The Ways That You Know: A Point of Translation in Brothers Karamazov

by Steve Dodson

For quite a few years now, one of my main interests has been reading Russian literature in the original, and I often report on it in my blog Languagehat.  Back in 2012, after a spate of 20th-century reading, I wrote that I had decided to reverse course and go back to the beginning of modern Russian literature, the most basic motive being “a desire to get to Dostoevsky sooner rather than later.”  I got to Dostoevsky and read my way through all his novels and stories, and I have finally reached The Brothers Karamazov — a real thrill!  I am a detail-oriented reader, and I often find myself spending a fair amount of time trying to get to the bottom of a word or allusion.  This one, I think, has implications beyond the specific usage.

At the end of Part One (Book Three, Chapter 11), after a hard day of dealing with difficult people Alyosha offers up a prayer asking God to have mercy on them all that includes the words “У Тебя пути: ими же веси путями спаси их.” Most of this seems clear enough: ‘Thine are the ways (or ‘paths’); by them … by the paths save them.’ But the word веси is impenetrable; in modern Russian it represents various declined forms of the noun весь ‘village,’ which makes no sense here.

However, the text in prerevolutionary spelling has вѣси, and if one has any acquaintance with Old Church Slavic, that is the vital clue: it is the second person singular of the irregular OCS verb вѣсти/вѣдѣти ‘to know,’ whose present-tense forms are вѣмь, вѣси, вѣсть, вѣмы, вѣсте, вѣдѧтъ (modern Russian, of course, has replaced it with the regular знать).  And the preceding ими же is the instrumental plural form of the OCS relative pronoun иже, and is equivalent to modern которыми. So the final clause of the quoted sentence means ‘by the ways that you know, save them.’

Unfortunately, Constance Garnett misunderstood веси as a form of весь ‘all’ and translated “All ways are Thine”; David Magarshack followed her lead, as did Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (“All ways are yours”). David McDuff has “by those same paths then save them”; apparently he chose to ignore веси altogether. Ignat Avsey has “You know the true path and will lead them all to salvation,” which is even farther from the Russian.  (I have not been able to check the versions by Andrew R. MacAndrew or Julius Katzer.) None of them seems to have noticed that веси could not possibly be a form of the word for ‘all.’  And even Victor Terras in his magisterial Karamazov Companion, which goes practically line by line through the novel and explains many difficult aspects of the Russian, completely ignores this, and I have to think he didn’t notice it.

Of course, this would be trivial if it were just a matter of the one phrase; the translations may be incorrect, but they don’t materially change the sense of the original.  But it is a reflection of a larger issue.  Similar phrasing is found in a number of traditional prayers, e.g. “Единый, Ты Сам точию можеши, аще восхочеши, спасти нас ими же веси путями и судьбами,” and it was used, for instance, by Leskov in Некуда (Господи! ими же веси путями спаси его) and Соборяне (Господи, ими же веси путями спаси!).  And in general, OCS forms are common in prerevolutionary literature, especially when it deals with the Orthodox church; any Russian with a religious education was steeped in the psalms, gospels, and prayers read in church, and they were in Church Slavic.  In The Brothers Karamazov, even the gleefully irreligious Fyodor Pavlovich throws around OCS terms like вознепщеваху (‘they thought’) when he feels like it, and Alyosha and the monks frequently use Slavonicisms.  It seems to me that any translator working on authors like Dostoevsky and Leskov, who deal with religion at every turn, should make a point of acquiring at least a basic knowledge of OCS so that they will not be bewildered by passages like the one I deal with here.

