The Adventures of the Cat Begemot


There is no secret of the fact that when the author imparted the basic idea of the book to me, some kind of prejudice occurred me. In my opinion the very title alluding to the famous novel Master and Margaritha by the classic of the Russian literature Mikhail Bulgakov could make even an venerable writer feel most probably embarrassing. Having set about reading the narrative by Lev Sidnev I was seized by the same feeling of scepsis. However, soon the sign of the feeling disappeared. I have read the book in one go as they say without noticing the process of reading but for all that extremely enjoying it. I still feel the rapturous amazement despite the fact that being personally acquainted with the author enabled me to highly appreciate his human and creative level.
For the first time the book entitled by the author as a tragicomic narrative (it entirely can be called a novel in accordance with its volume and matter) was published at the pages of the Ukrainian journal Khortitsa last year. At the beginning of this year they brought out a considerable edition of the book by Ukrainian standards.
I am inclined to think that if the book fell into a reader's hands after a world-wide known Orange Revolution, he would have an impression as if it were written as comments to the events. In fact, it had been written at least a year before the events above mentioned but the satire to the modern Ukrainian society contained in it explains their social reasons none the worse than a research study does.
The connection with Bulgakovs novel on the whole is relative. Sometimes the author resorted to some garish words and accurate characterizations from Master and Margaritha. For example, there observed very similar descriptions of gastronomical dainties of the Griboedov restaurant and the dinner menu that the banker Kyshenya ordered for the girls from Kupidon company. It goes without saying that such characters as Begemot and Voland bear a strong resemblance to Bulgakovs novel. But the former who is much more impressive and many-sided has become the main character instead of playing a secondary role, and the latter is mentioned only at the beginning of the story still not as a professor of a black art but as a some peoples deputy whose adviser is Begemot. A reader witnesses Begemots meeting with his chief Voland only when the last chapter deals with the Hell transformed by the authors fantasy into the Department of Requital and Punishment under Demiurg, a modern establishment for the punishment where the conditions of keeping sinful souls are quite civilized and the Ukrainian prisons cannot be compared with at all. Voland appears to be the head of an analytical division of this department. He and souls of great wise men of the past are those who Begemot renders an account to for his business trips to Ukraine. The writers and the philosophers disclose a modern world, so vulgar and sordid one, nothing of the kind they have dreamt of.
Still Bulgakovs novel and his comic character the cat Begemot for Sidnev is no more than the cause for the strict criticism of a social and spiritual state of the society, not only the Ukrainian one, as well as the cause for discussing the problems of the good and the evil, the faith and the unbelief, the truth and the lie, the law and the lawlessness, the truth and the error, the aim and the sense of human existence. In the narrative there takes place caustic criticism of a national ideology trying to become firmly established in Ukraine with the complete connivance of authorities
There is one more thing I would like to pay attention to in the aspect of comparing two works. Master and Margaritha is first of all a love story. In Bulgakovs novel love is the highest spiritual value (lets remember Margaritha who was a well-to-do woman of a high social status, at the same time she was unhappy and having lost all these she became happy having found love). Sidnev cant be reproached with having failed to touch this very subject. But love in his story has materialized: its only forms in the narrative are sex and prostitution. Perhaps in the complete compliance with the general conception of his book it was the way to once more emphasize a spiritual degradation of a modern society to show that these are the very forms of love that dominate over other, spiritual ones in the society.
By the highest standards the narrative The Adventures of the Cat Begemot and the novel Master and Margaritha are very similar not in common characters and some plot details but in a high artistic level and philosophic and critical world outlook by the authors of these works.
