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Informers in training

July 10, 2012

Physically disgusting old men make good literary informers, but so can self-assured schoolboys of eighteen. One of the many anecdotes in Leskov’s Laughter and Sorrow (Смех и горе, 1871) concerns the narrator, Orest Markovich Vatazhkov, as a boy who wants to leave a couple days early at the end of the term; a much older student in the same form, Kalatuzov; and a third boy named Lokotkov whom Kalatuzov convinces to commit an act of sabotage that will supposedly get everyone sent home quickly. (My fellow non-native speakers will want to know that Lokotkov used to mock the French teacher by telling him “that is was impossible to say ‘у рыб нет зуб,’ but that one must say either ‘у рыбей нет зубей’ or ‘у рыбов нет зубов,’ etc.” In other words, he misled him about the notoriously difficult genitive plural. See ch. 12.)

N. K. Mikhailovskii thought “Laughter and Sorrow” was hard to get through, “just a very long string of anecdotes quite weakly connected to any semblance of a whole”

Kalatuzov is legendarily stupid in class but looks increasingly cunning with each chapter. He thinks up the original violation of the rules and gets a younger boy to carry it out, revealing only afterward that someone is sure to be badly beaten over it. When the time for interrogation and collective punishment comes, he calmly waits (exempt from corporal punishment because of his age) until the headmaster offers the carrot of going home early instead of the literal stick and then — shamelessly, publicly — informs on Lokotkov.

The behavior of the authorities is remarkable. When the boys initially deny knowing who was responsible, they say they will beat every fifth boy. Fate lets Lokotkov into the lucky 80%, but he confesses rather than let the 15th boy suffer like the innocent 5th and 10th had. But his confession isn’t enough for the headmaster, who wants the other boys to confirm Lokotkov’s account. They still feel honor-bound to refuse, so the headmaster decides to beat every young boy instead of every fifth. Here the boys demand that he beat all of them except their hero, the guilty Lokotkov. This makes the headmaster switch from threats to bribes. He isn’t interested in finding the truth or beating his charges; what he wants is for one of them to accuse another.

The episode ends with the narrator stabbing Kalatuzov mid-denunciation, the only consequence of which is that his mother enrolls him at a different school.

See chapters 10-17 of Смех и горе. The denunciation happens halfway through chapter 17, but is prepared by the opening sentence of chapter 10 on how students used to have a “code of chivalry” or “knightly honor” (честность рыцарская) instead of the current generation’s “civic honor” (честность гражданская). The narrator misses this culture of honor at his second school, “where I was not beaten and not whipped, but where, on the other hand, the spirit of chivalry that had so captivated me was absent” (end of ch. 17).

Leskov was inclined to present good and evil as intrinsic to a character rather than the product of social forces, but he seems to like showing how Russian society creates informers, at least here and in “The Rabbit Carriage.”

Update: Later in the book, Vatazhkov suspects the stupid editor of a St. Petersburg journal is the same Kalatuzov he stabbed (chapter 47). Lokotkov, meanwhile, has gone to his rural estate where he wants to live as a peasant, though the real peasants think he’s crazy and doesn’t understand them (chapter 49).

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