As a dramatic example of ignorance on that score, I discovered that Terras in his Companion says of the title of Book Six, Chapter 2, “the whole title is in Church Slavonic.” Here’s the title: “Из жития в бозе преставившегося иеросхимонаха старца Зосимы, составлено с собственных слов его Алексеем Федоровичем Карамазовым.” It is not in Church Slavonic, though bits of it are OCS in origin; for example, the phrase “в бозе” is taken from OCS (бозе being the locative case of бог), but the phrase is familiar and frequently used in modern Russian, usually in the fossilized phrase почил в бозе, and it’s just as much a part of Russian as, say, “à la carte” is of English.  Real OCS is almost as incomprehensible to Russian speakers as Old English is to English speakers, and it needs to be studied, not just treated as equivalent to “archaic-sounding Russian.”


Steve Dodson is a linguist manqué, an editor by profession, and a lover of all things Russian.  Having grown up in Japan, Thailand, and Argentina and put down roots in New York City, he now lives in Western Massachusetts with his wife, two cats, and 5,000 books.

Big Fat Books: Worlds of The Brothers Karamazov

On Saturday April 7, Boston University will host a one-day symposium: “Worlds of The Brothers Karamazov.” The symposium is part of an annual series on “Big Fat Books” run by the Department of World Languages & Literatures in which scholars from various disciplines and literatures present comparative approaches to a major text of world literature. Our keynote speakers this year are Robin Feuer Miller (“Dostoevsky Writ Small”) and Gary Saul Morson (“Six Theses on KARAMAZOV“). Their addresses will be followed by two panels of BU faculty (Comparative Karamazov West and East), and then by a student panel of close readings. Michael Katz (Middlebury College), William Mills Todd III (Harvard University), and Evgenia Cherkasova (Suffolk University Boston) will serve as chairs. There will be breakfast, lunch, and a closing reception. If you find yourself in the Boston area, please feel free to stop by for all or part of the proceedings. (See flyer for place, times, details.)

2018 KARAMAZOV flyer

Another Round of Theme Songs

by Albert Ho, Greta Matzner-Gore, Carlota Rodriguez-Benito, and Sarah Russell

The personalities of the brothers Karamazov reflect their time and place (late nineteenth-century Russia), but they are also to some degree universal. One can imagine meeting some like Dmitry (the passionate profligate), Ivan (the tortured intellectual), Alyosha (the would-be saint), or Smerdyakov (the angry reject) in the United States today. Last year, I asked my students to choose one of the brothers Karamazov and find a “theme song” for him, i.e. a contemporary song or piece of music that captures his personality. This year, we did it again! My students posted links to their “theme songs” to our course’s discussion board, alongside short explanations of how their song captures their chosen character’s personality. In class, we put it to a vote. Here are the “theme songs” we voted best for the brothers, introduced by our student winners.

ALYOSHA

Student: Carlota Rodriguez-Benito

Theme Song: Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds”

Explanation: I chose Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” for Alyosha. I think that this song represents the saint-like aspect Alyosha has of helping people. This song is about getting a message from a higher power. In this context, it is a reggae song and Bob Marley sings “Don’t worry about a thing, because every little thing is going to be alright.” I feel that this is the same message that Alyosha tries to convey many times, being a spiritual son and the peacemaker. Father Zosima helps him see the word as it is in this song, with good and no worrying, all will be just fine.

IVAN

Student: Albert Ho

Theme Song: Adam Lambert’s Cover of “Mad World”

Explanation: I find this song to fit Ivan well – it’s melancholic, insecure, doubtful, and lonely. Throughout much of the book, especially when Ivan argues, whether in “Rebellion”, “The Grand Inquisitor”, or against Zosima and others – Ivan crafts logically impeccable arguments which is in deep contrast with his wavering heart. He wants there to be a God, for religion to be just and true, he craves it, as he finds partial resolution in Alyosha’s kiss mirroring Jesus in “The Grand Inquisitor.” However, his overwhelming need for things to make sense makes it impossible for Ivan to ever be truly reconciled. Thus, being as cerebral as he is, Ivan sees a Mad World where religion doesn’t make sense, people’s actions don’t make sense, and being intellectually superior to everyone only creates further isolation and the inability to empathize and be empathized with, which is a key element of religion in Dostoevsky’s works.

