A princess bobbing on the tide of history
ASYA by Michael Ignatieff
Chatto & Windus, £13.99, pp. 320
This enjoyable novel tells the life story of a Russian princess born in 1900 into whose private life are interwoven all the most unpleasant events of this century. At close quarters she survives the revolution, the Bolshevik civil war, the fall of France, the London blitz — and even, in old age, the storming of the Iranian embassy on her television set. The intention of the novel is to incorporate the disparate and destruc- tive pulls of all European types and ideolo- gies within one extended `family', and to show its disintegration, by conflict and betrayal, from the viewpoint of an emigree survivor.
Major events are described with vigour, minor incidents are vividly imagined, often with that touch of the unusual — a journey by boat over the flooded garden of a Russian country house — which makes a scene memorable. The interaction of a large cast is skilfully managed so that each character contributes to another's develop- ment, and a variety of locations puts swiftly changing scenes behind the actors.
For all that it is an enjoyable book, the reader is none the less aware of the difficulties which Mr Ignatieff has faced in constructing it. First is the question of how to convey effectively the lapse of time. In a `saga' novel it is essential to persuade the reader that years are passing, people aging, the world changing. Though Asya herself (the princess) claims that `there had been long periods in her life when time flowed flat and slow', such is not the effect produced. My impression was that bet- ween one world crisis and the next Mr Ignatieff hit the `fast forward' button. To pass the late Twenties at speed, for inst- ance, leaves drift off the calendar in old Hollywood style: '1927. Up and down the dusty track, Niki on the wobbling bike . . . 1928. In the waves, Niki on his father's shoulders . . . 1929.' etc, etc. In the waves indeed: between world crises the actors seem to hang about like surfers waiting for `the big one', the wave which will carry them forward again on the crest of a major historical event.
The second of the author's difficulties has been the question of how to subordin- ate these indigestibly large helpings of history — wars, revolutions, invasions to the dramatic requirements of characters and story. The surfer must ride the wave, not be overwhelmed by it like flotsam and flung on the beach. Here another Holly- wood device, the terse one-liner, is used to subdue unwieldly happenings: but when, faced with the war-torn landscape of the Caucasus, an old-timer tells a youngster, `That's civil war for you, boy', the effect is to reduce the big wave to a ripple on the screen. Similarly, we are now and then given a one-line recap of a character, as when an admirer exclaims to Asya, `You are as old as the century. You were there. You saw it happen.' Yes, indeed: but that's rather the point of the novel, and danger- ously diminished by being spelled out in one line of dialogue. I do not think Mr Ignatieff sufficiently trusts the intelligence of his reader. The points are simple, the ideas not complex, but everything is spelled out to us. For instance, given the date of Asya's birth, 19 December 1899, Old Style, the reader will compute for himself that she was `really' born on 1 January 1900, New Style, thus taking on board the inference that here is a heroine who has thrown off the old world of the Russian 19th century and is to represent a new beginning. But lower down the page she is told `by a clever boy' just what the reader has already twigged; what came across as a coded hint is made trite by over-exposure. As good wine needs no bushel, hints and symbols need no footnotes of explanation, if they are to work upon the reader subliminally, which is their proper function.
Whilst Mr Ignatieff seems at times not to trust his reader to grasp a simple point, his reader will sometimes be puzzled to know how far he can trust Mr Ignatieff. For much of what he tells us we are obliged to depend on his word; but in areas of common knowledge I found the book seeded with the small, disquieting errors which, by eroding the reader's trust, undermine ficitional 'reality'. A sandcastle is washed away by the tide on a Mediterra- nean beach. A Russian train starts at the second bell not the third. The Seine is said to be tidal at Paris. A description of a visit to London sounds as though it had been got up from guide-books by a hack script- writer: 'They lunched at Wilton's and strolled through Green Park, and were just walking through Piccadilly Circus on the way to the Criterion for tea' when a street photographer comes up with the lines, `Hands off, guv'nor' and 'just furnish me with your address'. Is he a spy? Or has the scriptwriter a tin ear? We are uncertain, in a sense destructive to the fiction. The characters too tend to be at one remove from reality, existing within the same script-factory tradition. Less impor- tant in relation to appearances — in describing an aristocrat the word 'fine' is used three times in four lines — this con- ventionalising, a passion for succinctness at all costs, seems to me to impair a central event in the book, the turning-point in the development of the chief male character, Asya's husband. From a Bolshevik prison- train he pitchforks starved corpses into lime- pits beside the track and, as he does so, we are told that he thought, 'If ever I get out of this alive, I will never be afraid of anything in my life. I will make my own rules.' Now, such a compressed sentiment at such a moment may heighten drama — and may nudge awake any reader who hasn't already grasped what the man is like — but to me it rings true only inside the script- factory tradition where the one-liner tele- graphs meaning. However, I had felt dissatisfaction with Asya's character too — was she supposed to have shed the disabling nostagia of the Russian emigree, or was she supposed to be crippled by it? — when I came upon a chapter in which she is detained and questioned by Petainist secret police whilst escaping from France. I realised that I was on tenterhooks throughout the scene. I cared what became of her, I read anxiously and quickly, suffering with her, longing for her to escape. Irritated that the author had translated the name of the border town for me in case 1 missed a symbol — Cerbere into Cerberus — I nevertheless worried about what happened to his heroine. She does catch the wave and ride it after all. And that's what counts in a novel, which is why I repeat the endorsement with which I. began, and call it an enjoyable book, and urge it upon anyone who wants a scamper through the 20th century's crises in spirited company.