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Chekhov in Siberia

The Times, 27th January 1989, Peter Davalle

Nobody’s suggesting, I hope, that the language Chekhov uses in his plays is in any way inferior to the literary quality of his letters, articles and conversations which Michael Pennington has seamlessly sewn together for his one-man marathon ‘Chekhov in Siberia’ (Radio 3, 7.30pm). By the same token, I hope nobody will downgrade these multi-source fragments simply because they have not been assembled by Chekhov himself. Truth to tell, there are images of people and places in this account of Chekhov’s journey to the island penal colony of Sakhalin in 1889 that carry the unmistakable signature of the man who wrote ‘Uncle Vanya’ and ‘The Cherry Orchard’. Some random examples: the grim waters in the Gulf of Tartary “do not boom or roar, but seem to be knocking on the lids of coffins”; the town of Tomsk is “like a pig in a skullcap – in bad taste”; the people of Ekaterinburg have big bones, huge fists and little eyes and “seem to have been born in foundries and brought into the world not by midwives but by machines”. And there is the Sakhalin convict for whom the act of celebration means “standing on street corners, in jacket and red shirt, with legs apart and stomach thrust out”. Chekhov is disgusted by the squalor and cruelty (there is a harrowing description of a flogging) he finds at Sakhalin. “God’s world is good; only one thing in it is bad – ourselves” is the conclusion that Pennington expands into the homily which gives ‘Chekhov in Siberia’ its overlong epilogue.

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