Leo Tolstoy’s Hadji Murad begins with this now very familiar device of the unnamed first-person narrator who vanishes, replaced in the rest of the text by an omniscient one, after the story’s premises are introduced.*
On his way home, the narrator came across this beautiful thistle plant called “Tartar,” which he plucks with great difficulty: a metaphor for the Russians’ campaign against the Chechens and the story that follows.
Not only did the stalk prick on every side – even through the handkerchief I wrapped around my hand – but it was so tough that I had to struggle with it for nearly five minutes, breaking the fibres one by one…
‘But what energy and tenacity! With what what determination it defended itself, and how dearly it sold its life!’
The short novel over a hundred pages revolves around Hadji Murad, a Chechen general who arranged his surrender to the colonizing Russians after earning the ire of his warlord, the imam Shamil. Hadji Murad stays with the Russians in their garrisons with plans to use them to help him in his power struggle against Shamil.
But Hadji Murad’s enemy holds his family captive. Fearing for their life, he escapes from the Russians in a daring plan to save his family himself. Suspicious that Hadji Murad has been playing with them all along, the Russians pursues him. Surrounded on all sides, he makes a last stand.
In Hadji Murad, Tolstoy devotes much effort to show the conflict from the perspectives of all its participants in intricately woven scenes.
The artificial civility of the Russian officials and aristocrats who entertain Hadji Murad, with their parties, cards, champagne, and coquettish wives, are contrasted to the stoic air of a Chechen household with its severe religiosity and bound women.
Meanwhile, the cynicism and blind megalomania of Czar Nicholas I who gave decisions out of whim is contrasted to the ruthlessness of the Chechen warlord Shamil whose orders were not only enforced according to the Sharia but also for instrumentalist considerations.
The caprice of the Russian nobles is contrasted to the sad fate of those who serve under them with the death of a poor but hardworking peasant soldier in battle. He was sent to the Caucasus over a lazy brother who was kept out of conscription by their clan because because of his many children.
While Tolstoy finished writing Hadji Murad in 1904, the events described in it was supposed to have happened in 1851. However, one is given a sense that the story may as well have been set today.
Apart from good storytelling and vivid details, we also get insights into the war in general and historical conflict in the Caucasus, a conflict that has flared again of late.
We see the beginnings of modern counterinsurgency tactics in the Russian’s burning of enemy villages and agricultural fields as well as the felling of forests and the erecting of a system of forts designed to constrict the movement of the Chechens.
As in War and Peace, Tolstoy shows the gap between appearances and reality in war:
Though all of them – and especially those who had been in action – knew and could not help knowing that in those days in the Caucasus, and in fact anywhere and at any time, such hand-to-hand hacking as is always imagined and described never occurs (or if hacking with swords and bayonets ever does occur, it is only those who are running away that get hacked)… p. 24
With all the new literature coming out all the time, it gets more difficult to choose which ones to read. More often than not, an old-fashioned realistic story from Tolstoy with a narrative that still resonates a hundred years after it was written is never a disappointing a choice. ■
* In this case, the first-narrator reappears briefly at the very end.