CHEKHOV spent a day or two in Ceylon, and remembered his short stay here in his letters. Ceylon caught him on the rebound after his sickness at heart with Sakhalin, the Russian penal settlement on the great island north-west of Japan.
Although, according to his brother Michael, he remembered Ceylon very vividly, most of his references to it speak of it, in a way disconcerting to our pride, as India, and, with the mixture of seriousness and lightheartedness characteristic of him, he pulls the leg of his correspondents so joyously that it is hard to discover what he actually did in Ceylon, while his ship lay at anchor in the harbour at Colombo.
His best work still lay before him then, and now perhaps the ingenuity and devotion of some researcher may be able to assess what Ceylon meant to Chekhov and how it influenced him. What follows here is the briefest reference to Ceylon as it occurs in his letters and his brother's editorial notes.
It was in 1890 that Anton Pavlovitch Chekhov was able to realize a long-expressed wish to travel to Sakhalin across Siberia in order to report on the life there, and to write of it as he had already written of the Steppes. Sakhalin was a penal colony to which“ lifers” were banished; their families being sometimes allowed to accompany them. It was remote, a bitter and inhospitable region, and despite the advice of his friends Chekhov persisted in his plans and set out in April, 1890, at a season of year when the journey across the waste of Siberia was less rigorous than it would otherwise have been.
CENSUS IN SAKHALIN
What took Chekhov to Sakhalin? In his own words he went “to Sakhalin in order to write a book on our convict settlement there.” He had been awarded the Pushkin Prize in 1888, and had made a reputation for himself through his newspaper sketches and stories as a writer with a keen interest in humanity and an eye for idiosyncratic human types. It must have been his humanity which drew him to the penal colony of which there were very grim tales in circulation.
He spent a little over three months there, arriving on the 11th of July and leaving in October just as the long winter heralded its approach. Of his experiences in Sakhalin, the census he carried out, the persons he met, he gave an account in his long sketch of the island which was published in eight numbers of a Russian magazine between October, 1893, and July, 1894. On his way back, in 1890, the ship in which he travelled touched at Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Colombo. From Colombo it took 13 days to Port Said. And from there he returned via the Black Sea to Russia. He was back home in December 1890.
Sakhalin turned Chekhov’s innermost conscience sour. In a letter he wrote to Suvorin on his return to Russia--the letter of 9 December 1890-he speaks of having a bitter feeling in his inside as of rancid butter. Nor did the depression lift on the voyage away from the penal colony. In the China Sea, according to his brother, Michael, there was such a storm that the ship listed terribly and Chekhov had a pistol ready to shoot himself rather than be the prey of man-eating sharks if the ship foundered. Hong Kong, he remembered for its lovely bay and "the traffic on the sea such as I have never seen even in pictures-fine roads, trams, a funicular railway, museums, botanical gardens. Wherever you cast your eye you see everywhere the most solicitous care of the English for their employees. There is even a club for sailors."
He contrasted the English colony with the new Russian he had met on his journey to Sakhalin, much to the disadvantage of the latter. (I am told you will not find these comments in the Soviet editions of Chekhov’s letters, for there must be no complimentary references to anything from the West. How this would have amused Chekhov).
ADJUNCTS OF PARADISE:
At Singapore the depression deepened, and of it he could recall little. But in Ceylon it was different. Here he was in Paradise. “Then came Ceylon,” he wrote to Suvorin, “ a place where there is Paradise.” Did he know-perhaps he did that the mythical connection of Ceylon with Paradise was an article of faith with travellers centuries previously. Perhaps its paradisal qualities were given it by his memories of Sakhalin and the voyage thither. We do not know. But the short account he gave of his stay in Ceylon speaks of wonderful weather, the moon on coconut groves, and that most important adjunct of every paradise-woman.
