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Taras Bulba by Nikolai Gogol
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Taras Bulba (1835)

by Nikolai Gogol

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Russian imperialism-nationalism in the shape of Cossacks that rampaged the Steppes in a seemingly ceaseless struggle with perceived and made up enemies, the natural world and their brutal-romantic nature.
At least that's Gogol's 1835 and 1842 (he rewrote after much criticism by Russian authorities of its 'Ukraine bias) version of an era when Tsarist 'expansionist' policies were again stirring with resultant oppression of other nationalities including Poles, Ukrainians, Tatars, Turks etc. as well as infamous, exploitative Pogroms on Jewish populations of the Pale of Settlement.
So, what of the book itself: A very well crafted and thoroughly readable story of mayhem and reflection within a family torn apart by forbidden love, unbounded fealty and reckless patriotism.
Gogol offers a vigorously and engagingly written version of, but no answers to the age old question of whether and at what cost to individuals and society 'love conquers all'?
Thoroughly enjoyable read - the context of its origins have to be born in mind. ( )
  tommi180744 | May 23, 2016 |
Nikolai Gogol wrote of the absurd in stories like Dead Souls and The Overcoat, and here he ostensibly finds that in the historical, for the utter disregard for peace and order that the 16th century Cossacks (living in what is now Ukraine), and their appetite for war and carousing, certainly appears absurd. Upon the return of his two sons from a seminary in Kiev, Taras Bulba spurs the Cossacks to start a war for no other reason than to gain battle experience for them. Amidst the requisite blood-drenched hacking that ensues, the younger son falls in love with one of the Polish women and changes sides, which is a betrayal. The battle rages and corpses pile up.

What’s sad is Gogol isn’t saying ‘he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword’, or commenting on the idiocy of war. He’s glorying in Russian nationalism, putting these wars with the Catholic Poles to the north and the Muslim Turks and Tatars to the South in the light of a grand tradition of bravery stretching back to the Iliad (emphasized by references to that book, such as enemies outside of a sieged town being dragged across the battlefield by horses), and justifying some pretty brutal anti-Semitism. His romanticized view of the Cossacks is that their “endless skirmishes and restless life saved Europe from the unstoppable infidel attacks that threatened to overthrow her.”

It’s a bleak picture of humanity. Violence and all manner of brutality abounds. The ‘uncivilized’ Cossacks are hell-bent on war. The ‘civilized’ Poles, aristocrats included, turn out for a public torture and execution in Warsaw. The author makes Taras Bulba and the Cossacks martyred heroes. It’s hard not to translate this view into present day hot spots around the world, Ukraine included, and feel sad that this is who we are. And yet it is a snapshot not only of the Cossacks from four hundred years ago, but the Russian impression of them two hundred years later, both of which were interesting to me, and I do like Gogol’s writing.

Just a couple of quotes:
“I want my vodka so clear and frothing that it hisses and whirls like it’s possessed!”

And this battlefield advice:
“If you are grazed by a bullet, or if a saber grazes your head or any other part of your body, then you must not pay too much attention to it. Just mix a measure of gunpowder with a cup of vodka, drink it down, and there’ll be no fever and all will be well. As for your wound, if it’s not too big just spit in your palm, rub some earth in it, and smear the dirt on the wound – that’ll dry it out.” ( )
2 vote gbill | Jul 4, 2015 |
If Hemingway loved this book I can see why. ( )
  palaverofbirds | Mar 29, 2013 |
Good vigorous adventure, though with a tragic ending. By objective modern standards, unduly hostile to Jews and Poles. ( )
1 vote antiquary | Sep 30, 2009 |
Nikolai Gogol is an enabler, and Taras Bulba is an enabling act. Are the Poles stupid? Yes they are, and considering this was written after the Tsar had completely subdued their shit, that is reprehensible. Are the Jews greedy? Natch, although they do help Taras Bulba out a bit, to be fair. Are the Turks heathen filth? They are in 1500, so in 1835, encroach, encroach, encroach. Are the Cossacks mighty and blameless, except for living in violent times? They are, and the Russian Tsar will rule the earth, and I haven't read Dead Souls but judging from this book Gogol is a total sycophantic suck.

On the other hand: Medieval Russian cowboys. Theme RPG waiting to happen. Especially keeping in mind that last story, "Vengeance" whatever. ( )
1 vote MeditationesMartini | Jan 8, 2009 |
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» Add other authors (77 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Nikolai Gogolprimary authorall editionscalculated
Constantine, PeterTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Cournos, JohnIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fondse, MarkoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fraser, EricCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hogarth, C. J.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kaplan, Robert D.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0812971191, Paperback)

The First New Translation in Forty Years

Set sometime between the mid-sixteenth and early-seventeenth century, Gogol’s epic tale recounts both a bloody Cossack revolt against the Poles (led by the bold Taras Bulba of Ukrainian folk mythology) and the trials of Taras Bulba’s two sons.

As Robert Kaplan writes in his Introduction, “[Taras Bulba] has a Kiplingesque gusto . . . that makes it a pleasure to read, but central to its theme is an unredemptive, darkly evil violence that is far beyond anything that Kipling ever touched on. We need more works like Taras Bulba to better understand the emotional wellsprings of the threat we face today in places like the Middle East and Central Asia.” And the critic John Cournos has noted, “A clue to all Russian realism may be found in a Russian critic’s observation about Gogol: ‘Seldom has nature created a man so romantic in bent, yet so masterly in portraying all that is unromantic in life.’ But this statement does not cover the whole ground, for it is easy to see in almost all of Gogol’s work his ‘free Cossack soul’ trying to break through the shell of sordid today like some ancient demon, essentially Dionysian. So that his works, true though they are to our life, are at once a reproach, a protest, and a challenge, ever calling for joy, ancient joy, that is no more with us. And they have all the joy and sadness of the Ukrainian songs he loved so much.”


From the Hardcover edition.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:32 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Gogol's epic tale, in the first new English translation in 40 years, recounts a bloody Cossack revolt against the Poles, led by the bold Taras Bulba of Ukrainian folk mythology, and the trials of his two sons, one of whom falls in love with a Polish girl and eventually is killed by his father in battle, the second of whom is executed before his father's anguished eyes.… (more)

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