It struck me as strange that the author of Notes from Underground would next write “The Crocodile,” an allegorical, theater-of-the-absurd type story to have been published in D’s dying periodical Epoch. After all, Notes from Underground was an innovative exercise in narrative technique, with all sorts of interestingly problematic aspects. “The Crocodile”, by contrast, is a perfectly conventionally narrated story, albeit a bizarre and fantasical one.
The essentials of the plot are as follows:
– A man and his wife go to see a crocodile put on display by an enterprising German couple which has rented a booth in a local shopping arcade, and is charging admission.
– The man goes too close to the crocodile and is eaten up by him. Everyone stands around but does little to help him. His wife goes home as she has a pressing social engagement.
– After being consumed, the man remains alive and sits in the crocodile for the remainder of the story – others come and go as they talk to him.
– The crocodile-encased man petitions the narrator for help, and sends him to a benefactor of his.
– The benefactor refuses to intercede, on the grounds that the German couple’s property rights would be violated were the man to be extracted from the crocodile, and such an action would discourage entrepreneurship among the public in general, and western immigrants in particular.
– The victim himself protests that he understands his benefactor’s concerns, and that, upon reflection, he sees the benefit of such an arrangement. Inside the crocodile, after all, he has all day to read, write and reflect at his leisure.
– The victim’s wife refuses to help him on the grounds that her social schedule would be severely disrupted.
– The narrator tells some newspapers, each of whom report the story as an incident which confirms their standard party-line. The Slavophile paper thinks this is evidence of the inferiority of Germans; the radical paper thinks it proves the evils of capitalism, and so on. This is how the (apparently incomplete) story ends.
This story was clever enough I suppose – for me, I was reminded of an editorial I read sometime during 2002, in which the author advanced the claim that “9/11 changed everything” was patently false. Every side had seen 9/11 through the lens it most preferred. The Chomskyian radical left saw this as “the chickens coming home to roost.” The far right saw this as proof that we needed to invade the middle east, overthrow their governments and convert them to Christianity. And so on.
But I’m still left contemplating what possibly brought D to write such a story at this time. Frank didn’t have too many good ideas either… But so ends Volume 3 of Dostoevsky.
[This post will be the last Dostoevsky-related post for a time. I’ve now finished Volume 3 of Frank’s massive biography – just two more! I’ll resume next time I get some time off.]