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This article is taken from PN Review 104, Volume 21 Number 6, July - August 1995.

Chekhov in Sakhalin Iain Bamforth

ANTON CHEKHOV, A Journey to Sakhalin, translated by Brian Reeve (Ian Faulkner) £14.95

Of all the exemplary literary figures who have come down to us from the nineteenth century, Chekhov is one of the few not to have been debunked by the deconstructionists and narratologists. This is perhaps because he was so hard at work at it himself: a travel-book about Siberia? - it sounds like a literary joke. When Suvorin, newspaper tycoon, editor of New Times (Novoye Vremya) and in effect his sponsor for the trip to Sakhalin, the carceral colony north of Japan off the pacific coast of Russia, a cold inhospitable place to sustain any kind of reforming programme, writes to him in bafflement - 'no one needs Sakhalin, and it possesses no interest for anybody' -Chekhov replies, in a tone of feigned injury, that his work will yield nothing for literature or science, although he wishes to repay medicine 'towards which… I have been a swine', that he 'had been growing indolent for some time now' and 'has to take [him]self in hand'. Finally, unable or unwilling to elucidate the origins of his decision, he admits: 'none of this is convincing' and 'personally I'm going out there for the most trivial of reasons'. It was as if, to quote from A Boring Story, written not long before he hatched up the Sakhalin scheme, he was about to acquire the 'ability to preserve his dignity on a wild-goose chase'.

And it wasn't ...


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