The History of a Town by M. E. Saltykov-Shchedrin

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Translated by I.P. Foote

Reviewed by Karen Langley

The History of a Town by M. E. Saltykov-Shchedrin

Russian literature has long had a tradition of satire stretching all the way back to Gogol, one of its best exponents. However, a writer who was an expert at the genre and who is perhaps unjustly neglected is Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin (1826 – 1889). Born with the surname Saltykov, he adopted the pseudonym Nikolai Shchedrin and spent much of his life working as a civil servant whilst also editing and contributing to journals and writing his novels. Probably his best known work is The Golovlyov Family,  but now the Apollo imprint of Head of Zeus have reissued a lovely edition of his 1870 work The History of a Town. Regarded as one of the major satirical novels of the 19th century, it was first translated in 1980 but had slipped out of sight so this is a welcome reissue! The book itself is a beautiful object, with the cover illustration by the collective KuKryNikSy also featured on the endpapers.

The History of a Town purports to be just that – a chronicle of a provincial Russian town over several hundred years, related by the author supposedly drawing on old histories of the place. Glupov (or Stupid Town) is ruled by a succession of Governors, and these are listed at the start of the history – and a very strange lot they are. As we read on, a dazzling array of Governors passes before our eyes, and also those of the hapless and hopeless citizens of Glupov; ranging from Baklan, who was so tall he broke in half in a gale, to Brudasty whose head was found to contain a music box! Then there is the Marquis de Sanglot who flew into the air and would have flown away if his coat tails had not caught on a spire; Mikaladze who, with his weakness for the fairer sex, doubled population of Glupov and died of exhaustion; and Pryshch whose head was filled with forcemeat. Even an apparently benign governor like the aptly named Benevolensky manages to cause problems for the town by breeding indolence in the occupants which creates major issues after he’s gone.

It’s entertaining for the reader to encounter each Governor with their own quirk and peculiarity; however one thing that does not change is their harsh treatment and exploitation of the people of the town. Enduring this every-changing roster of administrators are the poor people of Glupov themselves; foolish, lazy, indifferent to learning and law, they suffer constantly under these Governors, but left to their own devices they cannot cope. If they are not controlled, they resort to throwing people off the bell-tower or drowning them; if not forced to work the land and produce crops, they will expect God to do it for them. It is clear that whoever is in charge of the town, it is the Glupovites who will suffer at the hands of the series of incompetent Governors.

When there was nothing to do, that is, when there was no need to flit through the town or catch people unawares (such painful moments occur in the lives of even the most energetic administrators), he either promulgated laws, or marched up and down in his office, observing the rise and fall of the toes of his boots, or else went over in his mind the various army bugle calls.

The History of a Town is a very, very funny read, full of farcical characters and ridiculous situations. It’s also wonderful written, with some vivid descriptions – that of one of the many burnings of the town was particularly memorable. But behind the humour, as with any good satire, there is a serious purpose. When Saltykov-Shchedrin was writing, the serf problem had been dragging on and on, finally ending with their emancipation in 1861. Russia had been divided by the issue of whether the serfs should be freed from what was in effect a form of slavery. This dilemma extended from the simple issue of human rights into discussion of whether they had souls! The obvious inference is that the Glupovites stand for the Russian people, with their long years of suffering under a succession of autocratic rulers and their administrators. Saltykov-Shchedrin would not be the last to argue that the people get the rulers they deserve and although he reserves much of his scorn for the ridiculous administrators and their idiocies, he has plenty of swipes at the ordinary folk too.

As a crowning misfortune, the Glupovites took to thinking for themselves. Following their own seditious habit, they assembled round the bell-tower and began to weigh and consider.

Translator I.P. Foote provides useful notes and an introduction, and points out in this that Saltykov-Shchedrin intended his book as an attack on the ‘basic evils of the Russian state system, evils which had existed in the past and continued into his own day.’ It’s interesting to speculate how much has changed in the modern world and I suspect that a lot of what Saltykov-Shchedrin has to say is still relevant today.

Usually he gave no explanations and simply made his wishes known by proclamations, which were secretly posted at night on the end houses of every street. These proclamations were written in the manner of the advertisements one sees today from Kach’s store, in which large letters are used for words of no importance at all and the essential matter is written in the smallest possible print.

Some things never change, and in a world full of tyranny, we still desperately need satire of this calibre.

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and thinks satire is one of the highest forms of wit. 

M. E. Saltykov-Shchedrin, The History of a Town  (Apollo/Head of Zeus, 2016). 978-1784975425, 294pp, paperback.

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