Colm Toibin, Rachel Polonsky, Zone: Weekend Reviews
This weekend: stunning short stories from Colm Toíbin, adventures in Russian history, a metaphysical train ride from Milan to Rome in Zone, and Robert Littell’s rediscovered Vietnam-era farce.
The Empty Family: Stories By Colm Toíbin
In Colm Toíbin’s 2009 Booker-nominated novel, Brooklyn, he described a young girl’s migration to New York from Ireland’s County Wexford, and her struggle to commit to simple American happiness. In his latest work, T he Empty Family, he has written a collection of stories that are similarly preoccupied with the life that might have been had a different path been taken. The stories are haunted, too, by another ghost—that of Henry James, whose life Toíbin fictionalized in The Master (2004). The first story of this new collection begins with a passage from James’ notebooks recording a dinner-party anecdote told to him by Lady Gregory about a friend; in “Silence,” Toíbin imagines that Lady Gregory’s tale was in fact a veiled confession about her own secret love affair. Silent regrets take on new forms again in “Two Women,” in which an elderly film-set designer living in California is fiercely professional to everyone she meets, refusing to discuss her personal life with even her closest companion, a Guatemalan housekeeper; it is only when she revisits her hometown in Ireland that she is forced to consider what she might have lost.
Past lives, in these quietly devastating stories, return to their narrators like supernatural visitations, both disturbing and alluring. In “The Pearl Fishers,” a writer who lives alone, preciously guarding his space and seeking partners online when he has the urge, is contacted by an acquaintance and her husband, a man with whom he had a passionate, loving affair as a teenager at boarding school; despite his protestation that “that was something that had not bothered me for years,” it is clear that he is emotionally removed from the adult he thought he would become. “The future,” he explains, “is a foreign country.”
Toíbin is a lyrical, melancholy writer, but his stories swiftly gather momentum; they are openly erotic, deeply wrenching. In “The Street,” the last, longest, and most beautiful story in the book, two male Pakistani immigrants working for a barbers’ shop in Barcelona strive to live with their desire in an insular, prejudiced community. The freedom to love, for Toibin’s characters, often resides in the memory and the imagination alone, and—as any reader who turns to the last page of this collection will feel for herself—returning to the real world comes with a sense of loss.
— Emily Stokes, Contributor
Molotov's Magic Lantern: Travels in Russian History By Rachel Polonsky
When the British writer Rachel Polonsky moved into an apartment on No. 3 Romanov Lane in Moscow, she knew that she might brush up against history. No. 3 was a massive building of more than 200 apartments, which had been home to many high-level Soviet officials and, before 1917, to members of Tsarist Russia's aristocracy. Instead, after being handed the keys to the former apartment of Vyacheslav Molotov—Stalin's foreign minister and one of the few old Bolsheviks to survive into old age—she found that this remarkably well-preserved apartment, mere feet from her own, represented a veritable time capsule of early Soviet life.
Polonsky's book, drawn from her research and travels around Russia in the years after the fall of the Soviet Union, begins as a sort of intellectual biography, asking how someone as learned as Molotov could become a monster, an integral part of the Stalinist regime responsible for millions of deaths. It later becomes a broad and searching examination of a smattering of far-flung Russian cities and the interconnected groups of intellectuals, revolutionaries, writers, scientists, and government officials who passed through them.
Despite Russia's recent shift toward a particularly anarchic form of capitalism, "No. 3 is Kremlin property. The kommendantka [building supervisor] is proud of the fact that she still reports to the security services." Polonsky’s neighbors in the building are members of the new Russian elite—bankers, executives, moneyed descendents of Soviet officials—along with some foreign counterparts.
Molotov's apartment contains many of the same furnishings it had decades earlier, but Polonsky finds herself immediately drawn to his library, which is filled with books—some of them heavily underlined by the owner—whose authors were killed during the Great Purge of the late 1930s. Numerous high-ranking government officials who had once been thought loyal servants of the communist state were arrested, tortured, and executed. Hundreds of thousands of kulaks (prosperous peasants), members of the intelligentsia, and ordinary citizens were also arrested and executed or sent to the gulag—a fate that often equaled death. The writer Isaac Babel and the poet Osip Mandelstam, who both appear in Molotov's Magic Lantern, numbered among the purge's victims.
