I have been a stranger in a strange land. — Exodus 2: 22
It is very hard, dear brother, to live in a foreign land. — Leo Tolstoy, The Cossacks
If I were asked what I considered the greatest invention in my lifetime I would have no hesitation in replying that it is the e-reader. Had my grandfather, for example, wished to own the collected works of Plato, he would have had to have taken time off from his work as a film developer for Paramount Films, travelled on the underground from his flat in Ealing, west London to the city center, got off at Tottenham Court Road (same line), walked to the famous Foyle’s bookshop in the Charing Cross Road, and ordered a copy. Perhaps two weeks later, after a land-line telephone call he would have been unlikely to have been at home to receive, he might have returned and purchased a cinderblock-sized volume which would have cost him probably a quarter of his weekly salary, paying by cash or check. Now, two clicks of a mouse and 75p — about a dollar — wins you the same prize in a few seconds.
But we English love nothing quite so much as complaining, and I was disappointed to find that when I bought the collected works of Leo Tolstoy online for a similar tiny sum, it did not contain his early 1863 novella The Cossacks, a wonderful account of an aristocratic, headstrong, and romantic young Muscovite trying to overcome the difficulties of love, morality, and cultural assimilation by moving to the Caucasus in southern Russia as a military cadet and attempting to enlist as a Cossack.
To obtain a copy of the book, I had to rely on the good offices of a friend in England who posted it — along with my favorite novel, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain —to my local post office in Central America. The parcel took five months to arrive, but it was well worth the wait.
Tolstoy is of course best known for his two great novels, Anna Karenina and War and Peace, and the later The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Having read War and Peace for the first time last year and marveled at its epic greatness, I could not help but feel that after its half-a-million words plus, I had myself marched across Europe from Paris to Moscow in wintertime. But Tolstoy was also an expert miniaturist, and The Cossacks is a relatively short and expertly crafted book — a novella, really — first printed in serial form in a Russian magazine of the day.
Like another magisterial prose writer whose subject matter was often the clash of civilizations, Joseph Conrad, Tolstoy was something of a gambler in his youth, and The Cossacks was reputedly written to pay debts incurred in a card game. Writers should hit the casinos more often and lose at the tables, in my opinion, as their loss is our gain. The Cossacks is both a brilliant historical document, exemplifying Tolstoy’s famed realism and naturalistic description, and takes place within a moral framework revolving around culture and ethnic assimilation, as well as romantic love.
The Cossacks themselves were a relocated ethnic sect originally from the Ukraine, a band of militaristic hunter-gatherers who would take on recruits showing the requisite strength and ability to fight, forage, and farm. They had much in common with the early American frontiersmen. In a country of serfdom, their freedoms were hard-won, and the name “Cossack” derives from the Turkish word quzzac: a self-determinate man, part adventurer, part soldier, part hunter, and part farmer.
It is thus a very Russian sense of autonomy and valor that draws the first of the tale’s two heroes, Olenin, from Moscow to the Caucasus, where he intends to join the Cossacks as a cadet. Olenin is a boy-man, yet to find a goal or cause in life, “too strongly conscious of that all-powerful God of Youth,” and also hormonal enough to know that his first love affair must be waiting for him somewhere among a people racially close enough to be kin and yet distant enough geographically to be an enemy. As Olenin makes his way to his new life and is woken by the cab-driver to see the mountains, Tolstoy, a great expositor of the interaction between man and nature, speaks of “the infinitude of all that beauty.” Two Cossacks ride by, and Olenin knows he has arrived somewhere not just geographically significant for him, but also existentially important.
Tolstoy’s prose builds as raw nature approaches. Short passages drawn from descriptions of the countryside can be read again and again for pleasure and — the problems of translation notwithstanding, a question I will return to — anyone who wishes to describe nature in words should sample some of the exquisite passages to be found here:
It was the busiest time of the year. The villagers all swarmed in the melon-fields and the vineyards. The vineyards thickly overgrown with twining verdure lay in cool, deep shade. Everywhere between the broad, translucent leaves, ripe, heavy, black clusters peeped out. Along the dusty road from the vineyards the creaking carts moved slowly, heaped up with black grapes. Clusters of them, crushed by the wheels, lay in the dirt. Boys and girls in smocks stained with grape-juice, with grapes in their hands and mouths, ran after their mothers.
This hyper-visual writing is, for me, a masterclass in verbal landscape painting.
A potted history of the Cossacks follows, a short chapter beautifully delineating the culture and history of these hard-living — and hard-drinking — tribesmen, and also showing the relation of the Cossacks with their women, “more handsome” than their men and yet expected to slave for their husbands and families once married. We are being prepared for the appearance of the novella’s feisty heroine, Maryanka, rivalling (at least for me) Thomas Hardy’s Bathsheba Everdene in Far from the Madding Crowd and Lenka Silver in Josef Ŝkvoreckỷ’s Miss Silver’s Past as literature’s most endearing female firebrand.
