river Dnieper). In the new Modern Library edition, both Robert Kaplan’s introduction and Peter Constantine’s preface place the action “sometime between the mid-sixteenth and seventeenth century,” but this is incorrect. The final chapter of the book recounts the Polish campaign of the Zaporozhian Cossacks under the Hetman Ostranitsa, which took place in 1637; and the preceding chapters are set not much earlier.
The story concerns an old married Cossack—the book’s eponymous hero—and his two sons, and how all three meet their deaths. By all rights, Bulba should command far less sympathy than he does. His sons have scarcely returned from their seminary training in Kiev when, indifferent to his wife’s misery, he leads them off to the Sech. There, after a little while, he grows impatient for a war to try their mettle, and so intrigues to subvert the Sech’s armistice with the Turkish Padishah—which proves needless when the Cossacks receive word of Polish outrages against the Russian faithful of the Ukraine, and so ride forth to fight for the “true Church.” While Bulba lacks neither humanity nor courage, it is soon obvious that his sons’ lives are of less account to him than that they acquit themselves honorably in battle; and, in the book’s final pages, when moved to vengeance, he proves capable of the most implacable savagery. And yet such is his simplicity of character that he does compel us.
His sons are more uncomplicatedly attractive—especially the younger of them, Andri, who loses his heart to a Polish girl of fairly high social standing. Gogol’s portrayal of a young, warlike naďf vanquished in an instant by feminine beauty and grace is quite affecting, as is the heedlessness of Andri’s surrender to his passion and renunciation of family, nation, and faith (though this will lead to the novel’s most tragic moment). The elder son, Ostap, possesses none of his brother’s complexities or susceptibilities; he is simply brave, adept at battle, a natural leader of men, and not given to the more barbarous proclivities of his fellows; and he dies well.
The most indelible impression left by Taras Bulba is one of sheer extravagant violence. The book abounds in descriptions of the manic carnage of battle, starvation, murder, and torture; one reads of men entirely flayed below the knees, of women mutilated or burned alive at church altars, of infants speared, of Jews beaten and killed. And, while this violence is found on all sides, it is the unrelenting brutality of the Cossacks to which we are principally exposed. When, for instance, the Zaporozhians resolve to make war on the Poles, they first round up the Jewish merchants of the settlement (whom they see as allies of their enemies) and throw them into the Dnieper to drown (except for one whom Bulba rescues, in return for a favor once done his brother). The story is set in a sanguinary and sadistic age; but it leaves one with the sense that the Cossacks may ultimately have been unrivalled in their capacity for purely impulsive pitilessness, unlit by the faintest flickering of conscience.
And yet—and this gives the book much of its disturbing allure—Gogol clearly means in some sense to celebrate these men. However monstrous his Cossacks, they are not actually moved by malice, and somehow their cruelty is made to seem less appalling by its absolutely ingenuous spontaneity. It is as if Gogol sees a kind of animal innocence in their violence, a childlike boisterousness, of a piece with the recklessness that pervades all they do: they hoard treasure, but either forget where they have hidden it or squander it in mighty feats of dissipation; their appetites are titanic; they are generous to a degree, and to a greater degree merely profligate; they love heroic song; they slaughter their enemies with industrious gaiety.
Most importantly, Gogol sees his Zaporozhians not only as legendary heroes, but as knights of faith. He does not actually approve of their barbarity; but he sees them as having been created by centuries of religious and political crisis, as a reaction against forces threatening to destroy the Christian heritage of the Rus. Whereas other nations saw the Cossacks as something dark and terrible at the Asiatic periphery of Christian Europe, Gogol saw them as embodying something vast, invincible, and indomitably savage in the Russian soul: an unyielding spiritual bulwark against Orthodoxy’s enemies.
It was in the south, after all, that Christianity established itself in Russia, in the late tenth century (which led to Kievan culture’s brief flowering); but by 1240, all of Russia had fallen to the Tatars, who would rule the north for 250 years. The south was purged of its occupiers in the fourteenth century by the pagan Lithuanian Prince Gedimin, who permitted the Slavs the practice of their faith; but the conversion and marriage into the Polish royal family of the Lithuanian Prince Yagello in 1386 inaugurated the long history of Poland’s attempt to absorb Lithuania and its possessions. In 1569, the Union of Lublin made “Little Russia” an appanage of the Polish crown, and the elaborate Polish culture of aristocratic privilege (including an absolute claim on property rights) was imposed upon a people accustomed to more spacious liberties. Then, with the “uniate” accommodation of 1595, the Ukraine’s “official” Church became an Eastern rite of the Roman Church, which reduced the Orthodox to religious outlaws in their own country.
