The Shooting Party

Simon Karlinsky wrote in Anton Chekhov’s Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentary (1973):

The other novel of Chekhov’s student years, the somewhat Dostoyevskian murder mystery The Shooting Party (the original Russian title was Drama During a Hunt) of 1884, had an even more distinguished career; its basic narrative structure was borrowed by none other that Agatha Christie for one of her novels and after World War II it was made into a Hollywood movie called Summer Storm.

I’ve read some Agatha Christie but barely remember anything. Apparently, the narrative trick in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is the same: towards the end, the reader realizes that, from the beginning, he’s been reading the murderer’s account of the events. According to Philip French (in The Cambridge Companion to Chekhov linked above), the Hollywood movie was a box office success but a critical disaster.

Simon Karlinsky couldn’t have known in 1973 that five years later, the Soviet-Moldovan director Emil Loteanu made another film based on The Shooting Party, called My Sweet and Tender Beast. (Philip French refers to the director as “Emi Lotianou”: a typo and an obsolete transliteration.) Loteanu cast first-rate actors but the result was of questionable quality. Eugen Doga’s waltz became enormously popular in the Soviet and post-Soviet domains, but its catchy kitschiness cast a shadow of suspicion over the whole production. Sasha Cohen skated to this waltz at the 2006 winter Olympics and won silver.

I’m not convinced The Shooting Party qualifies as a “potboiler,” as Karlinsky called it, but it leaves you with the question, “Why did he write this?” Most of the novel is a manuscript by a former investigative magistrate. At the start of his tale, he is woken up by someone crying, “A husband murdered his wife!” It turns out a parrot called Ivan Demyanych, like a man. In Ronald Wilks’ translation:

For no apparent reason, it suddenly struck that lazy servant of mine that my parrot’s beak closely resembled the nose of Ivan Demyanych, our village shopkeeper… Thanks to Polikarp the entire village christened my remarkable bird Ivan Demyanych; thanks to Polikarp the bird became a real person, while the shopkeeper lost his real name: to the end of his days he’ll be spoken of by country bumpkins as the ‘magistrate’s parrot’.

The investigator lives in the same apartment as his predecessor, who died prematurely. The parrot, the furniture and “all the various household effects” passed from the old magistrate to the new one, who bought them from the mother of the deceased. The narrator made no changes to the interior of his room:

To this day my walls are embellished with photographs of his relatives, and a portrait of the former owner still hangs over my bed. The deceased, a lean, wiry man with red moustache and thick underlip, sits goggling at me from his discoloured walnut frame, never taking his eyes off me while I’m lying there in his bed.

This is good and Chekhovian – it even seems to be looking forward to Céline – but this goodness soon gets watered down by pedestrian narrative. The magistrate is only an amateur writer with an unclear purpose, but that’s a poor excuse for making the reader suffer through his padded prose. By the way, Ivan Demyanych – the shopkeeper known as the “magistrate’s parrot” – makes another entrance towards the end, as the foreman of a jury that convicts an innocent man of murder. It’s Chekhov after all.

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