Friday, May 6, 2016

Fiction Review: Hadji Murád, Leo Tolstoy

This review was originally published at The Hooded Utilitarian on May 30, 2012.

After finishing Hadji Murád, Leo Tolstoy’s final novel, I was reminded of a quote from him in Maxim Gorky’s Reminiscences of Tolstoy: “Heroes--that’s a lie and invention; there are simply people, people, and nothing else.” Tolstoy said that in 1901, while he was working on the book. (He completed it in 1904, and it was published posthumously in 1912.) Hadji Murád contradicts the first part of that sentence. The book is a fictionalized account of the last months of the title figure, a Caucasus chieftain who was ultimately caught between sides in the war between his people and the Russian Empire. It’s hard to imagine a more idealized or admirable character, in Tolstoy’s fiction or elsewhere. However, the second part of the sentence--“there are simply people, people, and nothing else”--is also true of the novel. Tolstoy more or less presents the events leading up to Hadji Murád’s 1851 death as a series of character studies, a cross-section of people involved with or tangential to his circumstances. Nearly all the portrayals create contrasts that enhance one’s appreciation of Hadji Murád’s best qualities. The book may be best understood as an intellectual next step from that quote: There are simply people, people, and some are indeed heroic.

The real-life Hadji Murád was born in the 1790s. A member of the Avar tribe in the Caucasus mountains, he was a leader in the Caucasian War, which was essentially the tribal resistance against the Russian Empire’s efforts to conquer the region. But in response to the rise of Muridism among the Caucasus Muslims, he allied himself with the Russians. That ended when a rival defamed him to the Russian leaders. He then joined forces with Imam Shamil, who ruled the Northern Caucasian peoples. Hadji Murád developed a fearsome reputation among both the Russians and Caucasians for his military prowess, but a dispute with Shamil over succession led Shamil to order his death. He escaped, but Shamil took his family captive.

Tolstoy begins the story shortly after this. Hadji Murád and a lieutenant are shown arriving in a Caucasian village, where he learns of the bounty Shamil has put on his head. He immediately decides to surrender to the Russians, who have an outpost a few miles away. He does not seek their protection. He is interested in an alliance, but only to the extent it will allow him to either negotiate or force the release of his family. The Russian officers take him and his men in, and he becomes an honored guest while the Russians decide on a course of action.

From the start, Tolstoy emphasizes that Hadji Murád is a remarkably personable, well-mannered, and disciplined individual. In his initial scene, he answers his host’s family’s greetings with ones of his own, all of which are specially suited to the person he is addressing. He respects their reticence when faced with his questions. Although he has not eaten for a day, he eats the food they offer sparingly. It would never do to appear like a glutton, and his lieutenant sees his example and follows it. In accordance with patriarchal custom, he does not talk about matters of import in the presence of women; he keeps the conversation light until they leave. (Things are certainly different now, but in the time and place of the story, discussing business in the presence of women was considered unseemly behavior.) When he asks for his host’s help in contacting the Russians, he offers generous compensation without being asked. Poltorátsky, the Russian officer who meets Hadji Murád at the surrender, is astonished by his manner and bearing:

Hadji Murád gave him smile for smile, and that smile struck Poltorátsky by its childlike kindliness. Poltorátsky had never expected to see the terrible mountain chief look like that. He expected to see a morose, hard-featured man; and here was a vivacious person, whose smile was so kindly that Poltorátsky felt as if he were an old acquaintance. He had but one peculiarity: his eyes, set wide apart, gazed from under their black brows attentively, penetratingly and calmly into the eyes of others.

Hadji Murád is finely tuned, and as Tolstoy shows, this extends to him as a man of action. He sleeps warily; no matter how long he has been without rest, the slightest indication of danger, even a creak in the floor, has him at the ready. A group of Shamil loyalists try to impede his departure from the Chechen village, and he knows the best way to scatter them is simply to face them down. While in the Russians’ custody he unhesitatingly disarms a man who tries to assassinate him; Tolstoy compares his grace and speed to a cat’s. But he has no fear of death. As he says at one point, “Well, if he kills me it will prove that such is Allah’s will." Hadji Murád lives up to the warrior ideal: his motive is honor, not personal petty concerns, and it frees him from trepidation when he acts. He retains his dignity even in death.