As Olenin approaches the mountain range (there are parallels with the Mann novel I love so much), we move to the warrior-hunters to whom Olenin wishes to prove himself, and the novella’s second hero, Lukashka. He is a perfect young Cossack — although he can’t read; already a hero in the community for saving a drowning child, and soon to have his reputation redoubled for killing an Abrek, a Chechen invader attempting to infiltrate the community across the river that the Cossacks constantly patrol, and from a Muslim tribe who wish to gain territory and the advantage that comes with it.
I don’t believe the words “Islam” or “Muslim” occur during the book. Instead, what Tolstoy calls “half-savage Mohammedan tribes” are divided regionally: Chechens, Tartars, Abreks, Nogays. The Grebensk Cossacks — who Olenin seeks to join — are separated from the Muslims by a river, the Terek. Rivers have historically served as geographical boundaries in Europe, and I am sure on other continents as well, with the possible exception of Australia, whose founders seem to have set out their regional divisions using pencil and set-square.
It is instructive at this point to lay down our book, sit back, and mimic the guiding instinct of the contemporary Left: Let’s make it all about race. If we do, we find from early in The Cossacks that Tolstoy has set up an ethnic backdrop for the action. Olenin, a reasonably high-born Russian, is travelling to — he hopes — join with the Cossacks, themselves displaced Russians who have staked out their claim to land via an uneasy truce with the neighboring Chechens. And it is land they must protect from these potential invaders. Caucasians whose land is threatened by Islam; we seem suddenly to be in a very modern setting.
The tension between Muslim and Caucasian — where have we heard that recently? — is a subtle ground-note of the novel, and there is an immediate contrast between Olenin’s attempts to assimilate and Cossack attitudes to him, commissioned as he has been by the Russian Army to help them in their defense of their land, as opposed to their mortal enemies in the hills across the river. The natural animosity the Cossacks hold is not aimed exclusively at the “savage Mohammedan tribes” always in their peripheral vision, but also against Olenin and his Muscovite entourage: “A Cossack is inclined to hate less the dzhigit hillsman who maybe has killed his brother, than the soldier quartered on him to defend his village, but who has defiled his hut with tobacco smoke.”
There is a good deal of cultural cross-pollination between the Mohammedan tribes and the Cossacks who hold the territory they want to occupy. The people Olenin wishes to join have themselves absorbed some of the ways of the Muslim hill people. As a love rivalry develops between new friends Olenin and Lukashka, Maryanka will not appear before Olenin without her head covered. Another Cossack roars out a traditional Caucasian drinking toast: “Allah birdy” (God had given).” Old Uncle Eroshka, “a superannuated and solitary Cossack” and now (he believes) around 70 years old, doubles as comic relief for Tolstoy as well as a symbol of the old Cossack ways. He does not like meeting women before a hunting expedition, as it is a bad omen. The only marked difference between the Cossacks and their Islamic antagonists is that the Cossacks are almost permanently drunk on a local brew called chikhir, which they literally drink by the pail and seems to be some variety of heavily fortified wine.
An expert hunter, Eroshka reminds Lukashka that “it’s Abreks one has come to hunt here and not boars.” And yet, for all his pragmatic hunter’s aggression, Eroshka foreshadows Tolstoy’s later embrace of religion with a syncretistic vision:
But listen to a Mullah or a Tartar Cadi. He says, “You unbelieving Giaours [presumably infidels], why do you eat pig?” That shows that everyone has his own law. But I think it’s all one. God has made everything for the joy of man. There is no sin in it.
What would old Uncle Eroshka have made of today’s ban in British offices of coffee mugs featuring the cartoon character Piglet?
In a parallel to Camus’ famous scene in The Outsider, Tolstoy’s book revolves around the killing of a Muslim, although this shooting has a point, unlike that of Camus’ outsider, Mersault, whose gunning down of an Arab on the beach is meaningless except to help launch the existential trope of the acte gratuit. Lukashka sees a strangely-shaped log floating downstream in the Terek, realizes that it is an Abrek, and shoots him dead. The scene in which the Muslim clan come to claim the dead body is eerily both calm and tense.
Without throwing out spoilers the way the returning Cossacks throw out sweets to the children and gingerbread and kisses to the women, a final shoot-out between Chechen Muslims and Cossacks, including Olenin, provides an ending which mixes love and death. (As if that never happened before in literature . . .) But this is a book haunted by themes both eternal and historical. The West’s problem now, if only it could see it, is that it has failed to keep Islam in its place while simultaneously failing to learn from it. Today’s European leaders believe — or pretend they believe — in multiculturalism and integration. Tolstoy’s Cossacks do not. That is why they protect their border while covering their women and speaking some Tartar.
