In 2015, I embarked on a twelve month Russian reading challenge. Now that we’re in the middle of a year filled with commemorations of the 1917 revolution, I suspect I may have jumped the gun slightly. I can’t feel many regrets though, 2015 gave me one of the most satisfying reading years I can recall, and it also means that I’m now able to approach new Russian translations and publications with a comfortable sense of familiarity. In the case of Saltykov-Shchedrin, this sense was enhanced by extreme excitement, his ‘The Golovlyov Family‘ had been one of the highlights of my 2015 reading. It had been irritatingly difficult to get hold of an English copy of the novel and I’d never heard of anything else by Saltykov-Shchedrin in translation so it’s hard to express quite how delighted I felt when I came across a beautiful Apollo edition of ‘The History of a Town’ towards the end of last year.
Late 2016 was in many ways the ideal moment to read a scathing satyr on power, bureaucracy and incompetent government but I’m afraid I just couldn’t face it. Since then ‘The History of a Town’ has been adding grandeur to my to-be-read shelf, patiently awaiting for the moment when my desire to read it would overtake my reluctance to face the black comedy it was sure to contain.
Though it hasn’t supplanted the claustrophobic gothic terror of ‘The Golovlyov Family’ in my list of best Russian novels, ‘The History of a Town’ has enhanced my already exaggerated sense of Saltykov-Shchedrin’s skill. The book is presented as a history of Glupov (‘Stupid town’), specifically it is a chronicle of town governors. I’d paraphrase a few characteristics of these men (and usurping women) but I don’t think you’d believe me so it’s probably best to go with an extract from the list near the start of the book:
5. LAMVROKAKIS: Fugitive Greek. No Christian name or patronymic; not even a rank; captured in the market at Nezhin by Count Kirila Razumovsky. Traded in soap, sponges, and nuts; was in favour of classical education. In 1956 found dead in bed, bitten to death by bed-bugs.
6. BAKLAN, IVAN MATVEICH: Brigadier. Seven feet seven inches tall; boasted he was a direct descendant of Ivan the Great (the well-known bell-tower in Moscow). Broke in half in the great gale of 1761.
7. PREIFFER BOGDAN BOGDANOVICH: Sergeant of the Guards. A native of Holstein. Achieved nothing; replaced for his ignorance in 1762.
8. BRUDASTY, DEMENTY VARLAMOVICH: Appointed in haste; his head contained a mechanism on account of which he was called ‘the Music-box.’ This did not prevent him from settling the problem of tax arrears, which his predecessor had neglected…
I know it’s bad form to give away too much of a book’s contents in a review, but I must also tell you about a couple of other memorable governors:
16 PRYSHCH, IVAN PANTELEICH: Mayor. His head turned out to be filled with force-meat, a discovery made by the Marshal of Nobility.
17. IVANOV, NIKODIM OSIPOVICH: State Councillor. So small that he could not take in extensive laws. Died of strain in 1918 trying to assimilate a Senate decree.
After the introductory passages set the scene, the rest of the book fleshes out these summaries, giving more detailed accounts of the rule of each governor in turn. It’s ludicrous and exaggerated and painfully apt. It’s also a useful reminder that insane and arbitrary abuses of power in no way began with the revolution but had been a terrifying part of everyday Russian life for centuries.
Apollo may not have included this novel in their list of ‘The Best Books you’ve Never Read‘ and I still suspect that ‘The Golovlyov Family’ is slightly more deserving of such a title, but ‘The History of a Town’ delivers everything you could wish for in a satire on politics and power. I P Foote’s translation perfectly matches the semi-controlled madness of the characters and events described and I can only hope that more of Saltykov-Shchedrin’s works start to appear in bookshops in the near future. And also that his outrageous fictions will stop seems so prescient and contemporary, though that may be a bit too much to wish for.