True, in much of the book Ivan is proud, direct, and dismissive – but underneath the armor I believe he is the Grand Inquisitor waiting to be kissed by Jesus.

“I find it hard to tell you
I find it hard to take
When people run in circles
It’s a very, very
Mad world, mad world”

SMERDYAKOV

Student: Sarah Russell

Theme Song: Drowning Pool’s “Bodies” 

Explanation: Smerdyakov is a character surrounded by death. Stinking Lizaveta died giving birth to him, he killed cats as a child, and he played an important, if not the most important, role in Fyodor’s death. In addition, his name means stinking which is associated with decay. This song has a disturbed, creepy sound to it and is all about welcoming death. “Let the bodies hit the floor” is exactly how Smerdyakov feels about Fyodor. Additionally, the song says “Beaten Why For, Can’t Take Much More” which describes Smerdyakov’s motivations for wanting Fyodor dead. He has been beaten and abused his whole life and is thus resentful towards everyone.


This is the second installment of “The Brothers’ Theme Songs” and you can read the first here. The activity is brought to you by Dr Greta Matzner-Gore and her students at the University of Southern California. 

Dostoevsky and Elijah the Prophet

by Robert Mann

No one taught you that Raskolnikov confesses on Elijah’s Day, a major holiday in prerevolutionary Russia. On this holiday up to 100,000 people would gather near the Church of Elijah, which was built beside the gunpowder factory to protect it from explosions. Elijah was believed to control rain, fire and lightning, a provenance that he inherited from the Slavic thunder god Perun when ancient Rus’ transitioned to the Christian faith. When more rain was needed for crops, people turned to Elijah. When there was too much rain, again they appealed to Elijah. In some communities Elijah had two hypostases and even two churches: Wet Elijah (needed in times of drought) and Dry Elijah (who could stop excessive rain). As a harbinger of the Last Judgment he was seen as fierce, fiery and ominous, but at the same time he was the generous provider of rain and abundance. All rain, thunder and lightning came from Elijah. Even in the early twentieth century, Russian folk would make the sign of the cross at the sound of thunder. The rumbling was attributed to Elijah’s chariot as it lumbered across the stormclouds. And a thunderstorm was always expected on Elijah’s Day (July 20 on the old calendar, August 2 on the new).

How do we know that Raskolnikov confesses on Elijah’s Day? It really makes little difference whether the spectacular thunderstorm that is the prelude to his confession is precisely the Elijah’s Day storm that was expected each year or just another one of Elijah’s rainstorms. However, we can say with confidence that it is the proverbial storm of Elijah’s Day, July 20, that soaks and batters Raskolnikov as he wanders around the city all night in spiritual torment. The first words of the novel are “in the beginning of July”. One can assume, therefore, that the action begins sometime in the first week of the month. Although the story’s chronology is not explicitly defined, it appears that around fourteen days go by before the confession. This takes us to the period July 15-22. For over two weeks there has been no rain in Petersburg. It is hot, humid and unpleasant. And so, looming behind the storm is the traditional folkloric expectation of a storm on July 20. (“It might not rain today, but surely there will be rain on Elijah’s Day.”) In addition, it is a very special thunderstorm – a spectacular, torrential deluge with lightning that illuminates the sky for five seconds at a time. Ilya Petrovich, to whom Raskolnikov confesses, is a reflection of Elijah as he is perceived in popular belief. His name is Ilya ‘Elijah’. He is fiery-tempered and is depicted with all sorts of imagery pertaining to thunder and lightning. He lets loose “with all his thunderbolts” at one visitor. His nickname is Gunpowder, which elicits associations with the boom of thunder and with the Church of Elijah at the gunpowder factory. (In the water of the Rzhevka, just upstream from the church, you can still see the huge millstones that were used for grinding the powder ingredients.) Thus, beaten down by Elijah’s storm, Raskolnikov confesses on Elijah’s Day to a booming Elijah, who is an assistant superintendent in the police force – much as Elijah in folk belief functions as a sort of policeman at God’s side, reminding mortals of their sins and Judgment with his lightning.