As Polonsky notes, Molotov, whose self-given name derives from mlot, the Russian word for hammer, was intimately involved with the Great Purge, signing more execution lists than even Stalin—his signature led to the deaths of 43,569 people. The apartment's books reveal Molotov as a passionate reader, "a true bibliophile," who thought deeply about what he read and considered himself an intellectual. But they offer no answers about how Molotov could approve so many killings.
As she moves beyond Moscow and tours Russia's hinterlands, Polonsky excels at creating a vivid, idiosyncratic character sketch in a few paragraphs, only to suddenly reveal that person's terrible end. Among this group, Polonsky writes about Father Alexander Men, a Jew who converted to Russian Orthodox Christianity, joined the priesthood, and became a beloved guiding figure in Lutsino, a dacha community west of Moscow. Lutsino was near Zvenigorod, a town renowned for its biological and medical research facilities, and both communities hosted a number of notable personages over the years, including the nuclear scientist (and future dissident) Andrei Sakharov, Anton Chekov, and the poet Marina Tsvetaeva. Father Men, whose Jewish background in an anti-Semitic country blocked him from his dream of becoming a scientist, seemed to fit in perfectly with this pastoral, intellectually minded community. That is, until "one morning in September 1990, [when] Father Men was murdered with a single axe-blow to the back of the head." The killing remains unsolved and signifies a particular paradox of Russian life, where heinous crimes and great cultural and scientific achievement often exist side-by-side.
Polonsky has the academic's talent of uncovering primary source materials (often obscure) and linking them with a larger historical or cultural narrative. She can trace an idea's genesis and chart its persistence over generations. In this vein, she examines Novgorod, an ancient city near St. Petersburg, which was governed by an elected body, known as the veche, during the medieval period. Polonsky explains that the veche served as a democratic model for the anti-tsarist Decembrist uprising, in 1825, and has been invoked in recent years by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Russian tycoon whose imprisonment is widely seen as a response to his political agitation against the Putin regime.
Although Polonsky's book is nominally a book about the past, she periodically drops barbed comments about "Russia's new era of Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality" under Putin and his protégé, Dmitri Medvedev. She notes that the popular mayor of Archangel, an important northern port city, was arrested for corruption after declaring his intention to run for president against Medvedev. For the first time in many years, Victory Day parades now feature ICBMs. These remarks lend credence to the notion that the creeping authoritarianism of contemporary Russia increasingly draws on that of the past.
Despite the generally high quality of Polonsky's work, she sometimes leaves out relevant information. Fringe characters—guides, drivers—sometimes appear out of nowhere, with the reader being left to impute who "Vanya" is. Polonsky can be vague about when she visited some towns and who her traveling companions are—one is called nothing more than a "painter" who sometimes stops to sketch country scenes. But these are quibbles that can be overlooked. Molotov's Magic Lantern is a worthy addition to the growing canon of Russophile literature. It has much to say about Russia's neglected minor cities, revealing their surprising links with some of the country's most eminent, or notorious, figures. And by placing Molotov as the totemic figure of this journey, she has taken up a man who remains as contradictory, vexing, and, indeed, murderous as the state he once helped to oversee.
— Jacob Silverman, Contributor
ZoneBy Mathias Énard
In 1947, the Austrian writer Hermann Broch wrote an essay, in English, that was published as the introduction to Rachel Bespaloff’s On the Iliad. In his essay, “The Style of the Mythical Age” Broch writes: “Homer is on the threshold where myth steps over into poetry, Tolstoy on that where poetry steps back into myth. Coming from myth, returning to myth: The whole, or nearly the whole, history of European literature is strung... Is this not like a late homecoming? And if it be such—does it not portend the dusk before the night?” Broch’s apocalyptic statement zeroes in on man’s obsession with mythmaking and historicizing. As such, it finds ready application when assessing the tremendous accomplishment of Mathias Énard’s 2008 novel, Zone, which has recently been translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell.
