Tombland: CJ Sansom

I wasn’t going to write this, since I’ve already reviewed a book in the Shardlake series (Dark Fire). But Tombland is a little different—it is not just a murder mystery but also describes a little-known event in English history.

The series centres around Matthew Shardlake, a hunchback lawyer in London, who used to work for Thomas Cromwell during the reign of Henry VIII. When Cromwell fell, he continued working for the royal family. Henry VIII died at the end of the last book, and Shardlake is now working for the 15-year-old Lady Elizabeth, who would eventually become Elizabeth I.

This book is set in 1549. King Edward VI, an 11-year-old boy, is on the throne, with his uncle Lord Somerset, in charge as Protector. There is unrest in the country: Lord Somerset is waging a war against Scotland, which does not seem to be achieving anything except emptying the coffers. People are suffering from unemployment and rising prices to pay for the war. Big landowners are fencing off common lands for their sheep, leaving poor farmers less and less space to graze their livestock.

Shardlake is summoned by Lady Elizabeth and asked to look into the death of a woman, Edith Boleyn, who had come to see her, claiming to be a distant relation. Edith’s body was found stuck headfirst into a stream near Norwich. When Shardlake and his assistant Nicholas Overton arrive in Norwich, they find that Edith’s husband, John Boleyn, has been accused of the murder. Shardlake is sceptical, convinced that Boleyn has been framed.

They meet Edith’s father, Gawen Reynolds, a rich and influential man in Norwich. He is also quite clearly a violent man, a trait inherited by Edith’s twin sons, Gerald and Barnabas, a pair of thugs who want to see their father hang. Shardlake’s investigations do not go down well with the trio. And to make things worse, he manages to annoy Richard Southwell, a man whom many have warned should not be crossed.

In the meantime, the promised justice for the poor has not materialized, and they decide that they have had enough. A mass movement starts to take hold, led by John Kett and his brother William. The Ketts amass thousands[1] at Mousehold Heath, just outside Norwich. Greedy and unjust landlords are brought to trial with the people as jury. Shardlake gets caught up in the movement, helping to ensure that the trials are fair. But in spite of the so-called rebels’ clear allegiance to the king and the peaceful nature of their protest, there is a war brewing: the rich are not about to let peasants take power away from them.

Unlike the other books in the series, where Shardlake’s investigation takes centre stage, CJ Sansom gives almost equal weight to both these stories—the imagined and the historical. The investigation takes a back seat as Sansom describes Kett’s rebellion. The end of the whodunit, however, although not a complete surprise, is satisfying.

At the end of the last book, it felt like this series had come to an end. I am so glad that it hasn’t. Shardlake is a wonderful character. His disability makes him an outsider, as does his strong sense of justice that does not always bend to the desires of his powerful patrons. I look forward to more books in the series.

[1] Estimates say they numbered around 16,000.

The Book of Dust, Book 1: La Belle Sauvage—Philip Pullman

A mysterious substance called Dust; the alethiometer, an instrument that can reveal the truth; and daemons, animal-shaped manifestations of people’s inner selves: we are in familiar territory, the world of Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials. Almost 20 years after the last book in the trilogy was published, Pullman is revisiting its universe, taking us back 12 years when Lyra, the intrepid heroine of His Dark Materials is still a baby. The Magisterium—an institution of organized religion that not only wants to control this world but all the alternate worlds that exist—is already a force to be reckoned with.

A centuries-old witches’ prophecy says that Lyra will save the world—a prophecy that puts her in danger from the Magisterium. She is handed her over to the nuns at the priory of St. Rosamund by a group of important men who want to protect her. Malcolm, a 10-year-old boy who visits the nuns, loves the child the minute he sees her and is determined to protect her.

An observant child who keeps his counsel, Malcolm learns a lot from the conversations he overhears in his parents’ pub. He learns about Dust, a substance that the Magisterium has forbidden anyone from talking about. He hears the gyptians (gypsies) talk about an imminent flood that will sweep everything away.