It is Tolstoy’s genius to maintain sexual, social, and political tension throughout this superb novella. Of course, I read Tolstoy in English, but he is a novelist of simple verbs and nouns, and these travel between languages. Besides, I am always suspicious of the argument — which Heidegger made — that translation is almost impossible. This strikes me as ridiculous. Nuance may not travel; language in itself does. I am reminded once again of today’s Mohammedans, and their “scholars” who inform us that the Koran can only be read in Arabic. This is simple taqiyya — yet another Muslim lie to mislead the kufr. The Koran is essentially a very simplistic, immensely immature, horribly violent children’s book with no sense of narrative progression, and thus it suits the people it represents. Of course it can be read in English, and I recommend you do so, as long as you have something decent to read as a remedy every few pages or so. I would recommend Tolstoy’s novella of love, race, and what it is to live among men, women, and Muslims.
On the subject of translation and in passing, Tolstoy’s translators, Aylmer and Louise Maud, are held in very high respect and became lifelong friends of the Russian, with Aylmer going on to write Tolstoy’s biography. Tolstoy reads beautifully in English because of this loyal couple.
I haven’t read many novels which feature Islam. The first of George McDonald Frazer’s brilliant Flashman series featuring the cad, bully, and coward who manages to appear Zelig-like at key moments of military history and somehow emerge a hero, is set mostly in Afghanistan in the 1830s. But that was written decades before 9/11. The only two I have read since that day are a pulpish thriller called Invasion by D. C. Alden, which probably has the full endorsement of the Muslim Council of Britain as it revolves around a violent and successful Islamic takeover of the United Kingdom, and Michel Houellebecq’s Submission. Houellebecq is not everyone’s cup of chai, but Submission is eerily believable as Muslims, rather than using violence, simply and through demographic force, take over public spaces and local politics until their national party is voted in.
One interesting thing about all these books, The Cossacks included, is that they illustrate and confirm Nietzsche’s near-solitary comment about Islam — not a subject he wrote much about. In The Antichrist, Nietzsche is, as you would expect in this anti-Christian (the alternative translation of the title) polemic, writing about his disgust with Christian leaders:
Nature neglected — perhaps forgot — to give them even the most modest endowment of respectable, of upright, of cleanly instincts . . . Between ourselves, they are not even men . . . If Islam despises Christianity, it has a thousandfold right to do so: Islam at least assumes that it is dealing with men . . .” (Italics added)
There is something essentially masculine about even modern Islam, in which young Muslim men in London speak in the lisping and infantile ebonics of blacks and increasingly dress like them, too. But, unlike an increasing number of white Western males, with Islam you do assume you are dealing with men, even in a vaguely sub-human format.
It is unlikely we will see many future novels about Islam unless they have been thoroughly vetted by the imams and their government backers, whose mission is to promote and boost Islam at the expense of a dying Christianity. In Britain, if there was an obvious lesson to be learned by European novelists from their new Muslim Lord Chancellors after the Salman Rushdie affair, it was to be at the very least elliptical when dealing with the topic of Islam. Since Rushdie’s unreadable tripe The Satanic Verses caused its furore in 1989, at least one novel has fallen still-born from the presses due to its dalliance with Mohammedan topics. The Jewel of the Medina, a sort of Islamic bodice-ripper due to be published in August 2008, and taking as its subject Aisha, one of Mohammed’s child brides, was pulled when Random House’s Ballantine imprint got cold feet after objections from “Islamic scholars.” A year later, Sebastian Faulks — an overrated English novelist who has just said he will include no more female characters in his books as he himself is not a woman — made a grovelling apology after comments he made concerning the “depressing . . . one-dimensional” Koran in the wake of his terrorism-themed novel A Week in December, repeating a gesture made by Martin Amis and Ian McKewan before him, who also recanted comments concerning Islam deemed unacceptable to the new guardians of cultural propriety. Literature and its authors now operate firmly within the shariah-compliant code of practice which reads: “Freedom of speech, but . . .”
Tolstoy’s Cossacks knew what the modern West has failed to learn, namely that Islam can be useful provided you keep it at arm’s length. What you must never do is to invite them into your territory. Like vampires, Muslims have to be invited in; but once inside, they are impossible to get rid of. The high-stakes game being played by today’s politicians — who could do with a little more Cossack in the bloodstream — is succinctly summed up by Algerian novelist Boulam Sansal, writing in L’Express about the ongoing Islamization of France: “When Islam takes hold, it is forever.”
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