The imagery and symbolic filigree go far beyond the few details I have mentioned here. The discovery of the Elijah leitmotif in Dostoevsky’s fiction is perhaps the most far-reaching of all textual discoveries in his works, although it has been completely ignored among Dostoevsky scholars. Significantly, this symbolism begins in his early works written before his arrest and exile. The enigmatic novella The Landlady is virtually deciphered by the Elijah allusions. Its central, mysterious figure – the gruff old Ilya Murin – is an earthly emanation of the fierce Elijah, not a demonic power as he is ordinarily seen by readers who aren’t aware of Elijah’s role in early Russian culture. And, as with Raskolnikov, Elijah is victorious in the end – the same Christian pattern that we find in Dostoevsky’s later writing. The rebellious young freethinker returns to the flock.

All of the storms that one finds in Dostoevsky’s fiction were associated in the writer’s mind with Elijah. I am always asked why Dostoevsky employed Elijah symbolism so frequently. The answer lies in his overarching theme – his focus on conscience, Judgment, and his belief in a uniquely Russian spirituality, the “Russian soul”. In order to portray that spirituality he needed emblems of a specifically Russian Christianity. Jesus and Mary, as portrayed in the Bible, are universal figures in the Christian faith; there is nothing specifically Slavic about them. By the time he began his writing career, he settled on the Russian folkloric Elijah and all the beliefs pertaining to him as his chosen emblem of an exceptional Russian spirituality.

The storms in The Eternal Husband, The Insulted and Injured, The Little Hero, The Brothers Karamazov, “Mr. Prokharchin” and other works all evoke the Russian folkloric Elijah. However, only in one work does the author lay bare the Elijah associations in an explicit fashion: The Village of Stepanchikovo and Its Inhabitants. In this humorous Christian allegory of good and evil, the kind and magnanimous Yegor Ilyich Rostanev is a reflection of God and Elijah, while the nasty backbiter Foma Fomich Opiskin is a reflection of the Devil. The denouement comes precisely on Elijah’s Day, the nameday of Rostanev’s son Ilya. And it is during the Elijah’s Day storm that Rostanev finally ejects Foma from his home. As he contemplates his decision, he sits down in a corner and says he will now state his final word. There is a moment’s silence and then the most deafening of all thunder strikes overhead. The gathered visitors and spongers make the sign of the cross and exclaim “Elijah the Prophet!” The thunder is Rostanev’s final word, so to speak – the word of Elijah, the voice of Judgment.

For scholars who know little about Russian folk tradition and have difficulty dealing with spiritual symbols and allegory the climactic expulsion of Foma during the Elijah’s Day storm should be a wake-up call – a signal that Dostoevsky attached special value to Elijah as he is perceived in folk belief. The storm at the climax of Stepanchikovo is a precursor of the punishing storm of Judgment that leads to Raskolnikov’s confession. (A thunderstorm also serves as the backdrop to the finale of The Insulted and Injured, which was published in the seven-year interim between Stepanchikovo and Crime and Punishment.)

The Brothers Karamazov is replete with evocations of Elijah. Various details and motifs link the dying boy Ilyusha, his father Snegiryov and Pyotr Ilyich Perkhotin with Elijah. The conflict between Dmitrii and his father can be compared with Ordynov’s and Raskolnikov’s rebellion against God’s order. And, once again, the climactic moment in the novel’s action – that of Dmitrii’s arrest – comes on the background of a rainstorm. In his desperate quest for money Dmitrii has just gone to Sukhoi Posyolok (Dry Village), led there by a priest from a Church of Elijah (Il’inskii batiushka). But the trip is only a hellish purgatory for Dmitrii. The lumber dealer he finds there is drunk and unconscious, and Dmitrii is nearly asphyxiated by a faulty flue as he tries to sleep. This, so to speak, is the punishing ordeal of Dry Elijah. Soon he is arrested at Mokroye (Wet Village) as the rain comes down. On a spiritual, symbolic level this is the retribution of Wet Elijah.

