Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol (Shane's book 25, 2009)

It may seem unlikely, given the title, but Dead Souls is a comedy. Envisaged as a trilogy, only the first part was published during Gogol's lifetime. Elements of the second part, which Gogol attempted to destroy shortly before his death, were published posthumously.

[amtap book:isbn=0140448071]

Dead Souls is a social satire detailing the efforts of Chichikov, a mid-ranking gentleman turned social-climbing conman, as he travels the Russian provinces with a bizarre plan. Chichikov approaches landowners and offers to "buy" those of their peasants who have died since the last census. Russian law at the time dictated that landowners had to pay tax on the serfs they had at the last census, regardless of whether they are still alive. By taking these 'dead souls' off the hands of the landowners, Chichikov appears to be doing them a favour. But what does he want them for?

His plan is little more than a MacGuffin and not terribly important to the novel. Instead, the focus is on Gogol's portrayal of the various landowners Chichikov meets. For Gogol, they too are dead souls, as is Chichikov himself.

Gogol's writing, translated here by Robert A Maguire, is exquisite. There is some wonderfully descriptive writing and his characters are drawn with wit and precision. Gogol's narrator is endearingly strange, frequently wandering off into poetic asides about the state of Russia or a certain kind of person.

It's a voice that would nowadays be described as postmodern. At one point the narrator apologises for the characters he's bringing to us: "And so, readers should not feel indignant towards the author if the persons who have been appearing so far have not been to their taste. This is Chichikov's fault, he is fully in charge here, and wherever he takes it into his head to go, we must plod along in the same direction too."

The Penguin edition presents the scraps of Gogol's second volume after the first. It's worth reading as a curiosity but is altogether more cumbersome, with a heavier tone and no clear sense of direction. Of course, it's highly unlikely to be anything like what Gogol would have wished to have published.

Clearly, Dead Souls should be judged solely on the first part. Elements of it reach across to Dostoevsky, back to Homer and extend forwards to Kafka. It's a masterpiece and essential reading for all.