Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis
“The Steel Flea” by Nikolai Leskov
Card picked: Eight of Hearts
From: The Enchanted Pilgrim, and Other Stories, translated by David Magarshack
Thoughts: “The Steel Flea” or “The Tale of Cross-eyed Lefty from Tula and the Steel Flea” or “Lefty” or, as it is in my anthology, “The Left-Handed Artificer,” begins with Tsar Alexander I touring Western Europe. The tsar is amazed by the innovative craftsmen he sees during his travels, but his companion, Platov, is unimpressed. Being an incredibly patriotic sort, Platov insists that Russia has better. The only time that Platov might be utterly wrong is when the English craftsmen show the tsar a microscopic, dancing flea automaton. The tsar purchases it for a large amount of money*, but dies before its mysteries are investigated.
Under Tsar Nicholas, Platov again campaigns to prove that Russian craftsmen are better than the English. He is entrusted with the flea and he takes it to the gunsmiths of Tula. The gunsmiths are fine craftsmen, but are lacking on the science end of things. They fit the microscopic flea with horseshoes, each signed nanoscopically by each craftsman**. Unfortunately, these horseshoes are too heavy for the flea and it can no longer dance.
One of the craftsmen, the left-handed one***, is given a trip to England. The English are quite impressed with the “improvement” to the flea and do all they can to convince the left-handed artificer to stay. Lefty loves Russia and, when he makes an important discovery about how the English maintain their guns, he insists to be taken home as quickly as possible. Aboard the ship, he is challenged to a drinking competition, which he cannot refuse****. The left-handed artificer is severely drunk, as is the ship’s captain, when they dock. Lefty has lost his papers and is shuffled from jail to hospital to hospital. When the captain finds him, the left-handed artificer is on his last breath. He gives the captain a message to take to the tsar. What’s the message? Will the tsar listen? Well, keep in mind, this *is* a Russian tale.
* Did the English take advantage of the tsar? Maaaybeee…
** It’s not like anyone at this time has a microscope able to see this scale. The Tsar Nicholas and Platov have to take the craftsmen at their word, which they do. Also, I may not be using nano- appropriately here.
*** His name is forgotten after his untimely death. Is this criticism about how Russia treats its craftsmen? Maaaybeee…
**** Here I will state that probably not all Russians drink, but this isn’t a stereotype that I’ve seen refuted in Russian literature…or in my own experience.
About the Author: Leskov walks a line with this story. On one hand, his main characters are unabashedly and sincerely patriotic. On the other, he’s not shy about pointing out the problematic aspects of Russia in the late 1800s. Leskov is known to be a bit of an experimenter in style and form, but I fear much of that is lost in translation.
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I didn’t plan it, but this week’s darw brings us Piff and Mr. Piffles.