A book set in Bolshevik Russia that redefines "survival"

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A book set in Bolshevik Russia that redefines "survival"

Anantha reviews Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow.

We come across many survival stories, a man stranded on an island, a woman working in the mines of Africa, or a man and a tiger stranded in a boat for days together. In these survival stories, the protagonists face adverse circumstances with little or no help, their pride damaged and their souls ripped apart. Their agony runs deep, their voices unheard and often abandoned by their loved ones. We find such heroes bereft of their belongings and famished for food and water.

But what if a person finds himself sentenced to house arrest for his whole life in one of the most opulent hotels of Russia? Would it still be considered an exile? Would the person still be called a “Survivor”?

A Gentleman in Moscow is an exquisite tale of a count, who spent thirty years in one of the most luxurious hotels in Russia, after being sentenced to house arrest post the Russian Revolution.

Plot

In one of the most influential political events of the twentieth century, which laid the foundation of communism in Russia, the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, uprooted the Provisional Government and toppled the Russian monarchy. The reason behind this overturn is attributed to the widening divide between the rich and the poor in the country and the Government’s resolute stand to continue to wage war against Germany despite the poverty and hunger in the lower classes.

Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is a member of the Russian aristocracy and was raised by his grandmother, the countess. After the assassination of the Tsar during the revolution, many aristocrats including his grandmother fled from Moscow to escape the trails. But Count Rostov, on the contrary, returns back to Russia from Paris and gets arrested by the Bolsheviks. In 1922, he is put under trial and sentenced to house arrest for a lifetime in one of the most luxurious hotels of Moscow, the Metropol.

The Metropol, a grand palace built in the early 1900s was seized by the Bolsheviks and converted into a hotel to house bureaucrats and foreign guests. The count is placed under house arrest in this grandeur but is confined to a tiny room with few of his precious possessions.

The count’s extravagant life is toppled down ruthlessly and though he puts up a brave face, he goes through internal turmoil trying to find new meaning and direction to his life after the capture and the humiliation.

Over the years, the count reconciles to his current situation and starts gaining a new perspective on life. His nobility comes to his rescue. The count’s impeccable etiquette, sophisticated manners, taste palettes, and his inclination towards art and literature are admired by the hotel staff and a few of the guests of the hotel. The count begins his new role by assisting the chef and the waiters on the perfect choice of wine to be served to the guests, the table placement, the seating arrangements, and the menu choices.

He encounters and befriends many people in the Metropol, from the chef to the butler, to a Bolshevik party member Osip, who asks the count to tutor him French, and a glamorous movie actress Anna. Most importantly, he meets nine-year-old Nina Kulikova, who sets the direction to the future course of the count’s life.

Nina was one of those girls who is awed with aristocracy and asks the count to teach her the manners befitting a princess. In return, she offers the count, an escapade from his current boredom. She shares with him a passkey which allows the count to access any room in the Metropol including the back rooms and the secret passageways. This gives the count a new sense of freedom within the Metropol and together with Nina, he explores the hotel and sneaks into most of the rooms.

Over the years, Nina grows up into a fine young maiden and a loyal communist follower. She chooses to leave the hotel to join the agricultural planning committee to aid in the collectivization efforts for the peasants. After a few years, she returns back to the hotel to give the count his purpose in life, her daughter Sofia.

The count adopts Sofia and becomes her godfather. With a new zeal, he raises her with fatherly affection. The count, who once had said that “we come to hold our dearest possessions more closely than we hold our friends” finds himself drawn towards this little girl. He rushes to the hospital when she falls down the stairs, momentarily oblivious that he is under house arrest and will have to face grave consequences in case he gets caught. When the hotel manager, who happens to be a Bolshevik, suspects the little girl for some mischief, the count retaliates with anger for pointing fingers at an innocent girl. We witness a transformation in the character of the count into someone who has come to believe in human relationships, because of Sofia.

Another influential figure in the life of the count is Mishka, his close friend and aide, his outlet to the outside world. Mishka keeps visiting him often and keeps him up-to-date with the political proceedings in the country. At first, a pro-Bolshevik, he later goes completely against them because of their dictatorial conduct in looking inwards for the benefit of their own party and not the people.

And this is how the count spends his life interacting and building relationships with people in the Metropol for thirty years until the day comes when he has to make a choice. It takes a great deal of effort to accept another change so late in life, especially for a man, who had succumbed and adapted to trying circumstances. The fate plays its cards yet again, and the count charters his further course of action. But what remains with the reader is his positive outlook, his grit and his perseverance in the thirty years of his stay in the Metropol where he was demoted from an aristocrat to a humble waiter.

Narration style

This is my second book by the author. Amor Towles has a penchant towards luxury and sophistication. His other book “The Rules of Civility”, is also about the eclectic lifestyle of upper-class Manhattan.

Hence it came as little surprise when the luxurious décor of the Metropol, designer vases, the lavish ballrooms, grand dining rooms, and their furniture were elaborated in such great detail in this book. But It takes remarkable skill to chalk out the life of one man staying in the same hotel for thirty years interacting on and off mostly with the same set of people. On parallel, runs the narrative of the changing political landscape of the country through the eyes of Nina and Mishka. There are authors who take the readers to great depths of despair through the emotions of the characters. Amor Towles never ever brings out any emotions of the count throughout the book, except once, when he was deeply grieved with Sofia falling down the stairs. Instead of grief, thirst and hunger, the count is surrounded with luxury. Ironically, life is at odds with him. The count maintains his dignity and composure throughout and handles all the eccentricities life throws at him with a calm demeanor. It is very difficult to write such an extraordinary piece of fiction, and in the end, the creator comes out as admirable as his creation.

There is a television adaptation in making as well. I am especially looking forward to watching the lavish settings of Metropol, the Boyarsky, the Piazza, and the count himself.

In Summation

This book is neither a page-turner nor a nail-biting read. It does not make the reader cry and scream with pity for the count. Sometimes, it does get into a lot of detail, with the choices of wine and the table décor, which might not be much significance to the reader.

But when you finish this book, even after days, you will neither forget the count nor the Metropol. Have a glass of wine, cuddle up in your cozy nook and enjoy this slow but beautiful piece of literature.

***

Anantha  is an IT Professional. Writing is her passion. She writes short stories, book reviews, movie reviews, small stories for children, and play scripts for the theater. She regularly conducts storytelling workshops for children.

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