Friday, October 23, 2015

The Steel Flea - Nikolay Leskov

Fantastic story telling. A Russian Emperor goes to England with his trusted aide, Platov. The English (always looked at with a wary eye by Platov) show a miniature steel flea to the emperor, so small that you cannot see it with the naked eye. Even better, under the nitroscope (whatever that is), one can see a small key which winds the steel flea and makes the flea move about and dance. The English sell the steel flea to the Emperor but not before Platov shows proof that its parts were made in Russia. Platov is grumpy at the Emperor's praise for the Englishmen and his lack of belief that Russian workmen are any lesser. He avers that the Russians can make better stuff if they were trusted with it.

Back in Russia the Emperor dies. The new king finds the steel flea and asks Platov to pursue the matter of finding better craftsmen than the English. Platov finds a bunch of expert gunsmiths, to whom he entrusts the job. Ah, what wonderful descriptions of the people and their craftsmanship, more so of Lefty the Tula craftsman whose hair has been pulled out during his years of apprenticeship. The gunsmiths lock themselves up in a home for two weeks and do not come out even when people scare them with news of fire etc - so devoted are they and so high their concentration on the work at hand. They complete the job in two weeks but when Platov looks at it he finds only the steel flea in its original condition and nothing else at all. However Lefty shows, in his unrefined manner, what they have accomplished. Under a more powerful microscope he shows the king how the flea has now been given horseshoes on its tiny feet, with a neat brand name printed on it with the names of its makers. Lefty's name is not found though - he says he made the nails for the horseshoes and his name is on those - it might be difficult to see them.

Lefty the chief craftsman is then sent to England as a reward and to show off their expertise. He is enticed by the English with much, wine and women included, but he leaves for Russia. But not before he notices that the English have given the old Emperor some wrong information about their guns. Information he tries to pass on to the king but which never reaches him because Lefty dies after a drinking bout with an English sailor - due to lack of medical help.

Absolutely brilliant story telling. Leskov leaves with a small thought about the 'soul' a craftsman can add to any work as opposed to mechanical production of things. Soul is right - not everyone can recognise it.

No comments: