Dead Souls

The title of this book can be a little mis-leading in English. When I ordered it from Amazon, I thought that the story was about a man going about the Russian countryside bargaining for the souls of dead peasants. In actual fact, the word souls here is a Russian term for a serf, which slightly changes the focus of the story, but in truth does not detract from the enjoyment of it.

We never do find out just what the hero of the tale is going to do with his dead souls. Perhaps this was included in the section of the second volume that the author burnt shortly before his death. Incidentally, the burning of the papers means that the last chapter in the book pretty much makes no sense, as there is much character development and twists that are lost, and I wouldn't recommend reading it for this reason. In the main however, the book is a treat as we follow the central character around the Russian countryside visiting various outlandish land owners, trying to bargain for their dead peasants. It is funny, not in a laugh out loud and drop the book way, but in a witty kind of way, and the time passes quickly as we read through.

One of the pleasures of reading older works of literature and those from a foreign culture is the discovery of unknown phrases and wording that one is not used to seeing. My favourite discovery in this case was that land owners in Russia in the 19th Century apparently all spoke like Hulk Hogan, frequently calling each other "Brother". Other things that caught my eye were:

  • Here the tutor turned all his attention on Themistoclus and seemed to want to jump into his eyes
  • A mention of spontaneous human combustion: "He got burnt up on his own, my dear. It somehow caught fire inside him, he drank too much, just this little blue flame came out of him, and he smoldered, smoldered, and turned black as coal."
  • "Dead people around the house! Eh, that's going a bit far! Maybe just to frighten sparrows in your kitchen garden at night or something?"
  • "Am I some kind of German, to go dragging myself over the roads begging for money?"
  • "That rascal of a cook, who learned from a Frenchman, buys a cat, skins it, and serves it instead of hare."
  • He fell asleep soundly, deeply, fell asleep in the wondrous way that they alone sleep who are so fortunate as to know nothing of hemorrhoids, or fleas, or overly powerful mental abilities.
  • How nothing really changes in the world: "Of course, the female half of mankind is a puzzle."
  • "He should have taken after his grandmother on his mother's side, that would have been best, but he came out just as the saying goes: 'Not like mother, not like father, but like Roger the lodger.'"
  • A couple of descriptions for ugly people:
  1. Some had faces like badly baked bread
  2. Only the quantity of pocks and pits that mottled it included it in the number of those faces on which, according to the popular expression, the devil comes at night to thresh peas.
  3. Finally he sniffed out his home and family life, and learned that he had a grown-up daughter whose face also looked as if the threshing of peas took place on it nightly.
  • His handwriting was of the sort of which people say, "A magpie wrote it with her claw, and not a man."
  • A wobbly crone who looked like a dried pear...
  • Quicker than a crop-headed wench can braid her hair.
  • Through his open mouth and the nostrils of his nose it began producing sounds as such do not exist even in the latest music. Everything was there - drum, flute, and some abrupt sound, like a dog's barking.
  • "If all you want is to get rich quickly, then you'll never get rich; but if you want to get rich without asking about the time, then you'll get rich quickly."
  • The Russian man, even one who is worse than others, still has a sense of justice. Unless he's some sort of Jew, and not a Russian.


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