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THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS
By NIKOLAI GOGOL (Penguin; 1831/2014)

Itís taken nearly 200 years, but we finally have a good English translation of this classic Christmas tale by Russiaís legendary Nikolai Gogol. THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS, which is not to be confused with other better-known accounts bearing that title, is apparently quite revered in its native land, where itís regularly read to children on Christmas Eve.

     Picturesque and often downright bizarre, it has some of the madcap surrealism of Mikhail Bulgakovís MASTER AND MARGARITA, with which it shares a pivotal character: the devil. Here the big D appears one Christmas Eve in the sky above a Ukrainian village and steals the moon. Heís looking to get revenge on Vakula, a local blacksmith and sometime artist whoís become famous for painting a large panel on a church wall that depicts the devil in an unflattering light. Without the light of the moon Vakula has a difficult time finding his way around the village, which of course is a pivotal part of the devilís dastardly plans.

     But Vakula winds up entering the home of Oksana, the village hottie, which only infuriates the devil more, as the devil has a thing for Oksana. He whips up a blizzard with the aim of driving Oksanaís wayward father home (where heíll find her canoodling with Vakula), but once again things donít quite work out as planned.

     Also figuring into the madness is Vakulaís mother Solokha, a broomstick-riding witch who manages to charm many a gentleman--including the devil, who finds himself at Solokhaís place on Christmas Eve along with several other would-be suitors, which further upsets the devilís carefully laid plans.

     The one major problem with this pleasing and uproarious account for us westerners--and the probable reason itís taken so long to be translated into English--is the simple fact thatís itís so thoroughly Russian-centric, steeped in customs and language (ďthe thin legs seemed so brittle that if they belonged to the village head of neighboring Yareski theyíd snap the first time he danced a kazachokĒ) that will seem downright alien to non-Russians. As with quite a few of Gogolís tales, one of the foremost joys of THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS is its charming and erudite presentation of Ukrainian folklore, which conversely happens to be its major stumbling point. 

     

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