Kashtanka by Anton Chekhov

This is a children’s book illustrated by Gennady Spirin. The ISBN is 0-15-200539-0. The reason I mention this is that I want to talk about the presentation of the book – something that is obviously very important in a children’s book.

Spirin’s illustrations are absolutely beautiful. The are detailed and have a great amount of depth and character. Unfortunately, they are also very dark. This wouldn’t be a bad thing except that the pages are very glossy, meaning that I had to struggle and essentially read in the dark just so that I could see them at all. It was such a shame and obviously a huge downside if this book is to be shared with kids.

The other big issue I took with the presentation of the book is that the text boxes looked too simplistic. There was no relationship between the illustrations at the text. Rather, half the page would just be white with text or, at best, there would be a thin and undecorated yellow border.

The story itself was so-so. As far as Russian classical authors go, I might be least familiar with with Chekhov. Because of this, it’s rather difficult to judge what the story might have been like in the original language. That being said, I think it would have taken more than just changing the choice of wording to save the story. It was just very superficial. For example, when Kashtanka’s masters find her again, the man who had taken her in is never mentioned again – despite the fact that he had spent a lot of energy to train her, may well have grown to like her, and would be left without an act once the dog left. In that sense, the story is very much incomplete.

I wouldn’t bother buying this book.

    4 thoughts on “Kashtanka by Anton Chekhov

    1. I am afraid your opinion was very superficial, not the book. For some reason you though it’s a book to be ‘shared with kids’. It is not. Not like ‘Harry Potter’ or so. In Russia they write plays based on this story, adapted for children of 8 years old or so. No one believes it is a book for modern 8 year olds. And please note that Russian children are usually familiar with rather ‘adulter’ books by this age: while American kids read books about Curious George, Russian kindergartners become acquainted with literature about orphans, about a guerilla boys who was betrayed, tortured to tell secrets and killed, etc. It is for 5-years kids. They are not accustomed to retold happy-ending stories about the Little Mermaid (hint: the original version is quite lachrymose) or Pied Piper, as the modern young Americans are.

      Even though ‘Kashtanka’ is not considered an appropriate book for Russian 8 year olds. A tearful Chekhov book ‘Vanka’ is more cruel, but it is pretty simpler and more appropriate for kids. I would say ‘Kashtanka’ is a good story for 10-12yo.

      Returning to your point about superficiality. First, there might be a technical answer. The story is consistently seen by the dog. When the dog leaves her second master, she does not know anything about him any more. Moreover, she does not even think about him.

      Second, and more important. ‘Kashtanka’ is a story full of sorrowful notices. Plot is of no importance there. Why do you need to know what happened with that imaginary character? The power of the story is that it describes several moments of his life, and you felt empathy and pity for the character. The moments depicted in the book are real, many people really lived like that, though like that, behaved like that. Like the drunkard carpenter and like the lonely clown. Many people still are similar. What could happen after Kashtanka’s escape – the reader can leave to his imagination.

      Another side of the story, that is invisible for young readers and maybe for adults of different cultural background, is the ‘Russian yearning’ (having something common with der Angst or nostalgia). The reader sees the dog yearning for smth unreachable and strange: her new master mothers Kashtanka while the previous masters were cruel with her, yet she dreams about returning to them. The reader understands irrationality of Kashtanka’s emotions, and he parallels his own life with the god’s one. I am not sure it is possible to realize this layer of the book unless you are familiar with the Russian cultural context, some explanation of what the ‘Russian yearning’ is can be found in works of Anna Wierzbicka, a Polish/Australian linguist and culturologist.

      I can agree with you on one point only: if you are looking a book about animals for little kids, especially without much experience in Russian literature, you should not bother buying this book. It is not superficial enough for unprepared readers and it is very contextual.

      • All fair points. I will, however, point out that this particular edition is clearly marketed towards modern young children aged around 3-6. So some of the perception issues may well stem from inappropriate marketing, rather than fault in the reader.

    2. One more paragraph. If it seems for you the story is superficial, let me cite another review by Kim Thompson, obviously not a biased Russian:
      Okay, it’s Chekhov. You didn’t expect bright and cheery, did you? A strange and unsettling story for a children’s picture book, surely.

      This is an interesting and unusual adventure, told brilliantly from a dog’s point of view, but it is also a story with pretty mature themes – of mortality and death, as well as blind loyalty despite cruel mistreatment.

      All in all, a difficult story for young readers to digest, and more suitable for slightly older children

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