Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Death of a Bureaucrat

One fine evening a no less fine civil servant, Ivan Dmitrich Chervyakov, sat in a second row seat watching the show through opera glasses. He felt himself at the height of bliss, when suddenly (in stories one frequently encounters such "when suddenly(s)", and the authors are right: life is full of surprises), suddenly his face wrinkled up, his eyes rolled back, his breathing stopped, he lowered his opera glasses, he doubled over, and...AAAAHHH-choo! He sneezed, as is evident. A sneeze--by any man, in any place--cannot be prevented. Peasants sneeze. And police commissioners. Sometimes even privy counsellors. Everybody sneezes. Thus Chervyakov, not in the least embarrassed, wiped his nose with a handkerchief and, being a polite person, glanced about. Had anyone been disturbed by his sneezing? Here arrives the embarrassment: he watched as an old gentleman, sitting in front of him, in the first row of seats, diligently applied to his bald head a handkerchief, muttering something to himself. In the old gentleman, Chervyakov recognized Department of Transport Civil General Brizzhalov.

"I've thoroughly splattered him!" thought Chervyakov. "He's a stranger, not my boss, but this is awkward nonetheless. An apology is in order."

Chervyakov cleared his throat, leaned his body forward, and whispered into the General's ear, "Pardon me, thy Excellency, I have thoroughly splattered thou...I accidentally...”

"Never mind, never mind..."

"Good God, excuse me. I just...I didn't intend to!"

"Oh, sit thee down please! Let me listen!"

Chervyakov, even more embarrassed, smiled idiotically and gazed at the stage. He watched, but he no longer felt blissful. He was haunted with unease. At the intermission he walked up to Brizzhalov, followed closely behind him and, overcoming his shyness, mumbled along: "I thoroughly splattered thou, thy Excellency...forgive's wasn't intended to..."

"Oh that's enough...I'd already forgotten, yet thou goest on about it!" said the General with an impatient twitching in his lower lip.

"He's forgotten, yet there's acrimony in his very eye," thought Chervyakov, suspiciously giving the General a good looking over. "He does not want to talk, but I really ought to explain to him that I really did not mean to...that it is a law of nature, or else he'll think that I intended to spit on him. He may not think so now, but later, thinking it over...!"

Arriving home, Chervyakov told his wife of the unpleasantness. His wife, it seemed to him, interpreted the event too light-mindedly. Initially she was startled, but soon, realizing that Brizzhalov was but a "stranger", she calmed down.

"Nonetheless you should go and apologize," said she, "or else he'll think you can't handle yourself in public."

"That's just it! I did apologize, but he took it somewhat strangely...He didn't speak a single sensible word. And yet there wasn't time to talk all it out."

The next day Chervyakov put on a new uniform, got a haircut, and set off to explain himself to Brizzhalov. Upon entering the General's reception room, he observed there many petitioners, and among the petitioners was the General himself, who had already begun receiving requests. Having questioned several supplicants, the General now raised his eyes on Chervyakov.

"Yesterday at the 'Arcadia', perhaps thy Excellency remembers," the middling bureaucrat began his report, "I sneezed, sir, accident splattered...forgi..."

"Such trifles...God knows it! Now what can I do for thee?" the General addressed the next petitioner.

"He doesn't want to talk!" thought Chervyakov, turning pale. "He's angry, it means...No, this cannot stand...I will explain it to him..."

When the General finished chatting with the final petitioner, he set off for the inner rooms of the apartment. Chervyakov paced behind him and mumbled: "Thy Excellency! If I may be so bold as to trouble thy Excellency, this comes only from a longing, if I may say so, for repentance!...Unintentional it was, if you will but deign to believe me, sir!”

The General assumed a lachrymose face, waved his hand, hid himself behind a closing door, and dismissed Chervyakov: "Why, you must be ribbing me, my good man."

"What is there possibly to make fun of?" pondered Chervyakov. "There is absolutely nothing laughable here! A General, and yet he can't seem to understand! If such is the case I can no longer stand to beg forgiveness of this fanfaron! The devil take him! I'll write a letter but shall come to him no more! By God I won't!"

