I suppose to a lot of people, when you mention Russian literature to them you would think of maybe Anna Karenina and War and Peace and more often than not something which may be considered a little boring I would think. But Russian literature is a hidden gem in my eyes. I started out with the easy novels and children’s books as always and even still have my first dual easy reader (French-Russian) as I couldn’t find an English-Russian book. But the time has come to grow up with the Russian lit I told myself and with a Russian styled work project approaching, I thought to myself what better time!
The Government inspector by Nickolai Gogol.
Essentially, it’s a farce about corruption and stupidity in the local government in Tsarist Russia. But it’s the books clever simplicity which is the real star and which goes even further in emphasising the serious nature of the story.
The plot centres on a small provincial town whose name is never mentioned. The people there have discovered that the imperial government is sending an undercover inspector to look into the efficiency of its institutions. Since the whole of the town’s administration is corrupt, this is not welcome news. When they hear of a young man from St Petersburg who is staying in one of the town’s inns, they assume that he must be the inspector. They flatter and bribe him, but of course the joke is that he is not really the inspector at all.
The potential for farce and comedy here are huge and as I remembered a plot using a hotel inspector in an episode of Fawlty towers, this brought a smile to my face even before I’d read very far in the book.
However, although the play does also amount to an attack on the local governmental institutions themselves, it is the way in which it is written, that is so clever and funny. Penned in the early 1800s, the political atmosphere of the time must have been quite severe and restrictive, yet the comedy shines through and the whole book could be transmitted across the ages to more or less any country to some degree. In particular , the characters Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky will remind English speaking readers in particular of a variation of Tweedledum and Tweedledee or the two male puppets Statler and Waldorf,who sit in the balcony on the Muppet Show. (Incidentally I discovered years ago that these two muppets were named after classic hotels in New York, so this was once part of my NY tour at the time)
Standing in Red Square amongst the government buildings, the grandeur of the past is omnipresent on so many levels. But having read The Government Inspector, I felt I had peeled a little layer away and seen a hidden and surprisingly fun level of Russian society that I had never expected to discover. I’ve always thought that the towers and grandeur of the Russian architecture does sadly not reflect the history or politics but it is represented in this book – the hidden comedy and secret layers of a society and its people.
If you visit Russia, you cannot fail to be moved by the beauty of Red Square but it’s the streets and buildings of the government quarters that really give you a keener sense of what this book is talking about and the hidden secrets deep within.