In the first draft of the novel, Dmitrii is named Il’inskii after a real-life prototype whom the writer met in Omsk prison. Il’inskii had been imprisoned for patricide and served seven years but was subsequently exonerated. Given the Elijah symbolism that Dostoevsky had already been using before his arrest, Il’inskii’s surname must have been an additional factor that played with the writer’s imagination along with the horrific circumstances of the elder Il’inskii’s murder.

bookkod jpeg.JPG.opt173x242o0,0s173x242BrothersJPG.JPG.opt169x235o0,0s169x235This blog piece, by necessity brief, is a tiny introduction to Dostoevsky’s Elijah symbolism, which is examined in greater depth in an ebook that I have published with Amazon called Dostoevsky: What They Don’t Teach You in School. Related titles on paper are The Brothers Karamazov: an Unorthodox Guide; The Landlady; and Tainyi kod Dostoevskogo – Il’ia-prorok v russkoi literature.


Robert Mann is a researcher in Russian literature. His interest in early Russian epic and folklore led to his theory of Kievan tales in which Elijah the Prophet destroys the idol of his pagan predecessor Perun. He maintains that the folkloric hero Il’ia, known as Muromets in recent times, derives directly from the prophet Elijah in tales of the conversion period. His study of Elijah in oral lore led to his discovery of the Elijah leitmotif in Dostoevsky. 

The Brothers’ Theme Songs

by Johnathon Huizar, Greta Matzner-Gore, Kelsey Steele, and Zhiqing Tan

tumblr_mxhrvmadig1sgk9e0o1_1280The personalities of the brothers Karamazov reflect their time and place (late nineteenth-century Russia), but they are also universal, at least to some degree. One can imagine meeting some like Dmitry (the passionate profligate), Ivan (the tortured intellectual), or Alyosha (the would-be saint) in the United States today. With that in mind, I asked my students to choose one of the brothers Karamazov and find a “theme song” for him, i.e. a contemporary song or piece of music that captures his personality. They posted links to their “theme songs” on our course’s discussion board, alongside short explanations of how their song captures their character’s personality. In class we put it to a vote. Here are the “theme songs” we voted best for each brother, introduced by our student winners!

DMITRY

Student: Johnathon Huizar

Theme Song: “Jesus and Jones” by Trace Adkins

Explanation: Trace Adkins’s song, titled “Jesus and Jones,” allowed fans to look into his life and see the struggle between sin and the righteous path and finding an equilibrium. I feel Dmitry struggles with this urge to spend money on drinking and women as he did with Grushenka, and much like Trace Adkins he is remorseful for it. The frantic state Dmitry is in when he is searching for 3,000 rubles shows he wants to be at peace with Katerina and that he understands this struggle between good and evil, but he cannot control it. Dmitry struggles with sin and seems to spend a large portion of the book attempting to overcome it and seek spiritual recovery.

 

IVAN

Student: Kelsey Steele

Theme Song: “You Found Me” by The Fray

Explanation: It was hard to find a song that represents Ivan accurately. I believe that “You Found Me” by The Fray is indicative of the anger, resentment, and confusion Ivan demonstrates towards God. As we see in “The Grand Inquisitor,” even if he is able to reconcile his thoughts enough to fully believe in a higher power, Ivan cannot justify worshiping a God that allows so much unnecessary suffering to go on. While I think the entire song applies to him (including his relationship with Katerina), I particularly like the chorus, because I think it perfectly captures Ivan’s internal state. As I listened to the song, I could envision Ivan shouting the words to the sky, to God.

