But how does the crocodile do it?

“How does the crocodile do it? / Nobody knows / They say he eats too much / He never wears a coat / That he stings with his teeth / That he cries very often / But when he’s quiet / How does this crocodile do? // How does the crocodile do it? / There is no one who knows / he Gets angry but does not scream / He sips camomile tea / And half asleep he leaves ”. It is natural to hear this song from the 1993 Zecchino d’oro (36th Zecchino d’oro of the Piccolo Coro dell’Antoniano di Bologna) in your ears as soon as you pick up this small volume and read the title of the story. A crocodile that here acts a bit like the crocodile in the Peter Pan saga: a disturbing and ironic presence, in a small theater of specks and figurines designed between caricature and sarcastic by a relaxed Dostoevsky.

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Cover of Dostoyevsky’s book, The Crocodile

There are several ways to start reading or becoming interested in Dostoyevsky. Certainly for a reader who has never read Dostoyevsky this short story is one of the best ways. For anyone who is a reader of Dostoevsky, it is also a good opportunity to read something atypical and different from the “usual” Dostoevsky or rooted in his own imagination, a “Gogolian” Dostoevsky: capable of having fun and making people laugh, capturing the grotesque and making humor about the social life and the “dudes” who roamed Russia at the time.

Of course, a reader can also take other paths. Go to the bookshop or library (does anyone still do it?) and get advice on one of the great “classics”, one of the many “building blocks” that Dostoevsky wrote and which have become the heritage not only of the “Western canon” but of human culture. Taking an interest also in his life – the fundamental episode: those minutes of waiting before being shot, then the sudden and unexpected pardon and the long years of tsarist gulags; the particularly strong religious sense of an edgy writer with a certainly not easy character… And then proceed to discover the context, that tsarist Russia overlooking Europe, with such “backward” characteristics but also a great desire for France and Europe, a development post-Napoleonic unequal and ambiguous, until 1905 when everything starts to fall apart…

My first “contact” with Dostoevsky happened for me, as a child, thanks to the television dramas broadcast by Rai. We are in the era of black and white. “Humiliated and offended”[[1]was broadcast in 1958 in 4 episodes, with Enrico Maria Salerno, Anna Maria Guarnieri and others, the first script broadcast by the Italian Rai. “The idiot”[[2]was adapted in six episodes in 1959, and starred the young Giorgio Albertazzi in the part of Prince Myškin: and never was a part more suited to this Italian actor, but there were also Anna Proclemer and Gian Maria Volontè. “Crime and Punishment” was adapted into episodes in 1963, there are Luigi Vannucchi, Ilaria Occhini and many others as actors. “The player” was broadcast in 1965, with the beautiful Carla Gravina, Lina Volonghi always extraordinary, and Warner Bentivegna protagonist[[3]. “The Brothers Karamazov”[[4]was adapted in 7 episodes in 1969 and starred: Corrado Pani, Umberto Orsini, Carlo Simoni, Salvo Randone (in the part of the father of the Karamazovs), Lea Massari…

It was a pedagogical Rai that of Italy just out of the war, with a great desire to learn and know – and on the part of those in power, the willingness to think that culture should be a collective heritage and not just a few. And for those who had certain political ideas in mind, seeing dramas taken from Dostoevsky or other Russian authors was a way to savor a bit of that culture otherwise banned from political communication. In adolescence then, the books, first the classic fiction for children – with its sometimes synthetic translations compared to the originals, like the television dramas themselves due to the need for time -. Then a long oblivion. And the return to reading Dostoevsky and the “Russians”, but this time on more reliable texts, also thanks to the suggestion of Paolo Nori[[5]and his ease of communication.

Serena Vitale, who edits the story “The crocodile” published in the Little Adelphi Library, mentions how Lenin hated Dostoevsky “surnamely … moralizing vomit … hysterical penitent” (p. 94). If one does not want to embark on specialized studies (starting from Bakhtin, Lotman, Todorov…) who is interested in a novel on the life of Dostoevsky can read “The Garden of the Cossacks” by Jan Brokken[[6]and maybe start from there a detour on the Baltic parts of European culture. Yes, because Russia continues to be part of Europe, and no one can think of getting away with it or playing the crocodile when there is a civil war in which we are all involved.


Editorial synopsis

Petersburg, 1860s. In a shop in the Passage, the elegant shopping arcade – the first in Russia – inaugurated in 1848 on Nevskij prospekt, a German exhibits a crocodile for a fee. The official Ivan Matveich, an opinionated and ignorant man, and his beautiful wife Elena Ivanovna go to admire the exotic attraction with a family friend. But when Ivan Matveich tries to tickle his nose with a glove, the crocodile swallows it in one gulp. Disemboweling the animal would seem to be the only solution – “retrograde”, however, observes a passing progressive. And Ivan Matveich himself, from the belly of his leviathan – big, comfortable, just a little too smelly of rubber – lets it be known that he wants to stay in there. Far from worldly leisure, he claims, he will be able to devote himself like a “new Fourier” to improving the fate of mankind, and “from the crocodile … truth and light will come”. While people flock to the Passage to see the “monster”, Ivan Matveich – a caustic parody of Chernyshevsky and all the “revolutionary” thinkers of the time – continues to fantasize about the new magnificent and progressive fortunes of the Russian homeland. Winking at Gogol’s Nose, anticipating other and more terrible twentieth-century metamorphoses, having fun and having fun, Dostoevsky foresees the triumph of the bourgeoisie, the cult of well-being and profit, up to the passion for shopping centers, and builds the image of a “new world” as laughable as it is monstrous.


[1] It doesn’t seem to me that there is a specific entry on the Italian drama, but only a mention in the entry dedicated to the novel, come on Wikipedia.

[2] You see: Wikipedia.

[3] You see: Rudi Ghedini blog.

[4] You see: Wikipedia.

[5] The Russians are mad : Synthetic course of Russian literature 1820-1991 / Paolo Nori. – Milan : DeA Planeta Libri, 2019 ; first reprint. – 184 p., [8] :br. ; 21.3cm. – (UTET). -ISBN 978-88-511-7265-7. – And also: Directory of madmen in Russian literature: authors, characters and stories / edited by Paolo Nori. – 1 ed. – Milan : Adriano Salani publisher / Mauri Spagnol publishing group, 2021. – 317 p., [3] :br. ; 20.5cm. -ISBN 978-88-3100-591-3.

[6] The Cossack Garden / Jan Brokken ; translation by Claudia Cozzi and Claudia Di Palermo. – Milan : Iperborea, 2016. – (Iperborea ; 271). – Tit.orig.: De Kozakkentuin. -ISBN 978-88-7091-471-9.

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But how does the crocodile do it?