Kirkus Reviews QR Code


by Martin Booth

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-312-24203-4
Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's

Much published in England but known here only for his nonfiction (Opium: A History,1998), Booth offers a gripping tale’short-listed for the Booker—of the gulag and one man’s escape from it. In 1952, on business in Dresden, the university-educated Englishman Alexander Bayliss is picked up by the Soviets, charged with suspicion of espionage against the USSR, found guilty, and sentenced to 25 years of labor as a coal miner somewhere above the Arctic Circle. The reader gets this information from a much later time—gathering it from Bayliss’s own lengthy reminiscence on his 80th birthday as he makes his usual “rounds” of the Russian village of Myshkino, where, for 20 years, ever since the end of his sentence, he has lived with the devoted young woman Frosya and her car-mechanic husband, Trofim. What led him to the village won—t be told here, as neither will the cause of the special relationship between Bayliss—or Shurik, his Russian nickname—and young Frosya, who transparently reveres him. Why the villagers also venerate him, however, can be told—the reason being that even after a quarter-century in the gulag, he doesn—t hate them, insisting that they did nothing to him. For Shurik, an intelligently avuncular Solzhenitsyn-figure who only occasionally becomes overbearing, there is an absolute difference between political abstractions and real people. And, as he reminisces back to the suffering, cruelty, terror, and death he suffered or witnessed, it’s the people who were there with him that one will remember: Titian, the math professor now imprisoned; Avel, who flew MIG’s against Yankees; and, most especially, Kirill, the leader of Shurik’s work squad, whose boundless humor, generosity, friendship—and terrible death—will explain why Bayliss/Shurik chooses to devote what’s left of his own life to humble Myshkino. By turns terrifying and moving, an observant book likely to be long remembered.