Wednesday, 20 December 2000

Nikolai Gogol: The Government Inspector (1836)

Translation: Stephen Mulrine, 1997
Edition: Nick Hern Books, 1997
Review number: 698

Gogol's most famous legacy may be this farce about corruption and stupidity in the local government in Tsarist Russia, but he was in fact not a political radical. He even wrote an attack on the abolition of serfdom, and spent much of his life embarrassed by the enthusiasm with which would be reformers reacted to the play. He proposed allegorical interpretations of what he had written, which would have lessened its impact if anyone had accepted them.

The plot, suggested by Pushkin, is fairly simple. The small, nameless, provincial town in which the play is set has discovered that the imperial government is sending an inspector, incognito, to look into the efficiency and probity of its institutions. Since the whole of the town's administration is corrupt, from the mayor and judge to the hospital, this causes consternation. When they hear of a young man from St Petersburg who is staying in one of the town's inns, they assume that he must be the inspector. They flatter and bribe him, but of course the joke is that he is not really the inspector at all. Shorn of its satirical elements, this plot was reused in an episode of Fawlty Towers; it's potential for farce is huge.

It is possible, of course, to attack the way in which a system is abused without wanting to destroy the system itself, but I think that it is more likely that Gogol got carried away. He was not the only one, either; the Tsar himself intervened to speed up the processes of the censorship office so that the first production of The Government Inspector could go ahead remarkably quickly. (He was the most liberal Tsar Russia ever had, and he clearly had a sense of humour.) However, aspects of the play must amount to an attack on the local governmental institutions themselves. The system - or more widespread corruption within the system - was after responsible for the appointment of such an appalling group of officials in the first place.

The reason I have for thinking that Gogol got caught up in the comedy of his theme into actually writing a radical satire is that the names of the officials are derogatory terms such as "slapdash". My favourites are just silly; the not very bright characters Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky remind an English speaking reader of Tweedledum and Tweedledee by more than just their names. Towards the end of his life, Gogol also wrote something which implies more or less what I have been suggesting, that he wanted to ridicule all that was bad in Russia, but the laughter this produced was unexpectedly overwhelming.

Nineteenth century Russian literature has a reputation for being profound and a little dull. The Government Inspector is neither. It is extremely funny, and that has ensured its survival.

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