The Adventures of the Cat Begemot is difficult to refer to one genre of belles-lettres. The book combines a comedy, a tragedy, a historical narrative, a philosophic essay, a political pamphlet and even poetry. As a whole it can be referred to the realistic science fiction. Cruel and terrifying reality seems to be concealed in the science fiction plot and the authors idea.
The composition of the narrative is worth being paid attention to: almost every chapter can claim to the status of a separate story. But all of them are bound with a single idea, a whole plot and each one supplements others in developing some moral problem. Its noteworthy mentioning bright and remarkable titles of the chapters: The Owner of a Pan Standing Trial, The Mortal Dream, An Ear on the Parquet, The Sabbath in the Puppet-show.
The narrative could be relatively divided into two parts. The first one describes numerous scoundrels under authorities and in the chips however inclining to purification of those who have some conscience left. Sometimes the style of writing these chapters can seem a bit vulgar but this vulgarity is an effective way of transferring the peculiarities of a social life and mentality of the Ukrainian society. In this part social and philosophic ideas appear in the form of the authors remarks and mental emotional experience of victims.
The second part in my opinion is particularly philosophic. The author skilfully presents readers viewpoints of representatives of various historical periods on eternal problems of human being in the way of narration about Begemots travelling and his associating with historic personalities. The general conclusion of this part can be expressed in the following words: such degradation of a human-being, such moral violence over an individual like here and now have never existed and have existed nowhere. And the last Begemots remark finishing the narrative with the words from the Ukrainian national anthem Ukraine has not died yet (Shche ne vmerla Ukrayina) does not compensate the pessimistic mood of the whole narration.
The author of the narrative is of a seldom talent: he is a dreamer, a mystifier, has a brilliant way with words that are vivid and full-blooded. At the same time he can convey deep social and philosophic ideas; he makes readers share the events, worry, be indignant and the most important thing is that he makes them reflect on destiny of their country and the world. As distinct from other manuals on philosophy the reading of which makes you fall asleep in an hour, this book involves people in philosophic reflections on things very close to them, things that are interwoven with the plot in such a way that they become common and easy to understand.
Time and again while reading the book I caught myself at the thought that a page before I had just laughed unrestrained at a recurrent comic situation or a trick of Begemot but then I could hardly suppress my tears. Indeed, tragicomedy or rather even a tragedy, the tragedy of the whole nation is conveyed to readers in a comic way. It is the same as Gogols laughter through tears. The tragedy and comism at the same time are turning the black into the white and the white into the black in the Ukrainian society. Begemot casts such numerous transformations to the members of the Council of Wise Men of the past who were summoned by Voland by request of the Supreme Intellect to work out recommendations for he had the feeling of something being prepared above. Armageddon or not Armageddon but something serious.
However in spite of a terrifying situation of the Ukrainian society degradation that was depicted by Begemot he does not in the least cause the savage punishment of it. Moreover he says: Let anger and rage do not control you yet they are blood-thirsty predators devouring the justice. I appeal you to mercy, I appeal you despite anything to love people whatever small-minded or pitiable you consider them to be.
Following Begemot readers visit different parts of the Earth, travel in time and even in unlimited open space of the Universe, get to the other world. Vivid pictures of Istanbul from the bird's eye view, its market and a caravanserai, the Eagles Peak in Bulgaria, Mon Martre and Moulen Rouge in Paris make an impression of personal presence. The description of the Crimean coast of the Black Sea leaves no doubt that the author walked around these places and more than once. But it seems to him that his prose cant convey the whole majestic beauty of the Kara-Dag mountains. So the author resorts to refined poems of Maksimilian Voloshin, and then as almighty Begemot wills he brings the poet back to life and makes him involved in the events of the narrative as one of the characters.
The author do not conceal his the I. He does not deny himself numerous authors digressions and direct addresses to readers and when using an original way he introduces himself to the narration for a moment he becomes a character of his own book in the chapter The Cruise above Clouds.

