Of all the writers of all nationalities, it is the Russians who seem to express poverty,
political turmoil and a sense of hopelessness with the most passion. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Russia was, no doubt, a very difficult
place to live for many people. Not that every country in the world hasn't had their share of hard times at some point in history—some certainly more than
others. And of course, there are lots of writers of all nationalities who excel in expressing the passions of the downtrodden. Dickens is well known for
spotlighting issues of poverty and abuse of children in Victorian England. But with Dickens, as many others, the poverty was against a backdrop of wealth. In
Russian literature, the poverty, social and political anguish and hopelessness often takes center stage.
Maxim Gorky (Aleksey Maksimovich Peshkov), who lived from1868 to1936, is undoubtedly one of the great Russian authors to express the passions and suffering of everyday Russian people. And so he has in this tiny little volume, which contains three very short stories.
The title story is the longest, taking up over half the book. It takes place in a port town. Grishka Chelkash, a drunken bum, makes his living by stealing goods that have been shipped into the harbor:
"Grishka Chelkash turned up, an old timer, well-known to the people in the port, a confirmed drunkard, and a skillful, daring thief. He was barefooted; his legs were encased in a pair of threadbare corduroy trousers; he wore no hat, and his dirty cotton blouse with a torn collar, which exposed the brown skin drawn tightly over his lean collar bones. His matted, black. grey-streaked hair and his sharp crinkled rapacious face showed that he had only just got up from sleep."
But on this particular day, he is looking for his partner in crime Mishka. He is told that Mishka is in the hospital with
a broken leg. He doesn't believe he can do his work alone. While thinking things over, he comes across Gavrila, a ruddy,
healthy youth from the country—a farmer looking for extra work. Chelkash tells him he is a fisherman, and asks if he wants to make some money. The lad is
naïve, and Chelkash gets him drunk. By the time he realizes what he has been roped into, it is too late.
The emotional and psychological tension is created by their differences in morals. Gavrila speaks of God, sin, forgiveness, and he is terrified. Chelkash threatens him, but keeps getting a burning sensation in his gut. Gavrila reminds him of what life used to be—having a house, land, a wife, and a family.
Makar Chudra is an old gypsy who tells a tale of love and passion while sitting at a campfire with the narrator of the story. He tells of the brave and daring gypsy Loiko Zobar, who falls in love with Radda, the gypsy daughter of Danilo. She refuses him time after time, then he leaves and she comes after him with a pistol. She doesn't shoot, but he returns and stabs her, then himself. They loved each other, but loved their freedom, and could not reconcile both.
Twenty-Six Men and a Girl is a horribly depressing story about twenty-six poor,
decrepit, and sickly men who live and work in a rank and sunless dungeon basement making pretzels from six in the morning until ten at night. The only
joy they have is a pretty young girl named Tanya, a housemaid in one of the other apartments. Day after day, she comes to them with a smile on her face,
asking for pretzels. In their eyes, she belongs to them. They believe she, of all people thinks they are special. They live for her visits and do whatever
she requests, yet when one asks her to mend a shirt, she refuses.
In another part of the building is a bun bakery, where the workers are paid much better, and enjoy clean and healthy working conditions. One day a new chief baker is hired at the bun bakery—a soldier who brags about always getting his way with the women. Tired of hearing his boasting, they challenge him to score with Tanya, thinking that she is pure and would never betray them. This is really a sad and pitiful story about people whose lives are hopeless, and their only joy is an illusion.
Gorky's little book can be read in an hour or two. If you like Russian literature, he is a master worth reading.
M M M
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