Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Crocodile

The Crocodile by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Novella. Very strange story, both by Dostoevsky's larger norms and even just taken in its own regard. Much more blatantly and shallowly satirical than pretty much everything I've read of him, and lacks the real character investment. The story concerns a middle aged intellectual swallowed by a crocodile that remains alive for some length, provoking various absurdist exchanges of dialog. By the nature of such things the plot is rather flat, but more centrally the work lacks the intensity of emotional expression typical for Dostoevsky. For all the short length and engaging pace of the work it drags rather on reading because there's nothing happening beyond the surface level, there's just a single case of exaggerated mockery to fill the text.

In terms of interpretation, a lot of the critical debate on The Crocodile concerns whether Dostoevsky intended it as a direct satire on revolutionary and socialist intellectual Nikolai Chernyshevsky, in terms of a self-important figure consumed whole by larger political processes and continuing his political discourse nevertheless. Dosteovsky's brand of right-wing politics are hardly appealing, but what makes the probable intent of the critique particularly unsatisfying is both the shallowness of the criticism and the timing--the piece being published shortly after Chernyshevsky's political arrest. Dostoevsky himself denied that such was the intent of the work, but the parallel at the least seems suspicious.

It's not a waste, in large part due to vivid description and a fine sense of pace for the unfolding absurdity. I didn't find it funny, though, and the satirical element is dulled both by the century plus since the thing it's in relation to and the fact that the most likely target of the satire makes Dostoevsky look loathsome. Well written but not a major piece of literature by any definition, and with all the context surprisingly unenjoyable for a basically comedic piece.

Worse than: Going Postal by Terry Pratchett

Better than: Solar by Ian McEwan

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