Odoevsky the Gogolian

Some of Odoevksy’s stories are less in the Gothic or Romantic mold and more in the Gogolian framework of the grotesque as seen in the Russian countryside. “The Tale of a Dead Body, Belonging to No One Knows Whom” is a nice swipe at the bureaucracy with a bit of a ghost story thrown in. Its principle character is charged with finding a relative or owner of an unidentified corpse. As he sips his drink he becomes drunk with his own power, also reminiscing about “his father, a local scrivener of blessed memory by virtue of the attribute of having been discharged from his duties in the town of Rezhensk for slander, bribery and indecent conduct. Such, moreover, was the case elucidated against him, that henceforth he would be appointable nowhere and no petitions from him would be accepted—for which status he enjoyed the respect of the entire district.”

When the owner—quite literally—of the corpse does show up, the bureaucrat takes pains with the proper paperwork despite the unusual circumstances: “All in good time, sir, but it’s a bit tricky to do this sort of thing, just like that—it’s not a pancake, you know, you can’t just wrap it round your finger. Inquiries have to be made…. If you were to make a small contribution….”

Rezhensk pretty well takes the place of Gogol’s Mirgorod. Its mayor, Ivan Trofimovich Zernushkin, is another fine specimen, as depicted in “The Story of a Cock, a Cat and a Frog.” His principle function is to dissuade the town’s inhabitants from “unreasonable demands” such as banning the throwing of rubbish into the street and buying a fire hose:

Concerning the fire hose, Ivan Trofimovich proved that there had been no such thing before in Rezhensk, and now, when three parts of it had already burnt down, there was no point in going to such length for the fourth; that finally he, Ivan, Trofim’s son, Zernushkin, retired ensign of a carbine regiment, had not exactly been born yesterday, and he knew himself how to perform his office, how to run the town and answer to the authorities. Such prudent arguments, repeated more than once, soon closed the lips of these jokers, especially when once, in a moment of anger, Ivan Trofimovich added that his, the town mayor’s duties, lay not in concerning himself with mud on the pavements and rotten fish, but with those who start spreading vicious rumours in the metropolis and stirring up resentment against the town services.

Like the scrivener doomed to be made fun of for his drunken hallucination, Zernushkin is also sentenced by Odoevsky to a foolish end. Convinced by an old wive’s tale that a frog has taken up residence in his brain, the mayor is subject to such indignities from his doctor that Zernushkin throws him out the window.

Still, Russian town life does reward the “prudence” of men like Zernushkin:

[W]e recently acquired a fine green barrel with two equally green boat-hooks, but, by the terms of Ivan Trofimovich’s will, they are never taken out to a fire, for it they were, they might easily get spoiled; they are preserved under lock and key in a purpose-built shed. Time proved the prudent instruction of Ivan Trofimovich to be correct: soon afterwards a passing official considered it his duty to report to the governor on the excellent arangements for the fire-fighting equipment in the town of Rezhensk.

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