Book review: Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat

The brilliant flower of a Tartar thistle stubbornly clinging to the middle of a field was the vision that provoked the memory of the great writer, recollecting the story he had heard of as a young man visiting the Caucasus. It was the tale of the famous Chechen rebel, Hadji Murat, whose unwavering allegiance to his family and faith led him to tenaciously fight the Russian empire, only to join the enemy in a double-deal to rescue his family that had been taken prisoner by an envious Chechen cheiftain who demanded obedience.

Apparently Tolstoy’s last work was as if an impulsive desire to recant the historical figure in a short novella, contradicting his own artistic tradition by doing much, much more with less: vignettes that allow the reader resonate, intimiate flashes of characters ensnared within the atrocity of war, where a dangerously sharp man fearlessly manuevers to save his family the midst of a clash of civilizations.
After having spent much time dedicated to reading contemporary literary fiction, I have the filthy confession that is was the small size of the classic writer’s novella that inspired me to tune into the voice from the past; my excuse, however, is that Hadji Murat is duly described as Tolstoy’s last and best work.

I used to have a better discipline of interspersing my reading list with classic authors, despite running the clichéd and subjective risk of encountering something “dated”, when the gap in time, space, history and language becomes more work than one is willing to invest to get enough context to enjoy the reading. Richatd Pevear’s and Larissa Volokhonsky’s wonderful translation of Hadji Murat made its reading effortless with sound, measured prose that was poignant and lyrical. Only a few hours’ read, I was left haunted by the story’s relevance today: you will walk away from the book knowing exactly what has incurred in any of geopolitical hornet’s nests around the modern globe today — attesting to the visionary brilliance of Tolstoy and his mastery of the human world.

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A native of Chicago, Ricky Toledano has lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for over twenty years as a writer, translator and teacher. [a]multipicity is multi-lingual collection of reflections through the humanities.

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