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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Three Fat Men

Yuri Olesha

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To purchase The Three Fat Men

Title: The Three Fat Men
Author: Yuri Olesha
Genre: Novel
Written: 1928 (Eng. 2011)
Length: 162 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: The Three Fat Men - US
The Three Fat Men - UK
The Three Fat Men - Canada
Les trois gros - France
Die Drei Dickwänste - Deutschland
I tre grassoni - Italia
Los tres gordinflones - España
  • A Fairytale
  • Russian title: Три толстяка
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Hugh Alpin
  • With a Foreword by Graeme Garden
  • There are several other translations of The Three Fat Men

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Our Assessment:

B+ : good fun

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
World Literature Today* . (54:4) Fall/1980 Laszlo Dienes

[* review of a different translation]

The complete review's Review:

       The three Fat Men of the title are the rulers of all around them; they live together in a fabulous, well-protected palace outside of town, and, as one of them reminds an uppity commoner:

We, the Three Fat Men, are strong and powerful. Everything belongs to us. I, the First Fat man, own all the grain that our earth produces, all the coal belongs to the Second Fat Man, and the Third has bought up all the iron. We're richer than anyone else. The richest man in the country is a hundred times poorer than us. With our gold we can buy anything we want.
       Unsurprisingly, some of the locals find this situation to be unfair and that they are being taken advantage of, and the novel opens with an attempt at an uprising: "Prospero the armourer and Tibullus the acrobat have led the people to take the Palace of the Three Fat Men by storm today". They don't get very far, however, and Prospero is captured and the Fat Men order ten scaffolds to be erected in Court Square, where the rebels are to be executed.
       The Three Fat Men, having no children of their own, share an heir, Tutti the Heir, and: "All of the Three Fat Men's riches and the government of the country were to pass to Tutti the Heir". Tutti is twelve, and he is kept isolated in the palace. He is not allowed to have contact with other children, and his sole companion is a life-size doll of a girl -- and catastrophe strikes when some of the guardsmen have a good go at it, stabbing it all over; it is: "damaged beyond hope". Tutti is inconsolable -- and the Three Fat Men will do anything to right the situation. They turn to Dr Gaspar Arneri -- "That man can do anything", the Minister of Public Education convinces them.
       Dr Gaspar thinks fixing a mechanical doll is a bit much to expect from him, but the Three Fat Men are used to getting their way. As the official who gives Dr Gaspar his order explains: "The doll must be repaired by tomorrow morning. If you do it, then a reward awaits you, if not -- then a severe punishment".
       Fixing the doll in such a short amount of time is hopeless -- but Dr Gaspar has noted that the doll reminds him of someone, as it turns out she is clearly modeled on a real girl, Suok. And Dr Gaspar finds Suok, and a plan is hatched to present the living girl as the repaired doll ..... Then, with someone on the inside -- of the palace -- perhaps even the imprisoned Prospero can be saved .....
       There's already some helpful insider knowledge of the palace, as an earlier misadventure had already blown one hapless outsider, a balloon seller, into the thick of things -- one of the several comic goings-on the make the novel quite a romp, with Olesha balancing the dark sides of the story quite well with all the broad humor.
       The fatness of the Fat Men may be somewhat simplistic, bit is also effectively deployed -- as when they gain weight even without eating anything when they begin to see their empire threatened:
     As usual, their alarm made the Three Fat Men start to get fatter. Before the eyes of the State Council each of them gained a quarter of a pound.
     'I can't carry on !' one of them complained. 'I can't carry on... It's more than I can bear... Oh, oh ! There's a stud sticking into my throat.
     And at that point his dazzling collar burst open with a crack.
     'I'm getting fatter,' howled another. 'Save me !'
       Not everything goes according to plan when Suok infiltrates the palace, but, of course, in the end the masses triumph and the Fat Men fall (and are "herded into that same cage in which Prospero the armourer had been held"). When even the guardsmen refuse to protect the Fat Men any longer, it's all over for them -- and their kind: "all the dandies in town, the fat shopkeepers, the gluttons, the merchants, the grand ladies, the bald generals fled in fear and confusion".
       An Epilogue, set a year later as the anniversary of the liberation from the rule of the Three Fat Men is being celebrated, reveals one more twist to the story, as scientist Toob explains how Tutti came to have the doll that looked identical to Suok and how the Three Fat Men had raised the boy.
       The Three Fat Men is good fun. If, on the one hand, it is presented as a children's story, with that kind of humor and outrageous occurrences -- the balloon seller landing in a cake meant for the Fat Men, and then being served along with it -- it also has a darker edge to it. The set up is very black and white -- toiling masses good, fat cats bad -- and everything works out very easily (without any mention of many of the consequences -- not least, what happened to those damn Fat Men ? as the Epilogue leaves their fate unmentioned), but characters such as Dr Gaspar, pulled into a variety things and navigating these as best he can, make for a welcome addition of a bit more nuance.
       Ultimately, The Three Fat Men is a bit too jerky in moving forward, with the set-up stronger than the resolution, but it is still a very enjoyable read -- and, for quite a stretch (and in much of its conception) very strong.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 October 2023

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The Three Fat Men: Reviews: Yuri Olesha: Other books by Yuri Olesha under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Soviet author Yuri Olesha (Юрий Карлович Олеша) lived 1899 to 1960.

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© 2023 the complete review

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