So thought Chervyakov walking home, but the letter to the General was never written. Chervyakov thought and he thought, yet he never thought out that letter. He arrived next day to explain himself in person.

"Yesterday I ventured to disturb thy Excellency," he began mumbling when the General raised upon him inquiring eyes, "not for the purpose of humor, as thou deigneth to say. I was apologizing for that, which, sneezing, I splattered thee, sir...and to jest never occurred to me. How could I make fun? If we were to stoop to joking between us, why, it would be the end of respect between persons...such could not be..."

"Away with you!!" barked the suddenly shaking, purpling General.

"What, sir?" whispered Chervyakov, numb with horror.

"Away with you!!" repeated the General, stomping his foot.

In Chervyakov's stomach something snapped. Seeing nothing, hearing nothing, he backed himself to the door, exited onto the street, and floundered along. Arriving home, he mechanically removed his uniform, lay down, and died.

trans. Michael Wasiura


  1. In a way, I read Chervyakov as a man who was dying throughout Chekov's prose. He reminds me of Tolstoy's Ivan Ilych. His mechanical movements seem to be deleterious in nature even when we still may believe that Chekov is leading us to merely seeing him as an officious middle man. What we instead are brought to is his death of trying. too hard perhaps?

  2. Chervyakov has been dying his whole life, but unlike Tolstoy's Ivan Ilyich he never comes to this realization. Tolstoy penned his examination of the state official's constricted soul three years after Chekhov's short, dark comedy was published, drawing out his prematurely-dying bureaucrat's last days long enough to elicit a vain confession of officialdom's vanities.

    Compared to "The Death of Ivan Ilyich", "The Death of a Bureaucrat" is a comic strip, albeit a masterful one. Alerted in the title to Chervyakov's impending doom, we see our anti-hero survive sudden seizures and angry Generals only to die in the final sentence from anxiety over a perceived breach of decorum.

    Without the soul-searching deathbed scenes--and the attendant pages upon pages of prose--that precede the death of Ivan Ilyich, Chekhov gives us the 19th Century Russian equivalent of Steve Carell's Michael Scott (Chervyakov's name suggests the Russian word for "worm." I considered naming him something like "Wormington," or at least "Wormyanov" in the translation before deciding for no particular reason to simply transliterate "Chervyakov" and hide the pun from all but the overeducated). Tolstoy paints nuanced depth; Chekhov questions how many men like the self-reflective Ilyich--a Chervyakov up until his final days--really exist amid the Tsarist state's ranks of chinovniki.

  3. Though I'm not acquainted with Tolstoy's story, I will dare to comment on Chekov's lovely tale of a pathetic toady. It struck me that Wormie’s (you shouldn’t have withheld this pun--even from those of not sufficiently overeducated) death was immaterial, certainly not the finale of the story. He was dead the whole time. Not dying, but dead.

    There seem to be really only two characters in the story (save for a brief appearance by Wormie's wife and the mention of other petitioners in the General's office). The general is given shape and form (we might even guess his feelings) through his blustering and his final (deadly) bawl for Wormie to vacate his office. He is irritated, tearful (lachrymose?), indifferent, angry and even a little sympathetic to his pitiable, phlegm-lobbing antithesis ("Why you must be ribbing me, my good man."). The only thing he isn't is Wormie’s willing interlocutor.

    And that leaves Wormie. With his endless importunate twaddle and no willing recipient for his only apparent feeling (save for his initial orgasmic release)—the need to feel that he has successfully lowered himself below another man, and to have his station (relative to another) dutifully recognized.

    Ironic self-annihilation—a death hastened by one’s inability to contemplate one’s self at all. Wormie doesn’t exist if not through the eyes of a superior beaurocrat.

    By the way, what is a privy counselor? A bathroom attendant or an archaic term for a trusted advisor who accompanies someone to a distant and unwelcoming jakes?