 

ALYOSHA

Student: Zhiqing Tan

Theme Song: “Morning has Broken” by Cat Stevens

Explanation: I picked “Morning has Broken” by Cat Stevens. This song shows that God created a beautiful world where people love each other and people can get along with animals. Alyosha loves God, and he believes that because of God’s mercy, people can love each other and live in happiness and peace. When I listen to this song, I feel very warm and sweet because it brings us a positive feeling and lets us know this world is full of miracles. Even a beautiful scene or a wet garden can make us feel happy. This song is full of love which is the same as Alyosha. Alyosha always loves and helps other people and makes them happy.

 

What theme songs would you give to the Karamazovs or other Dostoevsky characters?

 

Ivan Karamazov reviews Crime and Punishment

by Ivan Karamazov, with help from Brian Armstrong

For my thirtieth birthday, my brother gave me a novel called Crime and Punishment by a well-known Russian author. The novel was published back in 1866, but I was unaware of it at the time; that was an unusually difficult year for me. I’d since heard of it, but I’d never gotten around to reading it. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve not even touched my copy of War and Peace yet!

Those of you who are aware of my family history, however, can likely ascertain why I quickly read my gift. I’d heard that I bear some similarities to the central character, and that while the novel was being serialized in The Russian Messenger, some of its most important themes were being played out in my own life. And while I cannot but acknowledge those similarities, I must admit that I was unimpressed with the young man.

First, given that everyone who is anyone has already read the novel, I hope you won’t think me a scoundrel if I openly discuss the fact that the central character, Raskolnikov, murdered a couple of people and stole from them and then eventually – and rather pathetically – confessed first to a woman whom he barely knew and then to the authorities. There is supposedly a great mystery as to why he did it, but, honestly, I believe that the former gambler Svidrigailov summed up the central character and his motivations quite well: he sought to rob the older sister, and he did it in order to see if he was an exceptional “man of genius.”

The idea of the exceptional person of genius is part of a theory he had, in which people are divided into two groups according to a law of nature: the mere “material” and those who, due “to their lofty status, are outside the law, and not only that, who themselves write the law for the others – for the material, I mean . . . the rubbish” (462). Svidrigailov rightly notes that there’s nothing really special about this theory. He also rightly notes that what follows from Raskolnikov’s criminal act is simply a matter of his being “greatly pained” by the thought this this lofty status was beyond him. In other words, “What could be more demeaning for a young man with a high opinion of himself, especially in our day and age … ?’ (462) Apparently there is nothing more demeaning.

raskolnikov 3But that’s not the end of the story. It’s not just that this young man, with his confusions and his inflated sense of himself, committed some mundane crimes. We’re also supposed to believe that a process occurred – especially with the young woman whom he barely knew – that led to his redemption, and we’re told by the narrator that some great future deed awaits him. I’m aware that there is debate over how “true” this process and this future deed is to “reality” – meaning to psychological reality, since the book is, of course, a fiction made up by the author (a fact that many readers seem to forget!). There is also debate over whether this process and future deed work from an aesthetic perspective. In my opinion, it is true to reality and it is done beautifully. I was ready to weep for joy. Except…

Except that I couldn’t help but wonder: at what cost did this young man’s redemption come? The death of two innocent women. Yes, yes: perhaps the pawnbroker really did deserve to die. And even if she didn’t deserve to die, it seems clear that the young man does not feel remorse for having killed her. Rather, it’s the second murder, which even the narrator rarely mentions, that seems to eat away at the young man. And I see that this second murder is essential: the young man hardly ever mentions her, but the guilt he seems to feel is what converts his act into something redemptive.

But why should I approve of such redemption? Does the author mean to say that we should approve of young men killing innocent strangers (and females in particular) in order to redeem these men? That seems a steep cost to pay. Too steep. And what of the innocent young woman who is sacrificed so horribly in this mechanism of grace? It is right or just that her life is the cost of his ticket to redemption?

But my thoughts on this issue are likely well-known. Year in and year out, I have these same sorts of conversations with those around me (and often with the same people). My interlocutors are constantly pointing out flaws in my logic and my rhetoric and my choice of facts and figures of speech and examples. And I’m constantly being accused of irony and atheism, so that the points I make are fully misunderstood. But I’ll say it again: I believe in God and in the immortality of the soul and in Heaven and Hell. And I still refuse my ticket.


Brian Armstrong is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Augusta University. He works on the intersection of philosophy and literature, and his current project focuses on the philosophical implications of Dostoevsky’s fiction. He masterminded @YakovGolyadkin last fall during #TheDoubleEvent. You can find him on Twitter under the handle @wittstrong.

This post appears as part of the #CP150 project. For more information about the project, click here.

Painting the Town Black: A Japanese Take on Brothers Karamazov

by Connor Doak

Connor Doak is a lecturer in Russian at the University of Bristol. He is grateful to Ritsuko Kidera of Doshisha University for advice on Japanese culture when preparing this piece. This piece originally appeared on All the Russias, the blog of the NYU Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russian, and is reproduced here with their permission.

Many of us who share a love for nineteenth-century Russian literature have found a recent fix of television drama in the BBC’s sumptuous adaptation of War and Peace. My tastes, however, have always leaned toward Dostoevsky rather than Tolstoy, so I put the BBC drama on the back burner while I finished a 2013 Japanese adaptation of Brothers Karamazov, now available on DVD with English subtitles. This award-winning eleven-part miniseries relocates the action from nineteenth-century Skotoprigonevsk to twenty-first century Karasume, a fictional provincial town in Japan. The popular series provides a case study in how Dostoevsky has been indigenized for a contemporary Japanese audience. Moreover, it is fascinating to observe how this miniseries is influenced by recent trends in televised crime drama, a genre that, of course, had its origins in nineteenth-century literature, and to which Dostoevsky’s own novel made an important contribution some 150 years ago.

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Even more than Dostoevsky’s novel, the miniseries highlights the family conflict at the heart of the story. The Karamazov family become the Kurosawas. This name offers a nod to the great Japanese director whose 1951 adaptation of The Idiot remains a classic, but its Japanese meaning—“black swamp”—also reflects the family name Karamazov’s connection to blackness. The terrifying presence of Bunzo Kurosawa, the Japanese incarnation of Fyodor Pavlovich, looms over the entire miniseries. Veteran actor Kotaro Yoshida’s wealth of experience as a Shakespearean stage actor shines through in his portrayal of the consummate villain, complete with maniacal laughter. It is difficult to forget him as, even once murdered, his grotesque image lingers through a huge portrait that dominates the interior scenes of the Karamazov house, and, of course, frequent flashbacks provide ample opportunity to add to his screen time.

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Yoshida’s hyperbolic performance fits with the overblown aesthetic that characterizes the series as a whole. This mood is enhanced by gothic-inspired cut-scenes featuring sinister crows, as well as an emotionally laden soundtrack that mixes late Romantic composers (Grieg, Ravel, Tchaikovsky) with angry rock (Led Zeppelin, Lou Reed, Nirvana). “Paint It Black” by the Rolling Stones, with its tones of frenetic desperation, provides a fitting anthem for the series. At times, the program overindulges in this dark aesthetic, risking becoming a parody of itself. Perhaps that danger is particularly present for European audiences, whose taste in crime drama is currently more attuned to Scandi crime dramas. Nordic noir, though it deals with equally gruesome themes, tends towards a slower pace, bleaker, sparse settings, and more restrained performances. Yet for the viewer equipped with knowledge of Dostoevsky’s source text, the over-acting and heavily charged atmosphere appear as an asset in the Japanese miniseries, since these features have direct equivalents in the novel.

