“Cursed for killing a monk in his youth, Ivan Severyanych is doomed to wander the land and live always ‘on the very brink of death, and never actually manage to die.’ Told in a series of fabulistic vignettes, Ivan’s tale of woe comes to include life a a Tartar slave, horse thief, drunkard, tireless knight of the empire, and even an encounter with the Devil himself. And all the while the errant Ivan never succumbs to his troubles or relinquishes his indomitable pride and love for Russia.”*
For those readers who roll their eyes and say, ‘another Russian novel with a bleak outlook on life? No thank you’ – instead, say ‘yes, thank you – hand that book over!’ Leskov bucks the trend (sort of) in creating more of a fairy tale than a Russian diatribe on the hopelessness of nature and society. Instead of wandering around society in winter and sighing, Leskov takes us on an adventure through the land of a hearty, vibrant Russia – a rollicking, quick stepping tale that guarantees to tickle a reader’s fancy.
First off – our hero and title wanderer – what to say about Ivan? A typical Russian who wanders through life and experiences the most difficult of sufferings – and a man who can sure roll with the punches. Ivan through it all maintains a cheery outlook on life that stupefies the listeners to his tale, but delights the reader. The reader may often wonder – is Ivan really telling the truth? Did these things truly happen to him? But with a shrug of his shoulders, Ivan draws disbelievers to him, as he delivers a magnificent story, true or not.
While Ivan occupies a big part of the novel, Leskov manages to populate his story with a variety of characters that flesh out novel and create a remarkable Russian landscape. Forget the archdukes, students and government officials of Tolstoy, let Leskov introduce you to his friends – the gypsies, Tartars and monks mixed in with a few alcoholics and serfs! Ivan navigates a sordid underworld of characters that only strengthens his love of the Russian motherland.
Verdict: More fairytale than novel, The Enchanted Wanderer excels at showing a different, more playful side of Russia that contrasts nicely against the heavier tomes by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Turgenev. I urge readers to peruse this novella for the contrast, as well as for the length and Leskov’s liberal use of irony and satire.
*Leskov, Nikolai. The Enchanted Wanderer. Trans. by Ian Dreiblatt. London: Melville House, 2012.