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.

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Baileys Prize Longlist Reading 2: Thien and Alderman

Being a series of short reviews of the Bailey’s Prize longlisted titles I hadn’t read before the announcement. These are mostly hack-jobs, consisting of extrapolations of my reading notes. Luckily I tend to make notes in full sentences. Spoilers ahead.

do-not-say-we-have-nothingDo Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is comprised of nested narratives. Li-ling (or Marie), in ’90s Toronto Vancouver (thanks to eagle-eyed reader Shawn for catching that), is a maths-obsessed teenager whose father has disappeared back to China. They learn that he has committed suicide there, in Hong Kong. Later, a Chinese girl comes to stay with Marie and her mother. Her name is Ai-ming. She is only eighteen, and a political refugee, in trouble for having participated in the uprisings in Tiananmen Square. Her father, now dead, was Marie’s father’s former music teacher. Ai-ming begins telling Marie her family history, but these stories quickly take on a life of their own and the framing device drops out for chapters at a time, leaving us fully immersed in the lives of sisters Big Mother Knife and Swirl; then in the lives of their children, Sparrow and Zhuli, and of Sparrow’s student and best friend Kai.

The book spans seventy years in the middle of the twentieth century, during which time China underwent traumatic political and social change. From the time of the Civil War to the Cultural Revolution, this family is forced to adapt in ways that deny its members love, fulfillment, and security. Most of the book focuses on music: Sparrow is a promising composer, Zhuli a talented young violinist, Kai a pianist. All three of them attend Shanghai Conservatory. When the denouncements ramp up and the witch-hunts for counter-revolutionaries increase in the ’70s, the pressure to play only certain kinds of music, and in a certain style, becomes nearly unbearable, and the three young people bend or snap in different ways according to who they are.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is the most intellectually sophisticated book of the longlistees that I’ve read, so far: the questions it poses and the assertions that it makes about the ideology of making art are subtly framed and yet don’t detract from the actual story. Thien faces the fact that music and art in general cannot save you— that “poetry makes nothing happen”—and yet when Zhuli thinks “It belongs to me”, she recognises that you can hold onto music or beauty, you can claim it, and its significance comes from the assertion you make of its value to yourself. The number zero is also significant: Marie, the current-day Chinese-Canadian mathematician, talks about how zero can represent a value of both everything and nothing. It’s not hard to see the links between the idea of zero and the value of creativity in a society that hates and fears it. To write a Western-influenced sonata or to play Bach like an angel is worth nothing in post-Cultural Revolution China. And yet it is also worth everything

SPOILERS DEAD AHEAD – Thien achieves this depth of thought, this endless wrestling with value and the ethics of making art, while maintaining the reader’s investment in her multiple characters and their fates. When Zhuli kills herself, we care terribly; when Sparrow, near the end of his life, begins to engage politically, we see how hard it is for him because he has survived awful loss only by cultivating indifference. And she doesn’t do it through simplistic structure, either: on the page, it looks simple—there are no chapter headings telling us what time we’re in, for instance—but it develops in complexity as it follows this enormous tree of extended family and friends. Thien ensures that we don’t lose sight of our main characters, and the development of the framing story into part of the actual narrative near the end of the book is seamless, which is a lot harder to do than it looks.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is very affecting and deeply intelligent. So far, it is my favourite to win overall; I would be surprised if another longlisted book came near it, at least on its own terms.

41rubuzrhzlThe Power, by Naomi Alderman

One book that might challenge it—though with a very different flavour—is The Power. I am indebted to Abigail Nussbaum for helping me sort out my whirling, love-and-terror-addled thoughts on this book. Her review of it, at Strange Horizons, is really the place to go if you want someone intelligent and critically acute to open up The Power‘s complexities for you. Much of what I write here will be borrowed from that piece.

Everyone, by now, knows the premise of The Power: what if women and girls were suddenly capable of shooting bolts of electricity out of their bodies? As Nussbaum notes, this premise is the sort of thing that it’s easy to run away with in your own head, which sets you up to be disappointed by whatever the writer actually executes. Fortunately I went into The Power with little in the way of preconceptions (not because the premise didn’t excite me but because I hadn’t had the time to think about it much), and I was completely bowled over by it.

There are four strands to the book, four main point-of-view characters. Three of them are women. There’s Roxy, the child of a London crime boss who quickly takes over the business after what becomes known globally as the Day of the Girls; Allie, a fostered and abused girl who hears a “voice” that might be her own survival instinct or might really be the voice of God; Tunde, a Nigerian journalism student who gets the first footage of the Power being used in public, and drops out of college to follow the stories, broadcasting from YouTube; and Margot Cleary, a public servant whose response to the Power clears the way for her meteoric rise to the top of American government.

Critical responses to The Power have mostly been of the who’d-have-thought, women-can-be-just-as-violent-as-men school. It’s true, obviously, but as analysis goes it’s not very deep. Alderman is using gender as a focusing lens, but I don’t think this book is really about gender; if it were, there would be a lot more in the way of retributive justice, and what we get instead is a horrifying breakdown of the comforting cause-and-effect that justifies vigilantism. In the most brutal scene of the book, a gang of women attack a refugee camp full of men in the mountains of Moldova. Tunde, who survives—just—notes the complete absence of sense and logic: these women are not attacking men who’ve wronged them. They are torturing, raping (yes, really, and the way Alderman makes that work is terrifying and illuminating about the fundamental point of rape as an act of war: to humiliate) and killing because they can. And it’s that motive—because you can—that runs through the book. It’s not about gender; it’s about power.

Which makes Alderman’s project, and her book’s ending, a lot more fundamental. The question that The Power asks is: is it even possible for humans to create and exist in an egalitarian society? Or, as Nussbaum puts it in her review, “If you can completely upend the foundations of human civilization and yet end up at exactly the same place, then isn’t there a greater flaw at work? Is there another way, or do there always have to be winners and losers, strong and weak, powerful and powerless?”

There are flaws (fortunately I managed to notice these before reading Nussbaum’s review, though she discusses them more deeply.) One of the most curious omissions in The Power is any discussion of transgender individuals. The electrostatic power in women is biological; it comes from an organ at the base of the throat called the skein. A very, very small number of biological males develop it, too, but they’re seen as freaks and outcasts. Does that mean that most trans women don’t have it? What about trans men? What does that do to their status in society? Racial difference, too, is erased or ignored. From a writer’s point of view, I can see why—there are only so many stories you can tell at one time—but it’s odd, given the book’s fascination with the arbitrary exercise of power, not to include the effects that the Power might have on other forms of societal oppression.

Regardless. The Power is nightmarish and profound and one of the ballsiest books I have read in years. This must be what is meant by “the best of women’s writing”; if it’s not this, this deep engagement with the terms of human civilisation’s very existence, what is it? If it were up to me, I would put it on the shortlist without hesitation.

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist is announced on 3 April. For more commentary, see the rest of the Shadow Panel: Naomi, Antonia, Meera and Eric. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is published by Granta and is now in paperback; The Power is published by Viking and is available in hardback.