So are you the selfsame Bulgakovs Begemot? Anzhela showed interest.
Not but that, you know. As the saying goes Same thing only different, Begemot answered in a precious way. Mikhail Afanasevich didnt directly participate in the events of his novel, he had to use not always reliable sources. Still there is a notorious right to authors figment By the way some Leo Nikolaevich write about me now, it is not Tolstoy of course but he is also an interesting author, a philosopher in addition. He will certainly make some-thing up, philosophize.
How interesting! Anzhela said with a singing accent. Shall we also find ourselves in his book?
Why not. I can even put in a word for you. We are on friendly terms: he is Leo, I am a cat, then both are we from the cat family. So I shall make it all arranged!

One of the paradoxes of the narrative is that even the Evil is indignant at what is going on in our modern society and fights against those who have the ball at their feet that is not in the least characteristic of them. You read the book and think how life has changed that even the Evil is anxious that the Good is so weak that the former has nothing to fight against. Despite the fact that Begemot did tolerably up to mischief, quite enough mocked at Shelmoviches, Kyshenyas. Khryukalos and Brechlo*, at the same time he brings to life decency and honesty. Punishing vice he affirms eternal moral values, makes justice.
Incidentally I would like to make note of the fact that the author found corresponding speaking surnames for his negative characters: There are the derivatives from the words rascal, pocket, grunt, fibber, crook..
Begemot changes people, makes them stop in time, meditate, expresses remorse rather than punishes them. Such change happens to the rector of a university Shelmovich who becomes an altruist, a man sincerely striving to the good and the faith instead of having been a petty tyran fighting against everything good in his own university, a selfish person and an atheist. But it took him time to see the light. At night he asks Begemot who appears to him in the ward of the mental hospital:

For all that, why have you been sent just to me? Of course I am not an angel but I am not the worst of all. I certainly took bribes, well, stole but in comparison with others not so much. Why am I the first wheel in the cart of the universal lawlessness?
The former rector was looking at the night guest in a pleading way. Tears appeared in his eyes and his mouth stretched in a mournful smile .
I agree you are not the first wheel. But you are one of the spokes of the wheel. If there were no spokes there would not be the wheel, there would not the cart you are speaking about. Perhaps the reason I have come to you is that you are not the worst. Those others have got up much more bad things than you and there is no need to come to them for there is nothing to help them.

Something similar does happen to a famous swindler banker Kyshenya who signs a confession of his crimes and crimes he is aware of committed by the Ukrainian political and economic highest ranks and sends it to the Office of Public Prosecutor. This confession is tantamount for him to death sentence not because he will be punished by the bribable Ukrainian Themis but because he is doomed to be avenged upon by exposed accessories of crimes. Thus each of the characters of the narrative has their own way of going up his Calvary, each of them becomes fully aware in their own way of the necessity to be faithful to the humane nature in an individual.
The main character of the narrative the Cat Begemot plays the role of peculiar connecting link between ancient and modern rulers. By means of this character the writer connects the events of the distant past with modern life, calls over ideas and people who are separated by centuries and even thousands of years. Begemot being an elegantly dressed young man of pleasant appearance constantly turns into either a cat of huge size or simply a big cat or a kitten, either black or grey, sometimes red. The Cats eyes are also different according to attestations: green, yellow and even red. It may be a symbol of the retribution for our sins that can come to us with any appearance, and no one, even the most smart or cunning fellow will escape it in the end. Perhaps the image of the Cat is a hint at the best part of the Ukrainian nation. Meanwhile the nation patiently waits for the mercy from their rulers characterized like people with a psychology of small pickpockets, but the time will ever come when the nation will kneel and it will itself define its own destiny.
On the one hand The Cat appears before his readers assuming a mystic air: he is a spirit of the Evil bound with the secret of the world, he is the creature who is able to work any wonders at the same time denying the miracles himself; he explains his supernatural powers by the Supreme Knowledge. He is eternal like the Good and the Evil on the Earth.
At the same time he is realistic like those few best people in Ukraine who advocate the truth and the justice and are firmly resolved to act for the sake of their views. The Cats world is free, open and unexpected. Begemot is a dialectical negation without whom there is no any development; he is the very evil setting off the good and punishing human vices. Every now and then you take you at the unfeasible wish to have the Cat to jump out of the pages of the book to appear in our reality and eventually introduce order in it. But for all that sharing the characters opinion you realize that there is no miracle but only Kindness to change the world. The Kindness is the weapon and the remedy for the filth around we are often stuck in. Where there is no the good there is the evil.
Describing Begemots pranks the author seems to laugh at his self-confident belief that everything can be foreseen and planned, that personal prosperity and even the happiness of all people is easily arranged if only to wish.
In Begemots dreams the author tells about historical events his omnipresent character witnesses: here he is in the company of Aristotle being present at the talk of Alexander Macedonian with Diogen, the very talk that influenced on the great commander perhaps more than years of Aristotles teachings. This is also the episode where Diogens spirit appears to Alexander on his deathbed and appeals to him with such words:

