Who? Nikolai Gogol, old school Russky, author of that one where the bloke’s nose runs off.
What? A mini-epic about mental bloodthirsty Cossacks setting out on a random massacre mission in the Ukraine. Blurb features a quote from Ernest Hemingway: ‘One of the ten best books of all time,’ though I can’t find that anywhere.
When? First published in Russia in 1835, though even those two details fail to clarify the books rampant, casual anti-Semitism.
How? Without Gogol’s characteristic good humour but with his trademark elegant descriptive power – the best aspect of the novel.
Why? Though the racial stereotyping Gogol employs, perhaps simply to capture the tone of the time (it is set, even for him, in the past), only occupies parts of Taras Bulba, it would easily be enough to put off plenty of modern readers. His descriptions of Ukrainian Jews are by far the most disturbing, but Polish and Turkish people also take a bit of a drubbing, and even the thrust of the book, the insane masculinity of the Cossacks, relies itself on stereotyping. The broad strokes by which the Cossacks are characterised (violent, abusive, foolhardy/courageous, drunk, proud, impulsive, heroic, barbarous) cement our modern view of this ethnography; to what extent Cossack life was an endless cycle of fighting, dancing, drinking and wife-beating I do not know. Gogol’s treatment of the Cossacks, as well as of the Jews, Poles and Turks, is uncompromising and stark in its depictive power. Their savagery, as drummed in by Gogol, maintains charisma, and their social problems are given due respect. Regardless, there’s a lot of chopping off heads, and a fair few bloody noses. No wonder Hemingway liked it so much.
Taras Bulba is available as a Modern Library Classics paperback in translation by Peter Constantine and with an introduction by Robert D. Kaplan.
18 June 2017