Leonid Andreyev is about the doomiest pre-Soviet Russian writer I have ever encountered. Titles in this one collection (Visions: Stories and Photographs) include “The Abyss,” “Darkness,” and “The Seven Who Were Hanged.” Madness, murder, rape, and war. An apocalyptic vision. The title of “The Red Laugh” is a metaphor for massive head trauma, like the head being blown off by an artillery shell. Ha ha ha! “He's one of the few truly pessimistic writers” writes valued commenter obooki, just a few minutes ago, as I was wondering what to write next.
The oddest aspect of “The Red Laugh” is that it seems like it should be about World War I, but since it was published in 1904 it is rather a response to the Russo-Japanese War. The confusion, and the prophetic quality, comes from the complete absence of identifying detail about the participants in the war. No one has a name, and no country-specific detail is included. The narrator’s army fights “the enemy,” when not firing at its own side in the shocking “Sixth Fragment.” I don’t see why the narrator could not be Japanese. The timing is narrow, since trains, artillery, barbed wire, and the Red Cross are mentioned, and airplanes are not.
“The Red Laugh” at first seems like it is meant to represent the war’s violence realistically, but gradually a symbolic premise becomes clear:
“Are there many wounded?” I asked.
He waved his hand dismissively.
“There’re more madmen than wounded.”
“You mean real madmen?”
“What other kind is there?” (Fifth Fragment, p. 95)
The madness of war is like a pestilence in the story, infecting all of the soldiers and spreading to everyone. The story ends with the nightmarish return of the dead, overwhelming the earth – “wherever there had been an empty space near a body another would appear – the earth was expelling them” (Final Fragment, 142).
So horrible. Andreyev has a grisly metaphorical imagination, whether at this symbolic level or sentence by sentence. My just possibly slightly ridiculous favorite:
But the moaning had not died down. It was still hanging over the earth – thin, hopeless, like a child crying or like the whimpering of a thousand abandoned, freezing puppies. (Fifth Fragment, 100)
Another story from 1904, “The Thief,” is written quite differently. It begins: “Fyodor Yurasov, a thief who had served three sentences, set out to visit his former mistress, a prostitute who lived about seventy miles out of Moscow.” It stays at this level of specificity, accompanying the thief on his final, doomed railroad journey. He is doomed because he cannot help himself, because a thief is what he is.
He is traveling incognito, or likes to imagine that he is, as “a respectable German, Heinrich Walter,” but becomes enraged not because people see through him but because they do not care. There is a subtle idea about ego and identity here:
In the mirror he looked like other people, only perhaps better; it was not written on his face that he was the peasant Fyodor Yurasov, a thief who had served three sentences, and not a young German named Heinrich Walter. As usual, this incomprehensible, treacherous something that was apparent to all except himself aroused in him dull despair and fear. (155)
There is a lovely scene where the thief, out on the platform between cars, sings along with the train while watching the sunset. His voice “spread over the earth.” The “setting sun grew brighter and deeper, like a beautiful face turned toward someone beloved who is ever quietly disappearing” (158-9). The thief is somehow done in by his refusal to accept that this is just metaphor.
I'll likely write a bit more on Andreyev when I finish this collection.