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‘A Greedy Peasant’ by Alexander Ertel ****

Russian author Alexander Ertel’s novella, A Greedy Peasant, has recently been published by Zephyr Books, an imprint of Michael Walmer Publishers. I have been a huge fan of Russian literature since my teens, and jump at the chance to try out any new-to-me Russian authors, of which Ertel was one. That his work was ‘greatly admired’ by Tolstoy is reason enough to pick one of his books up.

Originally written in 1886, the 1929 English translation, which appears in this version, was completed by Ertel’s daughter, Natalie Duddington. A Greedy Peasant is described by the publisher as ‘a moral fable distinguished by its lucid colour and realistic detail’, which immediately intrigued me.

A Greedy Peasant takes as its focus two brothers named Ivan and Yermil, who live in a rural region of Russia – a village rather grandly named Great Springs – and could not really be more different in their approaches to life. Ivan is largely content with his lot, putting in a great deal of effort on the family farm for not much reward. Yermil, however, has ‘dreams of improvement’; he is desperate to make his fortune, and ‘escape the drudgery of the peasant round’. The third brother, Onisim, is killed early on in the novella, a victim of conflict. His wife and young children become dependent on Ivan and Yermil. The family is ‘just made both ends meet, and that was all. They never had to buy bread and they had two ploughs… But there was nothing to spare.’

Yermil finds employment with a rich merchant in the local town. This merchant proves to be a ‘good master’ who ‘on holy days treated him to a glass of vodka’. His health improves alongside his wealth, but as his greed grows, everything begins to fall apart. Ertel writes: ‘At first he had grown fat on the good food he had at his master’s: his cheeks stood out, his neck was like a bear’s and the coat he had brought with him from home hardly met round the waist: when he tried to fasten it the buttonholes gave way. But now his thoughts made him grow thin; he looked sallow and his eyes were sunken. He could not master his greed.’

Ivan and his family spiral further into poverty whilst Yermil gives them barely a second thought. Stoic Ivan, though, tries to teach his brother lessons about what really matters, and to make him grateful for what he already has. When Yermil has to move back to the farm for a period, he seems ‘like a stranger in the house; it was as though he had returned from the town another man.’ Here, Ivan tells him, rather wisely: ‘You mustn’t look at other people, but live as good men do.’ Of course, Yermil takes no notice.

On his return to the town, Yermil becomes seethingly jealous of his master’s lifestyle. Perhaps inevitably, a day comes when Yermil is presented with an ‘horrifying opportunity’ to improve his life; he takes it, but ‘little does he realise that this dreadful secret action will set in motion a train of events which will end in catastrophe.’

Ertel’s prose is simple yet effective, and the emotional consequences build as the story progresses. I very much enjoyed the repeated descriptions, which somehow became more chilling as they went on: ‘The sky was white, the fields were white, sign-posts were stuck in the snow to mark the road, the sledge runners creaked in the frost.’ This use of repetition shows that although the lives of some of the protagonists change irrevocably, little perceptively does in the grander scheme of things.

A Greedy Peasant is a perceptive story, which is sure to appeal to anyone already interested in Russia, or who is wanting to try something a little different to their usual reading fare. There are a lot of important themes at play within A Greedy Peasant, and although some of these are relatively briefly explored, it sets a precedent for what one can expect from Russian literature of the nineteenth-century.

Ertel’s novella is easy to read, but provides a lot of food for thought. In the way of morality tales, The Greedy Peasant moves along well. A lot of cultural detail can be found throughout the book, and I am keen to try some of Ertel’s longer works – and soon – to see how they compare.