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The People's Train
Book Review by Bob Light, October 2009
Thomas Keneally, Sceptre; £17.99
This is a luminous novel by any standards; by the political standards of Socialist Review it is little short of brilliant.
It is brilliant because for once here is an epic novel which has an authentically epic scale: the (substantially true) story of Artem Samsurov, a member of the Bolshevik Party who escapes from a Siberian labour camp and makes his way to Brisbane, where he dedicates himself to the early struggles of the Australian working class.
With the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, Artem and his Australian comrade Paddy Dykes travel back to revolutionary Petrograd where they throw themselves into the storming of the Winter Palace.
It is brilliant because, for once, the characters are admirable, indeed heroic, exactly because they are socialists and fighters. All of the central figures are idealists and working class radicals whose lives are dedicated to fighting for social change.
The stock treatment of these characters would be a wry detachment, but it is clear that Keneally admires, even loves, his characters - and that affection comes from their commitment to resistance and struggle. The customary narrative arc of the radical character invariably takes them into disillusionment and passivity. In The People's Train the central characters are fighters for a better world, from the first page to the last.
It is also brilliant because of Keneally's artistry. Of course a political grand narrative like this could all too easily go the way of Private Eye's Dave Spart. But Keneally is much too good a writer for that. This is his 39th novel. He won the Booker 27 years ago, for Schindler's Ark, and that craft is in every line of the book. His masterstroke is to split the narrative voice in the novel. So our vantage point is always as a sympathetic outsider.
Finally, The People's Train is brilliant because it doesn't flinch; it remains true to its characters and true to their political courage. Keneally is detached from his characters, but he is never ironic about them. At first, I couldn't figure out why the treatment of the socialist community was so refreshing, until it dawned on me that what was missing was that oh-so-familiar ironic subtext. It is years since I have read a novel where the left wing characters are not patronised and sneered at.
This refusal to be fashionably cynical has left most reviewers well out of their literary comfort zones. Major novelists just do not write novels with this big-hearted political idealism, so right wing reviewers have fallen on the few moments of shocking violence in Brisbane and Petrograd as foreshadowing a critique of Artem's revolutionary politics.
Paddy is indeed shocked by a moment of violence at the Winter Palace and worries that the revolution is "besmirched". But the whole point of the split narrator is that Paddy is the outsider who doesn't entirely understand what he is living through. And still Paddy/Keneally will say, "It is the height of fraternity - when the world has changed."
If Hilary Mantel had a literary lovechild with John Reed it would be The People's Train.
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