Updated on May 19, 2015
18. ‘The Enchanted Wanderer’ by Nikolai Leskov
You might consider yourself hard done by if your pizza delivery arrives without that bottle of Coke you ordered, or someone posts a bitchy Facebook status that’s clearly aimed at you because the insidious passive-aggressive doesn’t have the guts to say it to your face, but really that’s all small-fry compared to what happens to poor old Ivan Severyanych in ‘The Enchanted Wanderer’.
As a young man, Ivan is arrogant, reckless and a bit of an idiot, but it seems unfair that he should be picked out for a life of torment simply because he displays the same qualities as millions of adolescents the world over. It’s called ‘growing up’ and, as part of this process, he naturally makes a mistake. Of course, his mistake does involve whipping a monk who is asleep in his cart, causing his horse to freak out and crush said monk to death under the wheels. Oops.
Anyway, after this traumatic and life-changing experience (which I’m sure Ivan was very sorry for) the dead monk appears to him in a dream and literally vows that Ivan will “live all [his] life on the very brink of death, and never actually manage to die.” Rather a harsh punishment for someone who made a genuine mistake around a flighty horse, but considering that this was nineteenth-century Russia, we must remember that ‘harsh’ is a relative term.
So Ivan runs away from home and ends up taking on a series of jobs, mainly involving taking care of horses, but wherever he goes he ends up being screwed over in one way or another, probably because of that damnable undying curse. He has a sojourn with some Tartars on the steppe, who sew horsehair bristles into the soles of his feet so he can’t run away BECAUSE OF THE AGONY, and loses all the money he earns from being a horse connoisseur for a rich man when a pretty gypsy lady gets him drunk and dances in front of him. (By the way, what happens to this particular woman is nothing short of amazing – worth reading just to see quite how far Ivan will go for his twisted love.)
I can’t help feeling that dear, helpless Ivan could have avoided all this if he’d just had better parents – the kind who didn’t curse him for the first mistake he made, but rather nurtured him and taught him how to stay away from Tartars, gambling and too-good-to-be-true women.
Of course, the parents aren’t really the point here, but rather the über-parent: God. Religion features heavily in the story – for instance, you can be killed for worshipping the wrong god on the Mongolian steppe – and the reader can’t fail to notice that the major themes running throughout the story are to do with divine will and temptation. By the end I found myself firmly on Nikolai’s side, because really he’s a good – admittedly weak – guy who has toxic waste dumped on him by divinity at every turn.
Essentially what I took away from this entrancing story was this: if gods and monks will damn you to eternal unrest for messing up as a teenager, then I want nothing to do with them. Besides, if we were all punished this way for being thoughtless idiots in our teens, then the world be entirely populated by wretched, half-dead misery-mongers.
Or … teenagers.
“A strange man’s will surged through me, and I fulfilled a strange man’s fate.”
Another one from the excellent Melville House novella series.
If you liked my review, why not read the book and let me know what you think?