A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Artem Samsurov, a charismatic protégé of Lenin, makes an extraordinary escape from Russia to reach sanctuary in Australia. But he soon finds out that Brisbane in 1911 isn’t quite the workers’ paradise he was expecting. Though distracted by an infatuation with a beautiful lawyer, Artem launches himself back into the socialist cause, only to be imprisoned, then accused of murdering an informer. But he never loses his belief that the revolution will come – and, in 1917, he returns to Russia to join in the fight for it …
For this review I received an uncorrected proof copy of the novel, which has emblazoned on the front the warning: Not for resale or quotation. Not quoting from a book – any book – rather goes against the grain for this old English (and indeed Old English) literature graduate but, for fear of incurring the wrath of Sceptre Press, I will endeavour to refrain. Though I’m sure I will no doubt incur their wrath elsewhere.
I have to say I was looking forward to reading The People’s Train. Keneally is the author of Schindler’s Ark (which I’ve never read, nor indeed seen in film version – well, I’m not allowed out much really), so I had high hopes. Indeed it felt very much like preparing myself for first class travel to a rather exciting foreign country, so I did ensure that my hair was brushed and I had the appropriate underwear.
Arriving at the station was something of a disappointment however. I looked closely for the usual signposts of character, plot and general descriptive positioning, but perhaps I wasn’t looking closely enough? It all seemed rather … dare I say it? … dull. In fact as the main character, Artem, settled in opposite me, with his entourage of Mrs Hope Mockridge (that beautiful lawyer of the blurb) and assorted political keenies, and the scenery began to gather some kind of pace (though not much), I found that my attention was beginning to wander, and I kept looking out for the catering trolley, or perhaps even the guard asking to see my ticket, but no such respite appeared. I think the trouble was that Artem isn’t really terribly interesting, or indeed nice. So he wasn’t an ideal travelling companion. Not that nice really matters – though surely interesting does. Particularly in a novel. Though, that said, I’m not sure it actually is a novel – it certainly doesn’t read like one. It’s more a mixture of fiction and fact, thus – I suppose – making it “faction”. I kept turning over to look at the blurb and flicking through to the end acknowledgements to see if I could find a clue to help me know how to read it, but nothing leapt from the page.
And for quite a while nothing did.
During my long and rather slow journey through the text, Artem did a heck of a lot of talking. He really had a great deal to say. Mostly about himself and his politics. There’s a lot about politics here and a peculiar lack of heart somehow. If that is the sort of novel that you’ve been longing to read, then here it is at last. Issues that made the story very difficult to get into on any level for me included: (a) the lack of speech marks. Query: is this an Australian thing? I seem to remember some other classic modern Australian novel having no speech marks. I couldn’t bear it – there’s something about the lack of them which manages to create a peculiar sense of distance between the reader and the page. Speech marks are simply so much more dynamic. And (b) I haven’t been able to bring myself to make a serious study of it, but it struck me that an awful lot of the statements made in this book are in the passive voice, which again creates distance. It was much like attempting to read the story while someone was holding up a thin cotton sheet between the book and me. If that makes any sense at all.
It wasn’t all dull vistas and meaningless tannoy announcements however. Sometimes the sun brightened outside and the odd ray of light made its way into my carriage: I did rather like the concept of Mrs Hope Mockridge, though she was quickly swallowed up by the heaviness of Artem’s narrative (look – I’m using passive voice myself now. Must be catching …). And I fell totally in love with the cuckolded Mr Mockridge who was wonderfully sparky and catty in the one scene he appeared in. And pleasingly twisted up too. How I wish he’d been allowed to enter the fray more often. Oh, and I enjoyed the descriptions of the onset of the First World War and its effect on Australia – that was very interesting and allowed me to see a side of the war I hadn’t thought of before.
About three-quarters of the way through the trip, I did find that I had to change trains. Which was a surprise, and also something of a relief as it allowed me the chance to stretch my legs and change that underwear. Thank goodness. The narrative (if such it is) at that point leaves Artem – I shed no tears – and is taken up by his Australian friend and journalist, Paddy, as the two men move to Russia during the First World War. Paddy is much jollier on the whole and his sections are more gripping, but there’s still a great deal of politics. And a lot of famous people enter and have basically very little effect on me. There might have been Stalin and mentions of Lenin, but I was rapidly losing the will to live and hoping the train journey would hurry up and end at that point, so I didn’t linger. I did like the brief moments (alas, all too brief) spent on the delicately described relationship between Paddy and Artem’s sister however. Mind you, by then I was desperately in need of any human spark.
So, all in all, it was a relief when at last the final destination came into view. Until that moment, I fully intended to type here that the instant the train stopped, I grabbed my bags and ran for the door. However, like Wagner, Keneally has saved his best scene to last and that final note reverberated in my head for several days to come: the violence that takes place in the Winter Palace and, more specifically, Paddy’s honest and all too human reaction to it was, quite frankly, a tour de force of sparse strong writing. I loved it. Whether it was worth the rather humdrum journey is another question and surely the book would have been better if such writing could have been present throughout. Meanwhile, now that my companions have left the train, I’m scanning the timetables for a more pleasant means of journeying home. Wish me luck.
The People’s Train by Thomas Keneally (Sceptre, 2009), ISBN: 978 0340 951859
[Anne has no moral objections to the concept of foreign travel, as long as the companions are interesting. To avoid catching the wrong train, please click here.]