Crime & Punishment — A Right Jolly Knees Up

Russian Tales, 1916 — Mikhail Larionov

Here in the UK and worldwide, lockdown and its divisive progeny have led many to desperately scrape the barrel for the pacifying effects of some much needed novelty. As a once busy musician I’ve found myself with almost an entire calendar to fill, and so, after trying to avoid eating all the food known to me in the house (predominantly biscuits), I’ve stumbled upon the little known hobby of blinking at prose in the vain hope of deciphering tales left in the wake of by gone years. For weeks sirens and their accompanying icy blue auras have penetrated my double glazing. Thus, seeking respite from the global crisis outside my door I figured a right jolly knees up would be the world of Russian literature, renowned for its humorous and pithy nature. I plucked up a copy that appeared to fit the bill and sank into an armchair with a cocoa. Raskolnikoff — a woefully misguided chap reckons he can get away with murder, and what a murder!

“The world awaiting me hidden away in those yellowing pages over the subsequent days became an enrapturing, suffocating tomb.”

If prattling philosophy isn't your thing dear reader (it certainly isn’t mine), you’ll struggle with the opening collection of pages. Bear with it however, and the story will drag you in to the depths of this psychological crime thriller in a truly horrifying yet simply brutal fashion. From the twist that is the most unequivocal Crime, I’d wager you’d be hard pressed not to be immediately focused on Punishment in all its forms and, whether with the cunning of the perpetrator they will meet. This aged game of cat and mouse feverishly holds its own through the filthy slums of St. Petersburg.

Executioner, 1891 — Vasily Surikov

I found pacing to be a drawback, so too was the way I initially approached the characters. I figured given its notoriety as ‘one the classics’ I’d find myself able to intimately relate to characters across the board, seeing myself in their shoes rather than merely observing. Why I thought I’d be in-phase with one whose culture, circumstance, perspective, and really their entire life share few parallels with my own, I’m not entirely sure - call it naiveté. If we’re only set to accept literature and perspectives that mirror ourselves, worlds of experiences will be lost and frankly we’ll never get along with anybody. The way through this presumptive perspective predicament I found, was to no longer read solely as myself, but to try to unobtrusively see the world through each character’s eyes. Manifesting the mindset of a paranoid ‘monomaniac’ was a lovely escape from the lounge, eased by the surprising accessibility of the prose.

Dostoyevsky writes ‘inside the mind’ through characters’ solipsistic internal ramblings, so to visualise the drama whilst reading, one must try to develop a clear idea of each character’s delivery. This I discovered, was a tough ask during conversations where details outside of the dialogue were seldom clearly divulged. The stylistic element of perpetual insecurity of one’s own observations and conjecture however, drew me into a mindset of prolonged paranoid questioning: “… was that smirk a hint? …does he know something? …how?!” It paid narrative dividends as posturing between the cast which opened far more questions of scheming and agendas than it answered.

Through the mist of an increasingly erratic-perspective and twists and turns brilliant gems of exquisite story telling are to be found that had me eagerly returning for each next instalment.

“On more than one occasion I found myself, mouth agape, silently urging characters to alter their course to no avail.”

Love and redemption come to play their hand towards the conclusion in a way I am invariably at odds with. A sad reflection of time in memoriam puts women into heinously confined positions and status. I make no attempt to hide the enjoyment I received from rivalries that saw matriarchs clucking and squawking but take distinct umbrage at the role of women as placative, servile succour. I’m immeasurably thankful to live in the 21st century not 19th century Russia and, whilst not in the most auspicious of years, still consider myself to be part of quite a lucky liberal lot who’re perfectly able to say:

“No hun, it’s not your job to fix him!”

Mona Lisa, 1503/2016 — Da Vinci/Tenor Gifs

Philosophically it’s all a rather sorry state of affairs as there is little joy to be found for those kept between these battered pages, distressingly their circumstances still exist today. Prostitution, its causes and its perception are ongoing hot topics. Social mobility and the cycle of poverty still entrap people by the billion; the question of whose right it is to take a life and what to do when nations not the individual are the perpetrator of death are issues still with terrible poignancy. Dostoyevsky does force you to consider these troubling notions but I was glad when it was finally over.

An uncheerful, meandering novel full of intrigue and digression: I’d recommend it to those with patience and congratulate those accomplished few who dredged their way to the end. I read it, it stunned and captivated and bored me. Three and a half/five stars.

And now, I’m off to find something else to delve into and hopefully enjoy more.

Andrew Armstrong is an acclaimed international artist based in the UK. Here he explores current affairs, culture and opinion

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