You strived for changing the world without changing a human nature, you wanted to make people happy imposing your will on them. Believe me, hundreds and thousands of years will pass and there will appear new heroes who will want to be shepherds of a human herd and will whip to knout it to a better life. But they are doomed to be successful.
Such is the human nature: until a human-being himself finds and realizes his purposes and his way no guide will lead him. Blind people cant be led through steep rocks, they are inevitably to fall down and pull down his poor guides.
Does it mean that everything was for nothing ? Have I fought for so many years and destroyed thousands of people in vain? Alexander questioned without anger already but in a pleading voice.
No, not for nothing! You have presented your descendants with the idea of universal brotherhood! Perhaps one day they will comprehend the greatness of this idea and then they will realize it. Ant they will say: Once there lived such a ruler Alexander. He was not God but he was the first one to declare this idea. May his memory and glory live on forever!

Here is the moment when Begemot is standing near the throne of Prince Vladimir at the Dumas* council where a new religion for Russia is being chosen. The reader is given a sufficient idea of the three different religions in an interesting way: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. At the end of the chapter The Skull Disappeared, or the Second Dream of Begemot the Cat saved the Prince life from the hired assassin. It is the episode of coming into being the version of a startling historic event depicted by the author of the book in a peculiar way.
In 1824 the archaeologist K.A. Lokhvitsky (the founder of the Historical Museum in the Kiev University) carried out archaeological excavations of the Tithe Church. There were found two sarcophagi. In one of them they probably found the skeleton of Princess Anna, Prince Vladimirs wife. The second sarcophagus undoubtedly belonged to the very Vladimir. But when it was opened they saw an odd and uncanny thing: the skeleton was lack of its skull and both hands. The sepulchre had not been penetrated: there were found utensils, a bar of first-rate silver, money and even the bell from the time of Vladimir. The historians have been racking their brains so far over the puzzle about the way the Princeskeleton fragments could disappear.
Finally it is the chapter Thunderbolt, or the Third Begemots Dream when a reader together with the main character participates in a very interesting discussion of the philosopher Didro and Catherine the Great, accompanies Catherine in her travelling to the south of Russia recently conquered by the prince Potyomkin.
Perhaps a carping critic will find some flaws, will emphasize that sometimes the author drives home the point to some idea in a bit importunate way fearing to be misunderstood whereas an intelligent reader comprehended everything long ago and it is only a fool to be for ever and ever expounded to but in vain. But these few and non-existent shortcomings that can be noticed only by making great efforts to be revealed do not influence the general impression in any way.
In my opinion modern literature like cinematography do not often strive against the evil and just quite the contrary they savour its the most disgusting manifestations. This book is not of the kind as it satisfies the soul of every its reader with its righteous indignation, with the wish to act for the sake of the good.

*The surnames mentioned derived from such words: Shelmoviches means rascal, Kyshenyas pocket, Khryukalo grunt, Brechlo fibber.
**Duma is a boyars board (a legislative council) in Russia in the period before Peter the Great.


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