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On Anton Chekhov: 'What you can't immediately understand...'

Ahmed Al-Moslemany , Thursday 5 Dec 2019
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During my visit to Moscow, I saw a group of young people taking pictures beside the statue of Anton Chekhov. The Russian playwright and short story writer is still transcending generations across continents.

Chekhov was born in 1860 and died in 1904; a short life journey and extended creative output exceeding 600 refined works.

He was a sick child born into poverty. There was also the brother who ran away and the father who followed suit. Yet Chekhov bore no grudge against anyone, and he transformed deprivation in his life into giving to others.

There are some significant signs in Chekhov's life.

First sign: Chekhov studied medicine. He wasn’t an arrogant doctor, and he turned medicine into an ethical message. Chekhov became a countryside doctor; and he provided his services to the poor for free.

According to critic Ragaa El-Naqash, Chekhov was a humanitarian and an ethicist who never allowed himself to hurt others.

Second sign: Chekhov has achieved the impossible. He managed to rise from his family’s economic hardships to wealth. He owned a fantastic estate in a Moscow suburb in which he planted trees and roses and built a special suite for creativity. This is the suite in which he wrote 40 of his works, including the two famous plays The Seagull and Uncle Vanya and The Black Monk short story.

Chekhov spent seven years in the estate in Melikhovo, and his life in this charming place was a real-life novel of people and birds, trees and dreams, pain and hope.

Tuberculosis led to the deterioration of his health, driving him to move to Crimea, where he built a luxurious villa on the sea coast in Yalta. There, he continued his gardening hobby, planting trees and picking fruits.
His visitors were a mixed bag of the elite and laymen. They included the legendary Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky.

Chekhov stayed in Yalta for five years, but he said he enjoyed his stay in Moscow. To him Yalta was spiritually empty. Yalta's weather was warmer than the cold north, but it didn't provide warmth to his life. Hence, he called it “warm Siberia.”

Chekhov wrote more than 60 works, among the most prominent of which were The Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters.

Yalta was the final stop in Chekhov's journey of creativity.
The Moscow estate and the Yalta villa were turned into museums. Until this very day, Chekhov’s plays are performed in the mansion’s garden. Visitors of the villa describe the green couch Chekhov and Tolstoy sat on as the “Cloud’s Couch.”

Third sign: Chekhov wasn’t a revolutionary, rather a reformist. Years later, Lenin became a fan of Chekhov. He regarded Ward No. 6 as the story of the entire Russian society at that time.

The story tells of a ward in a mental asylum in which the inmates are sane, ordinary people. The doctor starts to speak with them then the dialogue between the doctor and the patients becomes peer-to-peer dialogue. The doctor understands the cases of the patients, who aren’t really patients. Then a young doctor, sent by the government, arrives to help the old doctor. The young doctor realises the old doctor believes the inmates are victims of an unjust society and that the wicked are enjoying the fruits of corruption while those honourable people suffer in the patients’ ward.

The young doctor colludes with the authorities that accuses the older doctor of insanity. Eventually, he becomes a resident in Ward No. 6.

There is also a marvellous Chekhov story that draws parallels from Ward No. 6. Misery: To Whom Shall I Tell My Grief? tells the story of a poor handsome taxi driver suffers from harsh familial problems. He wants to share his grief with anyone to relieve his pain. He stops at a pub to drive drunk people to their homes. All the them are drunk, and no one is able to listen to him. He is rebuked and reproved. He endures the indifference from some while others sleep in the taxi until he gets them home. While he was desperate to be heard, he went to see his horse. He found it munching something. He told the horse, "Well, horse, I didn’t have any food for you." The horse shook its head in an understanding manner. The taxi driver saw in his horse a safe haven to express his grief, starting the his story with, "My horse, you dear."

Fourth sign: Chekhov was a disciplined writer with a precise and brief style. He believed that “Brevity is the twin of ingenuity.” When he visited the cold parts of his country and witnessed the conditions of those detained and exiled in snowy weather, he came back and wrote an evocative book titled Sakhalin Island. Chekhov was clear in his defence about his cause. His philosophy is summed up in the sentence he wrote in a letter to Maxim Gorky, “What you can’t immediately understand has no meaning.”

Fifth sign: Chekhov comes second in the international ranking after Shakespeare for the number of works performed or adapted as masterpieces. While Shakespeare has surpassed 800 works, Chekhov exceeded the 300 works barrier, outperforming Charles Dickens, Alexander Dumas and Edgar Allen Poe. The Chekhov Plays Festival in Russia is on par with the Shakespearean Plays Festival in the UK.

Chekhov has influenced many writers around the world and in the Arab world; Youssef El-Sibai, Edouard Al-Kharrat, Sonallah Ibrahim and Mohamed Al-Makhzangi. Abu-Bakr Youssef and others have succeeded in translating his works in a splendid style that made them so captivating as if they written originally in Arabic.

In 1904, the Moscow Theatre performed Chekhov’s final play The Cherry Orchard, and in 2004 – 100 years later – it was performed again. Chekhov still inspires after all these decades. The real victory in life is to be ethical and humane, while the triumph of ego and self-aggrandisement is – according to one of Chekhov’s titles – “the unnecessary victory”. 

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