He travelled some hundred versts-abut a hundred miles—on the railway. Where did his journey take him ? Not towards Negombo, or to the South, because he speaks later of the magnificence of the mountains and the precipices, when he wrote to his sisters from Venice on the 25th of March, 1891 : “ The mountains, precipices and snowy crests I have seen in the Caucasus and Ceylon are much more impressive than here. And later, to Suvorin on the 16th of August 1892, he wrote: “By the way, I don't particularly care to go abroad. After Singapore, Ceylon and our own Amur, Italy and even the crater of Vesuvius do not seem especially important. After being in India and China (he never was in India, it is Ceylon he is referring to) I did not see a great difference between the other European countries and Russia.”
Very definitely Ceylon stuck in Chekhov’s thoughts. He was quite emphatic about it to another correspondent-Shiglov. “I was in hell—Sakhalin-and in Paradise, that is to say the island of Ceylon.” And then he quotes from a fable of Krilov : “ What butterflies, what beetles, what flies, what cockroaches." His memory of Paradise resembled Adam's, for in his letter to Suvorin he writes : “There (in Ceylon) I sated myself till I was fed up to the back-teeth with palm forests and bronze coloured women. If I shall have children, I shall tell them, not without pride : You, sons of bitches, in my time I had relations with a black-eyed Indian woman, and where? In a coconut grove on a moonlit night. "
He had no children, and no one in Ceylon after the lapse of sixty-six years has turned up to claim through the genius of his writing kinship with Anton Pavlovitch Chekhov. Perhaps that idyll in the coconut grove produced some other kind of genius, and there are in Ceylon today some descendants of the great Russian writer. That, too, would have delighted him. In his letters to friends he engages in solemn leg pulls -he was married in Ceylon, etc. In his good strong slangy style, he wrote to his brother Alexander once : "Take your trousers in your mouth and choke yourself with envy--that I was in Ceylon." And again, he quotes from Krilov to illustrate his enchantment with the insect life of the tropics.
What did Chekhov take away with him from Ceylon, besides a memory of Paradise, bronze coloured Eves, and it’s exhilarating natural beauty ? His brother, Michael, wrote that Ceylon made a profound impression upon him. Perhaps wracked by insomnia, as he was, when his illness took stronger hold upon him, he recalled the coconut trees in the moonlight, fireflies, and the queen of the night-the dark woman he knew there. There is no reference to anything he saw in Ceylon in his stories or his plays. Gusev-a story which Virginia Woolf ranked very highly-contains a reminiscence of a burial at sea on the voyage out to Ceylon. That is all.
Yet, for a time, after he left Ceylon Chekhov had something, he took with him to occupy his thoughts. He fell in love with the mongoose and took three of the "charming beasts” back home with him. There is a photograph (reproduced here) of him with the son of Baroness Uexkhull on board the Peterburg in the Arabian Sea, and two of the mongooses can be seen affectionately clinging to Chekhov and his travelling companion.
The mongoose were a constant source of pleasure and wonder to Chekhov and his friends. Michael thought that they were "by nature predestined to spoil, break and destroy everything they could get hold of. They scratched with their claws in the smallest cracks and stuck their noses everywhere." They nested in the top hats of his friends, and investigated the fingers of gloves, and delighted and horrified visitors to Chekhov’s country house. One lady was so nervous of them that she enquired whether the mongoose ate human beings. Perhaps she had heard this on good authority. A friend, modest Tchaikovsky, came all the way from Moscow specially to see them.
The cold affected one of them, and he nearly died. But he recovered and started breaking crockery again with unfailing regularity. One died, and Chekhov, tired of them, presented the two which remained to the Moscow Zoo.
KNEW A WOMAN HERE
Much later-in 1900—when Chekhov was interested in helping Gorky, he kept telling him he ought to go to Ceylon. He must have regarded such a trip as part of experience which no man should willingly miss, for he wrote: “So you don't want to go to India ? That is a pity. When India is in the past, a long sea voyage, you have something to think about when you can't get to sleep.”
The references end there, and we have a picture of Chekhov lying awake in the night, recalling the sights and sounds of Ceylon, the endless insects, the palms and the moon, and remembering Paradise-true Paradise, for without benefit of the serpent, he knew a woman here.