The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Dan Vitale on A. H. Tammsaare’s The Misadventures of the New Satan, which was translated by Olga Shartze, revised by Christopher Moseley and published by Norvik/Dufour.
Although the title would be well suited to a mediocre sit-com, this novel sounds pretty interesting:
The Misadventures of the New Satan (1939) was Tammsaare’s last novel (he died the following year). This edition is a revision, by Christopher Moseley, of an English translation by Olga Shartze published in Moscow in 1978, the hundredth anniversary of Tammsaare’s birth. In contrast to the ambition and breadth of Truth and Justice, it has the deceptive simplicity of a folktale.
On its surface, the novel’s plot is extremely mundane. Jürka, a brawny, simpleminded peasant farmer, struggles for economic survival against the elements and the whims of his double-dealing, double-talking neighbor (and later landlord), known locally as Cunning Ants. Life on Jürka’s farm, the Pit, is difficult and harsh: in the course of his long life Jürka buries two wives and also a few of his children, who are so numerous that Tammsaare never bothers to mention them all. Predictably, Ants takes advantage of Jürka’s labor, his good nature, and his almost total lack of business sense, until at the end of the story, when Ants threatens everything Jürka has worked so hard for, Jürka commits a violent and foolhardy act of revenge.
What saves the book from being little more than a rustic melodrama is the supernatural twist Tammsaare has given it: Jürka is Satan in human form. In a prologue, we witness a conversation between Satan and St. Peter in which we learn that the continued existence of hell is threatened by God’s suspicion that human beings are incapable of salvation and should therefore not be eternally punished for failing at something that was never within their power to achieve. To protect his fiefdom, Satan agrees to be subjected to earthly incarnation so as to win salvation and thereby prove God wrong. If he succeeds, then God will let hell—and humankind—continue to exist.
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