[Fiction – 2005]
The Siberian wastes of Russia where this novel is set are cold, bleak wastelands where people freeze to death all the time. That is just how this novel left me… freezing cold.
A few pages in and I was wondering why anyone should feel the need to rewrite Doctor Zhivago.
At times it feels like someone took all the Russian greats of the novel: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Pasternak, etc whizzed them up in a blender and poured away the best parts, then watered what remained down to leave this rather thin bland insipid juice.
The vast long stretches of prose like Samarin’s tale of his escape from the prison, and the story of the Czech soldiers’ war are as bleak and featureless as the Siberian wastes. Oh, it looks pretty enough, but once you are out trudging wearily through these wastelands of backstory, death, at least of the characters, does come as a blessed relief. Someone seems to freeze to death every few pages. It is often hard to know, or care, who it is. The number of people freezing to death seems to reach absurd proportions in the Czech soldiers’ tale, by the way, with someone icing up seemingly every other paragraph.
There is interwoven with all this snow a tale of a bizarre religious sect who – for deluded reasons of their own – castrate themselves in order to get closer to god. This could have been interesting as these self-castrated religious folk demonstrate the essential insanity of religion, the religious denial of the connection between the human and the rest of nature, and that religion destroys some essential human part of us.
The main aspect of the novel, indeed ‘The People’s Act of Love’ is a debate between and through some of the characters about whether cannibalism out ion the frozen wastelands is ever justifiable. It is no doubt some overly wrought metaphor for the revolution – i.e. is it ever right to kill and eat another human being to survive, is it right for people to die to help bring about the people’s paradise on Earth? But all of this is lost in the blizzard of tedium.
The characters themselves seem frozen to the page, refusing to come alive. It is one of those novels where, when a character reappears in the narrative, you have trouble remembering who it is and whether they are old or new characters.
If you want to see the novelist as playing some deep game of chess against the fates with his characters as the chess pieces, then this novel reads like someone aimless doodling about with a set of chess pieces on some long slow Sunday afternoon while waiting for something to happen.
If it wasn’t for the sake of this review I would have given up on it and left the book unfinished – something rare for me. I don’t like to give bad reviews, knowing how hard writing a book can be, but I do genuinely struggle to find anything good to say about this book at all, and am genuinely mystified as to why it seems to have had generally favourable reviews elsewhere.