Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 6, 2018

Seven Hanged, by Leonid Andreyev translated by Anthony Briggs

I discovered this stunning novella thanks to Somali Bookaholic and I ordered the same edition, from the Penguin Little Black Classics collection.  For reasons best known to Australian booksellers, this collection now isn’t available anywhere as far as I can tell, though the Readings website offers to get it in for you if you have a spare $175.54.  That sounds a lot till you realise that it consists of multiple titles. The trouble is, you need to make enquiries about how many there are in the set, because Penguin published the original collection in a set of 80 (to coincide with their 80th birthday).  That works out at $2.19 per book.  But since then, the collection has grown to 127 titles, and if you get all of those for $175.54, that’s $1.38 AUD per book.   But whichever it works out to be, even if you’ve already read some of them, it still works out much cheaper than buying them individually, and you can probably offload any duplicates to grateful friends.

Anyway, back to Seven Hanged, which was a brave book for its time.  This is the back cover blurb:

From their arrest to their final moments, the last days of seven prisoners condemned to death in Tsarist Russia are described in this visceral, heart-stopping novella.

The book tells the story of five terrorists, arrested before they could carry out their assassination of a government minister, and two criminals guilty of murder.  But it begins with the minister’s horrified discovery that the assassins had planned to kill him at one o’clock that day, and he couldn’t stop thinking about the cruel fate that some people had had in store for him because it’s not death that’s terrifying, only knowing about it.  By focussing on this minister’s terror, Andreyev shows the horror of judicial execution at its most fundamental.

Petrashevsky Circle mock execution 1849(Wikipedia Commons)*

One of the stories tour guides like to tell in St Petersburg is the story of Dostoevsky’s last minute reprieve from the firing squad.  As a member of a Russian intellectual literary group known as the Petrashevsky Circle, he (like the others) had been sentenced to death for being critical of the Tsar. We were told that it was at the St Peter and Paul Fortress that a rider hurtled into the square with orders from the Tsar that the execution was not to take place, and those of us who knew who Dostoevsky was were suitably impressed at his narrow escape.  But it turns out that although Dostoevsky was certainly imprisoned at the fortress for months, not only did this reprieve take place elsewhere at Semyonov Square, but also it was not a show of mercy in response to international outrage, but a mock execution, designed to foster fear, terror and gratitude.  (See here). The Tsar knew that it was the horror of knowing the hour of imminent death that is the most gruesome experience that can be inflicted.

This horror is graphically depicted in Seven Hanged, so much so that I had to stiffen my spine to read the last chapter, ‘Journey’s End’. Each of the characters has been rendered individual, and each has been shown to experience the horror so briefly experienced by the Minister.  It makes my skin crawl to think of people on Death Row, wherever they may be.

Contact details for anyone who wants to help in the campaign against the death penalty:

  • Amnesty International who began campaigning 40 years ago and have seen the number of countries who have abolished the death penalty rise from 16 to 104
  • Reprieve Australia whose president is Julian McMahon AO who represented Chan and Sukumaran and also Van Truong Nguyen (see my review of The Pastor and the Painter) who was executed in Singapore in 2005, as well as numerous other cases around the world.

Author: Leonid Andreyev (1871-1919
Title: Seven Hanged (Рассказ о семи повешенных)
Publisher: Penguin Little Black Classics No 104, 2016, first published 1908
ISBN: 9780241252130
Personal copy, purchased from Fishpond $9.16

Availability:Seven Hanged doesn’t seem to be stocked locally in bricks-and-mortar bookshops so look for it online.  From Fishpond it’s now $8.88: Seven Hanged (Penguin Little Black Classics)  but prices vary wildly, see Booko. (BTW Note that Booktopia sells it for $4.90 delivery free if you order via Booko, but they charge $6.95 postage if you go direct to the Booktopia site.  I don’t know how anyone can make any money on $4.90 delivery free!)


Responses

  1. as always your reviews are eloquent and fascinating and just like you said this book gives us a hint of what does it mean to be in death row which is horrible experiences.
    glad you took my recommendation

    Like

    • Thank you for your review, I would never have heard of this book otherwise.
      I’d love to know the story of how it came to be written: why the author was motivated and – more significantly – how he was able to imagine the thoughts and fears of his characters.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Am really glad and proud that a famous blogger like you takes my recommendation.
        Me too but the language barrier doesn’t help me to research fully into the background of this novel

        Like

        • *chuckle* I’m not famous!
          But don’t put yourself down: this makes two worthwhile books I’ve read from following your blog, this one and the one about the slave trade. You review interesting books that I don’t find anywhere else, and even when I don’t get the book to read it for myself, I learn something from reading the review.
          Re researching the background: my guess is that a Russian authors can now access all kinds of archives, and one of them is sure to be researching Andreyev. So we will find out in due course because there are bilingual scholars all over the place who will add the info to Wikipedia, or better still, write a biography of him.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Well you really my hero when it comes to reading you Jaren and Melissa are my three musketeers of reading books and that’s why I feel awe of how much did you read.
            He is one of the best soviet writers I have read and if you got the time I hope you visit
            https://cup.columbia.edu/series/russian-library
            They translated many hidden Russian gems

            Like

            • Well, I must thank you again.. I’ve just visited the Russian Library and signed up not just for their Russian Library email list, but also their East Asian and South Asian lists as well. Mind you, if you are looking for a Musketeer (and you can easily have four) Stu at Winston’s Dad (https://winstonsdad.wordpress.com/) is the place to go for Russian Lit and all the other countries of the world as well. The year I went to Russia I got hold of as many books as I could that Stu had recommended and there were some real treasures there, which really added to my enjoyment in visiting and learning their culture.

              Liked by 1 person

              • I really hope you find great books there
                I really enjoy reading Stu reviews although sometimes I envy how he gets this books amazes me and he finds from countries that I seldom anything about them.
                Visiting about foreign nation while reading their literature can really make the journey double happiness.

                Like

                • Yes, exactly. Stu has read books from places I can’t even find on an atlas!

                  Liked by 1 person

  2. If you feel up to it, Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy is an extraordinary book dealing with his experiences as a lawyer for death row inmates. Terrifying and beautiful in equal measure.

    Like

    • Maybe, Elle, maybe. As you know, I recently reviewed The Pastor and The Painter, about the two Australians executed in Bali, and their story was in my head all the time that I was reading this fiction. Somehow it was easier to read the novella because it was remote in time and place. But reading about what still happens, all the time in America, where it is not an aberration but the will of a modern Western people that we like to think are civilised, I don’t think I could keep my anger under control while I was reading it.

      Like

      • It made me so sad, more than angry, but there are some beautiful moments in it.

        Like

        • This week I’m going to a talk by the author of The Pastor and the Painter, and I wondering about the impact on her, when all the way to the end there was hope of a reprieve and then it went ahead.

          Like

          • Great question. I know that death row lawyers often suffer a terrible emotional toll.

            Like

  3. Like you I am against hanging. Governments abrogate to themselves the right to kill people which leads not just to war but to extra-judicial assassinations and makes the world unsafe for everyone. However I couldn’t think of anything worse than being on death row, death would certainly be preferable, which just makes you admire even more the grace under pressure of the two in Bali.

    Like

    • It’s been interesting to see, re-watching the BBC series Foyle’s War, that hanging was the automatic penalty for murder at that time, and not just for murder. You also see that in the Father Brown Mysteries (which I used to watch with my father) – set in the 1950s, the show would often show the priest counselling someone about the penalty being faced (though of course in that show, he always rescues them in time because they’re innocent.)
      Still, it shows that we have come a long way in half a century or so.

      Like


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