I recently finished reading The Gambler. It was my last major Dostoevsky. I started with Crime and Punishment in university, then gradually waded through The Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot, Notes From Underground, The Double, Devils, The House of the Dead, and finally The Gambler. In time, I may get to Dostoevsky’s lesser works, but this is it for the foreseeable future. I have more than enough books to read.
I’d found Dostoevsky’s other short work, The Double, to be a masturbatory exercise in abstract noir storytelling—one of those stories that projects such naked antipathy for its protagonist that the reader can intuit from the second page that nothing good or conclusive is going to happen. With this in mind, I hadn’t had high hopes for The Gambler. However, it turned out to be a remarkably fitting cap to the Dostoevsky experience, and purely enjoyable. It was essentially proto-Dostoevsky, written in such a hurry that it became a rollicking Dumas page-turner, living on pure plot stripped of all the introspective hours of theorizing and self-doubt. In many ways, it felt like a precursor to The Idiot: Mr. Astley’s introduction on the train was almost identical to Myshkin’s; the narrator himself was Rogozhin—rather interesting considering that this work is considered quasi-autobiographical—and the woman they both love, Polina, suffers from a less dramatic incarnation of Nastasya Filippovna’s self-destructive pride.
It was refreshing to finally get a view of the ‘abroad’ from which Dostoevsky’s characters have so often recently returned. Set in Switzerland, we see at last Russians in exile, banding together simply because they are Russians, padding their ranks with other foreigners living abroad simply because they are all foreigners.
As the story progressed, I became conscious of just how familiar this narrative felt. Though separated by one and a half centuries, modern Tokyo is exactly the same: People who share nothing except their displacement, drawn together simply because they are living in a world parallel to that of the local populace.
The genius is in the metaphor of gambling. Is living in Tokyo often not gambling? Is it not a temporary adventure, something that may pay off, or may drain us down to nothing? ‘Today I am an English teacher; but tomorrow I may be something better—I am, after all, a rare commodity.’ Relationships are the same. Why be satisfied when there may be someone better?
Here I will distinguish 'Living in Tokyo' from 'Living in the Rest of Japan.' More than anywhere in this country, Tokyo really is the fabled land of gaijin opportunity.
We roll the dice and try again year after year, secretly believing that this year will be different. In The Gambler, nothing brings this home more poignantly than when Alexey Ivanovitch strikes it rich and suddenly becomes the center of everyone's attention. This is, at its heart, the gaijin experience in Tokyo: Even without striking it rich, you are the center of attention. But in the same way, it is all so easily spent on nothing.
I finished reading feeling furious with humanity. I’m not sure whether I included myself in that group. I likely felt that, despite all evidence to the contrary, somehow I knew better. Which is exactly how The Gambler concludes: As long as there is a fool's hope, the game will never end.