HADJI MURAT BY LEO TOLSTOY

As I made my way through this short book I told myself that I wasn’t going to review it, that I just didn’t have the mental or emotional energy. This is partly due to having written a lot of reviews this month, and partly due to what has happened recently in the world. I am not asking anyone to take pity on me, of course, but I feel horribly deflated right now, and I was wary of this filtering into my approach to Tolstoy’s work. But then I came towards the end of Hadji Murat, and I read about how “the militiamen gathered over the bodies/like hunters over a dead beast, standing among the bushes in the gunsmoke, gaily chatting and celebrating their victory.” And I heard Marya Dmitrievna’s cry, actually heard it, filling my room: ‘What’s war? You are butchers, and that’s all there is to it.” And I changed my mind. I decided that I had to write something, even though I worry that it will be confusing, ill-thought out, and, at times, completely off the point.

I’m sure I’ll have to take some flak for this, but as far as I am concerned there is no victory in war, there are no heroes. I refuse to celebrate the taking of life, any life. Immediately after the Paris attacks, in fact while they were still ongoing, I started coming across comments such as ‘kill them all, no trial necessary.’ All? Terrorists? Muslims?! You may say I am being dramatic, and yet thousands of people want borders closing, immigrants thrown out. They are, let’s face it, itching for war; they are, I can’t shake the feeling, enjoying this. Don’t get me wrong, what happened in Paris is a tragedy, a disgrace; my thoughts, as they always are, are with the victims, with all innocent, oppressed people around the world, but there is no blood lust in me, there is no hate, only sadness. Yes, those responsible for the Paris attacks are butchers. I just don’t want to be a butcher too.

Daghestan.Ghimeri,_portrait_de_Hadji-Mourad._(1847)

The story of Hadji Murat is, Tolstoy [or his narrator] claims, one that he part saw, part heard, and part imagined. Murat is a Muslim, and a Chechen rebel commander, famous for his exploits. He presents Murat as a well-mannered, generous, friendly man with ‘kindly eyes’, who charms almost everyone he meets. Having made an enemy of another powerful Chechen, Shamil, he has defected over to the Russians, with whom the Chechens are at war. In contrast to Shamil, and the Russian soldiers, leaders, etc, Murat’s goals are honourable. He does not desire glory, riches, awards, or power, rather he wants to avenge himself and his family, and he wants his wife and children to be rescued. The idea appears to be that he has to fight, not that he wants to, but one must not forget, as I sometimes felt the author did, that he is a murderer too. In any case, it is clear that Tolstoy admired the man, for his humility, his independent spirit [he rejects both the Russians and Shamil], but perhaps most of all for his commitment to his religion and religious principles.

So, of course, one feels as though Tolstoy is holding Murat up as a kind of example, but it is equally apparent that he was also using him in order to take shots at his own people.* Indeed, he sees them as Murat sees them. Once the rebel has put himself into Russian hands, he is given access to their homes, and their activities. In one scene he attends the theatre, but, obviously not having enjoyed the experience, leaves early; in another he attends a ball, and again haughtily takes off at the earliest opportunity. This isn’t, as he himself says, about acceptable cultural differences, as he negatively judges these people [as one imagines the author does too] for their frivolous pastimes and revealing dresses. In fact, the most positive thing you could say about any Russian in the novel [aside from Marya Dmitrievna who all but falls in love with Murat, and Avdeev, who I will return to] is that they are, like Butler, affable buffoons. Yet, for the most part, Russians are shown to be gamblers, drinkers; they are idle, lascivious, and dishonourable.

“War presented itself to him as consisting only in his exposing himself to danger and to possible death, thereby gaining rewards and the respect of his comrades here, as well as of his friends in Russia. Strange to say, his imagination never pictured the other aspect of war: the death and wounds of the soldiers, officers, and mountaineers. To retain his poetic conception he even unconsciously avoided looking at the dead and wounded.”

I don’t want to give the impression that Hadji Murat is a bad book, or even that it is overtly mean-spirited, or preachy. It seems that way when you write all this down, but, and I am aware of the contradiction here, it doesn’t really read like that [except in the case of the Tsar who is – rightly or wrongly – torn to shreds]. This is Tolstoy, which means that any complaints one might have about elements of his work are rendered petty by his great genius. Butler, for example, is a nincompoop, but one can’t help but be charmed by him regardless. It always strikes me, when I read him, that Tolstoy often started out with rather pompous, unpleasant ideas, and yet could never quite see them through, that his love of humanity always took over or compromised his initial vision. And so we get someone like Avdeev, the soldier who agreed to go to war in his brother’s place, a man who, at home, was hardworking, and who feels, in his current predicament, ‘heartsick.’ He is the one Russian soldier in the novel with a conscience, who feels as though this isn’t a right or good life. He, predictably, is killed in battle, just as his mother is sending him a touching, emotional letter, with a Ruble enclosed. Hadji Murat is full of wonderful minor portraits like this, and memorable scenes, such as the servant Vavilo, or the pipe smoking in the forest, or Murat’s dreams merging with the sounds of the jackals….or the head. My God, the head. That will stay with me for years. And, finally, there is Marya Dmitrievna’s cry, a cry not for one man, not just for Murat, but for all men who have fallen, and continue to fall, in these senseless power games.

