The Government Inspector by Nikolai Gogol
Translated by Roger Cockrell

When I was pondering on the wonderful books I’d read for the 1930 Club recently, I commented that the blog was suffering from a bit of RRD (Russian Reading Deficiency). Luckily it’s a condition which is easily treated, particularly when you have as many Russian books lurking in the stacks as I do! However, a recent arrival at the Ramblings, in the form of a sparkling new translation of Gogol’s play “The Government Inspector”, turned out to be the perfect cure… 😀

This lovely new copy is from Alma Classics, who also publish editions of his great novel “Dead Souls” and two lovely volumes which feature some of his shorter works. “The Government Inspector” is a comic work (as is so much of Gogol’s work) and holds an important place in the history of Russian drama. It’s been newly translated by Roger Cockrell (who rendered so beautifully their edition of Dostoevsky’s “The Devils”, which I reviewed here); and it certainly was a joy to read.

The play is set in a small provincial town, and opens with the local officials in uproar; a corrupt collection of Mayor, Judge, Inspector of Schools, Charities Commissioner, and so on. The Postmaster has intercepted a letter, warning that a Government Inspector is going to make a visit to the town, incognito, to check up on the officials; and as the town is filthy and neglected, dependent on bribery and generally chaotic, all hell is set to let loose. The uproar gets worse when it’s discovered that a man from St. Petersburg has been lodging at the local inn, one Ivan Alexandrovich Khlestakov. It’s instantly made clear to the audience that he’s a charlatan, out to blag what he can from the locals and then move on. However, the officials decide that he must be the visiting Inspector, and that mistaken identity leads to a hilarious comedy of errors.

Traitors in a provincial town! It’s hardly a border town, is it? You could gallop for three years in any direction and still be miles away from any other country.

Khlestakov is accompanied by a slovenly manservant, Osip; and both are happy to play along with the local officials and their fawning behaviour, even though they don’t know why it’s happening. So they’re well-fed, bribed with ‘loans’ and Khlestakov even starts to make up to both the Mayor’s wife *and* his daughter. The officials are in a state of fear and trembling, the townspeople are wondering if this important man from St. Petersburg can deal with the corrupt officials for them, and the Mayor’s daughter spies a potential husband. Will the truth out; will Khlestakov get out of the town in time; and what does the future hold for the people of the little town?

The first thing to say about “The Government Inspector” is that of course it is very, very funny. As the misunderstandings build up one on top of the other, the action degenerates into frantic farce where the townspeople vie for favours from the spurious Inspector and denounce each other left right and centre. There is a wonderful running joke in the existence of two indistinguishable local landowners, Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky, who both have the same name and patronymic – Pyotr Ivanovich! As I read the play I was visualising how it would look onstage, and thinking that it would probably reduce the audience to hysterics.

… sometimes having an idea can do more harm than having no ideas at all.

However, there’s a little more to this play than just farce, as Gogol very cleverly and successfully mixes broad slapstick humour with satirical comment on the state of the Civil Service in Russia, and the corruption amongst officials. Russia was controlled by its strict bureaucratic hierarchy, but the dishonesty of the system and its officials was well known. By using the small town setting, Gogol probably hoped to get away with hiding his critique in the action; had he directed his commentary at the higher ranks in the cities it probably wouldn’t have been so easy.

God help anyone who goes into education! You’re always liable to be criticised. Everyone is always interfering, wanting to show they’re as clever as you are.

It also occurred to me that this play really sets the template for Russian satire to come: with the provincial setting and the focus on small town corruption, he was definitely a forerunner of Saltykov-Shchedrin (and I believe the latter has been referred to as the artistic ‘heir’ of Gogol). However, Gogol also foreshadows his own later work, as it’s quite possible to see Khlestakov as an early version of the protagonist of “Dead Souls”, Chichikov – almost a Chichikov in miniature! Both men are fly-by-night chancers, rushing from town to town trying to scam what they can from what they regard as simple provincial people. Of course, Chichikov is much more sophisticated, with complex plans to cheat the rural landowners; but it’s hard not to see the seeds of his character in Khlestakov, an early version without the plans and the cunning.

I think I’ve read “The Government Inspector” once before – and we’re talking *decades* ago here – so reading it in this wonderful new translation was such a treat. I found myself laughing like a drain throughout, whilst marvelling at the ability of human beings to deceive themselves. The play comes with useful notes which are just at the right level; not too many, and just what you need to enjoy reading it. Interestingly, Cockrell discusses briefly one of the many complex decisions translators have to make when working, and that was the rendering of the names in English. In the original, the names have a comic meaning (e.g. the name of the Mayor could be translated literally as Windbag). Should the translator render the names in comic form or simply transliterate? Cockrell sensibly (to my mind) transliterates – so the Mayor is Skvoznik-Dmukhanovsky – but gives a key at the start of the notes which lets the reader know what the humorous version would be. I prefer this myself – and it’s something I’ve come across with my reading of various translations of “The Master and Margarita”; Ivan Bezdomny is sometimes rendered as Ivan Homeless, which is what his last name (a pseudonym) means. I prefer the Russian with a note somewhere as in the Gogol; I got a bit heated when reading “War and Peace” and coming across Prince Andrei given as Prince Andrew, as I want my Russians to sound Russian!!

Anyway – at least the RRD on the Ramblings has been remedied, and in a wonderful way. “The Government Inspector” was a treat from start to finish, and I’m now kind of thinking of it as a prequel to “Dead Souls”! Even if you don’t normally read plays, I’d recommend this one; it’s entertaining, hilarious and with a fascinating subtext. What more could you want? 😀

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!)