Review by Aniruddha Rege
There is a certain challenge in reading some authors, no matter what they write. Russian authors seem to be especially prone to this tendency, and this man Fyodor Dostoevsky all the more so. Having previously read a small book by him called Crime & Punishment, which took me a clean month to read and a sacrifice of several million grey cells to understand, I had an inkling of what I was getting into as I picked up The Brothers Karamazov. The nervousness was not so much from the fear of the length of the book but more from the fact that I might not be able to comprehend most of what the book was about.
The Brothers Karamazov follows this same rich tradition of the author, with the book being equally difficult to read and just as difficult to understand. At it’s core, The Brothers Karamazov is a simple murder mystery with a predictable murderer and a predictable story. The characters are often loud and prone to crying out loud rather than calmly stating their points like normal human beings. Policemen and prosecutors go deep into psychology and exclaim things with alarming regularity in courts. It would be hard to take these people seriously in the world we live in. Agatha Christie could well have picked this book up and made it into an infinitely better mystery.
But that’s only the core. Over this core, which lies deep, deep within the actually book, are layers of discussion and theories on multiple themes which include theology, spirituality, virtues & vices, science, sociology, morality, politics, humanity, nature of crime & the criminal, psychology, the nature of love etc. The beauty and genius of Dostoevsky is that these themes are never treated independently, but they constantly overlap and flow over one another, making the overall plot so much more complex, with perspectives mounting on each other incessantly.
Treated independently, these themes become academic and the subject of a treatise. But treated as a whole, they become a brilliant picture of the world, of human beings and all that makes them beautiful and ugly.
The Brothers Karamazov, through its three main characters, examines the various extremes of human nature – the clean-hearted man who acts on pure emotion, the man who believes in God and Goodness with all his faith, and the cynical intellectual who questions everything under the sun and finds himself confused when the answers are ambiguous and often contradictory. And therein lies the complexity of the novel. What should have been a straightforward murder mystery becomes an assessment of human character and the psychology of a murderer. It becomes a treatise on how different personalities view the same situation and their inherently different reactions to it. The book offers perspectives on how people perceive God, discard God and find God. It even dedicates a beautiful chapter, The Grand Inquisitor, on the theme of whether God is truly necessary anymore to the world, and whether he would be more of an impediment to order than someone who brings order. It spends time on the purpose of God, of spirituality, of sacrifice and of human beings themselves. It spends time on the conflict between this spirituality and the advent of science – a conflict we find in force even today, as the world struggles between the past and the present, between the mind and the heart. It takes us through the mind of a sensualist, and his eternal conflict between being rational and following his heart’s momentary desire, even as he knows it will take him to ruin.
Within all of this complexity, The Brothers Karamazov also finds some time to really be human, through the story of Alexey (one of the three brothers) and his interaction with a group of boys he finds being unruly. Their transformation, innocence and willingness to grow is one of the purest parts of the novel, even if it has nothing much to do with the main story.
It only seeks to drive home the purity of the human spirit even as it faces a world set to darken it.
It’s hard to think of an author other than Dostoevsky who could juggle so many themes together and moreover, tie them all into one coherent story without it looking he’s jumping off rails at every other moment to cover a philosophy of his choosing. All these different philosophies and arguments flow with the main story and do something to drive the plot forward and give the reader insight into the mind of potential murderers and victims. All these various personalities provide the motive of murder, the motive to save the murderer and the motive to love him. Without these invaluable insights, I daresay the story would have been incomplete and almost too simplistic.
Instead, you find an engaging tale that stays with you long after you have closed the book, leaving you to wonder on how complex human beings can truly be, and how many variables, thoughts and emotions go into each action that is carried out.
Fyodor Dostoevsky is no psychiatrist, and therefore, there is no need to take his word on the human mind or the heart. The ideas he propounds and the conclusions he arrives at can be challenged, and definitely should be. It’s been 140 years since the novel was first published and our experience and insights have deepened in those years. But the fundamentals remain sound, and we can build on them without fear.
It’s hard to review books like The Brothers Karamazov. Books like these are legendary, and offer themselves to multiple interpretations depending on the reader’s own experiences and perceptions. There is no single conclusion to be derived from this book, and perhaps, that’s the reason it remains such a great one.
Books like these are capable of adapting to every new generation, every new idea and every new school of psychology as newer readers pick them up, read them through and challenge the ideas enshrined within them. It’s the reason why books like these are worth reading and reading again. They are the ones that help us grow and help us adapt.
The Brothers Karamazov is not an easy read. It is long, complex, fraught with emotion, filled with schools of philosophies and worldviews and will need time and focus to get through. But it is a read that well worth the time spent on it, because it is a book you will never truly put down. Long after the last page has been turned, months later, years after, you will find your mind suddenly revisiting a piece of this literature and seeing it in a new light.
That’s how literature remains immortal. That’s why The Brothers Karamazov will endure.