There are dozens of books that have been on the “To Read” shelf in my imagination for many decades. The older I get, the more likely it is that most of them are destined to continue gathering imaginary dust on that shelf. My friend Denise told me over lunch recently that she had taken the plunge with War And Peace and was two thirds of the way through – an achievement I am now unlikely ever to find myself confiding to my lunch companions.
But there is one classic novel on that imaginary shelf that has now leaped into my lap demanding to be read and that has stunned me by the originality of its ideas – Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls.
Gogol’s story takes place in the Russia of the 1840s – still a feudal society in which wealthy landowners owned the serfs who worked their lands as mere chattels. They were thus able to buy and sell serfs or raise mortgages on them, just like any other piece of property.
Landowners were taxed by the government on the number of people – or “souls” – that they owned. But the censuses that set down how many souls resided on each estate were conducted only infrequently. This meant that many landowners were still paying taxes on serfs that had died since the last census – the dead souls of the title.
Into this feudal bureaucratic anomaly comes the main character, Pavel Chichikov, a middle-aged man of mysterious origins who appears to be a wealthy middle-class entrepreneur – and a man with a plan.
Chichikov arrives in a small provincial town and turns on the charm to woo local land owners, officials and the cream of local society. Chichikov tells the landowners that he wants to buy their “dead souls” – their serfs who exist only on paper – as he has a use for them. He points out that the sellers will be better off because he will be relieving them of unnecessary taxation.
Just what use Chichikov can possibly have for people who no longer exist is a mystery and he refuses to disclose the secret of his plan. The locals are both greedy and suspicious. They want to make some quick cash out of an asset they longer possess but they are wary of Chichikov and his enterprise. Has he found some way to make money out of dead men? While the landowners are torn, the town officials continue to wine and dine Chichikov in the belief that he has the magic touch financially. Eventually, Chichikov breaks down the landowner’s resistance and manages to accumulate an “estate” of 400 dead souls.
Inevitably, it all ends in tears. Chichikov is the rascal we knew him to be all along. He is a former government official fired for corruption and only just avoiding going to jail. His brilliant plan for the Dead Souls is just another con – he intends to use them to raise a huge loan and then skip with the proceeds.
Chichikov leaves town in a hurry and has further unsavoury adventures which Gogol uses to satirise corrupt Russian society. Sadly, he never completed the book which ends in mid-sentence – like Laurence Sterne’s Sentimental Journey.