The Brothers Karamazov – Fyodor Dosteovsky

Life is paradise; we all live in paradise, although we don’t want to see it.

One family, two love triangles, four brothers, and a murdered father. Dostoevsky’s masterpiece is a sprawling, yet shockingly contained, meditation on faith, science, religion, love and devotion.

The Brothers Karamazov is a type of book that defies succinct synopsis, at least without gross over-simplification. It is structured as an account of the events that led up to a notorious patricide trial in rural Russia, and this arc forms the backbone of the novel. The story focuses on the dysfunctional Karamazov family, including the miserly sensualist father Fyodor, the profligate sensualist eldest son Dmitry, bitter intellectual middle son Ivan, angelic youngest son Alyosha, and the frustrated and conniving bastard (literally) Smerdyakov, who works as Fyodor’s servant. One of these young men murders his father. However, the story also draws in a wide and memorable cast of characters from the surrounding town, including Elder Zosima, the young socialist Kolya Krasotkin, Dmitry’s fiancée (and woman Ivan pursues) Katerina, and the flame of many hearts Grushenka, pursuit of whom fuels the conflict between Dmitry and his father.

This is a book that has so many themes that it is easy to imagine that one could return to it with a focus on a different character and theme each time through. What stood out to me on my virgin read were the eternal tension between reason and religion, individuals and communities (in a catholic sense, in both cases), and “modernism.” These themes are related, naturally, and the prospect of describing them at any great depth is intimidating. That said, I want to give several examples.

First, one of the recurring issues that underpins the novel, though not featuring directly into the main arc is the conflict between reason and religion. Characters may be described as pro- or anti-religion, but, for the most part, the depiction is significantly more nuanced than that. For instance, Alyosha is an acolyte in the monastery, but not a true believer, and his conflict is mirrored by his brother Ivan, who is a devotee of “modern” reason, and yet is plagued by the presence of the divine. Further dividing the categories are how characters envision the world and the place of human beings within it. Ironically, the quote that opens this post is declared by a man seen by others to be entirely mad and on his way toward death. But is he insane or actually seeing things clearly? Is the world a vicious, cruel place or is it largely so because people mistreat each other? To make matters worse, pride and shows of pride (as well as greed, avarice, lust, etc) lead the inability to reconcile people in such a way that they may all be bettered. This is particularly true of a nasty pack of young men, but certainly extends beyond their youthfully energetic pettiness.

Second, the tension between tradition and modernism appears in a number of guises in the novel. In once instance:

“If you want my true opinion about Greek and Latin—-they’re just a way to police people. That’s the only reason they’re taught…They were introduced in school curriculae to dull the students’ intelligence. It was already pretty boring before, but they felt they had to make it even more boring; it was already senseless. And so they dragged in classical languages. That is my sincere opinion and I hope I never change it….deep down in my heart I have nothing but contempt for the whole swindle.”

“Why do you call it a ‘swindle’?”

“Just think: the classics have all been translated into modern languages and so we don’t have to study Latin to read them. We study them only because it dulls our senses and makes us more susceptible to police control.”

This exchange takes place between the thirteen (almost fourteen!) year old self-described Socialist Kolya and Alyosha, in a truncated debate about education and values beside the sickbed of another boy. This novel was published in 1880, but the debate is eerily familiar, whether one thinks that arcane languages are designed to hide information or, like Kolya, to indoctrinate people. The claim is that, since there are translations it is time to move on to things bigger and better. Ironies abound, not least of which is that the debate is itself in a translated version of The Brother’s Karamazov. Even deeper, though, is that translation is itself a form of interpretation into which a mimetic aesthetic has been created—a particular challenge when the languages themselves often push a different form.

The payoff to the extended build-up in The Brothers Karamazov is an intense courtroom drama in which one man is put on trial and concerns over what actually happened one the fateful night lose all meaning. In a room where the women believe one thing, the men another, the judges a third thing altogether, Truth has no place and everyone is in it for him- or herself.

I am going to end my reflection on The Brothers Karamazov here because, like the novel, I feel myself wandering hither and thither, without really pulling my thoughts together (which is one of my main goals with these reviews). This is a bear of a book to read and certainly a commitment that reflects the values of a changing, “modernizing,” society and the intellectual movements of its days, but the payoff is entirely worthwhile.

I finished Intizar Husain’s Basti on the trip I took this weekend, and am now halfway through Waguih Ghali’s 1964 novel Beer in the Snooker Club. I really liked Basti and plan to write a review in the coming days.

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