*it is worth noting that Tolstoy was, of course, writing with the Russian public in mind, one that, you’d assume, wasn’t entirely positively disposed towards Chechens. If you bear that in mind, then Hadji Murat might be interpreted as a call for compassion, or tolerance, towards those you perceive as your enemies, or simply those who are different from you. There is always a temptation to demonise other cultures – you might think they look weird, smell weird, eat weird, that their customs are barbaric, that they are prone to violence, etc. – without truly understanding them, or even taking account of what is under your own nose i.e. your own culture or practices, which may be just as baffling or appalling to the people you criticise. Therefore, that the author shows Murat – the other – to be caring, and considerate, and so on, was, and still is, an important message. My one issue with this would be that Tolstoy takes it too far, so that he comes across as a prince among swine.

Advertisements

14 comments

  1. Yes, the head took me completely by surprise. And Marya is completely right, of course.
    In Hadji Murat’s disapproval of western entertainment I saw only Tolstoy’s preaching finger. There is a fair bit of preaching in this short novel, but there is more beauty. It was written at a time when Tolstoy was mostly busy preaching and I think it’s particular charm lies in the moments when the storyteller in Tolstoy takes over, that bit where the soldiers make a makeshift pipe, for instance. You never get tired of bits like that!
    Alas, nothing has changed since 1851, there are still butcherings and beheadings.

    1. Me too. I wasn’t expecting the head at all. And it hurt more because Tolstoy had made you care about him. I was just adding a paragraph to my review about the ‘western entertainment’ bits, and how you could perhaps see that in light of T. trying to say ‘these people you – the russian people – demonise, might look at us and equally be appalled.’ But then way before HM he was taking potshots at the frivolous upper classes, so perhaps not. Yeah, the pipe, the ‘heartsick’ scene, amazing stuff. He did scenes better than any novelist ever.

  2. It goes to show that there are many layers to this short novel. Although there are some lines about Hadji Murat’s war exploits (abducting, plundering, killing), he is mostly portrayed as a hero. Tolstoy has throughout his career shown a fascination with a simpler lifestyle, like peasants (AK) have, or Circassians (The Cossacks). There are also influences from Sir Walter Scott’s exotic heroes like Rob Roy. And of course from Pushkin and Lermontov.
    I always get the feeling with Tolstoy that he is very hard on himself and his flaws. He seems to be constantly trying to figure out how o better his life, quit drinking, quit womanising, always something, and that that preaching finger (that is annoyingly present in HM) is also a reminder to himself.

    1. Yeah, that’s an interesting point, that a lot of his preachiness comes down to a kind of self-admonishment. The thing is, I don’t find the preachiness all that much of an issue anyway. People roll their eyes at Levin in AK and yet I love him. It’s only when reviewing that I force myself to look at his work critically, and consider whether his aims or ideas were always pleasant or agreeable.

  3. You are, of course, right – becoming butchers ourselves makes us just as bad as the others. I had wondered about reading this, and of course Tolstoy did allow his religious feeling to take over so much that he rejected all that was worldly – which is probably why he is so hard on his fellow Russians.

    1. It’s funny that I read an author [can’t remember which one, maybe Genet] claimed HM was his favourite because Tolstoy doesn’t moralise in it, that he just tells the story. But then, as I was saying to Elisabeth above, the moralising [which isn’t as heavy as some claim – although it’s possible, of course, that I just haven’t read the works that are over the top in that sense] doesn’t really bother me. I mean, Dostoevsky’s novels, which get a free ride on this score, are, for me, way more religiously inclined and, well, preachy. And I love him too, in any case.

      1. Oh, I’m not against moralising per se. And I probably haven’t read enough Tolstoy to judge (I’ve read more Dostoyevsky and will let him preach to me whenever he wants).

      2. Oh I know it probably doesn’t bother you so much. I just find it odd that Tolstoy has this reputation, and yet I don’t remember any redeeming of prostitutes in Anna K, y’know. And there are a load of other examples. All of D’s novels are moral-religious stories, intensely moral and religious. But, well, there’s murder and mayhem and a lot of other dark shit, and so no one ever really seems to mind, not like with stuffy old Tolstoy!

  4. I’m teaching, for the first time, a religion in literature class. I’ve structured it around four categories: the conceptual (doctrinal, worldview). the subjective (experiential), the behavioral (religious practice, but also ethics–how we treat others), and the social/institutional. I was thinking about using this for the behavioral, since it involves the Hadji’s devotion to Islam, and his behavior towards his enemies and allies as an aspect of his religious ideas. I liked your review of the story and some of the ideas you have identified–so do you think I’m on the right track here (for very, and I mean very advanced high school students)?

    1. I would say it is worth exploring. I can’t remember how much Tolstoy wrote about Islam specifically, as I wasn’t making a note of that. I taught for a while myself, and if it was me I would go through the text and try and match his behaviours with passages from the Qur’an so the students can make that connection and see the teachings in practice. Murat is certainly an example of a [mostly] positive Muslim role model. And it’s a compelling story, so I would hope they would enjoy it on that level too. Good luck.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s