The Cossacks appeared at the end of the thirteenth century; the vast open plains of southern Russia provided no natural brake against invaders from any quarter—Turk, Tatar, or Pole—and only these loosely organized but formidable sodalities of “Christian warriors” secured for the Russians some measure of liberty on their own soil. By the time of the events recounted in Taras Bulba, the Ukraine’s Orthodox Russians saw themselves as a disinherited people, whose oppressor despised their faith and coveted their lands. Hence the blazing ferocity of Gogol’s Zaporozhians, and their ability to see their merciless rampages as “holy war.” And hence, also, Gogol’s strange sympathy for men of such bestial aptitudes.
I am not wholly enamored of Peter Constantine’s new translation. It suffers on occasion from a certain awkwardness of phrasing, and at times from a rather jarring incongruity of tone—as when the old, fairly rusticated Atamen of the Cossack horde assures his men that Catholic priests do nothing but “pontificate”—and on occasion from a ponderous literality. And solecisms such as calling the Orthodox liturgy a “mass” are mildly distracting. That said, Constantine does largely succeed at capturing the terse lyricism of Gogol’s descriptions, and the unfaltering flow of the narrative. And, perhaps more importantly, he is better than previous translators at conveying the novel’s humor.
This is a considerable virtue, for the aspect of Taras Bulba that generally goes unremarked is its willful absurdity. The book is an epic romance, true; but Gogol was not a simple sentimentalist, and one need not be preternaturally astute to notice that his admiration for the Cossacks contains an element of grave mockery. A certain removed and satirical tone pervades the book, and at times breaks forth with full brio. For instance, the entire scene in which Bulba attempts—with the assistance of the Jewish merchant he spared earlier—to visit his son on the eve of the latter’s execution, but is thwarted by a guard with a “three-tiered mustache,” is one of broad comedy. And when, the next day, the narrative drifts through the crowd assembled for the spectacle, and alights upon a butcher and the swordsmith he calls brother “because the two got drunk in the same tavern,” one is not far from the surreally irrelevant detail of Dead Souls. And then there is the Polish aristocrat, delicately preparing his daughter for the day’s events:
“When [the executioner] puts the criminal on the wheel and starts torturing him the criminal is still alive, but when he chops his head off, my sweet, then the criminal is dead. At first you will see the criminal writhing and shouting, but once his head has been chopped off he won’t be able to shout, or eat, or drink. This, my sweet, is because he won’t have a head anymore.”
Even at its most “epic,” Gogol’s voice is incapable of strict sobriety. When a girl’s sorrow or a warrior’s death is likened to a breeze playing in dry reeds or a hawk killing a quail, and the simile runs on long enough to acquire a brief life of its own, the tone is suitably Homeric; but what is one to make of this?
[Kukubenko’s] young blood gushed like a rare wine brought in a crystal decanter by a careless servant, who stumbles, breaking the precious carafe, the wine spilling onto the floor, the master tearing his hair, for this was the wine he had been saving for the most important occasion of his life, the day when by God’s grace he met once more the beloved comrades of his youth to reminisce of bygone times when men knew how to revel.
That is the Gogol of the St. Petersburg period—as is the brief parody of a medieval heroic tableau (Kukubenko’s soul ascending to Christ’s right hand) that follows.
For these passages alone, Constantine’s can be embraced as the standard English translation. Properly to appreciate Taras Bulba, one must grasp what a promiscuous miscellany of styles and devices it comprises, and what a tour de force of intricate ambiguities it truly is. For this, finally, is why it can keep company with Gogol’s maturer masterpieces: it, like them, is a strange, grim, whimsical, and fabulous tale, immersed in an aesthetic idiom unlike any other, and born from perhaps the most peculiar sensibility in the history of European letters.
David B. Hart is an Eastern Orthodox theologian.