My dad had a decent library in his youth, but not many books survived moving homes. I only kept two books from his library, and this is one of them. I started reading this novel in the months after he passed away as I was dealing with my sorrow and mourning. It brought tears to my eyes and was an extremely emotional experience because of the father-sons dynamic which was parallel to my brother’s and my experiences with our father in some fashion. In his honor, I post this today on the one year memory of his passing.
May you rest in peace dad.
Taras Bulba is a special kind of novel. Without knowing the chronological context of its publication I cannot be entirely sure whether it was intended as an old Soviet Union work of propaganda scheme or simply a fiction depiction of a historical period in the life of a nation. The story is wrapped in blood, war and gore and the smell of testosterone laced with a heavy dose of Cossack nationalism and tribalism.
The main protagonist is Taras Bulba, is a seasoned warrior who left the battlefields to settle down and start a family. He seems to have gathered some wealth from his conquests and the spoils of war. The story begins with him welcoming home his two fully grown young sons after finishing their former education.
Taras was really proud of the strength of youth showing in his son’s bodies. It made him nostalgic to his own youth. His eldest showed a promising strong leader and his youngest he perceived as daring, inexperienced, reckless, impulsive, a bit naive and susceptible to infatuation by wealth and beauty.
He made it a point to get his boys a solid traditional education to make their minds build on a strong foundation of knowledge, logic, literature, history, strategy and discipline. Then just as soon as he laid eyes on them he took them to his “Setch” with the old comrades and a lifestyle of a warrior. He fought hard to get them the experience he thought they needed to become worthy men. Always pushing them to venture out and prove themselves in battle. He literally conspired to start a war during a time of peace simply to give his boys a chance of becoming real men through the experience of war.
The main takeaway from the novel is the viewpoint of the protagonist on building character. To Taras, being a man is to be willing to go to war, take risk and test your mettle with other men to take your place in the hierarchy of manhood. To become deserving you must be tried and tested and such is how you gain confidence through a steady stream of action, through a perpetual application of courage to take action no matter what.
“His every action was now marked by the assurance born of experience.” (Page 53)
I had a couple of reservations on the story.
First, the way women are depicted is very dated as to portray how they’ve been considered as objects belonging to their fathers and husbands to be treated with the utmost disdain. Kind of puts the slow human evolution from being animal-like to creating complex social constructs where it was not a necessity to boost all resources and support to the physically strong half of the species to fend off the constant dangers of life in a world that was all about kill or be killed. Having to write this in 2019, it’s almost unfathomable how humanity has evolved over such a considerably short period of time. You read this beautiful story and you find yourself transported to a time, you honestly never want to live in at all. It makes you appreciate the point made by many that life as we know it and live it now is the best ever in the entire history of human existence. This point seems to have been advocated by the optimists of the world, my kind of people, and the torch bearers seems to be people like “Steven Pinker.”
(On my To-Read Bookshelf: “The Rational Optimist” by Matt Ridley, “The Better Angels of our Nature” by Steven Pinker and “Thank you for Being Late” by Thomas Friedman.)
Second, Jews have been dragged through the mud all through the story as it unfolds. Presenting their reputation through the eyes of the main character as usurers, money lenders, war profiteers, spies, unclean, without honor and not to be trusted. I have to admit it made me a lot uncomfortable and possibly offended by the xenophobic brand of nationalism in the story which glorifies the Cossack nation above all other nations. From a literary context, I guess was sort of necessary to only trust your own kind in a world marred by danger, war and death and a conquer or be conquered mentality. This narrative line running through the novel makes me think it is a work out of some political propaganda agenda, I can’t be sure though, I am not an expert on Gogol. On the other hand, I simply find it very interesting that when Taras needed someone “smart” to help him with figuring out how to visit his son in prison, he had no other alternative but to confer with a Jewish cunning elder and request the help of a Jewish travelling trader, whom, of course, he paid a fortune with a promise of more riches after the completion of the task. It’s definitely antisemitic and xenophobic in the way it represents Jews in the times of the story. I don’t think any rational modern person, Jewish or otherwise, would enjoy this depiction in the novel at all. Putting it all into the context of the times, though, you can brush it to the side as you follow the heart-wrenching ending that is extremely emotional and I have to admit brought tears to my eyes by the end of it.
It is a tale of heroics and deep soviet era nationalism and it is a difficult read for so many reasons. But the main lesson of a father insisting on pushing his sons to venture into the world and be tried and tested for their own good is worth going through the whole thing.
Thank you for reading.
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