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The Magnificent Art of Fleas & Machines


As he lies dying on a winter street, his brain split open by being thrown out of a hospital window, Lefty begs, “Tell the Tsar that the English don’t clean their musket barrels with brick-dust.”

The ee’s Arts Correspondent sashayed to the ‘International’ Bookfair, and serendipitously picked up the children’s satire Lefty by Nikolai Leskov. The tale takes place right after Russia’s defeat of Napoleon’s multicultural “12-tongue” army, and the 1815 Vienna Congress where Europe ‘donated’ Sri Lanka to the English, after England’s spies had just bought off a coterie of montane Sinhale’s rulers.

Lefty is a story, based on real-life characters, of a visit to England by a Russian Tsar (all their Tsars, in fact, all Anglo-Euro royalty, were German!) The English wish to ‘shock and awe’ the Tsar to their side by bragging about their industrial marvels. They show off to the Tsar their factories and warehouses. to prove they’re “much better at everything than the Russians and were thus able to boast”.

At a museum, the English show the Tsar minerals and insects stolen from across the world, and give him a gift on a tray. The gift cannot be seen by the eye, only with a microscope. It is a clockwork flea, made of steel, with a hole in its stomach for an equally almost-invisible key to wind it up to make it fly, do pirouettes and quadrilles! The Tsar immediately gifts them a million: they can have in silver or banknotes, but the English don’t trust banknotes. The Russians then notice there’s no box to carry the flea. The English then make them buy a box, which pisses off the Cossack, considering it another English swindle: “You always get a box with everything you buy.” The Cossack is so angry he pockets the microscope. But the Tsar is impressed and calls English workers the best. The Cossack explains it’s because English workers had rules for everything, including science, and also lived better.

Back in Russia, the old Tsar dies, and the new Tsar recalls the Cossack to explain the now-rusty almost-dead flea, who nonetheless when wound up can still dance. The Cossack, not wishing to let the Tsar get too impressed, tells him that the craftsmen of Tula could do a better job than the English. He then gives the flea to the best Tula gunsmiths, one being Lefty, and threatens them to come up with something better. The Tula workers point out, English art “has a lot of sense to it” and get to work. After many threats, bullying and beatings, the workers finally present the flea to the Cossack, who rushes it back to Tsar, but they can’t figure out what’s different. Lefty is then kidnapped to the palace, and explains: even though workers can see it with their trained eyes, the Tsar needs the largest microscope in the world: The microscope reveals they have attached tiny military boots to the flea’s feet!

Still, the Tsar is thoroughly impressed and sends Lefty to London to show off Russian prowess. The English wish to buy the worker off, and after getting him drunk, ask him how he learned his craft. Lefty just says he read Russia’s own holy books. The English explain he’d be much better if he learned mathematics, and point out, “Although you’re very clever with your hands, you didn’t realize that a tiny machine like the flea is calculated with great precision and can’t carry the shoes you put on. That’s why the flea doesn’t jump and do dances anymore.” The worker responds, “There’s no arguing… we’re not very strong in learning but we’re loyal to our country.”

The English offer to give Lefty a better education, a wife and money he could remit to his parents. They take him on a tour of their factories, observing that the English are Protestants too. Lefty doesn’t like the food or the women. He finds Russian gods more interesting and the scriptures fatter, with their own additions to things the Bible left out and that Russian workers are smarter. He’s interested in the guns, though.

The story ends with Lefty being mistreated when he returns to Russia, yet, as he lies dying on a winter street, his brain split open by being thrown out of a hospital window, he begs, “Tell the Tsar that the English don’t clean their musket barrels with brick-dust.” The backstory suggests the Russians lost the Crimean War (1853-6) due to bad armaments, the children book’s notes explaining: “economically and militarily backward Russia was defeated by the English, French and Turkish Coalition”.

Perhaps those who advocate handicraft for Sri Lankan workers, may one day advocate catapults for the Sri Lankan army, as ecologically sound!

[For more insights into economies, economics and most importantly economists, visit www.eesrilanka.wordpress.com]

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