The Trouble with Hadji

I’ve always had a penchant for Tolstoy. I love his rolling, roaring, rumbling blockbusters, packed with stirring adventures, colourful characters, exquisite details and deep philosophical musings. But when I mention Tolstoy, at a cocktail party, say, or in the dole queue, or at a black mass, wherever, people always come out with, “Oh but he’s so booooring”. This is almost always because his stuff tends to be on the long side.

Recently, I unearthed a copy of Hadji Murad, Tolstoy’s posthumous novel, which had found its way into an old suitcase that, in its turn, had found its way into the attic. It was in good company: several other childhood favourites such as the “Swallows and Amazons” books and Trotsky’s “Lessons of Spain” were nestling in the same case. I must have been about ten when I read Hadji Murad, understood precious little, decided to pretend I adored it, and squirrelled it away again, lest Sheen should locate it.

Anyway, I recently reread it and now I realize that I have the perfect ammunition to employ when any interlocutor accuses Tolstoy of being long and boring.

War and Peace is 1386 pages long, Anna Karenina is 788, Resurrection is over 500, but good old Hadji is just 150.

And yet, despite that, Tolstoy crams in everything the heart could desire. Adventure, politics, love, existential grief, betrayal, duplicity, death (plenty of the latter)…

And yet, come to think of it, Hadji Murad wouldn’t be the right choice to use as ammo for one simple reason: I don’t think very highly of it.

And yet, it is held to be a great work of literature. Harold Bloom not only refers to it as “canonical”, he even goes a bit overboard and says it’s “the best story he’s ever read”. No, honestly.

I don’t get it. The novel is based on a true story. Hadji Murad was, by today’s standards, a Chechnyan terrorist. He sided with the Russians when he fell out with his comrade Shamil, who imprisoned his family, understandably enough. Then Hadji got pissed off with waiting for the Russians to kill Shamil and rescue his family, so he decided to do the job himself. He killed a few Russian soldiers and a few of the locals and then they chopped his head off.

All the other characters in the book keep going on about how brave and noble Hadji is, but hang on, he betrays his fellow freedom-fighters, he abandons his family, then ignores his new allies, and ends up killing people on both sides. Now maybe there’s something I have missed, but it seems to me that even Tolstoy is rooting for this guy, this great, proud, indomitable spirit. Is there some devious irony that I am overlooking?

Certainly, the other characters come off worse. Czar Nicholas is a pervert and a coward; the peasants are like sheep and the soldiers are all hooligans.

The story starts near the end of Hadji’s life, as though we just got to watch the last episode of a TV series, so we don’t know that much about the guy’s previous exploits (presumably glorious and possibly treacherous and/or gory so maybe Tolstoy doesn’t want to show us this), or much about his family (enough is revealed about his son Yussuf, however, for us to see that there are some issues Hadji ought to be working on, such as when Yussuf is tempted to side with Hadji’s enemy Shamil, just to spite his father).

It’s quite an exciting read, fast-paced in parts and glumly introspective in part, but I think you would have to sympathise with Hadji to enjoy the tale fully, and I don’t. And if you look at the man’s life objectively, you know fine well what’s going to happen to him, and it’s almost a relief when he gets his come-uppance.

I am sad to say I don’t read Russian, so maybe one of the causes of my disappointment with this little novel was the translation. I didn’t find the prose particularly attractive and another thing that I found irritating was that it was peppered with unhelpful footnotes. Anyone who has read any Russian literature already knows that a versta is just over a kilometer, an isba is a small wooden house and lapti are something like clogs. So why not just write kilometer, hut and clogs and have done.

I’m going to put my copy of Hadji Murad back in the attic now. I will give it another read in about ten years’ time and maybe by then I will have worked out a way to get more out of it. Meanwhile, I have other fish to fry.

I am planning to deep fry a succulent-looking whiting that I fished out of the lake near my house when I was scuba diving in the Caribbean this morning. I aim to dust it with oatmeal and let it frazzle in mongoose fat for approximately 6 minutes. I shall serve it on a bed of rocket science and will not be forgetting the hunks of crusty white loaves that memories like this are made of.

Приятного аппетита!



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