Historian and novelist Ali (Redemption, 1991, etc.) charts the lives of a family of activists from the days of the Russian Revolution to the post-Wall malaise of our times. Ali is one of those rare creatures, an academic historian who has made a fairly successful transition to writing serious novels. His earlier fiction’s playfulness belied the writer’s training and roots, but this latest comes as a reminder of his Oxford/New Left Review background. The protagonist and sometime narrator is Vladimir, a former East German dissident who now finds himself as dismayed by the Germany that followed unification as he was by the half-Germany in which he lived and worked before. Vlady, as he’s often called, has been fired from his teaching post because he still believes in a democratic form of socialism, ironically the same ideal that brought him problems in the DDR. His son Karl is a rising apparatchik in the post-ideological Social Democrats, his wife has left him for reasons that will be revealed only toward novel’s end, and his old friends are dying or changing sides in a discomfiting manner. Vlady’s main response is to try to decipher the mysteries of his recently deceased mother’s past: Was his father a truly heroic figure of the old Communist movement, or something more sinister? What he—ll find, of course, is not what he expected. Ali tells this story in a pervasively melancholy tone leavened by occasional witty details such as a Sotheby’s auction whose centerpiece is a 17th-century silk condom reputed to have belonged to Louis XIV. But he’s too much of a historian to make the people here come to life as characters. Rather, they represent a series of political positions arbitrarily assigned quotas of tics that pass for psychology. Can a thoughtful and well-written novel also be a failure, and a bit of a bore? Here’s the answer.