To Be Finished Before Year End, another (but normally smaller) sort of TBR pile.
The top priority for me is Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island, a great review copy offered to me by OneWorld Classics, a small independent publishing house with a precious collection of foreign titles, mostly forgotten classics.
Sakhalin Island is no fiction or theatre, it’s the account of Chekhov’s journey across Siberia and to Sakhalin in the 1890s, when he decided to investigate the penal colony and the inhumane living conditions of exiles to this forsaken place far from European Russia (actually north of Japan). Why he decides to do so (he was not particularly healthy nor adventurous so I understand) remains foggy to me for the moment. I’ve read the Siberian part during summer, but there are many fine descriptions I’d like to mention here, so I’ll post step by step along with my reading.
Just let me tell you first how I got this fine book. Back in May, a very friendly person from One World Classics introduced herself to me and offered to send me any book I liked in the catalogue. And the choice was difficult to make, because their catalogue is indeed full of interesting gems! They have Dante, and a good selection of Russian titles, French and German novels that aren’t the ones you’d expect, and they recently added Jane Austen and Dickens, as well as American classics. You may think I’m biased because they have offered me a review copy, but their books are very nice objects and pleasant to read, especially considering that there are plenty of notes.
As I know next to nothing about Sakhalin and the penal system at the end of 19C in Russia (hardly a surprise…), I like to (and need to) go back and forth in my reading to the notes section. Contrary to many non-fiction books I’ve read, these notes do have a personal tone set by the translator and editor of the book, Brian Reeve, so they’re not dry and heavy and he manages to give a pleasant perspective on Chekhov’s view on Sakhalin.
As for Sakhalin itself, it’s quite another story and pleasant isn’t the word for it. A strategic front position of Russian colonization in Asia, it could not be left empty and the military needed to stay put, but since the land was so bare and the conditions so harsh, nobody wanted to go there on their own will. The “great idea” was then to populate it by force, with convicts in hard labour colonies who would be reformed, get trained and become peasants afterwards. It seems from the start so idealistic! Upon finishing their sentence, the freed convicts were more or less still banished for life from European Russia, so they had no choice but to remain on the island or apply for transfer to the Siberian mainland, after still another number of years. 1890 Russia praised itself for its liberal reforms, but Chekhov apparently wanted to verify these claims.
Here are the first impressions of Chekhov as he arrives by boat to the island (during summer). He’s “melancholy” and “anxious”, because he has no official job to inspect the region, and while this isn’t expressly forbidden, officials are reticent to see him roam through this special place in complete freedom.
When we dropped anchor at 9 o’clock, on shore large fires were blazing in five spots in the Sakhalin taiga. Through the darkness and smoke spreading over the sea, I could not see the landing stage and buildings and could make out only the dim lights of the post, two of which were red. This fearful picture, crudely cut out of the darkness, silhouettes of mountains, smoke, flames and sparks from the fires, presented a fantastical appearance. On the left side of the picture were burning monstrous bonfires, above them mountains, and from behind the mountains a crimson glow rising high into the sky from distant conflagrations; it looked as if the whole of Sakhalin were ablaze. To the right, the dark, heavy mass of Cape Jonquière juts into the sea, similar in appearance to the Crimean Ayu-Dag; on its summit a beacon was shining brightly, while below, in the water, between us and the shore, lay three sharp-pointed reefs – the “Three Brothers”. And everything was covered in smoke, as if we were in hell.
Mmh, perhaps not your dream destination for the next holidays?