sábado, 15 de agosto de 2015

A Hero of Our Time - Mikhail Lermontov


And now Childe Harold was sore sick at heart,

And from his fellow bacchanals would flee;
'Tis said, at times the sullen tear would start,
But pride congealed the drop within his e'e...

- Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (Canto I, Stanza VI)

Another life that vanished too soon. Mikhail Lermontov was only 26 years old when he was killed in a duel. Same fate as another Russian genius, Alexander Pushkin, to whom he dedicated his poem "Death of the Poet": And thus he died - for vengeance vainly thirsting / Secretly vexed by false hopes deceived... / His lips forever sealed.

Lermontov's poetry and prose are equally superb. At such a young age, he became one of the most important Russian writers of all time. And another favorite of mine. That was a nice surprise, because I honestly did not have high hopes for this book. I am not sure why. I did not expect such a beautiful and evocative writing, powerful enough to fill my heart with delight and break it, at the same time. Little I knew that Lermontov himself was kind of the personification of the Byronic hero, like the main character of this book, Pechorin, a man made of flesh, bones, arrogance, cynicism and melancholy. A captive of his own pessimism and that familiar feeling of emptiness and perpetual loss. A victim of the world.

Yes, such has been my lot from very childhood! All have read upon my countenance the marks of bad qualities, which were not existent; but they were assumed to exist—and they were born. I was modest—I was accused of slyness: I grew secretive. I profoundly felt both good and evil—no one caressed me, all insulted me: I grew vindictive. I was gloomy—other children merry and talkative; I felt myself higher than they—I was rated lower: I grew envious. I was prepared to love the whole world—no one understood me: I learned to hate. My colourless youth flowed by in conflict with myself and the world; fearing ridicule, I buried my best feelings in the depths of my heart, and there they died. I spoke the truth—I was not believed: I began to deceive. (93)

I have always read that bad people were not born, but made; almost embracing the argument that a warm environment can overcome any genetic predisposition. I'm not quite sure about that. Pechorin clearly thought that was his case. He was ready to love and the world taught him to hate.

This book is not a novel per se; it is divided into five novellas ("Bela", "Maxim Maximovich", and three extracts from Pechorin's diary—simply brilliant).The first part serves as an introduction to Pechorin's character. A young officer and Captain Maximovich started talking about the latter's peculiar friend, Pechorin, whom he had met in the Caucases. This young man had met a beautiful princess named Bela that soon became his next challenge. Bela's brother, Azamat, a whiny, obnoxious teenager, really wanted somebody else's horse. And Pechorin offered his assistance in exchange for Bela. Yes, a woman for a horse. So the little brat kidnapped his own sister and then he got his beloved horse. Charming fella.

By that time, I was a bit bored. I was about to take the narrator's offer:
Therefore, you must wait a bit, or, if you like, turn over a few pages. (26)

I didn't. I followed his advice:
Though I do not advise you to do the latter, because the crossing of Mount Krestov (or, as the erudite Gamba calls it, le mont St. Christophe) is worthy of your curiosity. (26)

Yeah. It was not.

In conclusion, time went by and Pechorin's free spirit got bored of Bela. While reading his response to Maximovich when he asked him about the princess I thought: “Finally. A first sign that this book can be amazing”. And it certainly was. A young man with a void in his heart, with needs that were impossible to satisfy, with the thought of death always in his head, couldn't be around the same people for a long time. He started to feel suffocated and the urge of escaping took over him. Like a Russian Childe Harold, the only option was to get away, to travel. To experience new things so he can reduce that void, to vanish his ennui. This situation is described with such a beautiful, dazzling writing.

(WAIT. This next passage does not have spoilers, but I it is quite long and some people might prefer not to read the whole thing—but I just couldn't quote less without damaging the essence. So, you have been warned.)

Mine is an unfortunate disposition; whether it is the result of my upbringing or whether it is innate—I know not. I only know this, that if I am the cause of unhappiness in others I myself am no less unhappy. Of course, that is a poor consolation to them—only the fact remains that such is the case. In my early youth, from the moment I ceased to be under the guardianship of my relations, I began madly to enjoy all the pleasures which money could buy—and, of course, such pleasures became irksome to me. Then I launched out into the world of fashion—and that, too, soon palled upon me. I fell in love with fashionable beauties and was loved by them, but my imagination and egoism alone were aroused; my heart remained empty... I began to read, to study—but sciences also became utterly wearisome to me. I saw that neither fame nor happiness depends on them in the least, because the happiest people are the uneducated, and fame is good fortune, to attain which you have only to be smart. Then I grew bored... Soon afterwards I was transferred to the Caucasus; and that was the happiest time of my life. I hoped that under the bullets of the Chechenes boredom could not exist—a vain hope! In a month I grew so accustomed to the buzzing of the bullets and to the proximity of death that, to tell the truth, I paid more attention to the gnats—and I became more bored than ever, because I had lost what was almost my last hope. When I saw Bela in my own house; when, for the first time, I held her on my knee and kissed her black locks, I, fool that I was, thought that she was an angel sent to me by sympathetic fate... Again I was mistaken; the love of a savage is little better than that of your lady of quality, the barbaric ignorance and simplicity of the one weary you as much as the coquetry of the other. I am not saying that I do not love her still; I am grateful to her for a few fairly sweet moments; I would give my life for her—only I am bored with her... Whether I am a fool or a villain I know not; but this is certain, I am also most deserving of pity—perhaps more than she. My soul has been spoiled by the world, my imagination is unquiet, my heart insatiable. To me everything is of little moment. I become as easily accustomed to grief as to joy, and my life grows emptier day by day. One expedient only is left to me—travel. (31-32)

Be prepared for a book that is going to squeeze your soul and play football with your heart. That was just a sample of the beauty that can be found in here. It might be the simplest plot in the world, but if it's wonderfully written, if the author lets me enter into his character's mind, then I feel like home. And that is exactly what happened to me with this novel. Lermontov deals with those universal feelings that defy time and with a masterful prose. No matter how many things we can buy, how many people we meet, occasionally we cannot escape from the inexorable feeling of emptiness. I cannot despise bored, hateful, cynic, manipulative, brutally honest Pechorin. Sometimes our desires are bigger than our own existence. And that is one of the worst tragedies of all.

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