Thursday, October 18, 2007

Discovering Chekhov

Years ago, I read a searing Bangla story which went like this: a newly married young man lives and works in the city to make ends meet while his wife and extended family live in the village home. During a holiday, he takes the train to the village, where he gets all of one day to spend with his family. Even though the young couple desperately want to spend time with each other, in the end the husband's holiday gets consumed by everyone else - parents, uncles, aunts, nieces, neighbors - and he gets not one free minute with his wife before it is time to leave.

This story plays itself over and over in my head when I read the short stories of Chekhov. His tales of everyday life in Russia, specially that of the downtrodden and the underprivileged whose destinies are bound tight by the ropes of fate, resonate with startling details and observations. There is beauty in the poetry of everyday existence, however miserable that existence may be.

I have discovered Chekhov's works thanks to Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer. I should say re-discovered, because I read Chekhov in college and even as late as last year without perhaps fully appreciating his depth. You have to know what to look for, and Prose helps. If you are expecting stories with surprise ending a la Saki, Maupassant or O'Henry, you will be disappointed.

Chekhov's characters fight battles on many fronts: material needs, social mores, demands of the job and family, and the cruel Russian winters. They rarely emerge as heroes in the conventional sense. People live "small lives", not "big lives" as in Hemingway or Maugham. As Prose points out, the stories follow no particular pattern. If you set down one rule a writer should follow, Chekhov breaks it in the next story you read. Yet his genius is that his stories work so well.

For example, in the story The Heartache a poor coachman, all alone in the city, cannot get anyone to listen to the story of his sorrow - at having lost his only son. At Chekhov's hands, the story is neither sentimental nor maudlin, but strong with its human touch. How many times have I heard a similar story in Dhaka, where a man has to work, leaving his family in the village, and suddenly a close relative, maybe a child, dies? Does anyone even have the time to listen to his story?

No comments: