Monday, December 8, 2014

The Night Before Christmas, by Nikolai Gogol

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Gogol's classic is full of mischief and black comedy.

The plot of this famous story by Nikolai Gogol, one of the great Russian writers, is too madcap and unbelievable to recount in any detail. It has to be read to be believed! But it would be safe to say it's in essence a convoluted love story, along the lines of Shakespeare’s Midsumma’s Night Dream: two young people must go through a night of surreal and improbable ordeals until true love finds its way. Gogol’s night time adventure, however, is more earthy and blackly comic than Shakespeare’s celestial dream-poem.

There are two suitors, Vakula the blacksmith and the beautiful Oksana. It is the night before Christmas, and so the devil is free to roam around and torment people. To get the ball rolling, he steals the moon and places it in his pocket. Next he starts a snowstorm and all sorts of confusions are set off. At last when Vakula thinks he is making progress in asking for Oksana’s hand, she throws a spanner in the works, insisting that she will not marry him until he brings her the Tsarina's shoes. Vakula must find a way to fulfil this request.

The Night Before Christmas is peopled with a cast of grotesque and humourous characters. Besides the devil, there’s a witch that streaks across the sky, Cossacks that get stuffed into coal bags and shady characters who can perform magical tricks. Gogol drew inspiration from the folk tales of his home village in Ukraine for this story, which certainly comes through in its idiosyncratic and highly original tone. It’s a story that is part irreverent comedy, part black fairytale. Despite all these weird and wonderful elements, it’s also a story that has a deliciously warm feeling. There may be devils and witches in the air, making mischief, plus a cast of other grotesques, but you know once Christmas day arrives all these naughty beings will be put in their place and good will reign the day.

The Night Before Christmas, by Nikolai Gogol. Published by Penguin. ISBN: 9780143122487  $16.99

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