Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

"The Signal" by Vsevolod Garshin (1883). A Late Czarist Short Story Writer

A few days ago I posted on a new to me late Czarist short story writer, Fyodor Sologub (1863 to 1927) who lived and died in Saint Petersburg.  Yesterday I discovered another late Czarist writer who also lived and died in Saint Petersburg, Vseveld Garshin (1855 to 1888).  I wonder if they ever met?  

Garshin fought in the Russian-Turkish War, 1877.  He entered as a private, was wounded and subsequently commissioned as an officer.  He left the army, returning home to Saint Petersburg, to pursue his literary interests.  He wrote nothing but short stories, twenty two in all.  His stories focus on the down trodden of the era.  (There is a link to a  collection of his short stories translated by Captain Roland Smith, done in 1917 at the bottom of this post.  I could find no data on Roland Smith so if you have any information please leave a post.  His translation of "The Signal" is very elegant.

The central character in "The Signal" served in the front lines in the Russo- Turkish War.  One of his duties was to deliver meals and hot tea to the officers, which often involved running through enemy fire.  There is volumes of class history in the very poigant passage  in which the officers praise him for bringing them tea under fire, with no thought to the fact he is following orders that might get him killed.  Should he have been killed bringing them tea, one doubts if the officers would have much cared. After the war he and his wife suffer great hardship, he cannot find work.  Like Gorky, Garshin focuses on displaced serfs, people without a fixed place in society.  One day he encounters one of his former officers, now an important person with the railroad.  He offers the man a good job as a track walker and signal man for the railroad.  His job is to walk ten miles or so of track on a regular basis making sure all in order and to signal the locomotive engineer if there are issues.  He gets a house and he brings his wife there also.  They are content.  He slowly gets acquainted with the next over track man. This man is not happy at all, he feels they are underpaid and abused.  One day when the chief inspector comes to the area this man complains to him and the inspector strikes him with his whip on his face.  Outraged, he tells his friend he will go to the railroad head office to file a complaint, inspite of being told just to endure it for the sake of the job.  

A few days later the central character while making his rounds sees someone tampering with the track.  It is the other signal man, he is loosing a bolt which will cause a coming passenger train to jump the track and go cantepaulting into a ravine, likely killing everyone on board.  Horrified the man tries to signal the train to stop but he realizes he has no red flag.  He removes his white shirt, makes a deep cut in his arm and covers as he can the shirt in his blood and franticallty tries to signal the train to stop.
He knows if the train wrecks he could be executed or sent to Siberia for life.

I will leave the close untold.  I found "The Signal" fit  to stand with the great Russian short stories.  In just a few pages we learn a lot about the life of a late Czarist railroad track man and about the world in which he struggled to survive. 

I have read descriptions of his other stories and i will I am pretty sure I shall  be posting more on Vsevold Garshin.  He killed himself by jumping out of his fifth floor apartment. 

Mel u

1 comment:

Suko said...

I had not heard of this Czarist short story before, Mel. Thank you for intro and the link!