Wondering which acclaimed Russian classic I should delve into, War and Peace by Tolstoy was the first one which came to mind. However, providence had it that it was, instead, The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky that fell into my hands. Considered in some (or maybe a lot of) literary circles as the greatest novel ever written, one that encompasses every aspect of life, the size of the book foretold that it would take quite the chunk out of my otherwise frivolously well spent time.
At the center of the tale are some iconic and well described characters – the aging patriarch, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, and his 3 (legitimate) sons, Dmitri, Ivan and Alyoshaas well as his maybe illegitimate son Pavel Smerdyakov. Fyodor is rich and pretty much lacking in all kinds of social etiquettes or mores including virtually abandoning his kids to be raised by myriad characters. But now they are adults, and the eldest, Dimitri is back for his part of the inheritance which he feels has been denied to him. Dimitri is a delicious character though – morally ambivalent, seemingly a spendthrift scoundrel without scruples yet a conscious and honorable heart deep within. Fyodor though has no more sympathy or money to give his eldest son, and to top it off has gone and fallen for the whiles of a young woman of questionable reputation, Grushenka. Considering his tendency to hold parties which end up in orgies, this would have been fine if not for the fact that his son is also deeply smitten by her and is planning to leave his lawful wife for her.
Ivan, on the other hand, is a skeptic and atheist, while the youngest Alyosha is a tender, sympathetic and thoughtful soul committed to an elder monk in the monastery. Smerdyakov stays on as a helper in Fyodor’s household, a skulking, seemingly cowardly figure but with questionable and anti-theist views lurking behind his shallow exterior. The unnamed narrator primarily narrates the story from the point of view of Alyosha which probably makes him the main protagonist, but there is enough depth here given to the other brothers as well. The heart of the story turns on a murder, and the trial proceeding from it and its effects on all three (or four) brothers.
But that’s just a setup for Dostoevsky to expound, fascinatingly for the most part, on various discourses of love, life, death, religion and its relevance on human behavior, duty and despair. His characters seem to be bent on almost willful self-destruction at times and the pathos and ambiguities behind their thoughts and motivations are delved into at depth. Dimitri seems tortured by his underlying sense of honor and disgust at his excesses and actions, but sheer inability to refrain from them. Ivan, on the other hand, is compelled by his own skepticism and contempt to keep questioning his own morality and role in events and, in a surreal section, is visited by visions of the devil. Alyosha himself, despite (or maybe because of) his pacifist leanings is dejected at people’s behavior and actions, none more so than his brothers who he desperately wants to love as much as he can. His relationship with the Elder Zosima brings forth another fascinating tangent of the story, where the dying elder ruminates on his youth and the events which brought him to the monastery as well as erudite discourses on religion and its influences and why it is an utter need for humanity to thrive. Ivan’s discourse on the Grand Inquisitor is another section which has some vivid and mind numbing images for the reader.
The only reason I am not rating it higher though, is because I usually rate books based on how they touch me within, irrespective of technical considerations of the book’s structure. While I found most of the monologues engrossing in the ideas they were trying to convey, there was a generally didactic, distant tone to a lot of it, which kept me from getting involved or taking the characters totally to heart. Of course, this could be a result of the translation I read, which as far as I’ve heard here is not the best one available.
However, I am happy I managed to read at least one of the seminal Russian classics, and it definitely hasn’t put me off on my quest to read War and Peace, though I will probably take a break on that wish for the near future. But this one is definitely recommended for serious readers though.