In my personal list of the best of the best literary texts – written not only in Russian, but in any language – this relatively short novella would definitely be number one. It was written by one of the world’s greatest storytellers late in his life, when he was already fed up with writing fiction and disillusioned by literature. It is minimalistic and devoid of any embellishment or ambition, but for me it reads like a manual of the writer’s craft. It combines an almost hidden yugen-like* beauty of style with breathtaking plot-building and amazingly multi-layered meanings, so that you discover new ones at every re-reading. The author here is god-like, effortlessly sliding from one character’s inner world to another, understanding everybody and anybody – being everybody and anybody. This is what literary fiction is about, after all: temporarily becoming somebody else. The story is based on an episode from a long-forgotten nineteenth-century war, describing the last days of a long-gone Dagestan warlord, but like every great text it is eternally modern and timeless. Think War and Peace in forty pages instead of four volumes.
*Japanese word meaning “deep awareness of existence”.
Written by Leo Tolstoy
Boris Akunin (pen-name of Grigory Chkhartishvili) – famous as Russia’s leading detective and crime writer, Akunin also writes ‘serious’ literary novels as well as essays, history books and plays. His recent multi-volume, popular history project, entitled History of The Russian State, combines both non-fiction and fiction. Akunin’s books have sold over 30 million copies in Russia alone and are translated into almost 50 languages. Several of his books have been made into films and TV series in Russia.
Read Max Easterman’s review of Boris Akunin’s THE WINTER QUEEN.
Read more on Russian literature in The Riveter. Edition Two – Riveting Russian Writing.