Russian writer and journalist Vlas Doroshevich is not the only writer of parablelike stories exploring issues of justice and power who died in the 1920’s and whose work seems to illuminate the much darker period of history that followed his death, when the liquid that smoothed the grinding wheels of bureaucracy was revealed to be blood. Doroshevich’s writing doesn’t approach the spare and unique precision of Kafka’s that has been so influential in modern literature, yet in many ways his work is even more pessimistic.
What the Emperor Cannot Do: Tales and Legends of the Orient, published by Glas New Russian Writing, is comprised of short stories organized into categories of Chinese, Arabian and Indian tales. The different groupings allow Doroshevich to focus on different aspects of the themes of justice and power, with the Arabian tales, for example, giving him the opportunity to provide a theological angle to his explorations.
The story “Without Allah,” features a perplexed Allah in retirement asking why people keep referring to him now that he no longer exists. The story is strongly reminiscent of Aleksander Wat’s “Lucifer Unemployed,” where the former prince of darkness has to pound the pavement looking for work in an unbelieving modern world.
In Doroshevich’s writing profundity is never far from a near slapstick, black humor redolent of Russian writers such as Ilf and Petrov, Bulgakov as well as a Polish writer like Wat. A story titled “2 x 2 = 4 ½” begins, “With the Arabs, my friend, as you know, everything is invariably Arabian.”
While the Chinese stories have some similarities to Kafka’s parables, the Indian stories have a greater resemblance to the Oriental Tales of Marguerite Yourcenar. The stripped-down parables of injustice become fleshed out with exotic description and mythological flavor. Yet while Yourcenar keeps to a lofty tone in her evocative stories, Doroshevich maintains his irony, satirizing the figures he depicts with exaggerated reverence.
The Chinese tales are the strongest in the collection, and in many respects, the darkest. In many of these stories the all-powerful emperor is revealed to be virtually powerless, often himself the victim of the power he supposedly wields. Not only aren’t the emperors able to bring happiness and justice to their subjects, but the tangled webs of power prevent them from doing something as seemingly ordinary as traveling out of the palace into the streets of Peking.
In the “First Outing” the Emperor San Yanki is constantly attempting to venture into Peking, and everyday someone in court, whether the Court Astronomer, Court Historian or Chief Eunuch, offers up a reason against going. Realizing that his trip is being prevented by his scheming prime minister the emperor does some scheming of his own. He has himself declared dead, with his only posthumous wish being that he is brought to his burial on the very couch he died on, thus allowing him to peer out through his nearly closed eyes and finally see the city. What he sees and hears is a poverty and bitterness attributed to this same scheming, corrupt prime minister.
When the emperor reveals his trick the sight of the pale, frightened prime minister leads one to suspect that justice will win out. But then the courtiers began objecting that the emperor, once declared dead, must stay dead or otherwise risk the very dissolution of the social order and China itself. In the end the emperor agrees, allowing himself to be buried. The new emperor is so impressed by the hated prime minister that he not only retains him but gives him added power. The story ends with the prime minister executing the courtiers who had convinced the emperor to remain dead – “As he said himself, they were all far too wily for their own good.”
As whimsical as these stories are they have a cumulative effect that borders on despair. Doroshevich deftly manages to vary them in terms of the plot twist while continuing to hammer the point home that justice is unobtainable on heaven or earth.
What comes across isn’t that absolute power corrupts absolutely, but the much more interesting idea that absolute power is like a mirage, or rather, like the proverbial oasis that is the form mirages supposedly take. Oases really exist in the desert and so does power in the human world, yet what looks like power from a distance often turns out to be something else while the real sources of power can prove hard to locate and be even more problematic to contain.
Another unusual feature of the book that perhaps shouldn’t be unusual at all is reading Russian stories that seemingly don’t have anything Russian about them. All the well-known signposts are absent –sleigh rides through freshly fallen snow, vodka-fueled gambling binges, a blushing French governess cantering off into a copse of birch trees, duels, renunciations, nihilism and the rambling soliloquies of revolutionaries drunk with self-hatred.
Yet as you read the stories of inaccessible justice, fruitless sacrifice and kindness that kills, it becomes easier and easier to project them onto the reality of Tsarist Russia that they came from, not to mention the Bolshevik reality that finished their author off.
In “The Green Bird” the Great Vizier’s attempt to shift focus from punishing evildoing to preventing it leads to a hilarious story of a society of informers where people’s innermost thoughts become targets of suspicion, a foreshadowing of Soviet reality that would reach its depths not long after Doroshevich’s death. The story includes an Ostap Bender-like con man named Abl-Eddin, who convinces the Vizier to adopt his scheme of getting at people’s true thoughts.
Abl-Eddin’s plan begins with all the emperor’s subjects in Tehran receiving a parrot as a pet. In the dark as to the young trickster’s plans, the Vizier visits the first of his parrot-owning subjects and asks him if he is content. Following his pat answer, Abl-Eddin has the parrot brought over, feeds him, which causes the bird to blurt out “The Great Vizier is a fool! The Great Vizier is a fool!”
The parrots become the society’s de facto informers, which compels the people to ask Abl-Eddin for a way to manipulate the process so they can keep their heads attached to their necks. He suggests they kill their parrots and buy new ones (from him, of course), teaching them to say “Long Live the Great Vizier! Abl-Eddin is the benefactor of the Persian people!”
When popular discontent begins to rise, due in part to all the unemployed spies, the Vizier is prepared to get rid of the young con-man, but is convinced to ride through the streets and hear the people’s true thoughts, convincing him that he is beloved and that no changes need to be made.
Manipulating public opinion and ending up baffled and manipulated yourself is a feature of Russian political life (and obviously, not only Russian) that continues to this day, giving Doroshevich’s stories an ongoing relevance in his native country. The fact that justice seems as inaccessible as ever and that often the only bearable reaction to this is laughter makes these stories comprehensible, vivid and refreshing everywhere else on the earth as well.
Photo – 1) They are Triumphant by Vasily Vereshchagin, 2) Vlas Doroshevich, 3) What the Emperor Cannot Do: Tales and Legends of the Orient