I want to get more into Russian literature, but I don’t want to launch straight into War and Peace. I began last year with The Master & Margarita. The Double is a very short book, as well as being one of Dostoyevsky’s early successes. The description of the book makes it sound quite Kafkaesque in that a man finds his entire life is taken over by someone who looks identical to him.
Reading the opening few chapters, though, does reveal an author’s voice that is quite different from Kafka and very different indeed from Bulgakov. We are introduced to our “hero,” Mr. Golyadkin. Yet this man does not appear to be any way a ‘hero’ as one traditionally would traditionally think of such. Golyadkin is a paranoid man, acting as if (though the text never states it) he is drunk. Behaving thoroughly inappropriately at his doctor’s and gatecrashing a party, he quickly reaches a low point and wishes he were someone else.
Then something odd happens. He spies a stranger nearby who is dressed very much like him. Indeed, as he follows this chap home, this is indeed the eponymous Double. As the story progresses, this Double stays at Golyadkin’s house, starts work at the same office and starts to insidiously infiltrate Golyadkin’s circles of influence.
Throughout, we are forced by the author to be on Golyadkin’s side, referring to him as “our hero” and with derogatory terms used to describe the Double. Yet one cannot escape the thought, fostered at the start, that much of this is going on inside Golyadkin’s mind. There are times when we wonder if the Double really was up to no good, or whether we are simply being fed the paranoid delusions of a madman. This all makes for some uncomfortable reading at times, with some confusion being brought into the mind of this reader; but I think this was partly the intention of the author.
As the story comes towards its conclusion, I did start to think it more reminiscent of Kafka, particularly with the theme that the central character was a piggy in the middle, surrounded by conspirators who were all in on some secret knowledge that he lacked. Even heading onto the last page, I still could not determine what would happen and having finished, I was still not certain what did happen. But I’ll leave it for you to find out that for yourself.
This was my first exposure to Kafka, having heard much hype about how great a writer he was. The term Kafkaesque is often banded about, with connotations of bleakness, absurdity and circular arguments used as bureaucratic defence mechanism.
Without giving too much away, the story begins with the main protagonist waking up to find he is under arrest. He doesn’t know what he is accused of and those that are charged with informing him that he has been arrested are at bottom feeders is an enormously complicated food chain, who themselves have no idea what it is he is accused of and cannot tell him.
The unfolding of the story is the protagonist’s tale of how he is fighting his way through layers of meaningless bureaucracy in order to defend himself. Eventually, the idea of finding out what the accusation was is lost and replaced with a desperate attempt to prove himself innocent of ANY wrongdoing by giving an account of his life and presenting this through an advocate and other ‘insiders’ who may be able to help his cause. There is a constant glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel, but no matter what progress is made, that light seems as far away as ever.
With regards to the particular translation, the editors did have some failings. In particular, they made the cardinal sin of not starting a new paragraph when a new character spoke. This had the effect of making most of the paragraphs unnecessarily long, some paragraphs were 3 pages long! This made keeping track of the story a little more difficult than needed. But this may be because of my habit of usually pausing for thought half way down a page or at the next convenient juncture in the story, and in this instance I was forced to take in rather a lot before finding a suitable place for reflection.
So now that I have a slightly better idea of what Kafkaesque really means, I can see the parallels that are drawn with Orwell, and indeed a comparison to 1984 is almost inevitable. The difference has to be that Kafka’s world is not quite so far removed from our own as Orwell’s was. Already, we have control orders in place in this country where the defendants cannot see the evidence that is being used to accuse them, they have no recourse to the law and they live in a sort of semi house arrest. For that, Kafka could be said to be something of a prophet.
Considering that, it most certainly is a masterpiece and worth reading, but not if you’re looking for a light, cheery read.