Soaking readers in “the hangover of the century,” Zone unfolds over the course of a train ride from Milan to Rome. The book commences, in medias res, with a phrase that proclaims its classical predilections, “everything is harder once you reach man’s estate, everything rings falser a little metallic like the sound of two bronze weapons clashing [.]” The observer of these remarks is Francis Servain Mirković—a former intelligence officer of French and Croatian descent who, coasting on half an amphetamine, yet depleted from a steady stream of alcohol, is traveling to transact a deal with representatives of the Vatican.
In Rome, the narrator conspires to hand over a trove of documents for the Judas-inspired sum of $300,000. These papers—located in a suitcase chained discreetly above his seat—detail a smorgasbord of atrocities committed in the shadows of the last several decades. For Mirković, this “treason’ constitutes a step in his larger plan to divest himself of his old life by taking up an assumed identity (whose relationship to the appropriator is not disclosed until near the end of the book). Apart from a few chapters that comprise a story-within-the-story (during which Mirković reads a novel that describes the fall of Beirut in 1982), the narration hurdles forward with nary a period in sight till the last page. Its insouciance with punctuation may lend the book an aura of difficulty, but in practice this is not the case.
There is an incantatory quality to Mirković’s musings that binds the reader to the turns of his mind as it traverses across subjects as disparate as Malcolm Lowry’s troubled marriage, the origins of the King David Hotel, the Serbian-Croatian war, and the morbid curiosities of Caravaggio, among many others. Without lapsing into a fixation on minutiae, the novel blankets the reader in summary after summary of deprivation, strife, folly, and murder. In this respect, the challenge posed by Énard’s novel arises from its pummeling, as opposed to mystifying, erudition; thus, in essence, Zone is a documentary novel. While throughout its pages, it invokes continually the sources of Western literature vis-à-vis the ancient myths, it all the same reflects our age’s curatorial impulses to preserve information lest it be forgotten over the course of the next news cycle. It is, in short, one of the best books of the year.
—Christopher Byrd, Contributor
Sweet ReasonBy Robert Littell
The copyright page on Robert Littell's recently reissued Vietnam war farce Sweet Reason is a wasted sheet of paper. No reader could mistake this vicious satire of our nation's Navy for a product of 2010. From captain to ensign, Littell's sailors are selfish cowards, bungling constantly, and finding praise when they lie to save their skins. This second novel, written before he crossed over to spy-thrillers, is a refreshing throwback to more cynical era. This is not the way a polite author today portrays our troops.
His is the inglorious crew of the Eugene F. Ebersole, a World War Two-era junkpile whose overdue retirement is interrupted when a computing error dispatches it to the Gulf of Tonkin. Although his men groan at the unwanted responsibility, the captain and a few other wannabe-Hornblowers see the war as a chance for recognition. It's not long before their foolish enthusiasm brings catastrophe.
Attempting to rescue a downed fighter plane, the Ebersole accidentally steams over it, crushing the hatch shut and sending the pilot to his death. The captain sends torpedoes after a sonar signal that sounds like an enemy sub, then looks the other way when all that floats up is blubbery chunks of blown-apart whale. And in the book's most elaborate set piece, an attempt to impress a visiting congressman with a little target practice leads to hundreds of dead villagers, a destroyed Navy helicopter, and blithe congratulations for all involved.
Littell's sharp prose keeps it from being unreadably grim. His absurd mind-set never falters, and even in the darkest moments he dips into the quip-reserve to keep up his barrage on the men who strive to make a career of murder. Despite the dozen-plus characters, Sweet Reason is a trim 200 pages—a model of naval efficiency!—and that Littell went on to write Cold War page-turners is no surprise. The large cast of goldbricking misfits calls to mind Catch-22—the book's cover makes the same comparison, in rather desperate fashion—but while that novel took 16 years of peacetime to emerge, the toxic climate of the early '70s allowed Sweet Reason to be written even before the fall of Saigon.
During our ongoing conflicts, the soldiers have been humanized by their blogs, their video letters home, and a torrent of low budget war documentaries, making it impossible to treat them, as Littell could, as a murderous force indistinguishable from the enemy they were fighting. But this book is a useful reminder that uniforms do not make saints. His killers are no less foolish, greedy, or fearful than the folks back home, and that is a truth which will not fade with time.
—W.M. Akers, Contributor