The Renunciation Artist: On Leo Tolstoy

1265911167-largeWilliam Deresiewicz in The Nation:

A Russian soldier is taken prisoner by Caucasian mountaineers. They bring him to a village, where everything is strange. “And the dark one–he was brisk, lively, moving as if on springs–went straight up to Zhilin, squatted down, bared his teeth, patted him on the shoulder, started jabbering something very quickly in his own language, winked, clucked his tongue, and kept repeating: 'Kood uruss! Kood uruss!'” But slowly, the Russian starts to get through. He makes a friend of the dark one's daughter, a girl of 13, by fashioning a doll of clay. It has “a nose, arms, legs, and a Tartar shirt.” She brings him food, talks, plays with him. Later, surveying the hills in search of escape, he sees a river far below, with women on the bank, “like little dolls.”

The story, “The Prisoner of the Caucasus,” is about perspective–about physical and cultural distances and the angles of vision they enforce. Tolstoy doubles the point by trapping us, too, on foreign ground. The story's notation is rudimentary, clipped (“The nights were short. He saw light through a chink”), the diction mined with alien words (“aoul,” “saklya,” “beshmet”) we're forced to make out on the run. We stand with Zhilin; nothing is explained, because nothing is understood. But the story is also about art, its ability to bridge the crevasse of otherness. Zhilin makes dolls, and so, the simile of the women reminds us, does Tolstoy. His figures, too, have a nose, arms, legs and Tartar shirt, fashioned from the clay of words. Zhilin leaves his doll on the roof, hoping the girl will see it and understand, and so Tolstoy does with us, placing the wager of art.

“The Prisoner of the Caucasus” makes a fitting start to the present volume, though probably not for reasons its translators intended.