Now, a direct descendant of Pushkin’s Tales of Belkin, somewhat arbitrarily chosen, “A Prisoner of the Caucasus,” one of Leo Tolstoy’s many tales of military life, unusual in that it is not from early in his career but rather dead center between War and Peace (1865-69) and Anna Karenina (1873-77), so what I mean is, we are perched atop the peak here.
I read the story in Volume XIII of a 1913 set of the collected works of Leof N. Tolstoï. No idea who the translator might be, so let us just assume that the English text is full of blunders of all kinds. The text as is nevertheless tells a fine story.
An officer is captured by Tartars and held for ransom. He is soon joined by another prisoner. There will be no ransom, since his mother has no money. He kills time in the village, befriends a Tartar girl, and plans his escape, or perhaps prepares for his death. Reasonably exciting.
How does one of the great prose writers of all time begin?
A Russian gentleman was serving as an officer in the army of the Caucasus. His name was Zhilin.
One day a letter from his home came to him. His old mother wrote to him:-
Well, if the narrator’s prose is like this, the mother’s letter won’t be any more exciting. I mentioned that Pushkin, in his fiction, approached a plain style; Tolstoy’s style is there. It starts plain and stays plain. Tolstoy is not out to dazzle, not this way, at least.
Not that Tolstoy tells the story like a fairy tale. The world, especially once the prisoner reaches the mountain village, becomes pretty solid:
Then two children on horseback came along on their way to the watering-trough. The snouts of the horses were wet.
Inessential details, or inessential if Tolstoy were writing a summary of the story for an encyclopedia rather than a work of art.
Although the point of view is firmly fixed on Zhilin, and by any ordinary sense of sympathy the tension of the story lies in our hope that he can escape his captors, Tolstoy simultaneously creates some sympathy for the Tartars, who in another kind of story would simply be the enemy. This is a funeral – the “red-bearded Tartar”’s brother has been killed, presumably by the Russians.
They smoothed the earth over, and again sat around the grave in rows. There was a long silence.
“Allah! Allah! Allah!”
They sighed and got up. The red-bearded Tartar gave money to the old men, then he got up, struck his forehead three times with a whip, and went home.
It does not seem like much, but these people and their culture become convincingly full. This is one of Tolstoy’s greatest gifts. What appears to be distance or an attempt at objectivity is the result of his great human sympathy.
I had meant to read this story for years because it is the source of a superb movie, Sergey Bodrov’s Prisoner of the Mountains (1996), which makes surprisingly – horribly – few changes in order to update the story to the then-current Chechen war. If I were a more experienced film blogger I would plaster the post with stills of the mountain scenery and the Chechen village. There is a scene where the prisoners tinker with a radio (in the story, a watch), and finally tune in – something – Louis Armstrong performing “St. James Infirmary,” which somehow sets the camera spinning. The moment is ecstatic and sublime, and the effect unavailable to the literary artist, even to Leof N. Tolstoï.