Malcolm gets to know Hannah Relf, a woman working on understanding the alethiometer—another thing forbidden by the Magisterium, which is seeking out the instruments and destroying them. Hannah is working for Oakley Street, an organization against the Magisterium. Malcolm and Hannah meet regularly, and the boy passes on what he overhears in the pub.

Eventually the floods come, and Malcolm and Alice, a young girl working in the pub, take Lyra and escape in his boat, La Belle Sauvage. Malcolm decides to take Lyra to her father in London, where she will be safe. The trio are pursued by Bonneville, a nasty piece of work—all charm on the surface but vicious beneath. His true nature is revealed by his daemon, a snarling, three-legged hyena; the man is so deranged that he harms his own daemon.

I have read His Dark Materials and was glad when Pullman revived this world—it is so strange and compelling. The overwhelming mood of The Book of Dust is one of shadows and lurking menace. Pullman does this so well that there are times when it feels claustrophobic. The Magisterium has spies everywhere and is ruthless. And then there is Bonneville, a constant maniacal presence. The world Malcolm and Alice are thrown into is a far cry from the warmth of the pub—they are on their own, trying to keep Lyra safe from forces they don’t entirely understand.

There is a lovely passage when Malcolm, exhausted and battered, thinks of home: “his mother’s kitchen, her calm sardonic presence, shepherd’s pies and apple crumbles and steam and warmth, and his father laughing and telling stories and telling the football results and listening as Malcolm told him about this theory or that discovery and being proud of him; and before he could help it he was sobbing as if his heart had been broken, and it was his fate to drift forever on a worldwide flood further and further away from everything that was home, and they would never know where he was”.

Judging by this book, The Book of Dust trilogy is going to be much darker than His Dark Materials. An appropriate reflection of our times.

See also my review of Philip Pullman’s essays, Daemon Voices.

The Red-Haired Woman: Orhan Pamuk


Translated from Turkish by Ekin Oklap

Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel is about obsession, guilt and the destructive relations between fathers and sons.

The novel is narrated by Cem, looking back on himself as a 16-year-old boy. His father, a pharmacist and a communist, is often absent—he is either in prison for his communist beliefs or with another woman. When he disappears for a while, leaving the family without support, it is up to Cem to provide for them. He is apprenticed to a well-digger, Mahmut, who has been given a job on the outskirts of Istanbul. Mahmut takes Cem under his wing, becoming a surrogate father figure.

The land they are working on is barren, and the water seems elusive, although Mahmut is convinced that they would find it if they dig deep enough. In the evenings, they go to the nearby town of Örgören. That is where Cem first sees the red-haired woman. He is struck by her beauty and air of mystery and becomes besotted with her, as only a 16-year-old can. She seems to recognize him, which only fuels his obsession. He finds excuses to go into town in the evenings and tries to find out more about her.

Then there is an accident at the well, and Cem is left with a feeling of guilt, which he carries with him for decades afterwards. He marries Ayşe, and the marriage seems happy. The couple’s real estate company is very successful, making them financially well off. But Cem’s guilt is always with him, creating a distance between him and other people: “What had happened at the well would always bar me from the joys of an ordinary life”.

Meanwhile, Istanbul is growing and the outskirts are being absorbed into the city. One day the area near Örgören where the well used to be is up for sale. Cem has a chance of going back to resolve all the unanswered questions that have been nagging at him. What he finds changes his view of his past and of himself.  

This is a book of contrasts: between tradition—Mahmut’s age-old way of digging wells by hand, one of “the last practitioners of an art that had existed for thousands of years”—and the modern—the way Istanbul grows into a bustling, modern city. It is also about the clash between youth and age, and between what is imagined and reality.

But the central theme of the book is in its three epigraphs: two on Oedipus­—the king who mistakenly killed his father—by Nietzsche and Sophocles, and one from Ferdowzi’s Shahnamah about Rustom, the king who mistakenly killed his son Sohrab. In The Red-Haired Woman, Pamuk dissects the way relations between fathers and sons can go wrong, how they can be full of minefields that explode when you least expect it. The two myths are always present in the story, so much so that it is clear that the ending would revolve around one of them.

I have enjoyed other books by Pamuk, but they can be a little dense. The Red-Haired Woman is the one I’ve found easiest to read, and it is also one of the most haunting. It starts out as a simple tale of a young boy’s coming of age but becomes quite dark. There is so much sadness here for the way fathers and sons can destroy each other, often thoughtlessly.

The History of Bees: Maja Lunde

Translated from Norwegian by Diane Oatley

We are in the midst of the sixth extinction and are losing species at an alarming rate. But we seem to have trouble recognizing the scale of the loss. How many of us associate lazy summer afternoons with the buzzing of bees? Not to mention the fruit and nuts we take for granted, crops that rely on them for pollination. But already in 1998, countries in Europe were noticing that bees were abandoning their hives. Colony collapse disorder (CCD) became a global phenomenon over the next few years, affecting North America in 2006.

Maja Lunde charts this disappearance over three centuries and interweaves narratives about three sets of parents and children and their connections with bees.

The three main characters live in three centuries and on three continents. In England in 1852, William is recovering from a bad bout of depression and finds release in designing the perfect hive; in the United States in 2007, George is battling with colony collapse disorder in his hives; and in China in 2098, Tao, who works as a manual pollinator because the bees have disappeared, is looking for her young son.

William has been in bed for months with severe depression. The only thing that gets him out of bed is a need to prove himself to his son, Edmund, and leave him a legacy. William is going to design the perfect hive—not a straw one as was common then, but one designed like a house with frames. But Edmund is a wastrel and a drunk, and it takes William a while to see that his real heir is his older daughter Charlotte, working quietly by his side.

George, a bee-keeper, makes a living selling honey and driving his bees out to areas where the local bees have gone, so that fruit trees can be pollinated. He is angry with his son Tom who, instead of taking over the business, wants to be a writer. But George is also hit by the CCD that affected the other parts of North America.

By the time we get to Tao, the bees have completely disappeared, leaving humans to painstakingly pollinate by hand. As Tao says, “We were a pioneer nation in pollution and so we became a pioneer nation in pollination. A paradox had saved us.” One day, when she and her husband Guan and three-year-old son Wei Wen go out for a picnic, the boy runs off to play. The parents find him in the forest, listless and comatose. The authorities are worried about the cause of his sickness and rush him to Beijing. Tao, determined to find out what happened to her son, goes in search of him.

The chapters move back and forth between the three narratives. The stories that Lunde weaves of William, George and Tao and their children are very moving and very human. But this is also a history of bees, and Lunde shows how, over three centuries, these very familiar creatures go from abundance to extinction.

The book provides both warning and hope: if we don’t do something about the way we treat our planet, our survival as a species will be under threat. But maybe there is still time to set things right. Maybe.

Cinnamon: Samar Yazbek

Translated from Arabic by Emily Danby

A woman in Damascus wakes in the night, sees a triangle of light where a door is left ajar and walks in. She finds her maid in bed with her husband. She throws the maid out, and immediately regrets it, but finds herself unable to go after her. Over the course of the night, both women go over the events that brought them to this point.

The woman is Hanan, married to an older man, whom she had loved as a cousin but hates as a husband. Frustrated and angry, she spends time with other women like her—wives of successful and well-to-do businessmen—where she finds solace in sex.

The maid, Aliyah, comes from a rough neighbourhood, which Samar Yazbek describes unflinchingly. Her brute of a father is financially reliant on his wife and daughters but does not hesitate to beat them up when the whim takes him. Aliyah hates him and learns fairly early to fight. When she is 10 years old, the father practically sells her to Hanan as a maid. That’s the last Aliyah sees of him—or the rest of her family—for eight years.

Eventually, Hanan seduces Aliyah. But Aliyah is a survivor and knows how to play the game. Living in Hanan’s house protects her from her father and the other thugs living in her neighbourhood. Aliyah uses her seductive power over Hanan to make herself secure, and Hanan becomes completely dependent on her.

The focus in this book is completely on the women. Aliyah grows up fast and learns how to make the system work for her. But she becomes a little too confident of her power, which makes her careless. Hanan is also a victim, forced into a marriage she didn’t want, living out her life without any purpose or meaning. The men are either brutes or ciphers, like Hanan’s husband, only referred to “the old crocodile”.

Samar Yazbek paints a bleak picture where almost all relationships involve some kind of power play, whether it is through sex, class or gender.  There is a fair amount of sex but no love—none of the characters seem to really care for each other. Hanan thinks she loves Aliyah but looking back, Hanan cannot remember a single conversation they had. Hanan desires Aliyah and wants to control and possess her. When Aliyah leaves, she wears Hanan’s high-heeled shoes—among all the presents her mistress gives her, there is not a single pair of shoes.

Les Misérables: Victor Hugo

Translated from French by Norman Denny

This is probably one of Victor Hugo’s best-known books, popularized by the musical starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway. But since a two-hour film can only provide a brief summary, I decided to read it in its entirety and see for myself why it is so well loved.

Reading Les Misérables is like walking into another world. First published in 1862, and set in France between 1815 and 1832—after the French Revolution and Napoleon—the book is a sprawling canvas with many subplots.

Here is the story, briefly.

Jean Valjean is imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread. The initial sentence of 5 years is stretched to 19 because he keeps trying to escape. It is in prison that he comes across Inspector Javert, who is the overseer of Valjean’s chain gang and who becomes his implacable enemy.

When Valjean is finally freed, he carries a card marking him out to be an ex-convict, which means he is not welcome anywhere. The gentle Bishop Myriel takes him in and by showing him kindness, makes him resolve to be a better man. But old habits are hard to break. By taking a 40-sous coin from a boy, Valjean is denounced for armed robbery and, if caught, would have to return to prison. 

But Valjean has no intention of going back. He adopts a new identity and settles in a small town. He is now Monsieur Madeleine, a successful businessman, liked and trusted and eventually elected mayor. But when the new local chief of police arrives, it is Javert. Javert does not recognize him immediately. When a man is nearly crushed by a cart and no one else will help, Valjean moves the cart single-handedly, and Javert, who has seen only one man with that kind of strength, starts to suspect that M. Madeleine is really Valjean.

However, another person crosses Valjean’s path and changes his life: Fantine, a young woman who has had a child out of wedlock, at a time when this was considered shameful. Unable to support the child, Fantine gives her to a couple whom she thinks are kindly (the nasty Monsieur and Madame Thénardier), sending them a monthly fee for raising her. The child, Cossette, is ill-treated, and Fantine ends up destitute, selling herself to survive. M. Madeleine finds Fantine, puts her in the care of nuns and promises to look for her daughter.

I won’t go into too much detail here—it would take pages—but Fantine dies, and Valjean finds Cossette. The child gives him something to live for. Meanwhile, Javert is still on his trail, and Valjean hasn’t seen the last of the Thénardiers either. He manages to evade Javert and raise Cossette, whom he adores. But Cossette becomes a young woman and falls in love with a young student, Marius, and Valjean finds his contentment threatened. Meanwhile, there is unrest in the country, and Marius and his friends get involved in the June revolution of 1832.

Hugo creates a world that draws you in. He writes with great detail, hence the size of the book—over 1200 pages. Some of the detail is fascinating. But Hugo does have a habit of putting the story on hold while going off at a tangent. I still don’t know why there are so many pages describing the battle of Waterloo in the middle of Valjean’s escape. Valjean ends up on the field where the battle took place, but that’s no reason for the long interlude. I found this a bit trying. But it might be better on a second read where I know what happens and so am not as impatient to get on with the story. Hugo’s knowledge of Paris is truly impressive. There is a section where Valjean walks through the sewer system, which Hugo seems to know well, detailing its history and all its twists and turns.

Some of Hugo’s characters are a bit one-dimensional—for example, Cossette as a young woman and Marius; and the nasty ones, like the Thénadiers (although they are far more interesting and vivid than the young couple). But the two men at the centre of the book—Valjean and Javert—are much more nuanced. Javert has a strong moral code, and Valjean has his darker side. It is interesting that Hugo based both characters on a single man who would have been their contemporary: François Vidoqc, an ex-convict who became the founder of the Surété Nationale, France’s national police force.

Hugo brings the period to life—the politics, the justice system (the fact that a man could be jailed for stealing bread and considered an armed robber for a minor theft is shocking), and the lives of people in all the social strata, from aristocrats to the desperately poor and the thugs in the underworld. You learn about the argot used by criminals in Paris; a little-known order of nuns; and, of course, the battle of Waterloo. All these details—like bits of a mosaic—coalesce into a larger picture, which made me feel as if I was, for a moment, a part of this world.

Washington Black: Esi Edugyan

Although this book starts on a Barbados plantation in 1830, it is not really about slavery but follows a young slave, Washington Black, over six years, starting with his life on the Faith plantation.

As the book begins, Washington is 11 years old, and the owner of the plantation has just died. The new master is the nephew, Erasmus Black, a cruel man. One night, Wash and the woman who is his protector, Big Kit from Dahomey, are summoned to wait on the table, something unheard of for slaves working in the field. At the end of the dinner, Erasmus’s brother Christopher, known as Titch, engages Washington to help him with his hot air balloon—not because he had seen something exceptional in the boy but because he would be the right weight for ballast.

But Washington’s association with Titch is life-changing. Unlike his brother, Titch is kind to Wash and encourages his talent for drawing. All goes well until the visit of a cousin, Mister Philip, sets in motion a series of events that put Wash in danger. One night, Titch and Wash take to the skies in the hot air balloon and escape the plantation.

Erasmus, furious at the loss of his slave, sets a bounty hunter, Willard, on their trail. They manage to shake him off by going to the Arctic, where Titch is looking for his father, an explorer. Wash eventually makes it back to Nova Scotia without Titch, where he settles down, although the shadow of Willard continues to haunt him. His scientific talents come to the fore after a meeting with a father and daughter team of natural scientists.

I loved Esi Edugyan’s writing and the way she draws characters. Big Kit is a real presence: a big, fierce woman who could make Wash forget about the plantation: to him she was “a marvel, a witness to a world I could not imagine, beyond the reach of the huts and the vicious fields of Faith”. I would have liked to have seen more of her. Mister Philip, while seemingly privileged, is really just a drifter, a man with nothing to live for: “His great passions were not passions, but distractions: one day was but a bridge to the next. He took in the world with a mild dissatisfaction, for the world was of little consequence.”

But Wash and Titch are the most vivid characters: Titch is like mercury; just when I thought I understood him, it turned out that I didn’t. Wash—the heart of the book—is bright and observant but cautious, in the way children become when their survival depends on being alert to any signs of danger.

This is a book about the different degrees of freedom. The hot air balloon is symbolic of escape and breaking bounds, but can only get them so far. In the plantation, Wash asks Big Kit what it means to be free. It means you can go “wherever it is you wanting”, she says, something unimaginable to Wash. When he does become a freedman, he is still a black man in a white man’s world and Willard is on his trail. Sometimes the emotional chains are harder to get rid of: there is a bond with Titch that is hard to break and a caution within Wash that keeps him from getting too close to anyone. And the free world isn’t everything he expects: “the terrible bottomless nature of the open world, where one belongs nowhere, and to no one.”

This is a thoughtful, well-written book.

There There: Tommy Orange

Native Americans, or Indians, were the first settlers in North America. But when colonizers from Europe came, they not only took away the Native Americans’ lands and livelihoods but rewrote their narratives. There There is Tommy Orange’s way of reclaiming the narrative of the Native Americans living in the United States today.

“We’ve been defined by everyone else and continue to be slandered despite easy-to-look-up-on-the-internet facts about the realities of our histories and the current state as a people. … We have all the logos and mascots. … Our heads were on the penny first, of course, the Indian cent, and then on the buffalo nickel, both before we could even vote as a people—which, like the truth of what happened in history all over the world, and like all that spilled blood from slaughter, are now out of circulation.”

The book follows a group of people in Oakland, California, as they prepare to go for a powwow. It builds up a picture through a mosaic of characters, each with his or her fears and dreams.

There is Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, looking after the three grandsons of her sister, Jacqui Red Feather. Feeling responsible for the suicide of her only daughter, and fearing that she would only damage her grandsons, Jacqui won’t come near them. One of the grandsons, Orwil Red Feather, is trying to make sense of what it means to be an Indian (with a bit of help from Google) and is planning to go to the powwow in full regalia. Calvin Johnson doesn’t really identify as Indian; he just sees himself as someone from Oakland. Dene Oxendene is recording the stories of Native Americans to build an oral history of his people. Edwin Black, who once dreamed of being a writer, is an overweight man who lives with his mother and spends his life in front of computer screens.

It isn’t all bleak but many of the characters deal with addiction, depression and alcoholism, and some of them turn to crime. Like Octavio Gomez, whose father died protecting him from bullets, and Tony Loneman, who is suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome and is planning to rob the powwow.

Orange dedicates chapters to the individual characters. As the book plays out, heading towards the final confrontation, the web of connections between them becomes clearer.

I loved the way Orange writes. Edwin, avoiding contact at a planning meeting for the powwow “gets out his phone as everyone does now when they want to leave without leaving”. Opal “doesn’t step on cracks. She walks carefully because she has always had the sense that there are holes everywhere, cracks you can slip between—the world, after all, is porous. She lives by a superstition she would never admit to. … She lives by it, like breathing.”

This is a powerful, angry book. The title doesn’t refer to the soothing words you say to a child but is from a quote by Gloria Stein about Oakland: “there isn’t a there there”. But Orange interprets it not to mean that the place is worthless but to mean that nothing stays the same—the “there” she grew up doesn’t exist any more. “[F]or Native people in this country, all over the Americas, it’s been developed over, buried ancestral land, glass and concrete and wire and steel, unreturnable covered memory. There is no there there.”

The writing is lyrical and brutal. And using different characters to tell the story means that Tommy Orange gives you a multi-faceted view of what it means to be Native American in the US today. I will end with a final quote that I find apt: “Opal and Jacqui’s mom never let them kill a spider… . Her mom said spiders carry miles of web in their bodies, miles of story, miles of potential home and trap. She said that’s what we are. Home and trap.”

Going to the Movies: A Personal Journey Through Four Decades of Modern Film—Syd Field

What makes a movie great? Why are some movies memorable while others disappear into obscurity? The foundation underlying the performances and the directing is the screenplay. A screenplay can make or break a film. Going to the Movies is a combination of memoirs and a lesson on the art of screenwriting by a man who is known to have written some of the definitive books on the subject, Syd Field.

Field studied film at the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1960s when it was buzzing with talent. One of Field’s early mentors was Jean Renoir, one of the great French film directors, whom he met when he was studying film at the University of California, Berkeley. Renoir believed that film was a “new form of printing” and Lumière, the inventor of the motion picture camera, was the new Gutenberg (who invented printing in the 1400s).

Other students who went on to become famous were a young graduate student called Francis Ford Coppola and Ray Manzarek, who was part of a then little-known band called The Doors. It was the time of the New Wave, a revolt in cinema against the “puff films” (such as wholesome Doris Day fare). The New Wave produced films like François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour[1] and Jean-Luc Goddard’s Breathless, all films that Field admired.

Field also met some of the greats of cinema during the course of his career: Renoir, Michelangelo Antonioni (whom he saw sitting on a bench as an old man and plucked up the courage to talk to) and Sam Peckinpah, with whom Field spent a summer when Peckinpah was writing The Wild Bunch.  

The book follows Field’s career and provides a glimpse into the film business, particularly the Hollywood film industry. He worked at Cinemobile, which started out as a “studio on wheels”, providing the technical and physical aspects of a film’s production. It was the brainchild of Fouad Said, who now wanted to produce his own films and had created Cine Artists. Field’s job was “find material”. For two and a half years, he read through piles of screenplays, looking for the one that would be good enough to go into production. But producers did not read scripts and had a minimal attention span: the script needed to be summarized in a couple of sentences. Among the scripts he pitched successfully were American Graffiti and Rocky, unlike Taxi Driver by Paul Schrader, for which there was no interest.   

Trawling through never-ending piles of scripts allowed Field to understand the elements that make them work—or not. Based on his close reading, Field devised a three-act paradigm that could be applied to most scripts. Briefly, this is how it works: Act 1, the first 20-30 minutes, sets the scene. This is followed by a plot point that pushes the protagonist into Act 2, which Field calls the Confrontation (and which also gives the protagonist his/her goal). Act 3 is the struggle to reach the goal and the resolution.

Field’s analyses films such as Sunset Boulevard, Chinatown, Citizen Kane, Pulp Fiction, Matrix and Casablanca to understand how they function. I enjoyed these analyses, and they made me want to go back to the films, so I could watch them with a different perspective, this time with an awareness of the nuts and bolts of the script.

This is an interesting book, even if you are not planning to write for films. Many cinema-goers do not always pay attention to the scriptwriter, although she/he is fundamental to the film (I do only when the writing stands out). Syd Field shines a light on this essential part of cinema: the writing on which the entire production rests.

[1] I saw Hiroshima Mon Amour when I was studying film, and I can still remember how it moved me, well over 30 years later. A powerful script.

A Gentleman in Moscow: Amor Towles

“If a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them.”

In 1922, a few years after the Bolshevik revolution, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is sentenced to house arrest by the Bolsheviks for being an aristocrat. The Count’s home at the time of sentencing is a suite at the Hotel Metropole. He is moved out of his suite to a small room on the sixth floor, where furniture and odds and ends are stored. Taking it in his stride, the Count picks out the things dearest to him and has them moved upstairs. He eventually finds a way to break the wall into the room next door—through his closet—and fashions for himself a suite of sorts.

The staff at the hotel know and like the Count. He has managed to stash some money and so is able to live reasonably well, eating at the two restaurants, the Piazza and the Boyarsky, which is more upscale. But living in a confined space starts to take its toll on him.

His ennui is broken by a little girl in yellow, Nina, who befriends him. Nina is staying at the hotel while her parents are away and has plenty of time to explore it, not least because she has managed to acquire a passkey to all the rooms. She opens up the hotel for him, taking him to spaces he did not know existed. When she leaves, she makes him a gift of the key. The next time he sees her, she has grown up into a serious young woman who is leaving to work in the provinces.

The years go by, and the Count settles into a daily routine. But Nina hasn’t finished with him. She shows up unexpectedly with her eight-year-old daughter Sofia, and asks him to take care of her while she goes to Siberia to look for her husband. She never comes back, and the man who had prided himself in not forming long-term relationships finds himself taking care of a child and seeing her into adulthood.

Life at the Metropole reflects the changes outside: the clientele shifts from aristocrats to Party apparatchiks. So does the management: an incompetent waiter, whom the Count dubs the Bishop, becomes the manager through his Party connections. The Count works as a waiter at the Boyarsky where he forms a Triumverate with his good friends, Emile, the chef, and Andrey, the headwaiter. They meet every morning to set (and sample) the day’s menu.    

The Count is a wonderful creation: erudite, courteous, observant and determined not to let his circumstances get the better of him. The hotel is full of vividly drawn characters: the hot-tempered and talented Emile, the unflappable Andrey, the seamstress Marina who teaches the Count how to sew, the actress Anna Urbanova with whom he has an on-off affair, Osip, the Party apparatchik who hires the Count to teach him English and French, and so many more.

I enjoyed Towles’s writing. Here is a description of Andrey’s virtuosity as a waiter: “Having led a group of women to their table…Andrey seemed to pull back the chairs all at once. …[W]hen the woman holding the wine list asked for a recommendation, he didn’t point to the 1900 Bordeaux—at least, not in the Teutonic sense. Rather, he slightly extended his index finger in a manner reminiscent of that gesture on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling with which the Prime Mover had transmitted the spark of life.”

This is a masterful book. I couldn’t imagine how Towles would be able to keep up an interesting story within the confines of a hotel. But all of life is there: intrigue, politics, spies, love and friendship; the life of the country is reflected in the goings-on of the hotel. I have to hand it to Towles: the story never flags.

In keeping with the confines of the setting, Towles has set himself limits for his chapter headings: every one of the words begins with an A. I also loved the little icons at the beginning of each section, depicting something that would be central to that part of the story.