Saturday, April 24, 2010

The People's Train

My views on historical fiction tend to be the opposite of Booker Prize judges, but strangely this goes out the window for anything set in Russia especially around the October Revolution.

Unfortunately The People's Train is the exception that proves the rule.

Sometime last year I chanced across a review that  praised the book and mentioned that it was based on a true story about one of the minor protagonists in the Russian Revolution.  I have never read anything by Thomas Keneally (or Tom as his Australian publishers prefer), but he won the Booker for Schindler's Ark and is undoubtably one of Australia's best regarded and prolific writers so it seemed likely to be something I would enjoy.

The first two-thirds is set in Brisbane and is purportedly the English translation of the memoirs of one Artem Samsurov (Late Hero of the Soviet Revolution) – a protégé of Lenin's who escapes from prison in Tsarist Russia and makes it to Australia by way of Japan and China. The last one-third is billed as Paddy Dykes' Russian Journal and culminates in his account of the storming of the Winter Palace on 27 October 1917.

It is a brilliant idea to swap the perspectives in this way – the Russian exile narrating the Australian section (although with a great deal of back story and plot filling along the way) and the small-town Australian idealist reporting the momentous historical events he witnesses in Russia.

Unfortunately it just doesn't work. The characters are flat and unconvincing, the historical details are correct by don't come to life and the narrative trundles along when it should race toward the obvious conclusion.

At one point Paddy complains that Artem's bride-to-be 'Tasha didn't seem to exist beyond her reputation. She was most alive and was a real presence when she spoke at factories around Kharkov. In the Gubin house she was a bit like a ghost.' Unfortunately this could applied to a great many of the characters in the novel. And on top of this the writing can be clunky and laboured, almost as if he forgot to re-write all the material that his researcher came up with. It's a shame because Artem's story is incredible and I couldn't help feeling that it was short-changed by this book.

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