Trepov on the Dissecting Table

Csáth, Géza

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.
  • Date of entry: Nov-12-2004
  • Last revised: Dec-04-2006


Vanya and Uncle Nicolai, two orderlies in a morgue, are preparing for funeral the body of Trepov ("Known everywhere simply as Trepov" (63), a hated officer because of whom "more [Russian] people were murdered than absolutely necessary." Trepov is the pawn of "the Little Father" (64); both very well may be cruel administrators of an invading force, not necessarily Russians themselves, although this is not clear.

What is clear is that Vanya, the younger orderly, despises Trepov. After finishing the dressing of the cadaver in military finery, replete with "all those gilt-enameled medals" (64). Vanya suddenly closes the door, to Uncle Nicolai’s bewilderment. Even more surprising is Vanya’s determined slapping of Trepov’s face three times. With tacit approval from Uncle Nicolai, Vanya then kicks Trepov. Finally, Vanya slaps, with all his strength "the corpse’s face again. Now we can go, he stammered, his face flushed with the thrill of it." (65)

Vanya goes to bed thinking about the son his wife is expecting (since there was no ultrasound between 1908 and 1912 when Csáth most likely wrote this story, this detail remains mysterious) and how he will boast to him about "that day’s doings." And then he falls fast asleep, "breathing evenly, deeply, like all healthy people" (65).


Géza Csáth was a tragic physician-writer born in Szabadka, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1887. A talented musician, Csáth enrolled in the Budapest Medical School after the Academy of Music rejected him, perhaps in part because of Csáth’s love of atonal music (and therefore early appreciation of, and later a recognized music critic of, Bartók and Kodály.) As Birnbaum notes in her biographical sketch, Csáth began smoking opium in 1909, an addiction that effectively began the abrupt and violent downhill spiral of his life.

Practicing as a neurologist, Csáth did research while studying mental illness. (Indeed, one wonders if the addicted researcher in neurologic and mental processes saw in himself the protagonist of his short story The Surgeon--see this database). In 1913 Csáth left the halls of research and became a country doctor. His life is a chaotic turmoil henceforth with increasing opium addiction and a stint in World War I followed by physical and mental illness, which culminated when he shot his wife and attempted suicide in an insane asylum. In 1919, en route to Budapest following a successful escape, Csáth was detained by Serbian border guards, swallowed poison, and died.

As shocking as this story is, it pales next to some of the other tales in this collection, which Angela Carter, no mean purveyor of the weirdly fantastic story herself, calls, in a marvelous introduction, "an extraordinary, uneasy mixture of sentimentality, sadism, and sexual repression" (12). "Trepov on the Dissecting Table" has resonances with the work of three other physician-authors. The entire tale, its brevity, its marvelously ironic yet true ending, its depiction of the common folk of the earth and their innermost thoughts as expressed in action observed only by themselves and the reader--these are all pure Anton P. Chekhov.

The morbid, sacrilegious treatment of the dead by paramedical personnel reminds this reader of Richard Selzer’s A Blue Ribbon Affair (see this database), in which love, not violence, occurs in the presence of, and not to, a cadaver. Finally, Vanya’s flushed face and thrill in the execution of the profane act he is doing and the knowledge of where and to whom he is doing it, recall William Carlos Williams’s physician in The Use of Force (annotated by Felice Aull and also by Pamela Moore and Jack Coulehan) who remarks during the forceful examination of a little girl’s pharynx to see if she has diphtheria, "I could have torn the child apart in my own fury and enjoyed it. It was a pleasure to attack her. My face was burning with it" (see annotations). Williams’s physician is another health care giver who exerts unprofessional yet (or is it therefore?) gratifying violence on the patient, the recipient of what are usually benign attentions.


Tanslated by Jascha Kessler and Charlotte Rogers. Introduction by Angela Carter; biographical note by Marianna D. Birnbaum. Part of the series, Writers from the Other Europe, ed. Philip Roth. First Published in the USA under the title The Magician’s Garden and Other Stories (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980).

Primary Source

Opium and Other Stories



Place Published

New York




Marianna D. Birnbaum

Page Count