Having finished my reading of the second Anthony Powell, I decided to spend World Book Day in the company of a short Russian. By this, I don’t necessarily mean his height(!) but instead a little tale by Dostoevsky, in a lovely little hardback gift edition from Oneworld Classics – “The Crocodile”.
As an aside, I have to say how much I *love* Oneworld/Alma Classics – they publish masses of my favourite authors (including many Russians) and their books are so beautifully produced, with extra material and notes etc. They sent me a catalogue with this volume and frankly if I was rich I would buy the lot – but I’m not, so I’ll have to make do with one here or there!
Anyway – on to “The Crocodile”, a short tale which I’d not heard of before but which was very enjoyable and easy to read in a couple of sittings. It tells the story of Ivan Matveich, a civil servant in Tsarist Russian, who is persuaded by his wife Yelena Ivanovna to take her to see the latest St. Petersburg spectacle – a large crocodile on display in The Passage (an elite department store). They are accompanied by our narrator, Semyon Semyonych who refers to himself several times as “friend of the family”. However, disaster strikes when Ivan Matveich is swallowed whole by the crocodile, after which things get very surreal…
The German owners of the crocodile will not countenance any action which will harm the beast and rescue Ivan, instead insisting on the “economic principle” i.e. the crocodile is their livelihood and they either want compensation or will keep raking in the roubles as people flock to see the man inside the beast. For in fact Ivan is alive, and can talk from inside the reptile and even seems quite comfortable! He begins to reflect on life and his situation while his beautiful wife starts to regard herself as a ‘widow’ and revel in the attention she is receiving from a number of gentlemen (including Semyon himself!)
Things take another bizarre turn as Ivan decides he is quite comfortable inside the crocodile and with the time to reflect on life, away from his pressing duties as a civil servant, he thinks he will become a philosopher with a following, while Yelena holds salons for him in the evenings. However, his descriptions of the inside of the crocodile as like rubber, and his account of how he is going to sustain himself, do lead us to think he might be losing his mind a little.
This is a wonderful, inventive little tale that takes sideswipes at many things: the Tsarist civil service and its labyrinthine bureaucracy; the fickleness of beautiful women; the inaccuracy and bias of newspapers (two papers take completely opposite views when reporting the story: one takes the side of the crocodile and the other gets the story completely reversed and reports that a man has swallowed a crocodile!). It has a fabulous Gogolian feel about it, it’s funny, a delight to read and confirms what another of my favourite Russian authors had to say about Dostoevsky:
“You’re not Dostoevsky,” said the citizeness, who was getting muddled by Koroviev.
“Well, who knows, who knows,” he replied.
“Dostoevsky’s dead,” said the citizeness, but somehow not very confidently.
“I protest!” Behemoth exclaimed hotly. “Dostoevsky is immortal!”
― Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita