As long as my memory goes back in time, we as a family of booklovers have always loved Russian books. I can never forget those days, when our school Principal will declare at the very start of assembly that “we are going to have a Russian Book Fair” organized at the later half of the day. As soon as the assembly will be over, I will barge in her room and give her two options :), Number one, to call my mom from her office phone or Number two, lend me a coin so I can use the pay phone outside to call her and let her know :). Princy happened to be my mom’s best friend (Kitty party and all), would always oblige with the first option. And my mom, the less said the better, will always (without fail) will walk in way before the school is over and will have a cotton bag full of her choice of books with an empty bag waiting for me 🙂 to be filled with my choice of books. During those days, we may get only one pair of brand new cloths each, that too only on Diwali but there was no stopping or any such rule applied to books. The only condition she did put in before buying the books was that, we have to give her the summary of the book (verbally) as soon as we finished. The names that I could recollect of what all we read during those days were Tolstoy (her favorite), Gogol (my favorite), Dostoyevsky (common), Gorky etc (I do not remember the rest of the names). I have no idea or memory as how much sense their books made to me at that time, but I loved reading them. I still cannot forget that thick black book, full of Ghost stories, (forgot the name and the writer too, but the only thing I remember about it is that the stories were mostly based in, or around Kiev) which was cherished by almost all my friends back then as there was only one copy available, and was priced very steeply, yet we end up getting it :). Russian writers were simply magic for us and we loved them big time, till life happened 🙂 and I moved on.
Chekhov Omnibus I landed accidentally at Crosswords last year, when I noticed that they had an offer going on, something like 40% on First book, 50% on Second and 60% on Third :). I let my wifey and kiddo pick up one book each and myself, I picked up this thick Omnibus at the hugest discount possible. It’s been quite a few years that I have / had read anything from that part of the world. Tolstoy’s “Confessions” was an exception that I read last year, quite a gloomy read, totally philosophical and takes you on a ride to search the meaning of your life (rather Tolstoy’s). So, Chekhov not only surprised me with his dozen odd stories, he rather shocked me with the deep philosophy that each story took me on. It was actually a “Oh My God – Not Anton Chekhov” moment for me. If only I hadn’t read (and loved Murakami), I would have never finished this book and half of these stories which were not only gloomy but also very painful, and at times have no set endings, open endings, broken narratives as well as quite a few times – No Closure. I was like WHOA!! What did I just read? Is this what Chekhov is famous for? but each and every story, kept taking me deeper into the journey with the amazing man that he was (if only the translation was any better, more on that later). The majority of the characters in almost all the stories were either poor peasants, teachers, doctors or totally down trodden people with almost no life and no future to look forward to.
It took me close to 11 days to finish this giant of a book with more then a dozen odd stories. Some were as big as 50-60 pages and then some were as small as 8-10 pages only, but the impact of all of them were exactly same. Unfortunately I haven’t read a Russian book in a long time so I guess I have totally lost touch. But on the positive side, this one so much reminded me of my favorite Writer cum Movie maker – Satyajit Ray, that I just can’t describe it in words. On your face reality shown just as it is. No judgments. I never expected these kind of stories from Chekhov, I thought he would be more like light heart, humorous writer. Although his terrific sense of humor too is pretty much visible through these stories but they are way heart-touching than what I expected. As I mentioned that almost all the stories have an open ending or no ending at all. Imagine, a forty page story where a man is big time in love with a married female, who too in turn loves him but the situation is such that they just can’t continue the relationship any longer, much to the hopes of readers that they should get reunited. The story suddenly ends saying “I never met that guy after that day and have no idea what happened next” :). I mean, can you believe that? I just couldn’t believe how many stories had an extra marital angle to them plus most of them had a broken family with no support from anywhere. Is this what Chekhov was famous for? One more thing that I loved most about these stories is that almost all of them are told in first person, with a narrator telling it to a friend or a relative. That actually keeps it very interesting for the reader. I really need to get some more of him and read them soon to know if all his books are like that. Do let me know if you have read these stories or any other works of Chekhov that you believe were similar to these. Which one book that you would recommend big time as his best work? I would really like to read it asap.
A word on World’s worst translator: Constance Garnett: If you ever see a book (especially Russian) with that name as the translator, I will say, DO NOT even touch it with a barge pole, rather run for your life and never enter that book shop. What a terrible terrible translation. The language and the choice of words that she has for this one, initially at least 100+ pages I thought I was reading a British book and not a Russian. Plus, I want to mention this that, this actually became a first book from Russia where I have read words like “Slut”, “C*** and so many similar cringe-worthy terms. That I will refuse to accept that Russian writers will every use in their stories or will accept even in translation. I am now too keen to pick up the same Omnibus from a better translator and read it again soon to actually know if the stories ended the same way Constance has translated them or she changed that too. It was such a heart-break and on top of that, dime a dozen grammatical mistakes, spelling mistakes were such a big turn off. Although I am no expert on language but it was quite shocking for me to be able to notice so many sad mistakes. It totally looked like a half heart effort from her and I really wonder why someone will ever take these kind of classical stories that casually.