By Nikolai Gogol (Penguin; 1831/2014)
It’s taken nearly 200 years, but we finally have a good English translation of this classic Christmas tale by Russia’s legendary Nikolai Gogol. THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS, which is not to be confused with other better-known accounts bearing that title, is apparently quite revered in its native land, where it’s regularly read to children on Christmas Eve.
Picturesque and often downright bizarre, it has some of the madcap surrealism of Mikhail Bulgakov’s MASTER AND MARGARITA, with which it shares a pivotal character: the devil. Here the big D appears one Christmas Eve in the sky above a Ukrainian village and steals the moon. He’s looking to get revenge on Vakula, a local blacksmith and sometime artist who’s become famous for painting a large panel on a church wall that depicts the devil in an unflattering light. Without the light of the moon Vakula has a difficult time finding his way around the village, which of course is a pivotal part of the devil’s dastardly plans.
But Vakula winds up entering the home of Oksana, the village hottie, which only infuriates the devil more, as the devil has a thing for Oksana. He whips up a blizzard with the aim of driving Oksana’s wayward father home (where he’ll find her canoodling with Vakula), but once again things don’t quite work out as planned.
Also figuring into the madness is Vakula’s mother Solokha, a broomstick-riding witch who manages to charm many a gentleman–including the devil, who finds himself at Solokha’s place on Christmas Eve along with several other would-be suitors, which further upsets the devil’s carefully laid plans.
The one major problem with this pleasing and uproarious account for us westerners–and the probable reason it’s taken so long to be translated into English–is the simple fact that’s it’s so thoroughly Russian-centric, steeped in customs and language (“the thin legs seemed so brittle that if they belonged to the village head of neighboring Yareski they’d snap the first time he danced a kazachok”) that will seem downright alien to non-Russians. As with quite a few of Gogol’s tales, one of the foremost joys of THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS is its charming and erudite presentation of Ukrainian folklore, which conversely happens to be its major stumbling point.