The Patriots, by Sana Krasikov

“The point, my friend…is we’re all leashed pretty tightly to the era we’re living through.”

patriots

I went into The Patriots with only the vaguest and most limited of expectations: I knew the main character’s name, and that the action took place between the Soviet Union and the US, but almost nothing else. In part this is because the promotional materials, and the jacket copy, are also vague, and in part that is because The Patriots is difficult to summarise neatly. Were I to try, though, I would say this: that it’s about Florence Fein, an idealistic young Jewish woman from Brooklyn, who, disgusted by the failures of capitalism in Depression-era New York and chasing a summer romance with a Soviet she meets through work, decides to move to Russia. Once she’s there, she can’t go home again, and the book follows Florence and her young family through the depredations and the terror of mid-century Soviet life, as her innocence and fervour crumble. A secondary plot strand follows her son Julian, now in late middle age, as he returns to Russia on a business deal and tries to get his mother’s KGB file opened.

What The Patriots is really about is corruption, and not just corruption of the palm-greasing kind, but a profounder kind that destroys innocence. Florence’s and Julian’s timelines both follow this path. When Florence starts out, she’s almost invincible with belief. To move to the USSR is such a huge leap, and is something her parents are so discouraging about, that she finds herself almost forced into this level of conviction, just to survive the humiliation of being uncomfortable. As an American, she is all but expected to give up and go home after a month or two of being disillusioned by real hard work—but she’s stubborn, and she’s proud, and she refuses to give in. Cramped lodgings and poor food can be ameliorated by her special privileges as a foreigner, which means she gets to use better-stocked shops, but she finds this shameful; why should she be allowed to buy caviar and sun-dried tomatoes, when other honest comrades queue for bread?

The destruction of Florence’s innocence comes slowly. Trying to get an exit visa to visit her parents, she’s refused entry to the US embassy. Her American passport has already been taken by a clerk at a different office, and she’s issued a worthless “receipt”. Frightened and unprotected, and coming to terms with the fact that the country of her birth has abandoned her, she’s spotted leaving the embassy gates by Captain Subotin of the Cheka, the secret police. Subotin calls her in repeatedly over the next five years, demanding to be given the names and details of counterrevolutionaries—first in her workplace at a higher education institution, then from her time as a translator for the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee during the war. Krasikov tracks Florence’s state of mind over the course of her meetings with Subotin, from her naive belief that she can simply be “a mirror” of the world around her without implicating anybody, to her growing ability to strategise about the information she feeds him, right down to the moment when she—believing herself betrayed—gives him a name that really matters.

It can be difficult, especially from a contemporary point of view, to believe that anyone could ever be that innocent. For such skeptical readers, Krasikov has her secondary point of view character, Florence’s son Julian. Julian is also mired in some deep shit—in this case, corrupt insider trading between his (American) company and a Russian oil firm. His arc from indifference to potential complicity to moral arbiter parallels and complements his mother’s; he’s no saint, but we see how he juxtaposes American pragmatism with Russian romanticism, as Florence did, and how he chooses to reconcile those two conflicting impulses in a manner he can live with. We also learn that Julian has, historically, been Florence’s greatest critic: “She was a delusional narcissist!” he shouts at his own son, Lenny. The quotation at the top of this post is spoken to Julian in defense of Florence, by her brother Sidney, from whom she was separated by an ocean and a continent and a mountain of paperwork for most of her adult life. As a defense, it is emotive and eloquent—especially because, by the time we read it, we know exactly what Florence has had to go through as a result of the moral compromises she made—but it does not do to be ruled by emotive arguments when apportioning ethical responsibility. The fact that Julian manages to make a different choice stands as a quiet suggestion that, although we all live within our times, perhaps we don’t have to be ruled by them. Or perhaps he is merely lucky to live in a time where such a challenge is possible; we can decide for ourselves.

A minor gripe, if I can be permitted one, is that the book is slightly too long: especially in the book’s first section, before the move to Russia, the mechanics of the plot seem to creak into place very slowly. The payoff for that, though, is a world that draws you in and envelops you completely, and characters who are as vivid as friends. Krasikov tackles huge themes with aplomb, her writing as confident as a veteran’s. Particularly in the anniversary year of the Revolution, what she has to say on the compromises we make for idealism—for love of country—is worth reading.

Many thanks to the kind folks at Granta for the review copy. The Patriots was published in the UK on 2 March.

02. The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver

lacunaWhere I read it: sitting up in bed late at night, trying to make myself tired enough to go to sleep.

Part of the Women’s Prize project that I’ve set myself, as well as one of my 20 Books of Summer, The Lacuna was Barbara Kingsolver’s first novel for a decade when it was published in 2009; it won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2010. It positions itself as the biography of a mid-century Mexican-American novelist, Harrison Shepherd, curated from his extensive diaries and letters (with some gaps filled in) by his former secretary and best friend, Violet Brown. Shepherd is mostly raised in Mexico, and spends his early adulthood as cook and secretary in the household of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera; when Trotsky comes to stay with them, Shepherd becomes his employee too, developing a personal history which will have repercussions in the paranoid Communist-hunting climate of 1950s America.

The good things: It’s about all of Shepherd’s life, not just the time he spends with Kahlo and Rivera and Trotsky. He’s not made into a Forrest Gump character. For one thing, he’s not an innocent joe (read: blank canvas) touched by history; he has his own background and childhood, which shape him profoundly, even before he gets to the artists. His mother is simultaneously a product of her time and an individual, her choices scarring little Shepherd even while he develops a sort of affectionate disdain for her. The same is true of Frida, Diego and Lev (as he comes to know them): they’re fleshed-out people, not just the giants history knows them as. The descriptions of Mexico–its geography, food, dances, people, politics–are vivid and almost tangible. Kingsolver introduces Shepherd’s homosexuality subtly, and starts early: he’s only nine or ten when he starts noticing their cook, which is exactly right, I think, for the first inklings of sexuality. (So often novels seem to portray sexuality as something that only happens once you turn thirteen. Mais non.) And the horror of the 1950s Communist witch hunts is made manifest; it’s so easy to forget that it really affected people, changed their entire lives.

Less good things: It’s so long. I get that some of this is necessary; it is, after all, someone’s whole life, relatively short though it was. And now that I think of it, none of the book seems random or not meant to be there. There’s just a lot of it. It’s like looking back at a binge-watched Netflix series; when you remember something that happened in episode 2, it seems like an awfully long way away, even if it’s relevant to what’s happening in episode 12. More importantly, a reviewer when it was originally published accused Kingsolver of being morally heavy-handed in the later sections, and I think they were right. That’s the risk that you take, of course, as a political novelist, or a moral one, which I think Kingsolver is. She uses fiction to prod at the conscience, showing us the consequences of jingoism and judgement in one person’s life. That’s no bad thing to be doing as a writer; it’s just difficult to do it in a way that doesn’t make you seem to be shouting.

I’ve liked Kingsolver’s work for a long time–I read The Bean Trees and her essay collection Small Wonder in high school, and The Poisonwood Bible earlier this year. I’d like to read Prodigal Summer next; it’s set in the Appalachia of my childhood, and The Lacuna has given me every reason to keep trusting her writing.

The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver (London: Faber, 2009)