Although Penguin’s Little Black Classics series largely selects from previously published Penguin Classics, Seven Hanged is a new translation of Leonid Andreyev’s novella by Anthony Briggs. Its title neatly summarises the events described within – originally published in 1908, it gives us insight into the cruelty and repression which would lead to the Russian Revolution. Five of those sentenced to hang are ‘terrorists’, caught in the act of attempting to assassinate a government minister – but, whereas lesser writers may have focussed only on their story, Andreyev adds two ordinary criminals to the gallows.
In fact he begins the story from an entirely different perspective, that of the targeted minister in the discovered plot. This allows Andreyev to sneak up on his theme, death (rather like an assassin) as the minister considers the repeated warnings that he was to be killed at one o’clock:
“And it’s not death that’s terrifying, only my knowing about it. And it would be totally impossible to live if a man were to know with complete certainty the date and time when he was sure to die.”
This is, of course, the situation the condemned will soon find themselves in (to a point – all those sentenced to death must wait until a certain quota is reached (this is presumably the significance of the ‘seven’) before the executions will take place). We see them briefly in court as they are sentenced, three men and two women:
“In court all five behaved calmly; they were very serious-minded and very thoughtful… Their calmness was balanced against a need to shield their souls, and the great darkness about to descend upon them in death, from the vile, intrusive gaze of outsiders.”
Then we meet a different kind of killer: Ivan Yanson, an Estonian farm worker who attacks his master, stabbing him repeatedly in the back, and attempts to rape his mistress (she is too strong for him) only to be caught within the hour having had no escape (or indeed any) plan. Our seventh condemned man is ‘Gypsy Mike’, who might be described as a career criminal whose luck has finally run out:
“There were vague rumours of his implication in any number of other robberies and murders, and he had left behind him in his wake much blood and drunken depravity.”
Andreyev goes on to describe each prisoner’s reactions as they await their death alone, taking a chapter for each one. His approach throughout is to humanise his characters, making the impending executions seem more and more barbaric. On the way to be hanged he demonstrates their kindness to each other, for example, Werner, one of the ‘terrorists’, takes Yanson’s hand:
“It lay there, lifeless and stiff as a bit of board, and Yanson no longer tried to withdraw it.”
Another, Musya, agrees to be hanged with Gypsy Mike as they go up in pairs. By the end it’s difficult not to agree
“…it was barbarous to think that such a degree of routine human effort and efficiency should be applied to the hanging of people, and that the craziest deed on earth was being done in such a simple and rational manner.”
Seven Hanged in a tense, moving story which is strangely uplifting in moments. It suggests that Andreyev, a writer greatly neglected in English translation, deserves far more attention. It’s to be hoped that this might be the beginning of more of his work becoming available once again.