The Three Fat Men by Yuri Olesha

12 March, 2014

Three Fat Men

Published in the very early years of the new Soviet regime and before the horror of Stalin’s rise to power, Yuri Olesha’s The Three Fat Men is considered one of the most important pedagogic books for young communists and an instrument of state propaganda and is controversial even now.

The Three Fat Men
is a satirical allegory, a mixture of folktales with names recalling Shakespeare’s Italian comedies. I’m not sure whether that is to make it seem universal, but the setting is a country tightly ruled by the Three Fat Men who are greedy, lazy and gluttons and who take all the grain, coal and iron from their people and give back nothing. When Prospero the armourer and Tibullus the tightrope walker incite revolution, the Three Fat Men’s soldiers set out to capture them and throw Prospero in jail. Tibullus manages to escape and is helped by Dr. Gaspar, a highly regarded intellectual, who coincidentally is given the task of bringing the Three Fat Men’s heir, Tutti’s, golden haired doll back to life or face death. When the doll is lost, Gaspar despairs until he meets Tibullus’ young friend Suok, a dancing girl at the circus, who is the spitting image of the doll. And so they concoct a plan to get Suok into the palace, save Gaspar and set Prospero free.

Olesha’s tale reminded me strongly of George Orwell’s Animal Farm (even though it is from a completely opposite ideology) and Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart trilogy with their clear demarcation of right and wrong, good and evil. The Three Fat Men and their soldiers are evil as opposed to the common folk who are being robbed of what is rightfully theirs. Its strong and simple ethical message is hard to ignore and is actually a good tool for teaching children. However, as with many stories in this vein, children would probably miss the communist subtext which for many adults will be hard to separate with actual events and the violent history of Soviet Russia.

Although a very short book, I confess that I found it rather difficult to get into and it only became interesting once Suok was smuggled into the palace when things begin to move quickly. However, there were some very funny moments, such as the reaction of the Three Fat Men and important court officials to little Tutti’s tantrums and, even more bizarre, the balloon seller being dressed up as cake and worried he would be eaten before escaping through a bottomless pot and ending up in a cabbage patch. The message of the book itself is one I rather agree with but I’m not entirely sure I understand why it’s such a popular book when there are more interesting fairy tales around unless you grew up reading it, which seems the case in many Eastern European and post-Soviet countries. I have a copy of the illustrated Soviet version which made me see it more as a children’s book and I will be passing it on to my nephews and niece to polish their moral compass.

As this was a book group choice, we had an interesting discussion regarding the purpose of this book and its construction as propaganda for communism. And it seems especially pertinent regarding recent events between Russia and the Ukraine. I probably liked it the least but most of my book group found it highly enjoyable and it sparked an interesting discussion.

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