In addition to my own reflections and guest posts from brilliant folks in the writing community, the Personal Canons series will also feature essays purchased from among the many dazzling submissions I received in response to my open call. Last time, Anna Martino wrote about Jules Verne. Today, I’m thrilled to feature Marina Berlin.
Marina Berlin is a writer and media critic who grew up speaking three languages. She holds degrees in sociology and film, and rambles about books, movies and fandom on twitter at @berlin_marina, when she isn't writing for outlets like Strange Horizons, Vice, and IGN. She's currently working on her first novel, which was included on the honor list for the Otherwise Fellowship, dedicated to encouraging the exploration and expansion of gender in SF/F. You can read more of her articles, stories and poems on her website.
I suppose today Yuriy Olesha's "The Three Fat Men" (Три Толстяка) would be considered “middle grade”, a literary category that didn’t exist in the USSR when I was born, or when it was written. It would also probably not be called “The Three Fat Men”, a title that, in 1927, was based on using fatness as a shorthand for capitalist excess.
The three men in the title – the rulers of the land the story is set in – represent unbridled capitalism, with their unceasing hunger for profits and property and their unwillingness to do any real work. Of course, their portrayal relies on fatphobic imagery, not unlike what we still see today. In 2020, fatphobia still links large bodies to laziness, excess, and lack of self-control. Historically, fat bodies have been used to portray negative, undesirable behaviors no matter what ideology you subscribe to.
But we don’t choose the books that shaped us, and for me (and many kids who grew up in Eastern Europe) this book, which is almost one hundred years old, was formative. Rereading it as an adult, it’s full of things I’d change (including an instance of blackface in one of its sub-plots). But no matter what I think of it now, this book influenced almost every game I played with my dolls as a child, and absolutely had a hand in the sort of stories I’m interested in as an author.
Of course, the titular Three Men are the villains of the story. They live in a palace, relying on the work of others to provide their money and luxuries. They have a son – all three of them, together – who has no mother, because the men can’t feel something as opposed to the principles of exploitation and profit as any kind of romantic love. The son is a spoiled Prince who isn’t allowed to spend time with other children. He has a favorite doll, who is his only friend. This doll looks and acts like a girl, grows up like a girl, but has no life of its own – it only “lives” when the Prince wants to play with it, it never contradicts him, it always does what he wants.
Most of the heroes of the story are traveling circus performers: the tightrope walker, the gymnast. They lead a revolution against the Three Men, helping to slowly organize the common folk, the workers. The story opens on disaster striking and everything falling apart. The movement loses an important battle, the heroes scatter, desperate to save themselves so they can fight another day.
One of them, Suok, is a young girl who lives and performs with the circus. As fate would have it, Suok is visited by a scientist who works for the Three Men. The scientist is in grave danger if he doesn’t fulfill the task they’ve set for him: For the first time, the Prince’s doll is broken. The Three Men tell the nation’s leading scientific mind that he must fix the internal mechanism of the doll immediately, but of course he can’t. There’s not enough time.
But the doll does look exactly like Suok.
To help the revolutionary cause and save the scientist from certain death, Suok transforms herself into the doll and agrees to go to the palace, where she’ll be killed if discovered. She meets the Prince, used to getting his way and treating the people around him like objects, used to putting greed and selfishness above all things.
Ostensibly, Suok is at the palace to try and free her captured friends. But Suok soon realizes that the most revolutionary act she can attempt is to teach the Prince to experience a single “weak” emotion (though she does get around to rescuing her friends later). Empathy, sadness, love: all of these are forbidden to him. If one can feel empathy, Suok thinks, one can feel kindness. If one can feel kindness, one might be convinced to share their wealth instead of hoarding it.
She can’t change the Three Men, but she can change the future.
There are storylines in the book other than Suok and the Prince. I probably remember that one most strongly because I was a little girl when I read the book, so I saw myself in Suok. Growing up, I also saw many adaptations of this book, so Suok’s role became larger and more detailed in my mind.
In the end, there’s a bittersweet victory. The greedy rulers are deposed. The Prince comes to care for Suok, see her as a person instead of a toy, and that breaks the dam on his other emotions. He doesn’t oppose the coup, gives up his palace, and the city rejoices. But of course, many people are tortured and killed – scientists, workers, revolutionaries – for this liberation.
I’m sure some people would call the book “socialist propaganda”. Wikipedia describes it as “the first revolutionary fairy tale in Soviet literature.” That’s part of the experience of being a millennial who was born in the USSR: most of our childhood stories were about the animals of the forest organizing to depose the lazy, selfish lion who ruled them.
But Olesha’s book specifically was about so much more than the evils of capitalism (although that topic is always relevant). It gave me a female protagonist who was brave and daring, who was a consummate liar and actress who used her skills to depose an evil government. It gave me the plot of a boy who’d been taught that only strength and selfishness mattered (including a subplot where the Three Men try to have his heart replaced with a piece of iron), and who has to be taught, for the good of the world, that being sad and feeling empathy is crucial.
When I look at stories today like Ann Leckie’s “Ancillary Justice”, or even the recent Star Wars trilogy and what it tried (with debatable success) to do with Kylo Ren, it’s this story all over again, and the theme still speaks to me today as much as it did back then. At its worst it’s forcing a female character to be the emotional/moral compass of a bland, mediocre man. At its best it’s the acknowledgement that we all live on this planet together, under a patriarchy, and part of dismantling it is breaking the narrative that men are only allowed to feel “manly” emotions. Because with empathy come questions like how are we taking care of the most vulnerable in our communities? How are we ensuring people who contributed to the accumulation of wealth get to enjoy its benefits?
Long before I started reading or writing SF/F in English, Olesha’s revolutionary fairytale was a roadmap to how stories could be dark and scary but also action-packed and uplifting and emotional. It taught me that circus performers were heroes, and little girls could decide to change the world.
Personal Canons is a series exploring the works of genre fiction that have shaped us as readers, writers, and people. This series features contributions by established authors, new and aspiring authors, readers, and fans.
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