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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


What the Emperor Cannot Do

Vlas Doroshevich

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To purchase What the Emperor Cannot Do

Title: What the Emperor Cannot Do
Author: Vlas Doroshevich
Genre: Novel
Written: 1902 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 174 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: What the Emperor Cannot Do - US
What the Emperor Cannot Do - UK
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What the Emperor Cannot Do - India
  • Tales and Legends of the Orient
  • Russian title: Легенды и сказки Востока
  • Translated by Rowen Glie, in collaboration with Ronald Landau, and John Dewey

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Our Assessment:

A- : clever entertainments, very nicely done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 8/2/2013 Barbara Heldt

  From the Reviews:
  • "Today's reader may find these very short stories a little repetitive and heavy-handed in English, with their stream of overblown honorifics and hyperbolically stressful narrative situations. Some of the tales are neatly absurd" - Barbara Heldt, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       What the Emperor Cannot Do is a collection of tales, legends, and parables that Doroshevich wrote in imitation of a variety of 'Oriental' tales. There are 'Chinese Tales', 'Arabian and Other Tales', and 'Indian Tales", and not the least of Doroshevich's accomplishments is how well he imitates the different styles and approaches and uses them to his own ends.
       The tales are relatively simple and straightforward, but often with beautifully twisted morals. So, for example, many of the Chinese tales feature a well-meaning Emperor who is entirely cut off from the masses he rules, and whom corrupt advisers mislead about the actual state of the nation. In one tale the emperor pities the unfortunates who, on a rainy day, don't have a hat to cover their heads with; his underlings (and their underlings) rectify the situation -- by beheading anyone who doesn't have a hat, allowing them to then assure the emperor that: "In all of Peking there is not one Chinese who does not have a hat to put on his head in the rain", leaving the emperor overjoyed at how prosperous all his subjects are.
       That nice hard edge to the moral of the stories comes even where the main character has all the information in hand -- but still takes a different lesson from it than what one might have expected to be the obvious one. In 'The Good Emperor' the emperor actually ventures out in disguise, and sees for himself that his viceroys' reports of the great prosperity of his subjects is entirely a lie, and that the people are poor and miserable -- but in a nice twist of 'Oriental wisdom' the emperor does not choose the obvious (but admittedly previously ineffective) path of replacing the corrupt officials .....
       Written in Tsarist Russia, much of Doroshevich's attack is directed against the bureaucracy and misrule of that age, but his tales remain surprisingly universal and timeless, exaggerations and parables that reflect (sadly still pervasive) truths. There are also fortuitous coincidences for the contemporary reader, such as an Arabian tale in which elected Arabs threaten to undermine the domination of the ruling class -- viziers here -- by actually promulgating laws. The viziers know this threatens the very foundation of their power:

They'll pass a law that it is light by day and dark at night. That water's wet and sand is dry. And people will be convinced it is light by day not because the sun shines, but because those children of misfortune, elected Arabs, have ordained it so. And that water is wet and sand is dry not because Allah created them like that but by order of the delegates. People will come to believe in the delegates' wisdom and omnipotence. As for what they will come to think of themselves, only Allah knows !
       The way the viziers assure that the laws don't quite have the desired impact is absolutely inspired, and the story resonates particularly nicely in this post-'Arab Spring' time of piecemeal democratization in much of the Arabic world.
       Doroshevich's light, deft touch -- there's no preachy moralizing here -- and clever variations on age-old ideas make for an inspired collection. It's rather stunning that these stories only now appear in English translation; fortunately, they easily hold up more than a century after they were written. As the editors observe in their Introduction:
His parables stylized as Oriental tales are timeless. They sound as topical today as they did in Doroshevich's time.
       Another very nice (re)discovery from Glas.

- M.A.Orthofer, 25 January 2013

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What the Emperor Cannot Do:
  • Glas publicity page
Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Russian author Vlas Doroshevich (Влас Михайлович Дорошевич) lived 1864 to 1922.

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© 2013 the complete review

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