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As in the novel, the miniseries opens with a reunion of the family. The father’s murder soon follows, leaving the audience wondering which of the brothers committed the crime. Even those familiar with the book are drawn in, as we wonder whether the adaptation might yield a different killer than the novel. The miniseries switches between different time periods: the lead-up to the murder, its aftermath, and the boys’ traumatic childhood. This editing technique creates a fragmentary narrative, inviting the audience to piece together the sons’ long-term resentment of their father as well as the events on the day of his murder. Though long familiar to viewers of crime drama, this device proves poignantly effective for an adaptation of Brothers Karamazov, as it allows for an exploration of the power of memory, so important to that novel.

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Modern-day analogues are found for each of the three brothers, with varying degrees of success. Dmitry’s equivalent is Mitsuru (Takumi Saito), whose brooding good looks make him attractive to women, but who is struggling with debts and alcohol abuse. Perhaps the best performance comes from Hayato Ichihara as Isao, the counterpart for Ivan. His success not only stems from the fact that Isao has all the best lines—as many would argue Ivan does—but because Isao’s role as a lawyer proves an apposite twenty-first century equivalent to the questioning skeptic found in the novel.

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It proves more difficult to find a modern-day analogue for Alyosha, the novice monk. He becomes Ryo (Kento Hayashi), a student of psychiatry, his kind spirit channeled into medicine rather than Christian virtue. As Ritsuko Kidera, a Dostoevsky specialist at Doshisha University, points out, Japanese versions of Dostoevsky have historically tended to play down the writer’s Christian themes because of the difficulty of finding cultural equivalents. Zosima’s role is even more difficult to reproduce. Although the early episodes feature a university tutor whom Ryo much admires, the character and his values are not articulated strongly enough to provide the same presence that the Russian monk offers in the novel.

It is, in fact, the social rather than the religious dimension of the novel that this adaptation foregrounds. The tyrannical patriarch Bunzo, a corrupt and uncompromising entrepreneur has bought up a good portion of the town of Karasume. According to the creator of the series, Misato Sato, Bunzo is “a relic of the bubble economy of the 1980s” [1]. The dark side of economic growth is explored through a recasting of the subplot involving Snegirev, who is reimagined as a petty businessman whom Bunzo destroys financially by enlisting the help of his lawyer son Isao. Here the series points to the collusion of the law with big business, showing how Dostoevsky’s text can be repurposed as a critique of capitalism for our contemporary era of recession.

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The police investigation occupies more space in the miniseries than in the novel. The idea of universal responsibility, arguably the novel’s central theme, is not entirely neglected, although it takes a back seat to the exploration of policing and justice in the miniseries. The detective’s assumption of Dmitry’s guilt echoes the social determinism of the prosecutor in the novel. The law is presented as coldly calculating and rational. Although the lead detective is not as wantonly cruel as the patriarch Bunzo, the system that he represents is almost as heartless.

Nabokov derisively called Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov “a typical detective story, a riotous whodunit—in slow motion” [2]. This assessment purposely fails to mention all the ways in which Dostoevsky reworks the tradition of the whodunit: his questioning of human justice, his exploration of free will and determinism, and his Christian ethics, to name but a few. Although the miniseries does not attempt to replicate the full range of Dostoevsky’s philosophical inquiry, it, too, is more than a “riotous whodunit” on the small screen. The series not only uses Dostoevsky’s text to create an entertaining crime drama, but also as the basis for an inquiry into the psychology that accompanies the current socioeconomic moment in contemporary Japan.

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[1] Misato Sato is interviewed in Anna Fediakina and Horie Hiroyuki, “Arigato, Karamazov-san,” Rossiiskaia gazeta, http://rg.ru/2013/04/10/misatosato-site.html, 11 April 2013.

[2] Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Russian Literature, ed. Fredson Bowers (New York: Harcourt, 1981), 133.