Tolstoy never overplays his idealized view of Hadji Murád; he heightens the reader’s sense of his protagonist through implicit comparisons with the story’s supporting cast. Almost all are vain, small-minded, and guided by appetite. The Russian soldiers are slobs even while on duty; they litter the landscape with food waste, cigarette butts, and liquor bottles. Their conversations veer from self-pity to gossip about the officers at their outpost. The officers are at least as bad; they’re all but exclusively preoccupied with drinking, gambling, and opportunities for wenching, regardless of whether the women are married or not. The commanding officers are ridiculously status-conscious; the outpost commandant frets over the relative luxury of his accommodations, and he gets into a ridiculous argument with his superior over who should have had the privilege of accepting Hadji Murád’s surrender. The ministers and royal courtiers are fixated on positioning themselves politically regardless of considerations for either practicality or justice. Tolstoy even treats the peasants with contempt. A farmer--the father of a dead Russian conscript--remembers his son as “skillful, observant, strong, enduring, and above all, industrious.” The description is fatuous; the son in actuality was a slothful whiner who was flogged for stealing money to buy liquor. The conscript’s brother is of even lower character; their father describes the difference between them as that of a cuckoo and an eagle. The conscript’s widow is worse. She’s glad of her husband’s death. She can now marry the man who fathered one child by her and has her pregnant with another.

The most despicable character by far is Tsar Nicholas I. Tolstoy depicts him as a buffoonish, egomaniacal monster. He’s an obese, illiterate fop who spends Mass trying to decide whether he prefers his regular mistress to the 20-year-old he tumbled the night before. His narcissism is dumbfounding:

Continual brazen flattery from everybody around him, in the teeth of obvious facts, had brought him to such a state that he no longer saw his own inconsistencies or measured his actions and words by reality, logic, or even by simple common sense; but was quite convinced that all his orders, however senseless, unjust, and mutually contradictory they might be, became reasonable, just, and mutually accordant simply because he gave them.

One laughs when one reads that passage, but Tsar Nicholas’ unworthiness to rule ultimately isn’t funny; his callous viciousness makes him an obscenity. He orders that a student who assaulted a professor in a bout of exam nerves be made to “run the gauntlet of a thousand men twelve times,” knowing full well the student will be dead by injuries from the switches before the punishment is halfway done. (The student is a Catholic Pole, and the evil of those rascals must be dealt with.) In response to Hadji Murád’s surrender, he orders that the Chechen landscape and villages be completely leveled; the people there must be put in their place once and for all. Tolstoy does not spare the reader the devastation, and it is horrific. The portrayal of Tsar Nicholas all but explains why some societies have dealt with certain deposed leaders with guillotines and firing squads.

It may seem that Hadji Murád is not so much a man among men as a man among vermin. This is not entirely accurate. Imam Shamil, Hadji Murád’s nemesis, is portrayed as somewhere between him and Tsar Nicholas in terms of character. But Shamil is far closer to Hadji Murád. He’s a ruthless man with an appetitive side--his desire for his youngest wife parallels Nicholas’ lust for the 20-year-old--but he is also a disciplined personality, and he governs his people with a just, if harsh, hand. And the elder Prince Vorontsóv, the commander-in-chief of the Russian army, is in many ways as idealized as Hadji Murád. He’s an aristocrat whose aristocratic nature extends to every aspect of his being. Like Hadji Murád, he is a cordial, magnanimous individual, and his mind may be somewhat keener. His assessment of Hadji Murád could not be more accurate, and his strategic recommendations to Tsar Nicholas are as sensible as can be. The initial meeting between him and Hadji Murád is one of the most quietly powerful confrontation scenes I’ve read. They look into each other's eyes, and recognize each other as enemies to the core. Tolstoy makes it immediately clear they are profoundly opposed men who are nevertheless all but equal in every other regard. A reader may be grateful that the facts of Hadji Murád’s life do not allow for a battle between the two. It would only diminish the remarkable tensions Tolstoy so exquisitely renders in their meeting.

A major theme of Hadji Murád appears to be that the hierarchies of people’s character are not reflected by the strata of society. The tsar, the lowliest conscripts, and members of all classes in between can be slothful, petty, and self-indulgent. Judging from the book, Tolstoy feels most of them are. But people of high character also exist at every level. The Chechen family that hosts Hadji Murád at the beginning of the book (and through whose eyes we see Tsar Nicholas’ devastation of the Caucasus) are never less than admirable. The same is almost true of Imam Shamil, despite his ruthlessness. And with the elder Vorontsóv and Hadji Murád, Tolstoy shows that the aristocratic soul can be found at the pinnacle of high society as well as in an unsophisticated mountain tribe. There are only people, but there are natural leaders and heroes, too. Tolstoy spoke of the latter notion with disdain, but as Hadji Murád shows, he could not let go of it in his art.

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