Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Sana Krasikov's The Patriots

I probably lack the kind of formal literary education to properly define the genre of historical fiction. However, my untutored opinion is that historical fiction different from the ordinary variety of fiction only in its overweening obsession with historical verisimilitude.  However we define historical fiction, in recent months I've been making an effort to delve into non-Russian novels that dwell upon Russian historical themes.  To be sure, the term "non-Russian" can be almost as problematic as the term historical fiction. After all, many American, Western European, and Eastern European authors, emigrated from Russia or its border states, or have relatives who have done so.  And these authors have written some of the best historical fiction around.  Witness Sana Krasikov's wonderful novel, The Patriots, a well-told, emotionally gut-retching tale which helps readers to understand important aspects of the twentieth century of both Russia and America. 

In her wonderfully suspenseful book, Krasikov (a Jewish New Yorker with roots in both the Ukraine and the Republic of Georgia) manages to tell the story of three generations of American interaction with Russia.  As the author acknowledges in her end-notes, the book draws upon the experience of American emigres documented by the author of The Foresaken:  An American Tragedy in Stalinist Russia (See my earlier post on the excellent book).  For Florence Fein, a left-leaning socialist Jew, is lured to the Soviet Union by love, a sense of adventure, and the promise of a bright socialist future.  However, over time her dream of a life on the vanguard of history sours.  The Soviet Union is, after all, was experiencing a painful transformation to modernity, even without the added stresses of totalitarianism government. Eventually, and almost inevitably, Florence's American ties prove to be a vulnerability, and she ends up stripped of her passport and without any means of escaping the world's first socialist state.  Not long afterward, she is arbitrarily convicted of subversion and thrown into the Gulag, like so many other denizens of Stalin's Soviet Union. 

Many other books have been written about the Soviet experience under Stalin.  Some have been covered in this blog.  What makes The Patriots unique is that it continuously ties the Russian experience to the American.  For Florence's American experience in the Depression makes her eager to go to Russia, and her grandson's search for adventure makes him willing to try to cash in on his Russian heritage by moving to Russia during the post-communist era of Russian corruption, cronyism, mobster rule, and capitalist exuberance.  The overall lessons of this book are simple enough.  First, Russian and American histories are inextricably linked to one another (and both involve the Jewish experience).  Second, citizens of the twentieth century have highly fluid identities.  Mother, child, and grandchild, at times feel both comfortable and alienated by both Russia and America.  Third, Russia continues to be a land of tragedy.  Under Stalin, people lived in fear of expressing any open opinion.  They dreaded their neighbors, and expected to be removed from their homes at any hour of the night.  But under Putin, life remained chaotic, with criminals continuing to exercise arbitrary authority over individuals who got in their way.  The Patriots is a sophisticated book. If a comparison must be made, it is to Anthony Marra's novel, The Tsar of Love and Techno, since that emotionally searing books also tracks twentieth century history across several generations, and anchors its plot-line in Russian tragedy, i.e., Stalinist repression and the conflict in Chechnya.

No comments:

Post a Comment